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Can We Avoid Hostile Instructional Design?

I recently came across a provocative article, A Field Guide to the 'Weapons' of Hostile Architecture in NYC.  I am an enthusiastic fan of New York City, so it is uncharacteristic for me to join in the frequent bashing it suffers from outsiders.

But this author rightfully identified design trends that truly work against that harmony and ease of engagement that “design” ought to enable. Spikes on benches, barriers to access, and other active efforts to prevent people from using spaces naturally create an unfortunate and unnecessary adversarial relationship between users and their environments, and it is odd to realize these essentially hostile features are implemented intentionally.

Hostile architecture is an urban-design strategy that uses elements of the built environment to purposefully guide or restrict behavior.

- Source

Unfortunately, it was not a significant leap to recognize this phenomenon fully in use in the design of online instructional modules. Working for some poorly-understood greater good, designers seem to insert hostile design elements into instruction. Like in the civic arena, the result is an unnecessarily adversarial relationship between learner and instruction, where questionable design choices force learners into the victim role.

Learner-Hostile Instructional Design

Here are some examples of Learner-Hostile Instructional Design decisions I come across with regularity.

Excessive and Encyclopedic Content 

Designers, under the guidance of well-meaning Subject Matter Experts (SMEs), fill countless slides with more content than can be processed or retained in a typical study session, rendering the overall experience ineffective. Faced with dense formal narrative, either in print of delivered through audio or video, learners have little choice but to zone out instead of reading for meaning. Somehow we have bowed to the SME position that “Content is King,” even when all our experience shows that learners resist processing information in that way.


Short-Sighted Limits to Navigation 

Designers are convinced that learners will take every opportunity to avoid engaging with content. A common defense against this is to disable access to navigation (continue buttons, back buttons, menu controls, etc.) until the designer decides enough time has passed, or enough enabling hurdles have been overcome, to “prove” that the learner as experienced the content sufficiently. Not only does this fail to connect learners to the content, it makes it particularly unpleasant for a learner to act with any specific intention. Usually, the result is the learner actively disengaging from the experience.


Ineffective Knowledge Checks 

It is common practice to insert frequent (and often repetitive) “knowledge checks” into content presentation sequences. Usually there is a page of some presented information followed immediately by a question requiring some point of recall of a morsel of trivia. There is no assistance given to enhance the information or offer some focused application of the content; rather, knowledge checks are usually a completely disposable rote repetition of an isolated phrase or definition. Again, learner response is to find the path of least resistance through the tangle, which often means answering the knowledge check thoughtlessly, finding the answer is given in the judgment message, and then entering the correct answer and moving on.


Treating Every Interaction as a Test

Designers easily fall into a mindset that every question or interaction is challenge for the learner to get “right” or “wrong.” Any incorrect answer is a mistake and is recorded as such and treated as a shortcoming of the learner. In truth, the process of mastering something involves many missteps even in the best of circumstances. Mistakes allow learners to test hypotheses, to explore the boundaries of a procedure, to validate their understanding. Treating these desirable outcomes as mistakes to be punished undermines the whole learning process.


The really unfortunate aspect of this hostile design is that while these techniques downgrade the learning experience significantly, designers and training departments will defend them energetically. It’s important to step back and really consider the design impact on the learner. Generally, the only rationale for these learner-hostile designs is that some other administrative factor (LMS requirements, misapplied ideas about compliance training, etc.) has taken more importance than the possibility of successful learning.


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About Author

Ethan Edwards
Ethan Edwards

Ethan Edwards draws from more than 30 years of industry experience as an elearning instructional designer and developer. He is responsible for the delivery of the internal and external training and communications that reflect Allen Interactions’ unique perspective on creating Meaningful, Memorable, and Motivational learning solutions backed by the best instructional design and latest technologies.

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