The Importance of Consistency


One attribute that instructional designers must consider in the design of a course is consistency. A course should be consistent in its use of background elements (e.g., format, writing style, and visual design elements). This reduces cognitive load and allows users to focus on what they need to learn.

Habituation and Learning

Imagine an Internet browser that changed its appearance every time you opened it up. The vertical scroll bar might appear on the left one day and on the right the next. The address bar might appear at the bottom instead of the top. What if Google decided to change its search rules, requiring your search to have proper spelling and capitalization in order for results to display? Such changes would be annoying and meaningless, right? You would probably stop using the browser and Google altogether and move on to a better tool.  Typical users want to open up the browser and quickly find what they want on the Internet. It may have taken some time when they were younger to learn how a browser and Google worked, but nowadays, the task can be performed by only thinking about what they want to find.  Because of habituation, you no longer think about where the address bar and scroll bar are. The same thing happens when a learner interacts with an online course. It may take some time for the learner to grow accustomed to the course’s look and feel, but the more the same look and feel is presented, the faster habituation will occur, freeing up space in working memory and allowing the more important stuff (the content) to take the stage.

In her book Design for How People Learn, Julie Dirksen (2012) makes three points:

  1. Consistency can be useful.
  2. Too much consistency is bad.
  3. Annoying variability is bad, too (p. 87).

The trick is to take advantage of the brain’s tendency for habituation: use consistency for background elements (e.g., format, writing style, and visual design elements), and variability for capturing attention and keeping the learner focused on important, meaningful material.

Examples for Consistency vs. Variability

Instead of using “the same type of feedback in the same location every single time” or having a feedback box “randomly pop up in different areas of the screen,” Dirksen (2012) recommends having different types of feedback “appropriate to the different types of content you are presenting, or to use a variety of different learning activities to keep things interesting” (p. 87).

Don’t clutter the language of the course with inconsistent usage of terms. If you name a section “Glossary,” refer to it as “Glossary.” Calling it “Terms and Definitions” later on may confuse readers and cause a loss of focus. Using language that follows standard punctuation and grammar rules prevents distraction as well. Misspellings and atypical usage can cause users to question the professionalism and trustworthiness of the course contents.

Tom Kuhlmann (2009) offers some tips for maintaining consistency in visual design elements in his Rapid E-Learning Blog. He recommends considering the impact of the visual design, using a uniform visual design related to the central theme, using matching meaningful graphics, guiding attention appropriately with contrast, and using appropriate fonts.


Dirksen, J. (2012). Design for how people learn. Berkeley, CA: New Riders.

Kuhlmann, T. (2009). 5 Common Visual Design Mistakes. Retrieved March 29, 2015, from


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