The key to creating great eLearning is keeping the learners in mind. That sounds simple, but it can be devilishly difficult. One way to keep learners’ needs and abilities front-and-center is user testing.

Learning architect and Guild Master Nick Floro, president of Sealworks Interactive Studios, swears by user testing at every stage. He starts a project by testing ideas with the audience, and as his teams progress through design and development, they test at each stage. Floro says that testing with about 10 to 15 actual users is the “magic number.” According to Floro, it is not necessary to recruit new learners to test each iteration of an eLearning project or even different projects. “You can use these people again and again, and they love participating; they feel like part of the process. Ask them if they would participate again as you evolve a concept or project, and take advantage of that,” he said. “They become advocates to help communicate the project and help you launch successfully, as well as being a vital source of feedback to test an idea or concept. This is a win-win.”

The value of user testing is also clear to Guild Master Michael Allen, chairman and CEO of Allen Interactions, who pioneered a development model that incorporates successive approximations of an eLearning module; user testing is built into every step of the process. “Early evaluation is input that either confirms or refutes the correctness of the analysis or design,” Allen writes in hisGuide to e-Learning (see References).

Allen’s development model specifies prototyping, rather than simply specifying or drawing models of eLearning modules. “With functional prototypes, everyone’s attention turns to the most critical aspect of the design, which is the interactivity, as opposed simply to reviewing content presentations and talking about whether all content points are in evidence on the screen,” Allen writes. “We also know that many designs that are approved in a storyboardpresentation are soundly and immediately rejected when they are first viewed on the screen, and they are even more likely to be rejected when they become interactive. Prototypes simply provide an invaluable means of evaluating designs.”

Some instructional designers (IDs) who use personas to model targeted learner groups test with actual learners—users—in addition to designing to meet the personas’ needs. Personas and user testing are “symbiotic and hopefully reinforcing,” said Lacey Jennings, a service delivery leader at Xerox Learning Services. “There will always be a need for user testing for new interfaces and websites—personas just help you dig deeper into understanding which learner segment you need to include or consciously motivate.”

Megan Torrance, CEO of TorranceLearning, said that in creating personas, “we, as instructional designers, can stay connected to the learners we’re supporting throughout the project.” The learner-testers can then, in effect, bring the personas to life: “We want to make sure that we include representatives from the personas in the testing.”