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Good online course design includes both visual & structural design. These two elements work hand-in-hand. Here's how to approach designing your course.

What makes people eager to learn?

Is it accessible, engaging content that makes the learning experience effortless? Or beautiful design and visuals that move you seamlessly through each module?

Successful course creators know it’s a combination of both.

Good online course design includes both visual and structural design. These two elements work hand-in-hand to make your course both usable and enjoyable for students.

To find out how to design an online course that’ll wow your students and make them excited to start every lesson, we hear from Dr. Kelly Edmonds, an E-Learning Strategist and course design expert. 

We also get top tips from Think In Color speaker Puno, the founder of ilovecreatives, an online course academy for digital creatives and the executive creative director of the ilovecreatives Studio, a design and marketing agency.

Read on for 10 tips for online course design to make your course stand out from the rest.

Related: 10 Steps To Creating A Wildly Successful Online Course

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The difference between course design vs course development

When we’re talking about online course design, there are two terms that crop up a lot – course design and course development.

These terms are distinct and both are crucial steps to building a course that students will love. 

Here’s the basic difference between course design and development:

COURSE DESIGNCOURSE DEVELOPMENT
·  Envision you course

·  Fill a learning need

·  See your students

·  Do some research

·  Map your course

·  Sketch the lessons

·  Connect the lessons

·  List learning activities

·  Compose engagement ideas

·  Determine learning experiences

·  Look for technology to match

 

·   Build lesson plans per module

·   Write lesson intros and summaries

·   Create content per lesson

·   Build multimedia pieces

·   Write out learning activities

·   Find graphics or create

·   Develop learning resources

·   Set up shell in online course

·   Upload content into shell spaces

·   Add interaction

·   Test course

·   Launch and market

 

Designing a course mostly takes place offline – you spend a lot of time imagining your course and figuring out how it will serve your students. 

You start to decide if you want to facilitate the learning experience or take a hands-off approach, and if you want to make it evergreen or launch a few times a year. Then you need to price it.

Mostly, you start to think about the experience of your students and how you can take them on a learning journey.

To get started, Kelly suggests these ideas to help you think creatively about your course:

  • Lay paper on the floor and use colorful markers to scribble ideas, connect them and give parts of your course titles and names
  • Use fun software, like Inspiration to compose and connect your course ideas and all its parts (i.e. lessons, activities, resources, engagement, assessments)
  • Share your course ideas with a friend to get clear on what you want to offer
  • Draw illustrations on the mood, look and feel of your course

Next up, Kelly recommends some research online:

  • Google courses with your main topic and find out what and how they deliver
  • Ask people in your online groups or your followers, if it would be of interest (also ask why or why not)
  • Head over to Amazon and see if there are books on your topic and read the comments left by people (what they liked and what more they want to learn)
  • Run it by your mastermind group, mentors or coach and get honest feedback

This checklist is a really helpful springboard for online course design and development, even if you have no idea how to start.

Basics of online course design

Once you’ve outlined the overall concept of your online course, it’s time to dig a bit deeper and think about your online course design in more detail. 

How will you convey information to students? What will each lesson look and feel like? How will you keep your customers engaged and convince them to keep learning with you?

Course design involves thinking about the user experience – including the visual design and interface – and the structure of the course – including how the content is delivered and reinforced. 

Both these things are crucial to creating a course that your customers will benefit from and actually want to complete.

Let’s dive into the details of visual and structural design to help you design an online course that’s intuitive, straightforward and easy to navigate.

Learning experience design

If you’ve ever had to struggle through a badly designed tutorial or given up on an online video, you’ll know firsthand the impact that learning experience design can have. 

The way a course flows and the impressions it gives you as you learn are fundamental to your ability to progress through the content and achieve the course objectives

Everything about the graphics, font, layout and color scheme of a course can impact the learning experience. Get it wrong and your students will log off and never return.

Your aim is to create a course that makes your content as easy to absorb as possible. 

Learning experience design is also an opportunity to get creative with your course content and give it a personal twist that shows off the best of your brand.

Here are 5 tips to help you do just that.

5 tips for expert learning experience design

1.  Get a distinctive logo

Having a great logo is the first step to nailing online course design.

Your logo is a key method to create consistency for your brand and make a good first impression on your customers. 

Puno suggests using a wordmark – a text-based logo featuring your company name – as one of the quickest ways to get your brand’s identity across to students. 

“Wordmark logos are a really simple, easy way to get a polished logo,” says Puno. “You can just use a free font, but you could also pay a couple hundred bucks and then turn that into a wordmark.” She recommends Typewolf as a great resource for creating a wordmark. 

If you create a unique logo, you can also trademark this as your intellectual property to add extra value to your digital brand.

Whether you choose an image or just a wordmark, it’s important to ensure that it looks both eye-catching and professional. After all, it’s going to be everywhere! 

2. Choose a stunning color palette

Color schemes are the next make or break aspect of online course design – extra emphasis on the break! 

When it comes to online course design, color schemes can go really, really wrong. Puna’s golden rule is to make sure your text color contrasts with the background color so that your text is easy to read. 

White text on a black background is one combination to avoid as this pairing tires out the eyes and can make the text look blurry – an effect known as ‘halation’. 

On the other hand, if you get your color choice right, a unique color palette can help to boost brand recognition and build up brand loyalty among your students.

Here’s Puno’s breakdown of the basics of color choice:

  • Your color palette should be made up of primary and secondary colors
  • Primary colors include the background color, your font color, and anything that you want to catch the eye like icons or buttons
  • Your secondary colors are splashes of color that complement your primary colors
  • You can have up to 3 primary colors and 3 secondary colors in your palette

But how do you go about choosing your palette? 

Puno finds inspiration by researching online:

  • Look on the internet for colors you like
  • Go to stock photo sites, Pinterest, Instagram and other visual-heavy sites
  • When you see a photo with colors that appeal to you, grab that color as a swatch
  • Over time, you’ll build up a collection of colors that you like

After your research, go back to Puno’s recommendations and choose your primary and secondary colors for your course.

If in doubt, get outside opinions on your color palette – make sure your text is readable, your colors compliment one another, and that your friends don’t get a headache from looking at the page!

Related: The Impact Of Colors On Learning

3.  Find a readable typeface

Another essential design element for online course design is your typeface.

Fonts make up the majority of your page. That means choosing a typeface for your course that clearly reflects the content and style will really help create a sense of cohesion through your content. It can also build up a strong brand identity…

Again, your main priority here is to ensure that your words are easy to read. 

Get researching and find a typeface that you feel resonates with the course content and objectives. Sometimes it’s even worth purchasing a font if you find the perfect match.

“If you do find a font that you love, I promise it is worth the investment,” explains Puno. “To add that extra visual component, that emotional component that comes with the typography is just another way to bring out your personality.”

Which typeface best represents your brand?

4. Design a seamless User Interface (UI)

Just like any other website, an online course needs to be well designed and organized. 

If you’re moving between slides, do you use video overlays to mark the transitions? When a user hovers their mouse over a button, does the button light up or change color? How do you use blank space on the page?

These are all elements of UI design. Your aim in UI design should be to make your pages feel responsive, enjoyable to use and uncluttered.

This is the part where you can really add personality in addition to your color palette and typeface. All UI elements on your page should reflect the overall style of your brand. 

Many creators hire a designer to develop these elements but you can also think about what you can do yourself before commissioning anyone else.

If you do hire a UI designer, make sure you give them as much information as possible as to get the look and feel you’re hoping for.

Puno recommends this step-by-step process to brief your designer:

  • Give them three inspiration images or websites where you really like the style
  • Pick out very specific things that you like about those designs
  • Then pick out what you don’t like and what you definitely don’t want to replicate

This process makes sure that you and your designer are on the same page – saving you both time and energy.

As Puno explains: “Every client that I’ve ever talked to says that they get better results when they have done their own research and are very familiar with what they like and what they want.”

Don’t rely on someone else to create the course of your dreams for you!

5. Create a simple User Experience (UX)

Prioritizing simple navigation through your site is another essential element of online course design.

Your students should feel in control and free to explore the course at their own pace. This is where UX design comes in.

Thinkific gives you a huge range of features to help you tailor the user experience of your course to your precise requirements.

For example: is there a key slide that learners will need to refer back to multiple times? Make sure the button to navigate to that slide is easy to find. How will they get back to their previous slide? You need another button there too.

These might seem like minor features but added up they make a huge difference to your user experience. Just one simple button could determine if your course is fun and straightforward or clunky and frustrating. 

UX design is the thing that will keep your customers coming back to you or running for the hills – and enrolling with your competitors instead. 

Straightforward and intuitive UX design is also key to ensuring your course’s accessibility for all types of learners.

The best way to make sure your course is running smoothly is to test it out yourself and ask friends, relatives and existing customers to try it too. There’s no better way to figure out what your learners will see than trying the interface yourself!

Instructional design

Now you’ve got the course interface looking and moving great, you might be tempted to just bang out your course contents and set the ball rolling right? 

Not so fast! 

Now it’s time to consider how you’ll deliver your course content so your students get the most knowledge, skills and benefits out of it. 

You’re an expert in your field but to create a course that works for your students, you need to put yourself in the shoes of a complete beginner. That means thinking about your course structure, pacing and content as part of your online course design.

Enter instructional design.

Instructional design was first developed in the 1950s as a scientific approach to designing good learning experiences for learners. Over time a wide range of instructional design models have emerged that are really helpful for course creators. 

Here we’ll take a look at the highlights from a variety of different models to give you ideas for your own online course design. 

Download the eLearning Storyboard Templates

5 instructional design tips to help your students learn better

1.  Outline your course goals step-by-step

According to Bloom’s Taxonomy – a hugely popular instructional design model created by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom – there are 6 essential stages of learning. These steps are common to all learners and they can help you understand how to design your online course for the best possible learning experience.

Here are the basic steps in Bloom’s Taxonomy:

  1. Remembering – committing the information to memory
  2. Understanding – demonstrating comprehension of the information
  3. Applying – using the information in actual situations to solve problems or achieve goals
  4. Analyzing – breaking down ideas into simpler parts and combining them into new forms
  5. Evaluating – using the knowledge gained to find new solutions and experiment
  6. Creating – designing and producing new products with the knowledge

The main takeaway from this model is that one step can’t happen without the previous one being completed. After all, how can you understand or apply knowledge if you don’t remember it? And how can you apply the knowledge if you don’t understand it? 

To help your learners understand and retain the information you tell them, you need to make sure that your course takes the user through these stages step-by-step. That means you can’t skip between the steps or leave any of them out. 

By following a logical instructional design, you’re ensuring that your course gives your customers exactly what they paid for – a clear journey towards learning a new skill. 

Signposting these steps will also help keep your students motivated and aware of what they’ve already achieved and what they still have to look forward to!

2. Break down your content

Have you ever been in a class where you’ve been given so much information you don’t know what to do with it all? 

A panicky feeling kicks in and you think: “there’s no way I’m going to be able to remember this!” 

It goes without saying that you want to avoid this outcome when you’re designing your own course. You want happy learners not panicked ones!

Cognitive load theory says we can only hold 5 – 7 new bits of information in our working memory at one time. That means your course design needs to reflect the limits of what an average student can take in.

Remember – you’re an expert on this subject. You might be blissfully unaware of seemingly small elements that are causing a tonne of confusion for your students.

According to the 70-20-10 rule developed by McCall, Lombardo and Morrison, 70% of the knowledge a person gains is from experience, experiment and reflection. Meanwhile, 20% comes from mentorship, discussions and interactions with peers. Formal, planned learning makes up just 10% of a person’s knowledge intake. 

This model emphasizes the importance of breaking down the information you’re teaching into smaller, bitesize chunks. Anything you do teach needs to be backed up with hands-on activities, discussions and more. 

Keeping this model in mind will help you make your online course design easy to follow and engaging for your students.

Leading on to tip number 3…

3. Give users a chance to test their knowledge

All instructional design models have one thing in common – encouraging learners to test and apply their knowledge as much as possible. 

This process ensures that your students track their progress, while also consolidating their understanding of a topic. 

Most importantly, it means that if they struggle with something, your students can identify that they need to go back a few steps and learn the content better, rather than plowing on regardless – at least in theory!

When it comes to online course design and development, activities, challenges and tasks are essential elements to add to a course to create a resource that works for your students and doesn’t leave them confused and bored.

Top tip: Make sure that any practice activities and real world applications of the information you’re teaching are closely linked to the step of the course your users are on. This will make sure it’s a smooth journey towards increasing their knowledge – don’t assign activities that they haven’t acquired the skills to complete yet!

4. Choose your course format

A big part of online course design and development rests on the format you choose for delivering your lessons. 

Kelly recommends building your course one module at a time for a more focused approach that lets you see exactly how the elements fit together.

Try something like this:

  • Module 1
  • Module 2
  • Module 3
  • Course intro
  • Course summary
  • Activities
  • Email messages/autoresponders
  • Sales page

Each module should include the following:

  • Topic intro and what to expect to achieve by the end of module (to get their minds ready to learn)
  • Lesson 1 (teaching using text, illustrations, audio, video, downloadable docs, etc.)
  • Lesson 1 activity (to have them practice or taste the info a bit)
  • Lesson 2-4 created the same as lesson 1
  • Review all material so that it’s connected, flows, and is not overwhelming (adjust if needed)
  • Summary for the module, what they’ve learned and next steps

Try to make sure each lesson is no longer than 20 minutes so it’s snackable and keeps the attention of adult learners.

At the same time, make your learning activities bite-sized with some form of feedback to let your students check if they understand the material correctly. Maximum 30-45 minutes for each activity is ideal.

Related:

Although text will be a big part of your course design, mixing multimedia elements into your course, like videos, images, audio and interactive exercises can really help bring the content to life.

The Kemp Design Model emphasizes the importance of researching your learners and identifying the content style that’s relevant to them. This theory is all about determining the ways that your specific customers learn and retain information, then using those methods in your online course design to tailor your course to your community.

For example, you might consider including short videos tutorials to summarize key learning points or analyze solutions. If you’re translating a lot of numerical or statistical information, try using infographics instead of long words.

Giant blocks of text is never fun. Use a variety of multimedia tools to break up your course content and keep your learners engaged.

When in doubt, ask your students what they want to see more of and listen to their feedback!

Related:

5. Keep an open mind and be responsive to feedback

No instructional design model is a substitute for inviting feedback from your students

If learners are finding themselves overloaded with information or confused about how to apply it, you need to know that and respond to it.

It’s important to be open minded and consider what adjustments you need to make to your online course design so it’s easier to follow.

Once your course is public, get as much feedback as you can from your customers and analyze the data and insights from your course platform to see what can be improved. Where are students dropping off? What modules are they failing to complete? Which videos do they click off of instead of watching all the way through?

You can collect direct feedback from your students in a variety of ways, including:

  • Adding customer surveys to the end of every module
  • Asking for feedback in your community space
  • Hosting one-on-one calls with learners

When in doubt, ask your students how your learning design could be improved and what they need from you to make their learning experience better.

If you can stay hungry and open to new ideas, you can make your course the best possible experience for your students.

3 things to remember for your online course design

Here are 3 more essentials for Kelly and Puno that you need to remember for your online course design.

First impressions matter

When a customer purchases an online course, every small detail will influence their overall impression of your product. From your color scheme to the way you outline the objectives, your customer’s experience will be shaped by both the visual and structural design of your course. 

When it comes to your online course design and development, aim to make your customer feel confident in their purchase and pleased with their decision. Help them trust you and your brand by making every element enjoyable to experience. 

Accessibility and inclusivity is important

Wherever possible, make sure your course is accessible to everyone. That means making your course easy to navigate and understand for any learner, no matter what their learning abilities are. 

Creating a dynamic and varied course that has a welcoming tone and zero jargon will help make your online space feel safe and approachable. Try using multiple types of media and activities too.

Related: The Most Common Barriers to Learning – And How to Overcome Them

Research, research, research!

One of the best things you can do to ace your online course design is to take inspiration from others and keep learning. Exploring everything from UI aesthetics to instructional design models will help you create a well-rounded, engaging experience. Your work as a course creator is never finished – to stay on top of your game you need to stay curious!

Tools to help with online course design and development

When it comes to online course design, Kelly and Puno are huge fans of Thinkific. The platform offers spaces for designing your course, delivering it, marketing it and even creating a professional learning community.

The layout is easy-to-use and there are loads of course functions like quizzes, forums, and more that are easy to set up and add. Thinkific makes course creation simple and stress-free.

For video production and editing lectures or capturing voiceover slides, Kelly recommends Camtasia. For audio production, she likes Audacity (free). When creating graphics, Kelly uses 123RF which has a good collection of affordable and royalty-free images.

With the right tech, you can make online course design and development quick and easy.

Design your online course today with Thinkific!

Online course design is not just about the look and feel of your course, it’s also about the content and how you teach the material. If you can master both these elements, you can create a course that hooks your students and keeps them coming back to learn more.