Is the look of your eLearning course design affecting engagement?

The aesthetic appeal of your course materials can be easy to overlook, but design plays an important role in user experience, and user experience is a large part of engagement.

Studies show that learners retain only 10-20% of written or spoken information in any given course, but they retain almost 65% of visual information.

A similar study found that illustrated text was 9% more effective than text alone when testing immediate comprehension.

While the content of your course is extremely important, it turns out the way you present that information can have an impact on retention. So how do you design a course that engages users and helps them remember important information?

Here’s what you need to know…

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Break Content Into Visual Segments

Microlearning – breaking up topics into smaller, bite-sized sections – is an excellent way to improve retention, and the same goes for design.

Breaking up content visually can help guide users through coursework, point them to important information, and keep them from feeling overwhelmed.

Using white space between different visual elements (and learning segments) can be helpful for giving learners a mental rest as well as creating a clean, simple layout for easy viewing on digital screens. And simple screen designs are proven to be highly effective at improving readability.

Simple screen designs are proven to be highly effective

Source: Articulate Studio

If possible, consider mixing mediums – such as images, videos, infographics, and highlighted text – to emphasize different sections. You can use an image to break up your content, but you run the risk of users ignoring the repetition.

Focus on Essential Images

While images are an important part of design, and can certainly improve the visual appeal of any course, it can also easily distract users if the images are either too numerous, of low quality or irrelevant to the coursework.

You want to start with a few high-quality photos that represent something memorable about the surrounding content. You don’t want to select images just to fill space, but rather to enhance your overall message and theme.

If you have a safety and compliance eLearning course with a section on ladder safety, for example, you wouldn’t want to feature a picture of a staircase. You may also want to skip the obligatory still-life ladder photo in favor of an action shot, diagram, or infographic that relates to the material.

Represent something memorable about the surrounding contentSource: Seton

Consider limiting the number of photos you use so users aren’t overwhelmed (remember to use white space), and use blocks of color to highlight or emphasize content where images aren’t appropriate or relevant.

Create Structure

Images and colors aren’t the only design components that affect engagement. You also want to consider using visual elements like headings, bullet points, and line spacing to create a clean and easy-to-read design.

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Keep in mind that your course will most likely be accessed on a mobile device, which will shrink the screen and rearrange the layout.

Even if images or fonts are lost in the conversion process between desktop and mobile, you will want the overall visual structure of your text to remain consistent. Additionally, keywords and quotes can be highlighted in place of images to break up bulky sections of content.

You also want to make sure that your spacing is consistent throughout your course design for all paragraphs, lines, images, and navigation. Don’t use narrow spacing in one section and double line spacing in another, as it can create confusion.

Limit Fonts and Colors

Choosing the right fonts may seem daunting if you’re new to design. In the case of eLearning, less is certainly more, but you do want to use varied fonts (or at least varied font sizes) to create emphasis and to break up blocks of content.

You want to choose fonts for body copy that are easy to read and can be easily resized in case they’re viewed on mobile devices with small screens.

For headers, subheaders, and other text, you can use slightly fancier fonts as needed as long as they’re readable, or simply resize or bold your body copy font.

Source: Canva

You can use more calligraphic fonts for highlighted keywords and short phrases that separate sections, though your overall goal is to limit your choices to 3 to 4 fonts so as not to overwhelm readers.


The same rules apply for choosing colors. You don’t want or need to incorporate all the colors of the rainbow to stick out.

It’s best to create a color scheme (branded to your business, if possible) with 3 to 4 colors and stick with them throughout the course. You can use images, icons, and other mediums to bring in highlighted colors.

Use Visual Navigation

Navigation is also an important part of design. It’s one thing to have a stunningly beautiful eLearning course, but if your user can’t find what they’re looking for or become frustrated by the navigation, you will lose engagement.

Navigation buttons should be easy to see and clearly point the user to the next section of the course. Whether you choose a vertical or horizontal navigation menu is up to you, as long as it stands out from other elements on the page.

Use visual navigation - either top bar or side bar

Source: E-Learning Heroes

If you really want to wow users, you can create flashy graphics for your navigation buttons, but this isn’t always necessary. Remember that the simplest design principles will improve engagement, so you don’t want to clutter the page with unnecessary images.

As long as users can easily see where they are in the coursework and where they’re going next, you’re doing a good job. You can always add labels to each section (like “Lesson One – Assessment”, “Lesson Two – Quiz”, etc.) to help clarify sections of your course.

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Final Thoughts

You don’t have to design the most beautiful course in the whole world to have engaged users, but enhancing certain design elements of your site can improve engagement and retention for learners going through the materials.

Focus on creating structure with visual elements, including your navigation menu as well as the paragraphs and line spacing of the text. If you’re going to use images in your materials, make sure they’re relevant, high quality, and not over-utilized.

Always create a clean and simple layout for users so they can easily read content from both large and small screens, and limit any distracting design elements to keep them focused on what really matters: learning.

Jonathan Davis is an accomplished professional with experience helping Fortune 500 companies achieve success in employee communication and training programs. Jonathan focuses on delivering reliable, successful outcomes that increases employee engagement through highly targeted deliverables, creative messaging and robust programs.