Engagement: interface interaction or information interaction?

Group of interested-looking people around a computer


Anyone who’s know me for any period of time knew that this post was coming! One of my pet peeves is when learning experience designers/ instructional designers/ eLearning developers use the term “engagement” incorrectly.

There are two common ways that the term “engagement” is interpreted. The first interpretation is that learners are engaged when learners click, hover, and swipe their way through a course. I call this interface interaction. Often, this goes hand-in-hand with the idea that appealing graphics are the key to increasing engagement. The second interpretation is that learners are engaged when they think deeply about the course content. I call this information interaction.

So, which do I believe is the correct interpretation? I believe that true engagement comes from information interaction. I believe it to the core of my being. That’s not to say that interface interaction doesn’t have its place, but it’s not what will grab a learner’s attention and keep them coming back for more.

Unfortunately, there are many vendors and consultants that advertise their ability to engage audiences with unique interactions, treasure hunts, and gameshow-style activities. They further the misconception that interface interaction actually promotes learning.

Cammy Bean notoriously coined the term clicky-clicky bling-bling to describe how dry, boring courses often add useless but punchy interface interactions to make up for poor instructional design. She’s among those leading the charge against the concept of engagement through interface interaction.

Another designer at the forefront of this battle is Cathy Moore. She is the mastermind behind action mapping, which is particularly useful for training for behaviour change. Action mapping is a process for creating useful training and avoiding information dumps.

Strategies for engagement

So, how do you engage through information interaction? Well, it all starts with good learning experience design. Srividya Kumar over at eLearning industry wrote a great article about this topic, it’s definitely worth a read.

1. Start with stories

My own approach to engagement begins with my favourite WIIFM strategy: stories. I work in occupational health and safety, which means that there’s an abundance of stories about accidents and consequences. I try to begin every module with a short but compelling story to grab attention and provide context (two birds with one stone!). If you don’t have any real-life stories, feel free to create a realistic story of your own.

2. Prime learner’s brains

Learners like to know what to expect in a course. Confusing chunking, unorganized sequencing, or tricky navigation can distract from a learner’s attempt to engage. Thus, it’s helpful to prime the learner’s brains before learning. Once you put nuggets of ideas in their brains, they perk up when they get to the relevant section of the course (a little bit like Inception).

Sometimes stories are enough for this. If not, you could add in question-style learning objectives to each module. Instead of dry bulleted lists of objectives that are ignored by learners, instead ask learners to reflect on questions that are derived from these objectives. For example, rather than “By the end of this course you will know how to load a mobile elevating work platform for transportation”, try using “Do you know how to load a mobile elevating work platform for transportation?”

3. Allow for learner control

Although various stakeholders can be very insistent about locking navigation, it is in the learner’s best interest to have some form of control. What that looks like depends on the course. It could be the ability to move at your own pace, to skip slides, or to skip entire modules based on performance on a pre-test. Nothing makes people tune out of a course faster than “learning” something they already know.

 4. Personalize the course

To move one step beyond learner control, personalize the course to the learner. Personalizing can go above allowing for selection of modules based on pre-test scores. For example, you can personalize a course by modifying the stories and scenarios based on characteristics of the learners, by changing questions or question types, and by presenting content in a different context.

5. Remove the fluff

This may seem obvious, but ensure you are focusing on the need-to-know content and eliminating the nice-to-know content. Overwhelming learners with content can prevent them from engaging. Often you can provide the additional information in a job aid or a link for interested learners.

6. Present bite-sized content, then build on it

For the initial presentation, communicate the content one topic at a time. This allows learners to develop competency and build confidence in specific topics and allow them to expertly navigate scenarios. Just don’t overdo it when it comes to chunking the information – you don’t want learners tuning out because they feel the course is too dumbed down.

After the initial presentation, feel free to encourage learners to think back to previous modules to combine their knowledge. Not only will they need to think deeply about the content, it will also help with recall post-training.

7. Keep learners on track

Reading slide after slide of information provides few opportunities for deep information interaction. Be sure to include knowledge checks along the way. These don’t need to be tests to evaluate if the learner has passed the course (Assessments of Learning; AoL), they can be quizzes to provide feedback (Assessments for Learning; AfL) or reflection points to promote metacognition (Assessment as Learning; AaL).

8. Scenarios

I like to end my courses similar to how they start – more stories! But at the end I present the stories in the form of a scenario that the learner must navigate by using the knowledge gained in the course. These scenarios are particularly engaging if they are realistic and if they allow the learner to be the hero of the scenario.


Without a doubt in my mind, information interaction beats interface interaction 100% of the time. What do you think about engagement and interface interaction versus information interaction?


Bean, C. (2011, June). Avoiding the trap of clicky-clicky bling-bling. Retrieved from https://elearnmag.acm.org/featured.cfm?aid=1999745

Kumar, S. (2016, November). 7 strategies to avoid clicky-clicky bling-bling in learning design. Retrieved from https://elearningindustry.com/7-strategies-avoid-clicky-clicky-bling-bling

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