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Over the last few years, there have been numerous headlines about the human attention span getting shorter.

animated man at a desk with a laptop. Goldfish swimming on his desk and ideas are popping out of his head.

Journalists from nearly every major publication claim that we’re losing our ability to focus and that our attention spans are shorter than that of a goldfish. But if that is true, how do we explain our ability to binge on streaming sites? People get distracted after spending a few seconds on a smartphone app, yet they’re motivated to watch Breaking Bad and Stranger Things for hours on end.

The popularity of video streaming services offers an important lesson for learning and development (L&D) professionals—people are able to focus if their environment is designed to engage them. In this post, we’ll break down what makes the design of streaming services so captivating—and how L&D professionals can emulate these tactics with their own educational content.

Engagement: The learning pain point that Netflix has cracked

L&D professionals assess how engaging educational content is by measuring the length of time students spend with it. By that standard, Netflix and other streaming services have cracked the code for creating captivating content. These services excel at getting users to watch shows and movies for long periods, as seen in these staggering binge-watching stats from Deloitte:

  • 91% of Gen Zers, 86% of millennials, and 80% of Gen Xers report that they binge-watch TV shows.
  • In a single binge-watching session, millennials and Gen Xers watch an average of 7 episodes. Gen Zers, on average, watch 6 episodes in a single sitting.

While L&D professionals shouldn’t encourage binge-learning—it can create cognitive overload and lower retention—they should take inspiration from streaming sites’ captivating quality to engage their learners.

You may think that Netflix (along with Hulu, Amazon Video, and others) is able to grab users’ attention because the service is sharing entertaining rather than educational content. But engagement isn’t just about the content itself—people stay on streaming sites for hours to watch a range of TV shows—it’s also presenting the content in a way that is designed to captivate audiences.

By emulating how streaming sites present content, you can design your courses in a way that keeps viewers learning for as long as you’d like.

5 tactics from streaming sites that will captivate learners

When you accidentally watch four hours of Queer Eye, it’s not just because the hosts are hilarious. Your binging also happened because:

  • Netflix recommended the show in a personalized playlist;
  • you could watch on your iPad while walking on the treadmill; and
  • each episode automatically played, one after another.

All of these product features are geared toward keeping users engaged with the platform. Just like Netflix is designed to captivate users, you can craft your courses in a way that keeps learners focused. We’ve broken down five ways that video streaming sites grab users’ attention and tell you how you can apply these principles in your own educational content.

 

Curate content on an individual level

With so much available content online, people choose to read, watch, and listen to material that is the most relevant to their lives. A marketing associate, for example, will be more excited to watch videos about SEO tactics than about general workplace training. Why? Because the SEO videos will help them become better in their specific role.

To keep users engaged in the platform, Netflix clearly shows that their content is worth watching with personalized playlists. When you sign into the platform, it displays a series of shows or movies that you should watch based on another video that you watched. These lists might be displayed as the “Top Picks” for you, or it might be based on one movie or TV show you watched.

Netflix recommendations

When users remember how much they enjoyed the last show they watched, they’re going to feel motivated to watch similar TV programs that Netflix recommends.

Reassure learners about the value of your course by presenting personalized learning options in your learning management system (LMS), just as Netflix encourages users to watch by using customized playlists. As an administrator in your LMS, you can assign courses to individual users based on a number of factors, such as location and role. Seeing their customized learning path, users will feel confident that the courses will benefit them, and they will feel encouraged to complete the lessons.

 

Stimulate a dopamine release

Along with being personalized, educational content needs to be pleasurable to be engaging. If students enjoy completing their lessons, they’re going to come back to finish the entire course.

Viewers enjoy the escapism of watching multiple episodes on Netflix—73% of people report that binge-watching gives them positive feelings, and 76% say binge-watching is a “welcome refuge from their busy lives.”

When viewers experience these happy feelings, their brains are forming a positive association with Netflix that keeps them coming back to the platform. Clinical psychologist Dr. Renee Carr, PsyD, explains this process on NBC’s health and wellness blog, Better:

When engaged in an activity that’s enjoyable such as binge-watching, your brain produces dopamine. This chemical gives the body a natural, internal reward of pleasure that reinforces continued engagement in that activity. It is the brain’s signal that communicates to the body, ‘This feels good. You should keep doing this!’ . . . You experience a pseudo-addiction to the show because you develop cravings for dopamine.”

 

While educational content may not evoke the happy escapism of Netflix shows, you can engage learners with another dopamine-releasing tactic: gamification. Create a system that rewards students, such as allowing them to earn badges or points, every time they complete a portion of your courses. Dopamine will be released every time a student receives a reward, so they’ll feel motivated to return to the course and complete more lessons.

The LMS Litmos, for example, allows you to reward learners with badges and points for completing courses. There is even a leaderboard feature to create feelings of fun competition.

Litmos Gamification Leaderboards

Just as the escapism of shows makes Netflix enjoyable to watch, a game-like reward system will make your lessons more fun to complete. Happy with the learning process, learners will be more likely to return to your LMS and finish your courses.

 

Create a continuous flow of learning

Students’ ability to focus on your lesson depends on the number of distractions present. If you present educational content in a setting with few disruptions, learners are more likely to stay engaged with the educational content.

The same is true for viewers on video streaming sites. People binge-watch on Netflix because the platform allows them to watch TV shows without interruption. There are no commercials, and the player is automatically on full-screen to discourage users from clicking on another show or, worse, another site. When an episode finishes, Netflix will autoplay the next episode in the TV show’s season to encourage viewers to keep watching.

View next episode

Emulate this seamless viewing experience in your learning content, and students will be more likely to continue moving through lessons on your LMS:

  • Use a clean, uncluttered design for your course. When the learner begins the lesson, display the course content only without showing other aspects of the LMS or the student’s browser. Just like Netflix automatically uses a full-screen player, this minimal design discourages students from clicking away from the lesson. The language learning tool Duolingo, for example, uses a simple, white interface to display their lessons.

    duolingo tutorial

  • Direct students to the next lesson. Feature clearly labeled CTA buttons in your lessons that encourage learners to move to the next part of the course.

  • Limit the number of educational content learners can consume. If you successfully make your course seamless to complete, there’s a good chance that students may binge on your courses. Completing so many lessons at once can lower retention, so it’s best to set a cap on your educational content to avoid binging. For example, an HR training leader might limit employees to three modules per day.

Just as Netflix removes interruptions from their shows, minimize disruptions in your courses to keep students focused and engaged in your lesson.

 

Offer a high-quality viewing experience on every device

Because portable devices are so convenient to use, people are much more likely to engage with your content if it’s mobile-optimized. In a Merrill Lynch survey, smartphone users were able to complete training 45% faster than computer users, and their test scores were comparable to computer users.

Though most Netflix users watch content on a TV, the service’s device-friendliness still attracts a significant number of users to the platform. Recode reports that 20% of viewing hours across Netflix’s global user base happens through a phone or tablet.

Users enjoy watching Netflix on their devices because the platform is successfully optimized for mobile. For example, the platform uses machine learning to detect the differences between devices and make necessary adjustments to provide the best possible viewing experience. This reliability encourages users to watch shows on Netflix, even if they’re limited to a portable device.

Likewise, L&D professionals should use an LMS that offers a high-quality mobile experience to attract students. Evaluate your LMS’s mobile experience with this checklist:

  • Assess the navigation. Is the layout of the LMS intuitive on all devices?
  • Watch a video on the LMS. Are the dimensions properly reconfigured for each device?
  • Pay attention to loading speeds. Does the LMS load as fast on mobile devices as it does on a computer?

If you find that the LMS offers a low-quality mobile experience, consider switching to new software. People are eager to use their mobile devices to complete learning courses. Keep these students engaged by presenting your lessons through a high-quality, mobile-optimized LMS.

 

Make your content highly interactive

Anyone who has worked in L&D already knows that interactivity in learning is essential—it grabs your learners’ attention by forcing them to stop and actively engage with your lesson.

Netflix’s recent programming reinforces this idea. The streaming service recently created interactive shows—Black Mirror’s “Bandersnatch” episode, You vs. Wild—that allow viewers to influence how the program’s story unfolds. Bandersnatch garnered so much attention and attracted so many viewers that Netflix’s VP of Product stated that the service would be doubling down on interactive content.

Seeing how these shows captivated viewers, L&D professionals should aim to make their courses as interactive as possible to engage learners. Consider these three levels of interactivity from eLearning software provider Articulate to understand how far you can go to create active learning content:

  • Basic: Learners move through courses by clicking a simple “Next” button, and quizzes are limited to multiple-choice and true-or-false questions.
  • Intermediate: Courses include “click and reveal” interactions, and quizzes include drag-and-drop and matching activities.
  • Advanced: Courses feature many interactive media elements—such as interactive infographics and videos—and quizzes include branched scenarios where learners follow a certain path based on their answers.

While you may not always have the resources to reach the advanced level, aim to include as much interactivity as possible to grab learners’ attention and keep them focused on your lessons.

Design your courses to be as captivating as Netflix

When learners aren’t engaging with your courses, a short attention span isn’t to blame. The popularity of binge-watching reminds us that people are able to engage with content for a sustained period. Their ability to focus depends on whether the content is presented in an attention-grabbing way, as Netflix content is.

If learners tend to lose focus during your courses, it’s time to reevaluate your lesson design by using the principles in this post. While you don’t want students binging on your educational content, applying these streaming service tactics can help you gain control over your ability to engage your audience and ensure that they’re fully completing your courses.

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