Instructional Design

The Secret to Engaging Learners is Appeal

All other media industries—from gaming to advertising, to animation—understand the power of appeal. It’s the secret sauce that engages an audience and makes a lasting impression.

The learning industry either skips right over this important tool or when we make an attempt to use it, the results can sometimes be…cheesy. That’s okay, the industry is evolving. Because we don’t really know how or why to use appeal, we collectively cry out: “How do we create engaging learning?”

Let’s Imagine a Learning Experience Design Scenario Without Appeal:

Today my company announced that they are rolling out a new training program they’ve been working on with an expert in our field. Intrigued and excited, I block time in my calendar so I can dive into the material when launched. In anticipation, I open the training to find … gray powerpoint slides with orange highlights and text upon text upon text. Getting through the first lesson takes 45 minutes. With 5 more to go, This is honestly the last thing I want to be doing right now.


Some of you might be thinking “Who cares about people’s feelings? As long as the information is all there and it makes sense, what difference does it make?”

The Difference is...

Neurolearning tells us that we need to create positive feelings in our learners about an experience if we want them to learn as much as they can.

In the above scenario, the ability for the learner to absorb information was doomed by the negative feelings the learner had about the experience. We can change that with appeal.

The Neuroscience Behind Appeal

When people find something appealing, the receptors in their brains expand, like little sponges, soaking up more of what they see so they can retain it.

There’s a word for that called perceived value. Perceived value is a type of cognitive bias best explained through the Halo Effect, where we think attractive people are funnier, smarter or more trusting based on their looks alone.

That means people perceive something as valuable just because it makes them feel good. When people are in an environment like the above scenario (stale, boring) those same receptors shrivel up, taking in way less and forgetting the experience.

The essential difference between emotion and reason is that reason leads to conclusions, while emotion leads to action. — Donald Calne, neurologist

Design experiences

Appeal is subjective, so it’s going to be different according to your audience and content.  We at ELM use an array of methods to boost our design practices and more importantly, to increase the learners’ perceived value of an experience, based on its aesthetics.

We tend to mix different approaches, like Methodology D.J.s. Too often, designers stick to the same guidelines when it comes to structuring a course. We like to step outside of our industry to find inspiration for designing the flow of our lessons.

For one learning experience design, we mashed up Robert Gagne’s Nine Levels of Learning with Aristotle’s Three Act Structure of Storytelling. This helped us find a creative solution around structuring the content in a way that produced a feeling of curiosity in the learner which in turn increased attention.

For another, we remixed portions of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and the ADKAR Model  when designing a 6-week curriculum..  This allowed us to design an experience that was not only instructionally sound but tailored to the learner’s day-to-day routine. With this information, we were able to strategically map out how and when the different resources, reminders, challenges and motivational boosts were presented. Leaving the learner with that feeling of “Heroic” accomplishment needed to maintain behavioral change.


Trust me, by finding new methodologies outside of your academic training, you will experience jaw-dropping epiphanies!

Don’t Just Say It, Show It

Now that we’ve talked about the bones (structure) let’s get to the skin (visuals). Here’s a fundamental rule for learning design: don’t just say it, show it. Visual communication is by far your greatest weapon in the war against the dull, monotonous learning experience design.

According to a study done by the Human Oriented Technology Laboratory we form visual impressions in literally a blink of an eye.  That means it only takes a second for learners to deem something worthless and mentally bail out.

Although visual preference is, of course, totally subjective, we can rate the Hedonic Quality (attractiveness) by using some of the below terms. Ask, on a scale of 1-5, does this learning experience design feel:

  • Natural – Forced
  • Gaudy – Classy
  • Cheap – Valuable
  • Non-inclusive – Inclusive
  • Isolating – Integrating
  • Amateurish – Professional
  • Unpresentable – Presentable
  • Asymmetrical – Symmetrical
  • Unsatisfying – Pleasant
  • Chaotic – Organized
  • Messy – Clean

Let’s Retell Our Learning Experience Design Scenario with Added Appeal

Today my company announced they’re rolling out a new training program they’ve been working on with an expert in our field.  They sent out this epic teaser video which kind of felt like I was watching a trailer to an action- movie.

Intrigued and excited, I block time in my calendar so I can dive into the material when launched. In anticipation, I open the training to find … this beautiful, easy to understand lesson that was actually kind of fun. I loved it.  It was obvious the company really cares about us.


That is the power of appeal! Communicating the same information in a strategically appealing way can mean more engaged learners that ultimately retain more information, perform better, and have a positive outlook when taking on the challenge of learning something new.

I’ll Leave You With This

As of right meow, there isn’t a holy grail, one-size-fits-all solution to creating engagement in learning experience design. There are a lot of variables that come into play.

But the learning experience we create should evoke a sense of delight. We can do that through appeal.

Appeal is ultimately about putting learners in the right mental place so their brain takes in and retains as much as possible so the learning experience is as effective as possible.

Author and Designer: Greg Kozera, VP of Learning Experience Design