Learning at the edge of the network


Entertainment systems, smart appliances, security systems, home automation components, these and more are the devices that define the edge of today’s network.  They are increasingly smarter. They are increasingly critical to our well-being.  How can we learn from them?

Thanks to our progress toward the learning everywhere web and the wide adoption of MOOCs, elearning is being embraced as social, asynchronous and forward-thinking.  But when it comes to operating a simple every-day device, detracting in any way from what should be an intuitive experience does not sound like an effective design approach.

An in-line learning experience is not a good fit for everyone or every use case.  Many people opt to minimize the assisted user experience by default – for example, by not reading the manual.  But increasingly, devices are growing smarter and more pervasive, and they’re giving people more reasons to interact with them.  The key concept for an effective in-line elearning + marketing experience is that slices of attention have become much smaller, but more frequent.  We should be able to create a valuable elearning + marketing experience that flows into and out of these time slices.

The learning everywhere experience

As screens continue to evolve into unconventional forms, Instructional Design (ID) must become more creative.  David Anderson had a little fun with his NEXTCHA concept of adapting the marketing captcha for elearning.  Despite its tongue-in-cheek origin, I think it’s actually a viable example of what a condensed elearning transaction might look like.

post-iphone-nextchaNEXTCHA screenshot used by permission

NEXTCHA might not be the most subtle approach, but it’s undeniably effective when you consider that each ‘next’ click has been reclaimed as a measurable learning exchange.   Depending on the use case, NEXTCHA might minimize or even obviate the need for a quiz.

When using a condensed e-learning design such as NEXTCHA, the Instructional Design (ID) will look different than we’re used to. It will be transparent and feel more like basic HCI/UX .  However, elearning + marketing in the machine can support artful, aesthetic Instructional Design particularly when a product’s essential function is an intimate personal good.  Let’s consider a washing machine.


A washing machine is a an increasingly complex device that occupies a central place in people’s lives.  These are machines with a future for enhancement thanks to home automation, advanced materials, even maker culture.  To deliver an elearning + marketing experience on a washing machine, we could use  blended approach with gamification and incentives.  It could look like this:

Buyer is directed to access elearning content in order to receive their tax credit for the new energy star washing machine they just bought.  The content could be delivered in various formats including a simple game.  After successfully completing the content, the buyer qualified for their energy star credit and is also educated on maximizing their green footprint, which extends value beyond just this particular appliance.  Now, the brand has generated some goodwill.  The manufacturer could collect market research and build their community along the way.

Between the condensed experience of a slide-level quiz, and and the immersive experience of a washing machine community, a middle ground is driven by adaptive UI.

Co. Design recently posed gadgets that adapt to your skill as the Next Big UI Idea.  In his post, Philip Battin considered solving Samsung’s “hard to use, clumsy, and unintuitive” UX through gamifiying the Dreyfus model of skill aquisition. A better user and product fit for this application might be a more sophisticated product such as a camera, but the idea of applying a traditional model of learning to solve for a real consumer product issue is very compelling.

The biggest challenge with applying a gradual-reveal user experience to an edge-of-the-network device such as a complex TV, as suggested in the Co. Design post, is being able to support multiple people with a gradient of experience and goals.

What is a feature to some might be a function to others, whether advanced user or not.  And what is an advanced user, anyway?

Depending on the device, standard features might soon include a visual UX, a measurable objectives mode, and a game mode such as sequencing of functionality  into challenges.

But do users want to be challenged?

From friction to flow

Gradual reveal is a friendlier term for what usability guru Jakob Nielsen refers to as Progressive Disclosure (PD).  In his discussion Nielsen uses evidence-based user experience research to advocate for the use of multiple secondary displays.  Multiple secondary displays are a direct link to what Microsoft refers to as secondary live tiles  in their Metro design architecture.

The Microsoft Metro UI represents design principles very relevant to delivering elearning + marketing experiences at the network’s edge.


Microsoft says their metro design is inspired by information-heavy diagrams such as metro maps and is based on a strong focus on motion and content over chrome. Usability is designed around gesture driven interaction on limited screen space.  These are very useful guidelines for designing both elearning and marketing.

The essence of metro’s Hub design is the separation of content into different sections and different levels of detail.

Hub design makes apps fast and fluid while still being easy to use. This pattern is best for apps with large content collections or many distinct sections of content for a user to explore. 

The paperclip paradox, or, RTFM

I love a good Engrish manual as much as the next geek.  So it’s somewhat sad, but not really, that this venerable form of instruction reached its apex as inspiration for the term RTFM.  Then came clippy, who taught us that products must always cultivate a respectful relationship and be focused on customers needs above its own.

Image credit: Kevan's flickr


Digital knowledge transfer hasn’t yet matched the level of innovation we’ve achieved in usability and visual design.  By adding a marketing modality to an effective elearning experience creates a whole new opportunity to help people explore ways to improve their well being.

As the world increasingly becomes an economy based on ideas and design and there will be more reason to learn more quickly.  The rise of maker culture presents yet another dimension.  Elearning + marketing design could become a prevalent user experience of the ubiquitous computing lifestyle

As devices at the edge of the network deliver more value to people, elearning + marketing design becomes more effective because it can deliver more than just a particular task.  It satisfies people’s increasingly more creative, more aspirational goals.  It earns its engagement.

Elearning + marketing design can be transformative for an autodidact, but it can also be limiting to a noob, or vice versa.  Ideally it should be visible only when effective.  In other words, it should be big enough to (appear to) disappear.