In Praise of the Humble Click & Read

Let’s face it: a lot of us have a huge guilt complex where eLearning design is concerned. I’ve noticed that whenever you put a bunch of designers into a room, someone eventually admits that they’re not doing “interactive” eLearning. This confession is typically elicited during the swapping of war stories about managers, business leaders or SMEs who “don’t get it” – as in “I only have time to churn out linear click & read courses because so-and-so doesn’t get it”. It only takes one confession to unleash a tidal wave of sympathizers all with their similarly bleak tales of design frustration.

In fairness, I’m usually an enthusiastic participant in these kinds of purge sessions. After all, design frustration is a fairly common condition in the world of L&D. And when I’m not contributing my own stories to the mix, you’ll often find me playing armchair therapist to my fellow designers, discussing strategies for communicating ideas or ways to build a portfolio to showcase your more sophisticated or high-concept designs.

But now I’d like to assume a more radical position. I’m going to stop playing design therapist or frustrated fellow designer. Instead, I’m going stand up for an even more down-trodden, cliched, and under-appreciated character  – the humble click & read eLearning course.

Okay, so I realize that the Design Gods may strike me down for rising to the defense of such an unloveable character as the click & read. The click & read with its lack of bells and whistles and its matter-of-fact content often bullet-riddled and half-heartedly structured, can be hard to get behind. If anything, we like to think of the click & read as that clumsy, awkward kid at the school dance sporting ill-fitting clothes and Coke bottle glasses – an encounter of last resort for some poor, unfortunate soul who couldn’t manage a more suitable partner.

But here’s the thing: love ’em or hate ’em sometimes that click & read – despite its flaws – is a pretty darn good dance partner. 

Case in point,  I’m working with a client who has a catalog of click & read refresher courses for technicians required to  maintain their CEUs by passing a series of exams. The courses are very short, to the point, and purely informational since the associated state exams test for knowledge rather than application. Access to the courses is sold at a low cost and in a very competitive marketplace where profit margins are extremely narrow. In other words, there’s really no incentive to invest tons of design and development dollars on making these courses sexier or more performance-oriented; there’s no demand for it and no cost justification for it. Furthermore, the client doesn’t have a technology infrastructure that’s robust enough to support a lot of technical troubleshooting. This means that adding the elements we designers love to use to add interactivity and foster engagement such as audio, video, and animation just isn’t practical when you  consider the need to keep ongoing support and maintenance costs to a minimum. And, then there’s the accessibility factor. To make information accessible to a broad array of learners – all with different technology platforms and environments – ease of access will always trump design because if the learner can’t get to the content, what’s the point?

So does that mean I think my client should just hand their users a .pdf and email them a link to the exam? Well, one could make a good argument for that approach. It certainly meets the same needs without imposing a potentially unnecessary information vehicle on the user. But on the other hand, a well-designed click & read can deliver a level of engagement that’s hard to replicate with a static .pdf. With screens that rely on visuals to do more of the heavy lifting than text alone, a decent linear click & read eLearning course can actually be an informative AND effective communication vehicle under the right circumstances.

Does that mean I think we should all stop trying to develop stronger design skills? Or maybe we should stop pushing our clueless SMEs or managers to embrace our more ambitious ideas? Of course not. I just think that the click & read, like any other approach in our design bag o’ tricks, has gotten a bad rap – and we designers have all spent WAY too much time feeling guilty and ashamed about dancing (or even going steady) with the good ‘ole reliable click & read.