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Thursday, February 11, 2010

What Makes an LMS Easy to Use?

I’ll have more coming on this topic, but today someone asked me how to approach is going through an LMS selection because the general feeling was that the existing LMS was too hard for users to use. 

In this case, it’s customer training around products that the company sells.  They are doing a combination of virtual classroom training (via WebEx) and self-paced eLearning.  They currently use Moodle as an LMS with some customizations.  However, the resource who did the customizations is no longer with the company.  And the person who asked the question tells me:

My managers have asked me to find alternatives to Moodle that are more user friendly and that are easier to update and manage.

I’ve discussed many times about dissatisfaction with LMS:

and even a bit about the disconnect between an LMS and what things most users want / need:

When I look at how I define the process for selecting an LMS, a lot of it comes down to the ability to support differentiating use cases.  That doesn’t necessarily help when it comes to selecting an LMS that will be easy for the user.  So, I’m left wondering:

  • What are examples of specific requirements that can be used during LMS selection to ensure that the result is easy to use?
  • Have you found that any LMS is particularly easier to use and been able to make a selection based on that?
  • What advice would you have for helping this individual find alternatives to Moodle?

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good questions!

Our company hears similar comments and have taken them to heart.

We use open source code but also work hard to extend the LMS with custom features, professional UI, unlimited customer support, reporting, course templates, and a global infrastructure.

There are affordable alternatives, so continue to look around.

I'd also focus as much (or more) on evaluating your relationship with the vendor as the learning software--you're going to have questions (no matter the set-up) and you're only as good as the people supporting you and your users.

Todd
Educadium

david j mcclelland said...

Where ever possible I recommend finding a way to remove the visible LMS. *Especially* anything customer-facing. The LMS is predicated on metering and tracking interaction, which are perceived (rightly) as barriers. Track participation and scores the way they do on game sites - via a single login utilizing cookies. You can use SCORM or analyitics behind the scenes while providing a casual opportunity to learn.

Post content and pull reports the same way marketing does with the website - all LMS's I have used (most out there) are just plain offensive in the file management and integration area and deserve to suffer for it. It provides a lot of work for me, but doesn't make the world a better place.

Anonymous said...

"What are examples of specific requirements that can be used during LMS selection to ensure that the result is easy to use?"

One specific requirement is that the LMS should have an intuitive interface. Learners (as well as other users) should not have to waste time navigating the screens to complete tasks or locate information. Another requirement is to have a customizable main page so that all users have only preferred content on their main LMS page.

"Have you found that any LMS is particularly easier to use and been able to make a selection based on that?"

Not yet - we are also currently in the process of LMS selection.

"What advice would you have for helping this individual find alternatives to Moodle"

Always request demos of the products first. Try to get real task-based examples and specific use cases demonstrated live via webinar or in-person.

Chris @ eQuixotic said...

I can't tell you what makes an LMS easy to use, because I've never used an easy LMS. I can tell you what makes an LMS *not* easy to use. Actually I could fill a book with gripes (as our corporate LMS is horrific), but my number one point of contention is abysmal search functionality.

I won't tell you which LMS we have. But it may or may not rhyme with "chateau."

Paul Schneider said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Marcos Dutra said...

The prices for a LMS solution are outrageous. US$ 200 to US$ 1000 a month for a tiny bit of space in a server?
The software also is not so special and different to justify the cost. I guess not many small software houses have realized what a pot of gold the segment is.
My last client needed only a solution that gave him a user login and a way to track results. We decided for a simple solution that cost US$ 85 a YEAR, while my first choice was US$ 200 a MONTH.

Marcos Dutra said...

What is really a must in a LMS?
1) a way to track and manage user logins and security permissions.
2) a way to offer quizzes inside a secure system.
3) some simple report generation.
All the rest is simply a list of files, if we think about it. Courses, papers, presentations, pdfs. A syllabus is a list of materials ordered by time.
All the extra stuff should be added as modules, maybe even outside the LMS itself. Conference calls, webinars, forums. Those tools are freely available in the internet. The problem is that companies put all those tools inside the system and charge a fortune for them.

A simple and flexible LMS should be a priority for UNESCO or some other organization. It is amazing how much knowledge is available, knowledge which could help poor countries a lot, and there is no elegant, iTunes-like solution for delivery. Where is the killer-app ?

V Yonkers said...

I think too many times there is not enough interaction with the end users, the designers, and the (usually committee) people responsible for choosing the LMS.

My first experience with an LMS was wonderful. The second was not as good, but still satisfactory. However, since then it has been horrible.

1) don't assume end users DON'T understand how an LMS works. Perhaps what they mean by it not being easy to use is that new features are not useful and require more work than it is worth.

2) End-users should be trained as the system is being designed. There should be a partnership during the design phase. In my first experience with an LMS we were trained in the general idea of what an LMS was and how it could be used. Then we were teamed up with "quality" partners who helped with the design, but also would have to approve designs. They were then the link between the IT people, help desk, and end user. This second level made customizing LMS's very easy. It also helped in systemic changes that end users wanted.

3) As I have said before, LMS no longer need to contain everything, but should be able to interface with everything today and in the next 10 years. It should be a learning SYSTEM, not a learning Machine.

Donna Bailey said...

Our company ended up creating custom built Learning Portals to match the needs of our clients because we couldn't find something that worked well. I agree with Todd that a relationship with your vendor is important as the more precise you can be with your needs, the better a vendor can match them.

Also, one thing I often see are clients coming to us with a checklist of features and functions without 1)first deciding if those are necessary and 2) caring more about having those features and functions than having a user-friendly interface seamlessly integrated into their intranet or website. A learning portal (LMS) shouldn't be obvious or obtrusive.

This is a pretty big expense for most companies. I am often surprised how many of them settled for a "large named" LMS simply because they assumed it would work well because the company is so well-known. As is true with everything you buy, one shouldn't assume quality because the company has quantity.

Nicole said...

What makes an LMS easy to use?

*A clean, user-friendly, intuitive interface
*Core functionality i.e. not having every bell & whistle that complicates rather than simplifies
*Open & friendly lines of communication with your vendor's support team is a must because there will always be questions (as Todd from Educadium said)
*Ability to import most types of media formats - it should work with your authoring tools
*An agile company who continue to upgrade their product so it is always cutting-edge - you won't get left behind and be forced to switch again
*A hosted solution if you don't want to worry about file storage or technically supporting the system
*Reporting - drill-down to get all skews on the info stored and options to export
*As much system automation as possible so you have to do less 'admin'

It's as if LMS search has reached boiling point; customers have the right to demand an LMS that accurately reflects the level of technology that is available today. No one should settle for a 'clunky' system that takes wks/mnths to learn, that costs fortune, but makes you want to cry with frustration every time you use it.

I led two separate demos this week where ironically both ppl mentioned one very large LMS vendor they were using or had considered using. They commented that this competitor's LMS was 'like using DOS' when compared to ours. Although that's a great compliment to us, it shocks me that there can be such a vast difference between learning management systems on the market, but there must be.

In my experience people are doing more and more research before buying in to an LMS and I really like that. People know what they're getting, make wise decisions, have a better relationship with the vendor and support team, and all are happier for it.

Nicole
@Schnicker

Keith said...

Nicole, great summary! You hit the key points on the head.

Number one has to be an effective interface: both the front end for the learners, and the back end for whoever's administering things. These can be horrendous.

I'd add about the reporting that an easy wizard to manipulate, as you say, whatever data you want - or at least an easy & simple way of designing them.

V Yonkers said...

Nichole, I wish every decision maker could read your summary! It not only looks at the front end, but the interaction AFTER a system has been bought with the vendor's customer service. I know our ITS guys feel many times that they are left hanging as they try to trouble shoot. They look like the idiots when in fact it might be a system flaw.

Cheryl McNeil said...

Great post Tony! I think that you get what you pay for to be honest and any open source solution is not going to be easy to navigate. For example, Blackboard is easy to use but costs a fortune. So what's the middle ground? A reasonable, custom solution. I work with a company called ARI and have found them to be quite reasonable when it comes to pricing. Simply tell them the features you need and they will design and develop the LMS for you. So what makes a good LMS? Ease of Use, Ease of Use, and Ease of Use. I love the interface for PeopleSoft if you are familiar with the drop down selection boxes. Simply define the search criteria for each field and click Run! Let me know if you would like more info on my LMS provider. Good Luck!

Francis Kneebone said...

We use Moodle wrapped inside a Joomla site. Both open source and free, and allow us to use the simple functionality of Moodle, with the bells and whistles of Joomla.

The Joomla/Moodle site is here

A post about Jfusion, a product that fuses the two together is here

With anything to do with an LMS, I agree with previous comments that you need to design a user friendly experience.

So my rule of thumb is, remember the popularity of facebook.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

Kia ora e Tony

Wow! There is a lot of opinion commented here, and that's useful.

I agree with so many commenters on this post. An easy-to-use report writer (or generator) that can access most (if not all) 'tables' in the database(s) to do with learner achievement, progress and other parameters of importance is almost obligatory. That, and the ability to look at general summaries of individual aspects such as learners and their cohorts, are well appreciated.

So saying, I'm assuming that all other parts of the LMS fit and function (sic).

Of all the databases I've worked with (and not just Learning MS) the ones held most in contempt by users had poor report writers or none at all.

Catchya later

Anna Lea Dyckhoff said...

In 2007 we investigated the usability of our LMS, which is based on Sharepoint (www.elearning.rwth-aachen.de). Based on our findings we designed user-friendly layouts that have received good reviews by students and lectures since.

I think the most important aspects for user interfaces to consider are:
- easy start / entrance into the system
- understandable wording
- task-oriented structure
- consistency in wording, navigation, user actions, and use of metaphors


Anna Lea Dyckhoff

Tony Karrer said...

This has been a fantastic discussion! One thing this really sparks for me is that there seems to be a small set of use cases that could be optimized for the end-users in terms of easy-to-understand, easy-to-use. The suggestion of using a SharePoint or other custom interface to provide exactly the right information up front is an interesting one. The LMS interface is somewhat hidden. Of course, that doesn't really solve the problem of what that should look like - and certainly LMS products should be providing something that provides that immediate access.

I think this list has provided quite a bit of good input for the subject.

Tony Karrer said...

A comment via email from Clayton R Wright:

Your reader who was seeking information about the selection of an LMS may find the article below helpful. I believe that you referred to it before.
Selecting an Open-Source Online Course Development and Delivery Platform: An Academic Perspective http://pcf4.dec.uwi.edu/viewpaper.php?id=278
If I was writing the article now, I would also include the capability of the LMS to accommodate or tie into social media.
Defining "a simpler LMS", like the term "beauty" or "love", depends on the views of the individual. Your reader might want something simpler now, but whatever he or she selects must have the capability to grow or expand as users get more sophisticated and want to use more features. I have seen people get quite upset when they have locked into one LMS and find that their material is not easily transferable to a more advanced LMS - they have to reconfigure and enter each document separately - very time consuming. Preferably, obtain an LMS with features that you can use now, but also includes features that you may want to use in the future as your comfort level with technology improves and your needs become more sophisticated.
Somewhere, I remember seeing an overview of 200 plus LMS - perhaps on a UNESCO site. There was something for everyone, but does the system have the features you need and may need in the future, is it scalable so that it can accommodate a larger number of students, does it have built-in security features, will the system be sustained, and are there enough users so that you can contact them for assistance?
For additional thoughts on LMS selection, consider:

Advice for Small Schools on the LMS Selection Process by Michael Feldstein, February 15, 2009, http://mfeldstein.com/advice-for-small-schools-on-the-lms-selection-process/

382 Tips on the Selection of an LMS or LCMS, The Learning Guild, 2006
http://www.elearningguild.com/content.cfm?selection=doc.545

But the real question is, do you need an LMS at all? Perhaps you only need e-mail and access to Scribd.com or Google Docs. List the features or functions you are seeking, then conduct your search.

Clayton R. Wright
Your reader who was seeking information about the selection of an LMS may find the article below helpful. I believe that you referred to it before.
Selecting an Open-Source Online Course Development and Delivery Platform: An Academic Perspective

If I was writing the article now, I would also include the capability of the LMS to accommodate or tie into social media.
Defining "a simpler LMS", like the term "beauty" or "love", depends on the views of the individual. Your reader might want something simpler now, but whatever he or she selects must have the capability to grow or expand as users get more sophisticated and want to use more features. I have seen people get quite upset when they have locked into one LMS and find that their material is not easily transferable to a more advanced LMS - they have to reconfigure and enter each document separately - very time consuming. Preferably, obtain an LMS with features that you can use now, but also includes features that you may want to use in the future as your comfort level with technology improves and your needs become more sophisticated.
Somewhere, I remember seeing an overview of 200 plus LMS - perhaps on a UNESCO site. There was something for everyone, but does the system have the features you need and may need in the future, is it scalable so that it can accommodate a larger number of students, does it have built-in security features, will the system be sustained, and are there enough users so that you can contact them for assistance?

But the real question is, do you need an LMS at all? Perhaps you only need e-mail and access to Scribd.com or Google Docs. List the features or functions you are seeking, then conduct your search.

Clayton R. Wright

Tony Karrer said...

More links from Clayton R Wright:

For additional thoughts on LMS selection, consider:

Advice for Small Schools on the LMS Selection Process by Michael Feldstein, February 15, 2009,

382 Tips on the Selection of an LMS or LCMS, The Learning Guild, 2006

Dave Ganly said...

I spent a number of years standing behind typical LMS users watching their interaction with various systems and the problems they had. That's led to the easy to use philosophy behind our new lms - it's designed to be used by the people who use LMS's on a day to day basis, placing importance not just on the student experience but also crucially on the admin too. It's about speed and clarity. Reporting information is embedded throughout the application rather than hidden behind complex filtering screens and rows and rows of form fields. Everything is organised around what it is that people do every day - eg. running a report on a user instantly to assess training taken vs. training needed - that's a daily task in a lot of orgs. for HR / training teams, but I'm amazed at how difficult it is in some systems to do.

It's such a difficult balance - to maintain only 'core' functionality, do so with a simple UI, but also allow the underlying complex interactions/functions that make an LMS useful.

The previous system from a major vendor I worked on went the other way - it was possible to do anything - literally anything in the system, but users got so lost after navigating 5 form-filled screens to access functionality that after daily use for a year or two the system was widely disliked. It seems endemic in the industry - a new LMS is launched in an org, with all the hopes and praises heaped upon it, and then the attitude towards it changes from that of saviour to that of hated-utility and then the cycle repeats again.

Leos Jor said...

I think the LMS systems are so hard to use due to their over-complexity. The LMS vendors are trying to deliver universal solutions for all kinds of organisations which results in monster systems difficult to understand for administrators and even the learners.
We’ve chosen opposite approach when developing e-learning portal for our client. We’ve developed core engine that just serves and manages the learning content, quizzes and assessments. The rest of the portal features are based on analysing of client specific needs (business model, user management, reporting, social features).
The user feedback is very positive and people enjoy this kind of e-learning as they get modern and totally intuitive web interface not overwhelmed by tons of features they actually don’t need.

Robert said...

We developed our own SCORM-compliant LMS for our in-house use.

We've also discovered that about half of the features demanded by users (and their managers) are NEVER used.