UX thoughts about MOOCS

Studying user experience and engagement in Coursera

Writing text messages for your MOOC? Do not expect students to read them

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The way you write, structure and display the texts that will be part of your MOOC (mailings, announcements, activities…) will determine how easily or efficiently your students can process your instructions and gain knowledge.

It is not enough to prepare well-written, grammatically correct and error-free texts. If they are not optimized for the web, your message will not probably reach all your students, and it will negatively influence the overall usability of the course.

Let’s look at two weekly announcements or messages from two different Coursera MOOCs ( Healthcare Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Gamification):

Examples of messages from two different MOOCS

  • Which does make it easier to have a sense of what is it about without reading every word?
  • Which does allows quickly finding and jumping to the sections of the message you are most interested in?
  • Which does seem to require less effort to read or feel less intimidating (concise, direct, …)?
  • Which does help you to take action based on the text (start assignment, watch videolecture…)?

Both texts are probably correctly written, but the text on the right is much more usable, attractive and easy to read, because it follows some of the basic guidelines of writing for the World Wide Web.

One of the most famous and incendiary statements in the internet industry says that “users do not read on the web”.  The claim is clearly simplistic ( probably, trying to be more impacting), but its core idea is supported by  research studies about how people read:

People do not usually read word-by-word on the web (although , they might do it, exceptionally, if they are really interested in the content).

They normally skim the pages looking for highlighted keywords, meaningful headings, short paragraphs and scannable list. Since they’re in a hurry to find the very piece of information they’re looking for, they’ll skip what’s irrelevant for them. (UX Myths)

It is interesting that, at least, part of the reason for “people not reading on the web” is based on human factors:

Reading from computer screens is about 25% slower than reading from paper. It is uncomfortable, and therefore, people don’t want to read a lot of text from computer screens. (Nielsen Norman Group)

Since MOOCs will be mostly consumed from a computer screen, it is important to understand how people read on the web in order to prepare efficient texts for your course. Conventional writing guidelines are still valid, but they are simply not enough for the online context.

Here are some “writing for the web” guidelines that can be useful to prepare better texts for your MOOC:

1.    Do not expect students to read your texts word-by-word

Most of your students will not read them completely, so, write your texts keeping this scenario in mind. Your goal would be to transmit the maximum amount of information (specially, the most important pieces), even to those readers that will not read the text completely.

2.    Be concise and direct ( avoid “marketese” language and find your personal tone)

Online texts should be 50% shorter than texts from hardcopy publications, but this does not mean that you should omit information, just that you need to communicate more effectively.

Internet users detest promotional writing and it normally harms your credibility. Besides, web copywriters argue that websites writing tone should be more direct, personal and conversational than print materials. This is specially applicable in MOOCs: if you are trying to build a learning community, make sure your communications have a tone that makes you look approachable and fosters collaboration, conversation and engagement.

3. Write one idea for paragraph and make the text scannable

Instead of long blocks of text, separate one idea per paragraph. Use meaningful headlines and highlight appropriate keywords to make each idea evident, even for those users that will just scan the page. This way, if they are interested in one specific topic, they will not miss that part of the text.

Bulleted lists also contribute to improve scannability. Whenever possible, use them instead of a plain sentence.

4. Use an inverted pyramid structure (Both as overall structure and within each paragraph/part of the text)

Always start your texts with the conclusion or the most important information. If someone is interested enough to keep reading the rest of the paragraph or paragraphs about one topic, great, if not, at least they will have a summary or the most important information.

5. Include hyperlinks to help users take action

Use links as signs to indicate where to find further information, or as call-to-actions to trigger certain tasks (if you are saying that a new videolecture is available, make sure you include a direct link to this videolecture page…)

Links also work as “highlighted” keywords when users are scanning your text, so make sure your link anchor texts are meaningful and relevant.

To conclude, I attach an example of how the same text can look quite differently just by following these simple guidelines:

2 versions of the same text from a MOOC: original and edited based on guidelines to write for the web

So, what do you think?  Does it really make a difference?


Author: Elena Sánchez

UX professional passionate about User-Centered Innovation!

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