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Visit the Human Factors International website

See some of Sorflaten’s favorite websites

Read some of his favorite books

Flash5 for Dummies Gurdy Leete, Ellen Finkelstein, (2000)

The Usability Engineering Lifecycle Deborah Mayhew (1999)

Designing Web Usability Jakob Nielsen, (2000)

Great Web Architecture Clay Andres, (1999)

Crossing the Chasm Geoffrey Moore (1999)


Remember the Karate Kid movies? Teenager Ralph Macchio learns to meet conflict with a turned cheek—until he is forced to fight. The universal story told us that the essence of karate was to defend, not attack. His mentor, Noriyuki ‘Pat’ Morita, deftly demonstrated the power of defense, but only as a last resort.

The story line also told us the real challenge to Ralph (and the viewer bent on revenge) was to keep the moral upper hand. If you know that your weapons work, you can keep them in reserve. This lets the other guy have a chance to learn the easy way before karate makes him learn the hard way.

Sometimes I wonder if the bumpy path of elearning, or any training for that matter, reflects the opposite approach—teaching the other guy the hard way first, before giving him (or her) a chance to learn the easy way. Let me explain.

A while ago, I visited the customer service center of a large telecommunications firm. Their customer service representatives had a pretty challenging job: answer demands from grouchy customers, then try to make good commissions by up-selling the same customer to an 800 service, or an extra line, or a telephone card.

Their online computer application, however, posed its own challenges. The customer service reps might end up with five or six windows open to access the various views needed to handle the customer. Then other customers needed different windows for their different cases! The main navigation bar had 20 icons on it, none with labels. In fact, one icon depicted the loudmouth Bart Simpson on it. Why Bart? His initials BS were the same as those for Business Support. Obvious, right?

Now for the statistics. The company used about 2000 customer service representatives across several sites. The turnover rate was 60% a year. You can guess where the turnover came from: grouchy customers, difficult applications, and low pay unless you had Zig Ziglar’s powers of persuasion.

Now add in a six-week training period followed by several weeks of on-the-job acclimatization. Figure 12% of the available 49 weeks (52 weeks minus holidays and vacation) went to training. Calculating the representatives’ loaded labor rate, the company figured that each second for the average reps’ call was worth $500,000! Save one second, save $500,000. You can clearly see the villain in this picture: a money-eating business machine that grinds innocent customer service representatives to the ground with a thankless job.

eLearning to the rescue? What would the Karate Kid do? Would he attack like a ballet-trained Hulk Hogan, swishing his hands in a bloodletting dance of fury? Or does he step back and say, “Can’t we talk this over?”

What would you do? Create an elegant training program, where you could hope to reduce the six weeks to five, and have joyfully trained customer service representatives? Or would you step back to talk about what the real objectives of the business should or could be? And would you, in fact, hope to reduce training to two weeks?

I think most educators would look at the big picture and see if the business system itself had inherent difficulties. Removing the challenges to users often reduces—or eliminates—the need for training. Enter the hero who lets the business machine learn the easy way.

In the case of the customer sales representatives, the real elearning design challenge was to eliminate the need to learn a complex application. The business process deserves some training, but applying intelligent design to the application, itself, offered many solutions that simply eliminated training needs.

The fight in karate begins with the attempt to avoid fighting. How have other industries eliminated training? The auto industry, for one, no longer had to train drivers in hand cranking the engine after the invention of the electric starter. Likewise, training on using the spark advance and choke disappeared after the introduction of the automatic spark advance and automatic choke.

Most computer and web applications are ripe for better design to support the learning process. We can teach people the easy way by designing applications that greatly reduce the need to teach the application. And it would be wonderful, if while we are at it, we also could teach them the business process behind the application.

Here are some karate tips to help you keep the higher ground. Use these before bludgeoning anyone with training:

1.   Make the navigation visible. Why hide navigation under pull-down menus, arcane vocabulary, or visually obtuse icons?

2.   Give users what they need right up front. Why bother with learning the navigation path to finding a screen, when the information could as well be presented right away? Look at this human-resources web page for a large corporation. The “old” picture looks common enough: a menu with explanatory paragraphs. In fact, it looks acceptable—until we see the alternative design below it.

Figure 1. A representative excerpt from an intranet page offering access to Human Resource
services for an employee. Looks okay, but does it really offer what the employee needs right away?


Figure 2. Here’s the design alternative, created with the
of “let’s get rid of training altogether.”

3.   Use brief instructions to strategically guide new users. This is a new idea for many application designers, because they assume new users will be trained, and thus eschew all instructions. They may even encourage acronyms, abbreviations, and technical jargon. But what new employees? Technical jargon gets in the way of self-evident applications.

4.   Ensure consistency in how the user interface depicts a given type of task. I give training seminars in Web and GUI design. As a rule, 70-80% of course participants are in a class seeking a standardized look and feel for their applications—after having received complaints from users and trainers. Most style guides indicate how to handle screen or page titles and where to put buttons but most fail to indicate how to depict a form-filling screen, or a search-and-list screen, or what rules govern design of tables with rows, columns, and column headers.

Figure 3. Look at this business application for an intranet. Each call-out
represents a design element that can be represented in all versions of
this page. The user need not re-learn how it works.

Conclusion:Take a page from the Karate Kid’s handbook. Stand back to stand out. Keep the upper hand by holding back your specialty until it’s absolutely needed. Training is expensive. Good interface design is cheap when you consider not only the training it saves, but also the productivity increases it brings. Needless to say, even elearning applications can benefit from good interface design.

John Sorflaten, Ph.D., CPE, is Project Director and Lead Course Instructor for Human Factors International (HFI). On the job, he likes to solve screen design problems well enough so others say, “It's obvious" and to teach developers to avoid using a solution in the wrong place (cryptodesign). He has worked at HFI since 1987, and can be reached online at



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