Visual design in software simulations


Planning the visual design of software simulations is an important step. Not only is visual design crucial for making a software simulation look professional, it is also functional. Good visual design focuses the learner’s attention on key areas of the software screen. This avoids learner frustration of getting lost on a screen due to not knowing which parts to attend to.

You can focus a learners attention on an aspect of a screen through several methods. You can grey out or blur the parts of the screen that are not the focus. This helps to limit information so the learners are focused on particular parts of the screen yet they don’t lose the overall context.

PNG grey screen

You can also use call out boxes that point to the relevant part of the screen, mouse movement to direct attention, zoom in and out, or simply highlight the area you want the learner to attend to.


It’s possible not all of these methods will be available to you on your screen capture tool. The important thing is to choose a couple of methods and then use them consistently in your software simulation. By being consistent in your visual design the patterns will become predictable for the learner. They can then focus on learning the content rather than working out how the software simulation works.

You can also use different tools to blend the visual design. For example, I have used Adobe Captivate 7 with images modified in Snagit to create a nice greyed out effect. Using both of these tools together created an effective visual effect that was quick and easy to produce.

Be consistent in your visual design by using the same colour themes and techniques throughout your software simulations. If you are doing several simulations on a software system, use the same visual design through in all of them so it’s predictable for the learner and easy to follow.

If you liked this post, you may also find these other posts useful:

5 things to avoid when creating software simulations

Software simulations – is it all button pushing?

Software simulations – is it all button pushing?

Confused Woman Viewing Computer Monitor

A typical software simulation gives a learner practice and experience using the software by entering dummy information and clicking buttons in a safe environment. This is invaluable in helping learners become familiar with the software and understanding how it operates.

However, what a typical software simulation doesn’t do is provide context for why, how, and when the software should be used. Context is where thought is given to how the software will be used in different situations, rather than just learning how the software operates.  Practicing scenarios of how to use the software in realistic situations, such as, customer interactions, will provide context. Learning software in context can make the difference between successful software implementation and failure.

Story telling is a great way of providing context and makes learning more memorable. Stories can be embedded in software simulations so they aren’t just about button pushing. They will give real life context of how features of the software will be used. Here is an example of story telling by embedding a scenario in a software simulation:

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Some software simulations are better suited to being a blend of elearning methods. For example, as well as having screen captures, incorporating animations and audio to tell stories about why, how and when to use features of the system.

To learn new software you need to be able to do more than button push and enter information. First you need to know why you’re using the software and be motivated to use it! Then you need to know how to use it in real life situations.

Please share your thoughts and let me know if there was something useful for you in this post.

5 things to avoid when creating software simulations


Simulations are a great way to learn new computer software. There are many different ways to design software simulations. Here are some things to avoid so your simulations are to the point and your learners stay awake!

1.  Avoid making your learner do everything

All computer systems have intuitive parts where it is obvious what to enter. Avoid making your learner do everything and explaining the intuitive parts of the system. If it is obvious how and what to enter in a field then complete this part for the learner. You can show the intuitive parts of the system being completed by:  having a video of the information being entered, or fading in data entered in text boxes.

2.  Avoid too much info

As with any learning too much unnecessary nice to know information will detract from the necessary need to know information. For example, if the system has a search box – you don’t need to tell the learners basic information such as, “you need to search more than two letters to return a search result”. They will find this out themselves using the system.

3.  Avoid training for error messages

Sometimes error messages are built into software systems to tell the learners what they should or shouldn’t do.  You do not need to pre-prompt error messages by telling the learners about them. They will figure them out the first time they receive the error message (as long as it’s in plain english of course).

4.  Avoid focusing on data entry

Avoid getting the learner to do data entry in text boxes. Unless the learning objective is on data entry and accuracy there should be no need to force the learner to enter information in a text box letter for letter. Focusing on accurate data entry will distract from the main learning focus. Also, let learners progress if they enter data wrong. Stopping them from progressing creates barriers and could cause frustration.

5.  Avoid making the simulation too long

Today is a fast paced world where people require their information and learning fast! The above tips will help you avoid making the simulation too long. Another thing you can do is break the system simulations into small topics. Learners can then quickly choose what topic they need from a list of multiple simulations. A good length to aim for is 1-4 minutes. If your simulations are longer, look at how you can break them up into smaller topics.

What else do you think we should avoid in simulations to keep the learner alert?

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