Can we use scenarios to teach concepts?

Here at action mapping central, we’re all about scenarios — realistic activities that help people practice what they need to do on the job.

“That’s all fine,” some people say. “But people need to be taught basic concepts before they can apply them. You can’t just throw people into an activity without first teaching them the concepts.”

I say that yes, we can throw them into an activity that requires knowledge that they don’t yet have. The trick is to make that knowledge available for them to draw on as they need it.

Here’s a basic example.

Measuring tape

Add fractions without knowing how to add fractions

Let’s consider the plight of people in the US, the land of feet and inches. When calculating building supplies, Americans often need to add fractions.

Our learners are American construction workers or similar people who often need to figure out the total length of two boards. We’re designing elearning.

A lot of designers would say, “First we need to show them a video on how to add fractions. Then we need to provide an example in which Pablo the friendly foreman adds the length of two different boards and explains step by step how he does it. Then we’ll let the learners do it with two other boards. This is tell, show, do, which everyone knows is the best way to teach.”

Let’s try it a different way. Let’s make me one of the learners. Math was not my best subject.

  • I’m plunged into an activity that requires me to figure out the total length of a 5-foot, 2 1/2″ board plus a 3-foot, 4 3/8″ board. I’m trying to determine if I can put them end-to-end to get the length required for my porch deck. I realize I have no clue how to calculate the total length.
  • I click the optional link called “How to add fractions.” I see a quick tutorial on how to do it in general. If I had remembered anything from math class, this tutorial probably would have been enough for me.
  • I apply what I learned in the tutorial to the problem, but I’m not sure I’m doing it right. The answer I got is one of the options, but something seems wrong about it.
  • I click the other link, called “See how to solve it.” This shows me the first step to solving the problem and then displays a “Next” link, giving me the option to see the next step. When I click “Next,” I see the next step, and I finally understand what I need to do. I go back to the problem and solve it. If I didn’t get it after seeing the first two steps, I could have kept clicking until I saw all the steps and the actual solution.
  • The course also offers a downloadable, printable job aid that includes a quick reminder of how to add fractions, so I can look at it on the job.

​This is a very different way of “teaching” stuff. Its advantage over “tell, show, do” is that it puts control in the learner’s hands. People who already know how to add fractions simply complete the activity and move along quickly, while people like me who don’t know the method stop, learn it, and then apply it.

​Since this is self-paced elearning, we could adapt it to the learner. If someone views the support materials before solving the first fraction-adding problem, we schedule another fraction-adding problem for them (and maybe another and another, depending on how they seem to perform). In contrast, the people who solve the first problem without help move on immediately to a different type of activity, because they’ve shown that they can already add fractions.

The advantages

Each person gauges for themselves how much they know, seeing and filling their own knowledge gaps. Everyone goes at their own pace, digging deep into the how-to material or skipping it. No one has to sit through a presentation about stuff they already know.

And, importantly, the designer shows that they respect the learners as functioning adults with life experience. For a lot more about that, see the recording of our recent webinar on motivation.

For research that supports this approach, see my post Throw them in the deep end and the FAQ Where’s the research support for scenarios?

Scenario design course: Seats still available

There are still seats available in the scenario design course that starts on Feb. 6. Learn to design scenarios by designing scenarios, with personal feedback from me. Sign up here.

Vote for topics

What do you want to hear about in this blog or future webinars? Enter your own ideas and vote on others’ here. To add an idea, click “Give feedback.”

Photo credit: lungstruck Flickr via Compfight cc; cropped

Video: 3 ways to motivate

How can we help learners feel autonomy, competence, and relatedness? Here’s a video of the webinar I recently ran on that topic, plus a summary of what we talked about.

Training design: 3 ways to motivate learners from Cathy Moore on Vimeo.

It’s all about self-determination

According to self-determination theory, when people are externally motivated, they simply obey someone else’s rules (“I do it because the boss is watching”). They might feel resentment or anxiety, and they probably perform the behavior just well enough to stay out of trouble.

Our goal as trainers is to get people to adopt the new behavior as their own and perform it willingly and well — we want them to become more internally motivated.

Research seems to support the idea that people are more likely to become internally motivated if we support their needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. (For a lot more on that, see this PDF overview.)

Sample activities

To see what that might look like in activity design, we looked at a simple compliance activity and these two branching scenarios:

The activities we looked at don’t make you sit through an information presentation. You’re just plunged into each activity, as described in this blog post.

We focused on self-paced activities rather than all types of training because the activities are easiest to show on a screen during a webinar, and our time was limited. However, the concepts we discussed also apply to other formats and materials, including job aids and live training.

Autonomy

We took a quote from the paper to define autonomy as “a sense of choice, volition, and freedom from excessive external pressure toward behaving or thinking a certain way.”

When talking about practice activities, we could consider autonomy at two levels. The first, shallow level is user choice: “Now I will click this other thing in this boring click-to-reveal.” The second and more interesting is a deeper sense of freedom from feeling like someone is telling us what to think.

See the video for the lively discussion among participants about how well the sample activities supported that deeper sense of autonomy. We then summed up our recommendations as a group.

We decided we could do the following to support autonomy in self-paced activities.

  • Offer relevant scenarios with authentic choices
  • Offer optional, on-demand resources rather than assuming ignorance and forcing people to sit through presentations
  • Let people take risks
  • Show the consequence of each choice by continuing the story and letting people draw conclusions, rather than telling them, “Incorrect, blah blah blah” (see this blog post for an example)
  • Provide a clear goal for the person to achieve in the activity (beat the competition to the news story; help Hana) so they see a compelling reason to complete it

Competence

We considered three aspects of competence:

  • “I can do this!”
  • “Oops, I screwed up here, but I see how to fix it.”
  • “I’ve got the basics now. Give me something harder.”

After gauging how well the sample activities supported our need for competence, we summed up our recommendations:

  • Use scaffolding — for example, start with easier activities and then build on them
  • Show the consequence of the choice and offer constructive feedback, not the shaming red X and “Incorrect”
  • Don’t offer too-obvious options in a scenario — they insult people’s intelligence
  • Don’t obviously track people — it suggests, “We don’t trust you to learn anything”

I’d add that an intuitive interface also supports our need to feel competent, as do easy-to-use job aids and other support materials.

Relatedness

Finally, we looked at the need for relatedness. This was defined as a sense of belonging or connection with others, and feeling respected and cared for by the “teacher.”

The compliance-style activity was a little low on relatedness. However, even it managed to make us care a bit because we were trying to save a person with a name (Magda) rather than answering an abstract fact check.

The branching scenarios were rich in relatedness, and participants said they wanted to help Hana and didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of Ludo. We cared how our decisions affected people who we knew were completely fictional.

We decided that to support relatedness in our activities, we could:

  • Provide realistic characters with names
  • Create characters that aren’t perfect
  • Choose relatable situations that inspire empathy and that have emotional content
  • Have the learner collaborate with characters towards a goal
  • Choose a story that has the learner help others or be helped (or both)
  • Write realistic dialog (see some tips)

Relatable characters have names. Running out of name ideas? Try FakeNameGenerator, which creates names from all over the world (thanks, Amy, for finding that!). Another is uinames.com.

I’d also add that we can build relatedness by writing like a human being rather than a bureaucrat. You can even measure how human you sound, and contractions are your friend.

My thanks go out to all the participants, including the determined few in Australia who got up at 4 AM! Thanks for sharing your ideas, comments, and questions.

Scenario design course starts soon

If you like the discussion-rich approach I used in the webinar, you’ll like the scenario design course that starts in February. The groups are much smaller for more personal attention, and you get my private feedback on your work. Check it out!

Webinar: 3 ways to motivate learners

Let’s talk about motivation in a quick webinar on Tuesday, January 16. How can we help people feel respected, capable, and part of a community when they’re using our materials?

Three ingredients for motivation

unmotivated catOur job is to change what people do. However, we don’t want them to obey like robots — we want them to see why they should do it and happily incorporate the new behavior into their lives.

Research suggests that people are more motivated to do something if we satisfy their needs for autonomy, competence, and relatedness. How can we support those with some simple changes to our training design?

Join our 45-minute online discussion

Let’s get together online on Tuesday, January 16, to talk about how our activity design can help or hurt people’s willingness to act. We’ll meet for free at 12 PM EST / 5 PM GMT using Zoom, which requires you to download a small app. Sign up here (seats are limited).

In 45 lively minutes, we’ll look at elements such as:

  • Feedback: Avoid “telling” and preachiness — let them feel respected and capable of drawing the right conclusion; create relatedness by sounding like a friendly peer (here’s an example)
  • Information: Let people pull the information they need, when they need it; use scaffolding to increase difficulty — support their autonomy, let them build competence at their pace
  • “Voice” in elearning — How can we make lonely, self-paced activities feel more “human” to help people feel relatedness?

Come share your questions and ideas! This will be a discussion with lots of activity in the chat.

Check out these activities

Before the webinar, try the following activities and consider how they might help or hurt people’s sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. What works, and what doesn’t?

Consider submitting an activity or idea

Do you have some materials that could inspire discussion about motivation? Do you know about a public example that we could critique? Send them to me and maybe we’ll include them in the webinar. Obviously, you need to have permission to publicly show any materials that you send.

Maybe learn a bit about self-determination theory

The webinar is based on self-determination theory, which has been around for some time and appears to be supported by several studies. You might read this overview (PDF).

Can’t make the webinar?

Digital elves will be recording the session, and if they do their job right, I’ll post the recording on the blog. If you’re a blog subscriber, you’ll get a notification when the recording is available.

Vote for more topics

What would you like to talk about in future webinars or read about on the blog? Vote for others’ ideas or propose your own here. To add an idea, use the “Give feedback” button.

Dig deeper into activity design with the February scenario design course

The next scenario design course starts the week of Feb. 5. In four weeks of lively sessions, you’ll apply action mapping and scenario design to a project from your job and get personal feedback from me. There are online sessions for time zones in the Americas as well as Europe and South Asia. Check them out!

An Australia-friendly session of the course is tentatively scheduled for June. If you aren’t already on the alert list, sign up to be notified when the next course is open for registration.

Image credit: Unmotivated cat by katkabob

Action mapping book now available

action mapping bookMap ItMy new book, Map It, is now available in print and Kindle from Amazon sites around the world. Learn more here.

The book walks you through action mapping in way more depth than I’ve been able to use in this blog. You get 418 pages of detailed how-tos, examples, and even scripts for specific things to say (and not say!) to your client. Plus, of course, some gentle snark.

It’s all written with Cathy’s characteristic dry wit and humour and with a running story of a couple of learning developers in content hell. It’s as entertaining as it is informative. — Norman Lamont’s review

Free stuff

You can read a big chunk of the book for free on Amazon by using the “look inside” feature.

You can also download some action mapping job aids and see activity examples that relate to specific chapters in the book.

Lessons learned

In the interests of working out loud, here are some advantages I enjoyed from writing a book instead of, say, a series of blog posts.

  • Freedom to dig deep: I enjoyed having the room to write in depth. When you create blog posts, course modules, or those other quick snacks we’re expected to produce, you can feel pressured to simplify too much and smooth over too many rough edges. Expectations for a book are different. For example, I was able to dig way deeper into client management and problem analysis than I’ve been able to go in my other materials.
  • Freedom to take risks: In the book I felt freer to say things that could irk some people, because those statements are surrounded by a ton of context. A blog post or slide in a presentation is easier to misinterpret.
  • Freedom from a publisher: Some years ago, I sold a non-fiction manuscript to a publisher and it was turned into a book in the usual way. I also wrote a lot for trade magazines. These weren’t terrible experiences, but there was no doubt I’d be publishing this book on my own. I wanted to use my natural voice, which in my experience publishers want to tone down, and I wanted to make sure that the marketing fit my brand, not theirs. This meant that I had to learn about book publishing, but it wasn’t too painful. (Interested in publishing your own book? Patti Shank has been presenting on this and sharing resources, as well as publishing useful books for learning designers.)

I also confirmed a couple of lessons.

  • Reinforce the base before you add any more weight: The book was late in part because I needed to overhaul how I process the many emails I receive. I knew that a book would inspire more emails, and I was already unable to deal with the current amount. This required experimentation with several solutions and policies.
  • Seek professional help: I wanted to focus on writing, not production. So I hired this excellent book formatter to create custom Kindle and print designs, and this professional, responsive cover designer to make the outsides pretty. They both have far more skill than I could ever develop and left me free to write. (That’s one reason why I say that instructional designers should analyze and design, and someone else should produce the materials.)

Thanks, everyone, for your patience while the book slowly crawled out onto the market. I hope you find it useful.

New action mapping job aids available

Action mapping job aidNew, prettier job aids for action mapping are now available for free download. They include:

  • Overviews of action mapping
  • The “Will Training Help?” flowchart, new and improved
  • A “Job Aid or Memorization?” mini-flowchart to help your SME see that people don’t need to memorize everything

The job aids are designed to accompany my new book, which is now available on Kindle. The print version will be available in mid-October through Amazon in many countries.

Finally, there are still some seats available in the scenario design course that starts October 4. In four weeks of sessions, you’ll apply action mapping and scenario design to a project from your job.

There are online sessions for time zones in the Americas as well as Europe, the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. Check them out!

How to get everyone to write like Ernest Hemingway

Probably everyone on your team agrees that elearning should be concise and lively. But does everyone agree on what “concise and lively” looks like? Here’s one way to get everyone on the same stylistic page.

Quantify, quantify

When we talk about writing style, we can get bogged down in personal preferences that are hard to communicate. But if we use readability statistics to quantify style, it’s easier to guide writers.

I’m not talking about the nearly useless “ninth-grade reading level” requirement in your corporate style guide. Instead, let’s look at the Reading Ease measurement that’s part of Word’s readability check. It’s a much more practical guide, especially if you compare your score with that of familiar publications.

Reading ease scores of several publications

What does this chart tell us?

Want to be popular? Aim for a high score.

The highest-circulation magazines tend to have the highest readability scores. Coincidence? I think not!

Instructions can be short and lively

I included Better Homes and Gardens and Family Handyman because they cover a lot of the same territory that elearning does: they motivate you to make a change and tell you how to do it. They also manage to get a high readability score while using terms like “oakleaf hydrangea” and “personalized wrench.”

What score should you aim for?

Many plain-English advocates suggest aiming for a score in the 60s, and that’s my preference, too (this blog post gets a 63). I’ll settle for the 50s if necessary.

Unfortunately, a lot of elearning ends up in the 40-something “Suits” category, thanks to corporate drone.

De-drone to improve your score and motivate learners

The reading ease formula considers sentence length and the number of syllables in words, so short sentences with short words score better. But changing your style to get a higher score can also have a profound effect on how the reader feels about you. Here’s an example.

Before

It is expected that all employees will strive to achieve the highest standards of customer service, as service excellence is a competitive differentiator in the market and improving customer service is key to the Firm’s strength as a business. To that end, this course demonstrates the six-step Customer Delightification process which…

After

Our competition does a pretty good job of customer service. But soon they’ll find out that “pretty good” isn’t good enough, because we’re going to do better. This course will give you …

What happened?

We stopped talking around the issue and stated it directly, the way our CEO might say it. And by using “we” and “you,” we made clear that we’re human beings in a conversation, not robots issuing edicts. These changes also improved our reading ease score by a bajillion percent.

Quick ways to increase your score and sound like a human being

  • Say “you” and “we.”
  • Cut 98% of adjectives and adverbs.
  • Write active sentences that make clear who does what.
  • Use strong verbs instead of wimpy “is.”
  • Look for tacked-on clauses (“blah blah, which…” “blah blah, because…”). Turn them into standalone sentences.

How to check your score in Word

The readability check is part of Word’s spelling and grammar check. So, check your spelling. If you don’t see a window with readability statistics, you need to turn on the feature:

  1. Open Options and then Proofing.
  2. Find the section titled “When correcting spelling and grammar…”
  3. Check the box next to “Show readability statistics.”
  4. Check your spelling. You should see the readability results.

Be sure to check a big chunk of text–500 words or more. Short snippets give unreliable results.

Check both on-screen text and narration scripts. All the text associated with your material should be concise, easy to understand, and direct. A lot of narration sounds dull and de-motivating because it’s coming from the “Suits” category.

Why not use grade level?

  1. Grade-level statistics have too much baggage. People worry about offending their audience by writing “below” their educational level. For example, a stakeholder could say, “Our learners all finished college. Therefore, we should write at grade 16. Writing lower than that dumbs down the material.” Using the reading ease score and keeping the conversation focused on magazines read by adults avoids these issues.
  2. Grade levels aren’t global. “Seventh grade” means different things in different cultures, while the reading ease score isn’t tied to the US educational system. You can really localize the process by determining the reading ease scores of local magazines and comparing your materials to them.

For way more about this topic, including research and how-to guides, see Writing for the Web and Patti Shank’s 2017 book, Write and Organize for Deeper Learning.

How to respond to “Make one course for everyone”

“I’ve got a great idea!” says the new employee at Acme Tea Company. “Some people like iced tea. Other people like hot tea. Let’s make everyone happy by selling room-temperature tea!”

The L&D equivalent sounds like this:

  • “Everyone needs to be aware of this, so put a course on the LMS and assign it to all employees.”
  • “Make a course about the new product features for the repair people, help desk, and sales staff.”
  • “Everyone should treat patients with respect, so let’s create a workshop for all staff.”

The result? A bland, room-temperature information dump that everyone quickly forgets. Here’s how to get your client to take a more effective approach.

1. Solve a problem. Don’t just deliver information.

Group of iconic people being subjected to an information dumpOur clients often expect us to install information in people’s heads. Instead, we need to ask the right questions to uncover the problem that the information will supposedly solve.

Take charge of the conversation from the first contact with the client. What problem are they trying to solve? What do they need people to do? Why aren’t people doing it?

You might discover that information alone really would solve the problem. In that case, you probably don’t need a course or workshop. How about some easy-to-use job aids and some motivating messages from leadership?

If the client wants everyone to be “aware,” try these tips.

2. Segment the audience by what they do on the job.

Repair staff need to troubleshoot misbehaving widgets. Sales staff need to match the right widget to the customer’s needs. Giving them both a generic presentation on new widget features will help neither of them.

Consider creating at least one persona to represent each segment. A persona is a fictional but realistic character with a name, age, interests, and everything else that makes a person real. Consider what that person needs as you design solutions.

Does Betty the widget salesperson need to reassure people about the heat generated by the new widget? How can we help her do that?

Will David the widget repair person be tempted to misdiagnose a wobble in the new widget because the feet are designed differently? How can we help him avoid that mistake?

Some people use “persona” to mean “weird-looking avatar character that annoys the heck out of me in elearning” (or maybe that’s my own definition). I’m using “persona” in the marketing and usability sense. I’m not saying, “Put Betty and David in your materials.”

3. Focus on designing activities, not information.

Now that you’ve segmented people by what they need to do, help them practice doing it.

Create unique activities that let people pull the information they need to solve a realistic problem that’s specific to their job. These activities will be different because your segments have different jobs with different challenges.

For example, a technician drawing blood has one type of interaction with a patient, while a nutritionist providing advice has a different type. What does “respect” look like in each case? How can each person practice saying and doing respectful things?

If you’re packaging your activities as one online course, you can have each person choose their job role and send them on different paths. However, a one-shot course is rarely the best solution to a problem. For example, you could consider offering a bank of activities so people can practice on demand, over time — and that’s just one example of many possibilities.

Here’s one fictional example of the activity-first approach that avoids a generic information dump.

The core problem: “Training is knowledge transfer”

Our learners aren’t in school, preparing for a test. They’re in jobs that require them to do things. They often need practice, not just information.

However, many clients (and too often, our bosses and instructional design professors) assume that our job is to install information into people’s heads. We’re supposed to get the information in there and then test to make sure it survived a few minutes in short-term memory.

We can change that perspective by politely but relentlessly turning the conversation to the performance problem that needs to be solved, not the information that people supposedly need. Here’s an interaction that summarizes the action mapping workflow.

Get more tips from my mini-expert system

This interactive tool asks you five questions about your training project and provides custom advice, thanks to the power of variables in Twine.

If you have a performance problem that could be improved with information and advice, you might use Twine or a similar tool to answer the common questions.


Scenario design course starts in October

To apply this approach to a project from your job, consider signing up for my live scenario design course, which starts in October.

How to really involve learners

Creating an online course? I’ll bet the autopilot in your brain is saying this: “First, present the basic concepts. Next, tell them the details. Then, show them what to do. Finally, have them do it.”

Pull the plug on that autopilot and consider doing this instead.

  1. Create a challenging, realistic practice activity (not a knowledge check). The activity asks people to make the same decision that they need to make on the job. It’s probably a scenario.
  2. Identify the minimum that people need to know to complete that activity.
  3. Make that information available as an optional link in the activity. Let people pull the information when they need it.
  4. Plunge people into that activity with no presentation beforehand.
  5. Once people make their choice, consider showing the necessary information in the feedback. First show the consequence of the choice (continue the story). Then show the information that the learner should have looked at. This will satisfy the stakeholder who says, “But they all have to be exposed to the information!” Here’s a basic example.
  6. Repeat as needed.

The result is a stream of activities in which learners pull the information they need. It’s not a presentation occasionally interrupted by an activity.

Aim for a stream of activities

Use scaffolding to ease them into the challenge

With careful design, this approach works with all types of information, including basic concepts, mental models, step-by-step procedures, and detailed product specifications. The trick is to start with an easy-ish but still interesting activity and increase the challenge.

For example, if you want people practice a procedure that requires some tricky judgment calls, your optional information could include the procedure itself, tips on how to complete each step, and worked examples of the trickier steps, such as showing what a fictional person thought as they made their decisions for that step.

However, you don’t dump all this information on people at once. The information available depends on the step that the learner is completing. Your first activity could have them complete an easier step with just the procedure document and some tips, and as the activities progress, the decisions become harder and the optional help focuses on the trickier steps, with worked examples.

Make sure you say clearly and often that no one is tracking what people click. Encourage them to try all sorts of options to see what happens.

This online chapter from Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey’s book Guided Instruction gives a helpful overview of the technique, although the classroom example at the end isn’t the type of scaffolding that I’m describing.

Use the real-world job aid

If people can look at a reference on the job, have them use the same reference in your practice activities. Their learning is more likely to transfer to the job, and you save yourself the hassle of recreating the job aid.

If people need to memorize some information, ask yourself, “If they apply the information in several activities, will they end up memorizing it?” If the answer is “no,” this is probably the only argument for drills that I’ll ever make: You might link to a gamelike drill to get the information into their memory, and be sure to provide spaced practice.

Give them spaced practice

Instead of packaging all the activities as a take-it-and-forget-it course, consider delivering them spaced over time, such as one activity every few days. Research shows we learn better when we practice over time.

You can space your activities because each activity is self-contained — it links to the information needed to complete it, rather than being embedded in the middle of a presentation.

If you’ve made the activities get progressively more complex, you’ll want to maintain their sequence during the spacing. Consider ending the sequence with a live discussion to help people synthesize what they’ve learned.

Calendar showing spaced practice and discussion

Another option is to make the activities available for people to try whenever they want, probably with a recommended order of completion.

You will be a hero

Letting people pull the information they need has these happy results:

  • They’re grateful that you respect them as adults with life experience, instead of assuming they’re all equally ignorant.
  • You help them develop a motivating sense of mastery.
  • No one will have to sit through information that they don’t need. The only people who will look at the information will be the ones who need to see it.
  • Research into productive failure suggests people learn better when they struggle a bit, which is why we should jettison the genies and let people think for themselves.

You’ll find several more reasons in this post.

“Turn this information into a course” is not your job

Finally, you’re designing activities because you analyzed the performance problem and saw that practice will help.

If you involved your stakeholders in this analysis (as you should!), they’ll no longer obsess over presenting and testing knowledge. Instead, they’ll commit to changing what people do.

I write about this a lot because it goes against “the way we’ve always done it,” which still dominates our field. Here’s a walkthrough showing how to do this in more detail for people who diagnose squealing widgets. This example shows how you might do this for soft skills. If you’re doing technical training, focus on what they need to do. Finally, here’s an interactive workflow of the entire process.


Scenario design course starts in May

For a lot more on helping people learn through scenarios, consider signing up for my scenario design course, which starts in May. The sessions include one in an Australia-friendly time zone.

What’s the real cost of eye candy?

When you’re designing a practice activity, such as a mini-scenario, your time and money are limited. So what should you prioritize?

A stakeholder might insist you create lots of graphics, also known as “eye candy.” However, making those images cuts into the time you need to design a challenging activity.

The cost of eye candy is often a too-easy activity. When I’m cranky, I’d say a lot of elearning suffers from this. It’s strong for the eyes but weak for the brain.

What would happen if we invested less in eye candy and more in designing deep challenges? Would this really bring about the apocalypse, as some stakeholders appear to think?

Let’s compare two activities

I created two activities to help instructional designers practice the initial conversation with their client. The goal is to steer the conversation away from “Make me a course” and toward “Help me solve this performance problem.” What happened when I spent hours creating graphics for one of the activities?

Activity 1: Graphics and slides ate my brain

I made this first activity many years ago using Keynote (like PowerPoint) and converting it to HTML5. The process was similar to using a slide-based tool.

Give it some time to load; it’s old and a little stiff. If you’re reading this in email or a feed reader, you may need to go to the blog site.

 
This is a weak activity. It’s way too easy and shallow. It was also a pain to build, requiring a separate flowchart to keep track of the branching. I’m embarrassed to say that it took me six hours to write and produce this, even though it has only six decision points. You can read more about the development in the original blog post.

Activity 2: Just one photo and lots more brain

Here’s the same type of conversation, but developed with just one photo and lots more branching. Can you win the client and avoid an information dump? Click the image to play the activity.

Screenshot of scenario-based training for instructional designers

I spent eight hours writing and producing this, two hours more than I spent developing the much simpler scenario. The simpler scenario has only six decision points and can be clicked through in seconds. This activity has 57 decision points, requires actual thought, and encourages exploration.

I saved time by using a tool that makes it easy to manage branches and that combines writing and production (I first used BranchTrack and then switched to Twine for more control over the look and feel).

Another big savings came from not searching for multiple images showing Ann and Luis with subtly different expressions. Since many stock photos show overacted expressions, I probably would have ended up doing a custom photo shoot with some friends, cutting drastically into my design time and spending others’ time as well. However, for the type of discussion in the scenario, seeing every eyebrow twitch isn’t necessary, so photos aren’t necessary.

It’s not just the tool, it’s the priorities.

Using the right tool definitely helped — it was far easier to manage the branching in Twine.

However, for the second activity, I also decided that I didn’t need to find multiple photos, create an order-taker meter, and strain my limited graphic design skills to arrange everything on the slide. I quickly found one stock photo, lightened it a bit, and spent the rest of my time writing a more subtle, realistic challenge.

Test it on your learners!

You might be thinking, “But everyone expects our stuff to look snazzy!” Maybe they’re used to bling, but they could discover that they prefer more substance.

Try testing a subtle, text-only decision-making activity on some learners. Maybe try a branching scenario that requires them to deal with an employee called Bob, whose “Just kidding!” snarky comments are inspiring complaints, but don’t include photos of Bob or anyone else. If it’s a strong activity, people will immediately dig into it, chasing after the best ending. When they’re done, ask them, “Do you care that you never saw a photo of Bob?”

I do that in my scenario design course. I send participants to a downright ugly text-only scenario without any preparation. When they come back to the discussion, they want to talk about the ending they got. When I ask if they cared that there was no picture of the person in the story, almost everyone says they didn’t care. They were too interested in solving the problem. They easily imagined the person, and some say that a picture would actually interfere.

I’ve seen it work.

I’ve also seen this work in the field, with cross-cultural training in the US Army. You might be familiar with the graphically rich Haji Kamal activity. That was one part of a large project. We also developed several other branching scenarios that were just text printed on paper, with directions like “Turn to page 9” next to an option. The paper scenarios were popular with the same demographic, at one point inspiring so much discussion that the bell rang to end class and they didn’t want to leave.

So before you believe “They’ll reject it if it doesn’t have slick graphics!” test a strong text-only scenario on your learners.

Photos can add problems

Unnecessary photos of people can even create problems. Each person in a photo is a specific race, age, and gender, which someone might interpret in ways we don’t intend. Each person is wearing clothes that can quickly look dated or are too culturally specific. I’ve heard that many stock photos look “too American.”

What I’m not saying

I’m not saying, “Lots of eye candy is a sign of a fluffy activity” or “Lack of eye candy is a sign of a challenging activity.” I’m saying that we all have a limited budget of time and money. The amount of that budget that we spend on bling takes away from what we could spend on writing challenging, subtle activities.

Also, obviously, some activities absolutely require graphics, such as questions like, “Which end of this widget needs realignment?” And more emotionally-rich scenarios need real photos of people with subtle expressions or even video, because in the real world we’d base our decisions partly on the emotion that people seem to be expressing.

I’m also not talking about information presentations, which can easily require graphics. I’m talking about practice activities that require people to make realistic decisions, which I think should be the bulk of what we create, once we’ve determined that training is really the solution.

What do you think? Are you pressured to include more eye candy than you think is useful? Have you tested a text-only practice activity? Let us know in the comments.

Meeting room photo by Complete Interior Design via Compfight cc


Scenario design courses open for registration

Get the most from action mapping and learn to design challenging activities in my live, online course. You’ll build skills that will help you create challenging, realistic mini-scenarios and branching scenarios, and you’ll immediately apply what you’re learning to a real project on your job.

Sessions are scheduled for many time zones, including Australia and New Zealand. The course tends to sell out, so you might check it out now so you don’t miss out.

5 ways to become an L&D hero

It’s time for New Year’s resolutions! How about this one?

“I vow to become a hero to my learners and clients. I’ll save them from boring information dumps and wasted money. I’ll help them enjoy their jobs and see real-world improvement. I’ll save the world from boring training!”

Office worker opens shirt to reveal Superman logoWithout clear steps, our “Become a hero!” resolution could end up on the same dusty shelf as “Lose weight.” So here are some steps to take you to heroic status. (As always, I’m talking to training designers in the business world, not education.)

1. Redefine your job in your head. Our job is to change what people do, not just what they know. We need to design experiences, not information. Design practice, not a quiz.

2. Redefine your job in the real world. Make clear that your goal is new behavior, not a score on a knowledge test. Posts that might help:

Since many clients think at first that they want a score on a test, you also have to make clear that you’re a problem solver, not an order taker. You might get ideas from these posts:

If you’re a freelancer, take a critical look at your marketing. Is your overall message “I create courses for you,” or is it “I solve your performance problems?” Attracting the right clients makes being a hero a lot easier.

If you’re an employee, does your organization treat you as a developer, or as a consultant? If you’re in the “developer” slot, is there a more consultative role you can move into? If no one is doing any analysis of performance problems(!), can you sneak some analysis into your next project to show how it improves results?

It's not in my job description - yet.

3. Challenge yourself. It’s easy to deliver an order. It’s harder to politely resist a band-aid solution and ask the kinds of questions that could really bring results. Like any superhero, sometimes you’ll have to do uncomfortable things, like change clothes in a phone booth, but you’re saving the world, so it’s worth it.

4. Challenge your audience. You’re supposed to make training “engaging.” But what’s engaging? A presentation followed by “Can you remember what you were told 3 minutes ago?” Or an intriguing problem like the ones you have to solve on the job, but that has optional help and shows you better ways to find solutions?

For more on this, you might check out my scenario design course, and see the posts in the scenarios section of this blog.

5. Celebrate your wins, even the little ones. Did you persuade a client to let you analyze the problem? Did a stakeholder agree to start with a realistic challenge instead of an information dump? Did you talk a client out of adding redundant narration for debunked learning styles? Celebrate!

We’re trying to change a deeply embedded belief that claims our job is to stuff knowledge into brains. Even small wins are steps in the right direction. Celebrate them!

For more motivation, you might like my decidedly non-serious L&D Manifesto.


Scenario design courses open for registration

Get the most from action mapping and design challenging activities in my live, online course. You’ll build skills that will help you create challenging, realistic mini-scenarios and branching scenarios, and you’ll immediately apply what you’re learning to a real project on your job.

Sessions are scheduled for many time zones, including Australia and New Zealand. The course tends to sell out, so you might check it out now so you don’t miss out.

Photo by tom_bullock, Flickr via Compfight cc