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Engaging eLearning Design

All of us have experienced dry, boring, painful eLearning. I can say that with confidence because it’s so prevalent. The question is–why is there so much of it? My answer, or at least part of it, is that eLearning designers and developers have very few good examples to reference. So, when the Big Boss comes and tells you something is due in two weeks, what’s the easiest solution? Do what you’ve always done. Throw some slides together. Get some bullet points on there. Find a stick figure gif. Embed a quick YouTube video. Call it a day. There is so much more we could be doing, though–if we take the time to consider how to design in an engaging way.

Today I want to provide some examples of:

  • Engaging ways to open your course
  • Engaging activity elements and
  • Engaging presentational strategies (for when information just has to be presented and there’s nothing very active about it)

If you want to SEE examples of some of these ideas, check out my free one hour webinar recording for “Elevating eLearning Design.”

Engaging Course Openers

You’ve got to remember that every learner is opening your course expecting to be BORED. If you can surprise them right at outset and capture their interest, they’re willing to open up to the idea that your course has something valuable to offer. Consider these ideas:

  • Tell a Realistic Story: Immediately immerse the learner in a story that sets up their role or plays out what happens when the desirable action for the course does or does not happen. In short, show the impact and results to others and the organization. This helps create interest and reinforces the relevance of the topic to the learner. Capture their attention by showing them what can happen when they’re successful or what happens when they’re not. Then, step back and show them how to be successful.
  • Use an Analogy or Fable: Start out with something compelling and interesting, like an analogy or fable that seems completely unrelated to the topic at hand. Then, connect the dots and show them how it pertains to the content and their role. For example in a customer service course, to address an issue of technicians who were being demeaning to customers, I once started a course out by telling them their child was sick and letting them select the doctor who would care for them based on word and tone choice (with some doctors modeled after the exact behavior customers were complaining about). After that I “flipped the script” to make comparisons about how bedside manner really counts when someone’s in a tight spot and worried and needs help.
  • Give the User a Role: Ask the user for their help and show them what interesting—and relevant to the story—tasks they’ll need to accomplish during the session.
  • Create a Villain: Adding to the previous idea, set up a villain character with destructive intentions and let the user help defeat them.
  • Object Lesson: Use an “object lesson” approach to gain attention: this can be done just as easily in eLearning as in the classroom. If in the classroom you talk about time management by using the age-old “rocks and water” example you can still illustrate that in your course. Ask them to drag things to a jar to fill it up and see the results, etc.
  • Illustrated Concept Video: Create an interesting animated concept to illustrate the “What’s In It for Me (WIIFM)” of the course using a tool like GoAnimate or the basic animation functions in your rapid development tool.
  • Elephant in the Room: If there’s something undesirable about the course or goal, play it out in a story or other form to get it out in front of the learner, address their objections, and address the value of the course. “Does it ever seem like a total waste of time to input your task hours into the company’s online tracking tool?…”
  • Put Them On the Spot: Ask the user for their opinion, decision, judgment, or “bet.” A lot of courses start out with statistics or reasons why a program or product exists. Rather than lecturing about why something is important or sharing information about why a change is being made, ask the learner what they think. Ask them ‘how bad’ they think a problem is or how prevalent it is. Ask them how many customers they think are lost every year due to lackluster customer service scores. The list goes on. If you ask them to think and actually put a stake in the ground, they get far more interested whether they’re right or wrong, and in the actual information.

Engaging Activity Elements

Activities are so much more than “click and reveal” or “drag and drop.” There are so many more things you can add to spice it up. See my blog about converting ILT to engaging eLearning for a detailed model and walkthrough of how you can do this, but here are basic ideas for engaging online activity elements:

  • Jump Right In: When appropriate, let the learner jump right in and make a decision, using your content to provide support resources (rather than making them sit through several presentational slides and then quizzing them on the content). Most adult learners are fine with getting involved—especially with a provided resource—rather than being lectured at before getting involved. This is especially true if it’s clear it’s not a graded assessment.
  • Make it Fun: Through visuals or controls, make interacting with the page fun and appealing. Rather than a click and reveal, try a fun slider with a theme. Try a dial. Let the learner “play” with manipulating an image through destroying or building something. Visually theme the activity so that it doesn’t feel like it’s just any old page.
  • Match Story, Role, and Task: In a course that has a central story and where the learner has a role, have the activity’s task align with the user’s role and move the story forward. Often, the learner isn’t given a role or purpose in the story – or if they are, it’s marginal or mismatched to the actual learning objectives. Aligning story, role, and task is an advanced concept but when you make it happen successfully, you can create award-winning courses.
  • Show Impact: After the user interacts, don’t provide feedback. Show them the IMPACT of their choice first, then let them modify their choice. This is a great way to address common mistakes and understanding and use emotional impact to increase retention. See my blog article on the 4Cs to Creating Meaningful Scenarios for more information—specifically the “Consequences” article.
  • Full Bleed Immersion: Find a way to make the screen “full bleed” to create the feeling of full visual immersion in an environment (aka have the picture extend all the way past the edges of the screen so there are no margins rather than slapping a square picture in the middle of a white slide) and ask the learner to interact with the “environment” by exploring a desk or peering inside someone’s inner thoughts.
  • Approximate Reality: Ask the user to do what they’d be doing back on the job. Approximate their reality to the highest degree possible in an electronic format. Relevance is engaging. Theoretical disconnect is not. If the task is to build something, try to find a way to let them build it. If the task is to evaluate something, put it in front of them to evaluate it. Sorting, matching, evaluation, judging, etc. can all be mimicked in eLearning very directly and built as part of a story or an environment.
  • Let Them Play/Easter Eggs: Build some fun elements into the page that don’t have anything to do with learning, but encourage the user to stay engaged and maintain curiosity. For example, you could let them change the radio station on someone’s deskor show the seasons changing outside a window.
  • Violate Their Expectations: Any time someone expects something and the opposite happens, you have their attention. Ask yourself what they expect, then do the opposite (for important points).



Sometimes, the learner doesn’t need to do anything with the information you’re presenting, but…it has to be covered. Even still, there are engaging ways to get it across.

  • Narrated Example or Story: Instead of directly explaining theoretical information, consider telling it in the form of a story, case study, or narrated example, calling out key points as they appear along the way. Quick comic book/novella formats can easily be made in any tool.
  • Infographics: Convert the information into an infographic. People would much rather visually explore something interesting than read a paragraph of text. There are simple ways to do this.
  • Iconic Illustration: Illustrate the main concepts through iconic illustration. Bring the icons and in and out of the slide with movement and narration or music to maintain interest.
  • Exploratory Interactions: Click to reveal, timeline, or slider-based exploratory interactions can at least chunk, sequence, and put some visual appeal to presentational information.
  • Visual Presentation: The associated visuals with your content can go a long way toward making the content feel more interesting, rather than boring. Vary your layout and images from page to page while being consistent about what matters, like brand and navigation. Tie concepts or acronyms to graphics and let the learner explore those to study the concept. Find a way to make the reading “active” if there is no way to get around the reading.
  • Interesting Layouts: Changing up your page layout and creating interesting layouts and bundles of information can help it feel more interesting than it is and keep the user from becoming visually bored with the same layout and approach slide after slide.


There are so many good ideas out there! Explore online communities, Pinterest, LinkedIn groups, and other resources to get ideas. The more you see—and create! —good eLearning, the more you can distance yourself from the reference and habits of boring eLearning. Take some of these ideas and try to implement one or two in your next course. Have some ideas to add? Share them in the comments below!


Contact our Custom Solutions team to see how we can help you build engaging eLearning.


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