Why you really want to be short

Short and happy dogThe elearning samples page lists more than 35 inspiring interactions. Why did so few corporate courses make the final list?

One reason: The people who designed the interactions knew the following 3 Secrets of Shortness.

1. Forget the intro

Typical course: “Welcome to the Widget Functionality course! Widgets are undoubtedly an important part of our lives, and understanding how they function will help you gain the most benefit from their use. In this course, you will learn how widgets work.”

Interactive: “How Widgets Work”

2. Show, don’t tell

Course: “Before supplying a transfusion, it is imperative to test each patient’s blood to determine what antibodies it reacts to. If you don’t do this, you could supply the wrong type of blood and harm or even kill the patient.”


You gave her the wrong blood again!

3. Set your learners free

Course: “We know the one and best way to learn this material, so we will lead you by the nose through every step. Besides, we don’t trust you to read everything. Click Next to continue.”

Interactive: “Take a look around!”

Concorde cockpit with menu

Unfortunately, it takes longer to develop something that’s short. But it takes learners less time to get through the material, so the business wins in the end.

I also think that a well-designed, short, just-in-time interaction is more likely to be effective than a long, take-it-once-and-forget-it course. What do you think?


  1. Interesting article, but dp you have any evidence to support the effectiveness of this approach?

  2. Thanks for your comment, AJ. I’m not sure which approach you’re referring to so will briefly address all 3. I’d also like to welcome the many new readers here. New arrivals might not immediately realize that this blog covers elearning and electronic performance support used on the job by working adults rather than online courses for higher education.

    1. Don’t use lots of words to say very little; make the focus of the material immediately clear: See research cited in Efficiency in Learning and Elearning and the Science of Instruction by Ruth Clark et al. This is also just good writing practice, as research into readability, marketing effectiveness, and usability has repeatedly demonstrated.

    2. Have learners participate in realistic on-the-job scenarios rather than simply telling them information: See, among many others, JM Carroll’s research into “minimalist training.” The Clark books above also report on research that supports doing rather than simply reading. The same belief appears to influence education: If it were more effective to simply tell learners what they need to know, our schools wouldn’t need science labs. Obviously, there needs to be an effective balance between doing and telling, and I would say that corporate training tips the balance too far toward telling.

    3. Let the learner explore a structured environment rather than leading them by the nose: This is likely the most controversial. You’ve linked to Kirschner, Sweller, and Clark’s recent paper in your blog. I’d also point you to Stephen Downes’ notes in response: http://tinyurl.com/345gzb.

    No single approach works equally well in all situations. The samples discussed in my post are all short, highly focused interactions, and my comments were designed to point this out and contrast it to the more passive, wordy approach that many corporate courses would use for that same information. It would be interesting to write a longer, click-Next-to-continue treatment of one of the interactives and test both versions on working adults. Anyone have some grant money lying around?

  3. Thanks for clarifying. I’d agree with your conclusions and I’d be fascinated to see if there are any differences between working adults and higher education, but the only real way of getting this information is by data gathering and analysis, which as you point out, costs money.

  4. Great idea Cathy!
    I’m very curios to see difference between a interactive course and a click-to-next course…
    For example: what do you change in the 60 minutes master of Clive Sheperd?

  5. Lorenz, thanks for your question.

    I’m obviously biased about this, because I’m developing an online tool to help people learn and apply instructional design skills at http://www.elearningblueprints.com . I’m using concise HTML text, many short interactions, job aids, and a detailed, always-visible menu. I view it as performance support, not a course. I think standalone courses are best used to raise awareness.

    I think the 60-Minute Masters content will help raise awareness of the importance of careful design. To make that message more powerful, I would increase learners’ control over the presentation. For example, I would suggest providing a more detailed menu and speeding up the experience of the course (the transitions and text reveals are quite slow on this side of the Atlantic).

    60-Minute Masters: http://www.kineolearning.com/60minutemasters

  6. Another good post. In fact, one of my pet peeves is elearning fascism where we lock down the course and don’t allow learners to have as much control as possible.

    Elearning is evolving. We tend to think “course” because initially we just repurposed classroom content and tried to recreate the experience online. Things are changing.

    The first stage of elearning is like the gray, boxey web pages ten years ago. Now look at what we have.

    The combination of multimedia, online, offline, and collaborative technology is going to change how we view elearning. The courses we have now are only one part of the process.

  7. The whole “less is more” philosophy can be hard to implement when writing content. SMEs think all of their expertise is so darn important.

    I’ve been having fun convincing my SMEs otherwise and am pleased to see them cutting content while saying “less is more” out loud.

  8. And as a short person, I’ve always felt it’s better….regardless of what Randy Newman says.

  9. Another great post from Cathy. Cathy clearly sees the difference between the corporate and the academic courses. Corporate training seriously requires hands-on-experience, short and interactive courses.The learners need to apply their newly acquired knowldge at their work place. But I donot mean that the academic courses should not have hands-on-experience, short and interactive coursese people The academic courses can have a little bit of liberty in terms of these features.

  10. Hopefully this works as an appropriate example: http://www.surgerysquad.com – We develop these (virtual surgeries) internally for fun/to learn in any free time and to have the chance to be 100% in charge – basically an exercise on cutting to the chase. We take a complex process that can range from 3 hours to 15 hours and have a goal of 5 pages or less script size, and under 5 minutes total start to finish – all the while giving the user as much control through the surgery as possible.

    The biggest problem with a client’s course is that they may only want one course – even if the content should be split into multiple 10 minute chunks. We’re starting a great set of 7 courses tomorrow and I’m excited to apply the same tactics to plant care and landscaping as we do to medical procedures. Short is good as long as the quality and usability are up. If it makes sense, the user remembers the goals & has an enjoyable time I’m happy.