Learning Experience Design by Donald Clark Book Summary

Learning Experience Design, How to Create Effective Learning that Works by Donald Clark


While repetitive in places and a bit scattershot, this guide to Learning Experience Design (LXD) provides a sound reference manual for designers. The internet has transformed how people learn, but learning itself remains an “effortful” experience. Designers should understand how people learn to deliver experiences with high impact and good retention. Pedagogy struggles to keep pace with all the new ways people encounter information: interactive videos, podcasts, video talks and how-to videos on YouTube, among others. LX designers should follow the approach of “less is more” to maximize engagement.


  • Learning is work. LXD must deliver experiences that enable retention and retrieval.
  • Learning experience design combines art and science.
  • Web applications influence LXD, with a guiding principle of “less is more.”
  • Video engages the learner. Use it sparingly.
  • Engagement alone isn’t sufficient for learners to learn. They must regard learning as a process.
  • VR and AR are useful for experiential training.
  • Games can engage the learner, but their content must be relevant and appropriate.
  • To extend the “long tail of learning,” learners must focus on deliberate practice to retain what they learn.
  • With an expanded web, learning experience platforms (LXP) will eventually replace LXD.
Learning Experience Design Book Summary

Learning Experience Design Book Summary

Learning is work. LXD must deliver experiences that enable retention and retrieval.

Learners do the work of learning – a complex process with a “long tail.” Learning experience design (LXD) acknowledges this process. It starts with learning as a goal, selects experiences that achieve that goal, and designs the process through which learning happens. LXD designers must build to specifications that allow for learner retrieval, retention, reinforcement of memory, practice, transfer and knowledge application. The learning experience is not as important as what the learner uses and remembers.

“Events can act as a catalyst, motivate people, get them started, but it is process that changes people. An experience can be a learning experience but not all experiences are learning experiences. Learning is a process, not an event.”

Learning theory is “sketchy” at best, even among learning professionals, because teachers rely on practice, not theory. Many learning policy makers overlook science on attention, cognitive overload and memory in favor of learning theories with no scientific underpinnings, such as Myers-Briggs, the Mozart Effect and L/R brain theory, among others. LXD designers can learn from online experiences featuring pared-down, simple interfaces that engage users and build habits. Learning apps like Duolingo, for example, capitalize on the human need for nudges, rewards and reminders.

Learning experience design combines art and science.

A Learning Experience Designer needs to be creative, scientific, and possess a strong understanding of theory – while being proficient with technology and collaborative, with good communication skills. LXDs work for companies, often as freelancers, and are accountable to shareholders, executives, developers and testers. Subject-matter experts (SMEs) in particular work closely with LXDs. Producing a learning experience is usually iterative.

“[LXD] is a complex amalgam of art and science, head and heart, a curious mixture of organizational demands, learning demands, learning psychology, media mix, media production and technology.”

Design methodologies of LXDs include:

  • ADDIE – “Analysis, design, development, implementation and evaluation.” This process cascades.
  • Design thinking – User-centered, this method has five stages: “empathize, design, ideate, prototype and test.”
  • Agile – An iterative process with sprints and scrums.

While ADDIE is among the most popular, LXDs often use a combination of these methods.

Web applications influence LXD with a guiding principle of “less is more.”

To be successful, LXDs should not distract the learner with complexity or obfuscation. To humanize technology, designers must make it user-friendly. Today, web design influences interface design, which features menus, tiles, personalized options, chatbots and social media, Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri.

“Attention can be held by good design, variation, relevance and personalization.”

Actions you must take for successful interface design include: sticking to conventions in design; mapping with arrows and directions; limiting options to streamline the user experience; separating navigation tools from content actions; showing users their progress; and testing for usability before signing off.

Interfaces feature text, graphics, audio, video and animation. Humans communicated first via images, but eventually invented symbols that became text, the “big bang of learning technology.” Today, screens provide many ways to convey information to a learner, but text remains among the most learner-friendly. Text is flexible, easy to update and uses little bandwidth compared to video, for example. 

Audio is “fundamental” communication, usually the first thing a child learns. It is a frictionless and natural way to learn. But audio is not always the best way to learn, especially for people who read faster than people speak. Audio is good for providing introductions, assisting users and offering feedback. It is useful for interactive and language learning. Recently, chatbots and podcasts have made online learning experiences more fluid. Due to their popularity, podcasts could be a component in blended learning.

Video engages the learner. Use it sparingly.

Television arrived in American households in the 1940s and 1950s, and while hugely popular today, watching TV is a passive activity. VHS tapes gave users more control over content, but the internet changed everything by offering interactive experiences. Now, video proliferates on the web, on platforms such as YouTube. How-to videos in particular enjoy a massive user base. TED talks, MOOCs and Khan Academy are among the most popular pedagogical venues online.

“Chunking video down to smaller, meaningful segments and providing the opportunity for active, effortful learning will both enhance learning by reducing cognitive load and increasing reinforcement, retention and recall.”

However, among the problems with video learning is the “transience effect”: Learning experiences don’t get past working memory. Video also creates an illusion of learning: students mistakenly believing they can retain the information they view. Learners typically can only engage for about six minutes, as research into MOOC participation suggests. Use video for making introductions; interviews; storytelling, including dramatization; interactive tutoring; processes and “how to”; and in-situ learning (show and tell).

To create effective videos in LXD, keep them short, give learners control, use an informal style and provide opportunities for review. To avoid overloading learners, don’t use background music and don’t overdo the amount of text and graphics on each page.

Engagement alone isn’t sufficient for learners to learn. They must regard learning as a process.

A person can engage while not really learning, especially in transient modes – listening to podcasts or watching videos. Learners can glide over information in learning environments, not retaining much. Or worse, they can become overstimulated, which impedes retention. Learners best learn by:

  • Asking questions.
  • Performing “active retrieval practice,” in which subjects look up information themselves, thus remembering it more accurately.
  • Failing and trying again.
  • Feedback.
  • Practice.
  • Interleaving (vacillating between different subjects).

Engagement does not provide a sound learning metric. Learners need process, and that requires effort and commitment.

VR and AR are useful for experiential training.

Simulations and scenarios demonstrate that immersive environments facilitate learning. Only imagination and technological sophistication limit VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality). They create an emotional connection for the learner. However, their novelty may oversell their effectiveness as teaching tools. Tests on how well learners respond to VR and AR revealed the following:

  • Emotion – Learners have an intense emotional response.
  • Attention – They exhibit total focus.
  • Experiential – VR enhances practical learning.
  • Context – Placing people in “rare, dangerous, even impossible situations” gives them context.
  • Collaboration – Multiplayer VR experiences help people learn together.
  • Transfer  Learners readily transfer knowledge from VR to the real world.
  • Recall – Learners had excellent retention.

As with video, VR has many applications in the social sciences, for practical training, and for collaborative work environments, therapy and tutoring. Unlike video, VR and AR are expensive, so deploy them only in realms in which they provide the most cost benefit.

“We are, perhaps, at the start of a new era, where media actually deliver what our brains expect – 3D realities, artificial realities, mixed realities, augmented realities, virtual realities? This is as it should be.”

VR and AR are most useful for learners who need to maneuver in complex environments, such as oil rigs, or for specialized skills such as surgery. VR must eventually integrate with other systems, and provide meaningful data outputs so teachers and LXDs can assess its efficacy as a teaching tool.

Games can engage the learner, but their content must be relevant and appropriate.

The games industry has grown exponentially over the years, especially in role-playing and multiplayer games. It seems logical that people could learn via game-playing, but only the military has taken advantage of its uses. An LX designer must harness games’ best attributes (motivation, goals, reinforcement, failure, feedback and community) while minimizing the downsides, which include:

  • Ineffectuality  Games can be “light” on learning and focus too much on “fun.” Learning requires effort.
  • Leaderboards – The compulsion to win or be the best could compel learners to cheat, thus nullifying learning objectives.
  • Expensive – Designers must weigh gamification’s costs and benefits.

Certain game types lend themselves well to learning. For example, they can offer quizzing, simulations, drill and practice, performance enhancement, and extensive how-tos in managing businesses or catastrophe scenarios.

“Games designers arguably know a lot more about motivation and simulation design than the learning industry. They, after all, have to appeal to the voluntary buyer rather than the compulsory learner.”

Game designers must not overload users with too much information. Games are difficult to design, and it’s easy to disappoint learners with badly imagined or poorly executed games. Don’t use games for complex, weighty subjects such as chronic diseases or high-level academics.

To extend the “long tail of learning,” learners must focus on deliberate practice to retain what they learn.

Chris Anderson wrote in Wired magazine about the long tail of learning – how most learning occurs outside formal training, mostly through practice and transfer. Technology feeds the long tail with many online resources. The Duolingo app designer, for example, understands that habit is essential to retention. But a difference exists between “deliberate” practice and “repeated” practice. The process for deliberate practice is:

  • Concentrate.
  • Break down the practice into manageable chunks.
  • Focus on feedback when you fail.
  • Increase the difficulty, to keep challenging yourself and feel progress.

A “long tail of forgetting” also exists. Here, the learner’s knowledge atrophies over time. To counter this, engage in “spaced-practice,” which is revisiting the learning repeatedly. Learners should also practice “active recall” – trying to spontaneously bring to mind knowledge they think they forgot. This exercise is essential for long-term retention. 

“The long tail of learning recognizes that, despite the majority of learning budgets being spent on formal learning (primarily courses), most learning actually takes place informally, over a long period of time in the long tail of activities after event-based, formal learning.”

LX designers should design for transference. The learner applies their cognitive transformation to real-life practice. “Near” transfer refers to simple and routine tasks, while “far” transfer concerns more complex skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking. LXD can assist with transfer through:

  • Blended learning.
  • Personal practice.
  • “Push” platforms, such as Slack.
  • Nudges.
  • “Personalized spaced-practice tools.”
  • Blogs.

LX designers in organizations should incorporate transfer into the learning experience, and provide opportunities and time for learners to practice. 

With an expanded web, learning experience platforms (LXP) will eventually replace LXD.

The online community is the largest and most connected community in human history. It offers many possibilities for people to learn together, in small or large groups. One can learn in focused teams, through webinars and forums with less-structured learning objectives. They can share knowledge on social media platforms. Boundaries are blurring between work, life and learning. But as with other learning modes, social learning has its downsides. Some people prefer solitary learning or learning at their own pace. Also, many social learners curate their own knowledge. This method may prove too informal and insufficiently rigorous for social learners to retain or apply what they learn. 

“An ecosystem is not just the technology stack that delivers learning experiences, it is an evolved complex of people, culture, systems, processes, technology and resources.”

LXD has evolved into LXP, or Learning Experience Platforms. These foster ongoing learning opportunities, not merely one-off learning events. Everyone lives in a learning ecosystem. Within it, learners have access to information across the entire web, with AI making more personalized experiences available. People can “learn in the workflow” – continuously learning and applying it through time. LX designers must remain learner-centric, and listen to feedback to deliver the best experiences. Much learning is unintentional because people constantly learn as they move through the world. This learning fuels innovation and new insights.

About the Author

Donald Clark

Donald Clark is a visiting professor at the UK’s University of Derby and the founder and CEO of Wildfire Learning.

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