Learning by design: experience design for informal learning environments

Nicole Leaper

What is experience design for learning? Information experiences are changing and require a deeper understanding of human psychology and behavior in order to meet the needs of learners. When a design team is challenged to create a learning experience for an informal, interactive environment like a museum, what factors are important for a successful learning experience? A look at current literature in educational and design psychology, information design, human-computer interaction, and museum studies provides a set of factors that museum educators, exhibit designers, information designers, and interaction designers should consider when designing informal learning experiences in interactive environments like museums. Nine important areas for the design team to consider include affect, cognition, context, engagement, experiential learning, interactivity, narrative, self concepts, and usability. Design questions are offered for each area.


Experience designers are keenly aware of the influences that emotional response (the conscious experience of affect) has on human experiences. Don Norman believes that ““positive emotions are critical to learning, curiosity, and creative thought”. Both positive and negative affect are important, for different reasons. According to Norman, a negative affective response “focuses the mind, leading to better concentration,” which is good for dangerous, high-pressure situations while “positive affect broadens the thought processes, making us more easily distracted” which is useful for creative problem-solving and low-pressure situations.

However, designing for affect and emotion can be challenging. Although recent attention has been given to the idea of experience design as a kind of theater where the participant plays a pre-orchestrated role, emotional experiences are more valuable when they are open-ended. Tom Hennes reminds us that “pre-defining the outcome of experience is the goal of marketing; it is not the open-ended enrichment and pleasure that museums, at their best, can provide”.

Design question: Are we creating open-ended, emotionally rich experiences?


Affect and cognition work together to help humans process information. John Dewey’s concept of inquiry begins with a sense of unease or an intellectual conflict and includes “steps” in an inquiry cycle, which is different for every learner.

Museums need to find ways to design exhibitions that begin with direct experience and lead to inquiry. The role of the exhibition designer is to create a cognitive map but not to predetermine the way. This can occur through experiences of observation, experimentation, problem solving, and pattern recognition. In fact, Hennes suggests that “exhibits built around problematic situations may provide impetus for visitors to explore content in a way that is most meaningful to them because they take an active role in determining the purpose and the nature of the activity.”

Design question: Are we designing direct experiences that lead to both immediate and further inquiry?


The context of a learning experience or interaction is critical to understanding its influences and outcome. Social contexts are important too, because experiences and interactions are influenced by social relationships.

The way designers frame an experience or learning outcome matters. Having a task (where user is in goal mode) makes users evaluate an experience based on task fulfillment (“Did I get it right?”). An absence of tasks (action mode) makes users evaluate a product (or experience) separately from learning or mental effort (“Did I have fun?”).

It can be challenging to relate museum learning back to “real” life, but it is critical that learning environments like schools and museums test their activities to see how learning relates to the world outside a specialized setting.

Design questions: Are we taking physical, mental, and social contexts into consideration? Are we presenting the experience in a way that leads to learning outside the museum context?


Engagement is a loosely-defined concept, which is problematic in terms of design and evaluation. Often exhibit design is driven by existing content rather than by shaping it around engaging experiences. Van Moer, De Mette, and Elias note that is unproductive because “information-based exhibits often create reactions without personal engagement and develop experiences not meaningful enough to capture visitors’ attention and open up to further growth.”

Sue Allen of the Exploratorium in San Francisco discusses Csikszentmihalyi’s idea that ideal learning in a museum is “driven by curiosity and interest then sustained by a flow state”. Flow can be defined as being “fully involved with mind and body in an intrinsically motivated activity.” A key to creating flow is matching challenge to skills, along with well-defined goals and rules.

Design questions: Are we igniting a spark of curiosity and creating an experience that can be sustained by a flow state?


Experiential learning is the concept that humans create meaning from lived experience, an idea with roots in constructivist theory, hermeneutic philosophy and social semiotics. Successful learning experiences are participatory rather than passive; exploration, physical manipulation, and experimentation are key. Integrated learning theory sees learning as a “spiral” of experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting in active response to a learning situation. Challenging the learner is important; problematic experiences (where learners identify something they don’t understand or that doesn’t make sense) can lead to inquiry.

Designers can harness problematic experiences that initiate resolution of cognitive conflict in order to encourage learning. Gooding-Brown’s “disruptive model” is based on problematic experience where multiple (and even conflicting) viewpoints are presented. This suggests the participants create their own meaning through a resolution of conflicting opinions.

Design questions: Are we creating participatory experiences? Are we including multiple viewpoints that allow the learner to create their own meaning?


Hennes defines exhibits as “environments in which complex interactions occur among visitors, objects, environment, and meaning”. Interactivity has a social component as well; shareability and fluidity of sharing can promote interaction. Designers can design entry and access to encourage interaction; shared interactions cause a visual draw to access points, creating a “honeypot effect” that encourages use.

Design question: Are we harnessing interactions (both designed and serendipitous) to create learning?


Narratives are the stories that create meaning from experiences. According to Lake-Hammond and Waite, “a strong narrative enables the visitor to discover the exhibition’s complete meaning, rather than viewing it as a series of separate entities. Narrative structure does not need to be explicit or complex. In fact, a subtle narrative tends to be more successful, allowing audiences access to the exhibition message without distracting them with excess information.”

Design question: Are we employing subtle narrative that facilitates holistic understanding?


Designed experiences are inherently tied to the self, since, according to K. Anne Renninger “identity, like interest, develops through interactions…both interest and identity develop in relation to available experiences and to how learners perceive, understand, and represent these experiences”.

A participatory and inclusive approach is important for museums because, according to George Hein, “museums should grow out of life experiences and be used to reflect back on life”. In order to create personal meaning, “museum experiences, even active ones, still need to be associated with richer, authentic life experiences”.

Design question: How do our learners see themselves and this experience? Are we creating experiences that allow for interest and identity to develop in tandem?


According to Allen, user-centered design can be described as an approach that promotes “the creation of objects that, by virtue of their physical forms and location invite certain kinds of use and not others,” including the notion of “affordances” or interactions where intended use is natural and apparent. Alonso-Ríos et al found six areas that pertain to usability: knowability, operability, efficiency, robustness, safety, and subjective satisfaction.

Usability is critical to museum experiences because a decline in interest and involvement known as museum fatigue can set in after about 30 minutes. Allen’s work at the Exploratorium in San Francisco shows that apprehension and usability “reduce the ever-present cognitive load on visitors, freeing them to focus on those aspects of the environment that are rewarding to them and worthy of their attention”. Context is a hugely important factor to determine what “usability” means in a given situation; usability depends on context of use.

Design question: Are we using affordances to suggest natural use and alleviate museum fatigue?


Affect, cognition, context, engagement, experiential learning, interactivity, narrative, self concepts, and usability are interconnected and influence each other to produce learning experiences. Understanding these factors and using the design questions provided to evaluate and prompt during the design process can help design stakeholders create rewarding, open-ended experiences for informal learning environments.


Nicole Leaper is an experience design lover based in Oregon, United States.

Working as a design researcher/strategist, and senior communication designer, she is intrigued by the emotional experiences created when humans interact with information. She holds an interdisciplinary Master of Science degree from the University of Oregon in information theory, information design, and business strategy, with a personal focus on user experience design for arts and learning environments. More about her projects and contact details can be found at http://nicoleleaper.com.