How do we create DESIRABLE
online learning experiences?


Good design creates positive affect,
and positive affect plays an important role in learning.


Before we can address the question of "how" to make online content desirable, we need to first address the question of "why bother?" Isn't this just gold plating, or something that is simply unachievable? How can we design something that is desirable for everyone?

Creating desirable user experiences

Let's start by defining what we mean by "desirable," especially in the context of online learning.

According to Peter Morville (author of the UX honeycomb), "desirable" means that design elements evoke emotion and appreciation. We're talking, of course, about the affective dimension of learning, and the affect includes things like "feelings, values, appreciation, enthusiasms, motivations, and attitudes" (Clark, 2013).

Donald Norman, cognitive scientist and UX pioneer, has studied the role of emotion in design extensively, and concludes that good design makes people happy and happy people learn better. That's a loaded statement — let's unpack it a bit.

"Happy people learn better": The back story

In his book Emotional Design (2004), Norman makes the point that the affect is pervasive, and it changes how we think:

everything you do has both a cognitive and an affective component — cognitive to assign meaning, affective to assign value. You cannot escape affect: it is always there. More important, the affective state, whether positive or negative affect, changes how we think(Norman, Emotional Design, p. 25).

How do emotions "change the way we think?"

Norman reports on the work of psychologists such as Isen (2001) and Fredrickson & Joiner (2002), who have found that positive affect broadens brain processing, while negative affect narrows brain processing, enabling it to focus on the problem at hand.

Implications for learning

Affect, then, influences the way we learn: a state of positive affect results in breadth-first problem solving and thinking, while negative affect results in depth-first problem solving and thinking.

Breadth-first thinkers display things like

  • curiosity,
  • creativity,
  • cognitive flexibility,
  • innovative responding (for example, brainstorming),
  • openness to information, and
  • increased thinking about related ideas, which leads to
  • increased cognitive organization and capacity.
(Isen, 2001)


In other words, happy people are more open to learning new things, and to making connections between the things they've learned. They learn better. As Norman says,

Positive affect arouses curiosity, engages creativity, and makes the brain into an effective learning organism. (Norman, Emotional Design, p.26)

Conversely, negative affect results in depth-first thinking, where the mind focuses on the problem at hand. Samuel Johnson, 18th century English writer and lexicographer, seems to have known this instinctively:

Nothing focuses the mind like the prospect of a hanging.(Samuel Johnson)

While focusing on the problem at hand may be useful in some circumstances (to help you maneuver your way out of "the prospect of a hanging", for instance, or to help you get that proposal written before the looming deadline), it can also increase learners' attention on "problematic details, and, if this strategy fails to provide a solution, they [can] get even more tense, more anxious, and increase their concentration upon those troublesome details." (p. 20). This type of scenario doesn't lend itself to "outside-the-box" thinking, or to productive learning.

The Role of Positive Affect and Motivation in Learning

Not only does positive affect result in breadth-first thinking, it also increases motivation. When learners’ motivation increases, they are more likely to attend to relevant information (Park, Knörzer, Plass, & Brünken, 2015) and continue engaging with content (Heidig, Müller, & Reichelt, 2014). Since attending to relevant information and engaging actively with the learning environment leads to improved learning outcomes, it is important to implement design features that promote these behaviours in learners.

Positive affect therefore influences learning outcomes in a number of ways:

In recent years, researchers have also examined a particular subset of emotions (which they dubbed “knowledge emotions”) that can directly influence learning outcomes.

Knowledge Emotions and Learning Outcomes

Specifically, researchers discovered that learning outcomes are influenced by four emotions: surprise, interest, confusion, and awe (Silvia, 2016).

How do these four emotions influence learning?

Surprise captures and focuses attention.

Here’s a great example of how a video title uses surprise to capture student attention on a topic:

Example: Surprise

four intertwined feet under blankets with the text: would you have sex with a stranger?
This video poster from PSYCH 101 illustrates how surprise can work to capture and focus student attention on a new topic in the course (in this case, evolution and psychology).

Interest increases intrinsic motivation and determines where attention is focused.

Confusion promotes active problem solving and encourages learners to interact with material.1

Awe motivates learners and encourages them to learn new things.2

  1. Caveat: Induce too much confusion, and learners will become frustrated.
  2. Note: Sylvia (2016) points out that, of the knowledge emotions listed above, awe is both the “deepest” and “least common.”

To summarize, in order to learn, learners need first to be motivated to attend to relevant information. Once engaged in learning, learners learn best when their learning experiences induce one of the four knowledge emotions or put them in a state of positive affect.

…emotions are crucial aspects of higher order processes, such as decision-making or learning…Tettegah & Gartmeier, p. xviii, 2016

Creating desirable learning experiences

Now that you're sold on the importance of creating positive affect, the next question is, "How do we make our courses desirable?" According to Norman, 3 things create positive affect in design:

Visceral Design: Graphic of a theatre with audience seats facing a stage with curtains.

Visceral Design

Behavioural Design:  Graphic of a hand with the index finger outstretched, ‘pushing’ down with circles under tip of index finger.

Behavioural Design

Reflective Design: Graphic of lightbulb with small outward pointing lines around bulb suggesting ‘brightness’.

Reflective Design


Sweating the details



Visceral design (beauty)
(Make it visually appealing)

The visceral level is where first impressions are formed; it's the initial attraction to something, the "love at first sight" phenomenon. Visceral design is about invoking emotion.

"Love at first sight is all well and good," you might say, "but how can you design something to please everyone?" The answer is simple: don't make this your goal; rather, design for specific experiences — as Norman says, "make the design fit the task" (p. 58). In the context of online learning, we might reframe this as "make the design fit the pedagogical purpose/learning outcome."

If this sounds familiar, it should. It has overtones of Mayer's coherence principle. Design, in other words, should focus primarily on essential material, not on seductive details. Increasing the visual appeal of graphics in essential material has been shown to result in better learning outcomes — specifically, retention. (Mayer & Estrella, 2014).

Can non-essential conducive images promote learning?

Though it is best to focus on essential material, there are cases in which non-essential material can increase learning outcomes. As is mentioned on the Useful page, certain types of decorative images are considered conducive images, which can positively influence learning outcomes (Schneider, Nebel, & Rey, 2016). These types of images motivate learners to engage with the material by increasing positive emotions or generating interest in the content (emotional images), or by acting as cues that prompt learners to retrieve learned information (meta-cognitive images).

The following image from the OnCore/Encours Public Health course, for instance, is a good example of a conducive decorative image: it promotes learning by creating positive affect.

Example: Conducive Image

The image shown here of a family looking across a natural landscape towards the sunrise promotes a sense of positive affect, which can be conducive to learning.




Behavioural design (function)
(Make it easy to use)

The behavioural level is concerned with functionality and ease-of-use. My positive affect with online learning won't last long if my learning material looks good, but breaks every time I try to access or use it. See Intuitive. (You'll see that there's lots of overlap between the cells of the honeycomb.)




Reflective design (reflection)
(Start with an overarching vision)

Reflective design is design at the meta level: it is the thoughtful work done at the outset of a design process that brings a clear vision and focus to bear on a project. In the context of online learning, it involves capturing the pedagogical design vision of the course author, which is connected to the course's learning outcomes. This is typically part of the instructional design process, and shouldn't be neglected:

The best designs come from following a cohesive theme throughout, with a clear vision and focus.(Norman, Emotional Design, p. 97)

Example: Reflection

Screen capture of an online course webpage illustrating a playbill design.
The design of ENGL 362/DRAMA 386 provides an excellent example of reflective design. The course examines Shakespeare’s plays though a number of lenses, performance being one of them. The theatre-inspired visual design of the module pages (design at the visceral level), works with the pedagogical design of the course (where students undertake theatre-inspired interpretive activities) to recreate the experience of attending a performance of Shakespeare.