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

7 ways to make dialog sound natural

“Upon examining the data,” your scenario character says, “I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the proposal, specifically its requirement that we induce wombats to fly.”

Who talks like that? No one in the real world. However, you might find your scenario characters talking like that in your first drafts. Here’s how to fix it.

Droid turns into a human

1. Make sure you’ve actually written dialog. Show, don’t tell.

Not this: Barbara says she is concerned about the delay in processing TPS reports.

Instead: “It takes too long to process TPS reports,” Barbara says.

Let the readers draw conclusions like they do in the real world.

Not: Peter doesn’t want to talk about what happened at his previous job.

Instead:

“Peter, what happened at your last job?” Louise asks.

“Who wants coffee?” Peter says. “I’m going for a refill.”

2. Start late. You might be tempted to write the small talk that starts a conversation, so it sounds realistic. Instead, fast-forward to the meat for more impact. Imagine how a movie would show it.

Not:

Jason goes to Emma’s office.

“Good morning, Jason,” Emma says. “Thank you for coming in. I know it’s a long trip for you.”

“I’m happy to help,” Jason says. “What can I do for you?”

“Well, the auditors called me yesterday, and…”

Instead:

Jason goes to Emma’s office.

“I need to cancel our account,” Emma says. “The auditors found problems.”

3. Use contractions: “She is our best chainsaw juggler” becomes “She’s our best…” Not allowed to use contractions? Fight back with the tips in this post.

4. Don’t stuff the dialog with story. If they wouldn’t say it in real life, don’t make them say it in your scenario.

Not: “Diane, I’d like to hear your opinion about how to handle cultural differences on the new Zeko project, since you have been with the firm for eight years and have worked on numerous projects with companies in Zekostan.”

Instead: Bob calls Diane, who has eight years’ experience on Zeko projects. “How should we handle cultural differences on the new project?” he asks.

5. Choose informal words. “Wish” becomes “want,” “assist” becomes “help.” Find simple alternatives in The A to Z of Alternative Words (PDF) from the Plain English Campaign.

6. Break sentences into fragments of different types. It varies the rhythm, makes people sound more human, and gives them character.

Not: “If you want to play the banjo, you will need to go outside.”

Instead: “You want to play the banjo? Go outside.”

7. Use “said” and “asked.” Avoid having people “growl,” “smile,” “snarl,” or “laugh” their lines, which gets distracting and over-dramatic.

Often, you don’t even need “said.”

Example:

“How much are you willing to invest?” Jorge asks.

“Ninety bajillion dollars.” Andrea opens her briefcase. “I have it right here.”

Scenario design workshop: A few seats are still available

Want to improve your scenario design skills? There are some seats available in the scenario design workshop that starts on November 8. You’ll apply what you’re learning to a real-life project from your job. We’ll meet in the afternoon in Europe and mornings in the Americas.

Scenario-based training headquarters

I’ve gathered a lot of ideas about scenario design in one spot. You’ll find example scenarios, design tips, research summaries, and more.

I hope to see you at Learning Pool Live

I’m joining Learning Pool Live in London this Thursday, October 20, to give a keynote and short workshop. I hope to see you there!

Scenario example: Chainsaw training!

What’s the best way to teach people to cut down a tree? Probably the best way isn’t the approach recommended in this scenario. However, the scenario isn’t supposed to be realistic. I wrote it to make a point.

Try the scenario below. Do you agree with my point?

(The scenario is embedded in the blog post. If you’re reading this in email or a feed reader and don’t see a clickable interaction, go to the blog post to play it.)


Photo by Stewart Black cc. Scenario was developed in Twine.

Spoiler alert! Play the scenario before you read on.

If you’re familiar with action mapping, you probably saw what I was trying to do. The best ending to the scenario required you to do some (extremely quick) analysis of why it’s hard to cut down a tree without squashing your house or car.

The analysis asks, “What decisions do people have to make? Why are those decisions tricky? How can we help people practice making the decisions in a safe place?”

Then your design focused on helping people practice the tricky things that would directly support the goal of reduced property damage. You didn’t push information into their heads and then see if they could recognize it on a test.

Of course, it’s important for customers to know the obvious stuff, like how to hold the saw when you’re cutting into a tree. We’d certainly cover that in the videos. Unfortunately, it’s tempting to focus only on that obvious stuff. The result would be “How to Use a Chainsaw” and not what we really need, which is “How to Use a Chainsaw without Destroying Your House.”

I learned to cut down trees the way most people probably should: A more experienced person went into my woods with me. He helped me analyze each tree, set up the winch and rope, plan the cut, and adjust when things began to veer horribly out of control. But if that weren’t possible, I’d look for training that let me practice the decisions in a safe place.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments.

More scenario examples

I’ve set up a scenario design headquarters on my site. In that section, you’ll find more scenario examples, along with a research summary, a link to all scenario posts, and some tips on using Twine, the free editor I used to create the scenario in this post.

Related posts

For more on letting people learn from their mistakes, you might check out these posts:

Scenario mistakes to avoid #2: “Eat! Eat! You need to eat!”

“You need to eat more!” she says, heaping your plate until it rivals Mount Everest. “Eat! Eat!”

We all know the stereotype. Unfortunately, we can find ourselves turning into that stereotype when we feed information to people.

“You have to know this!” we say, filling the screen to bursting. “And this! And this!”

A huge platter of paellaIn scenario-design land, we can find ourselves doing this:

“First we’ll feed them everything they need to know, and then we’ll feed them some more as we show them how an expert does it, and finally we’ll let them waddle, overstuffed and dazed, through a scenario.”

Example, only slightly exaggerated

In the first post in this series, widget technicians had to diagnose squealing widgets. In the “Eat! Eat!” design approach, we’d “teach” them this way:

  • Tell the “widget story” — how widgets were invented and our company’s proud role in widgets’ ascendence to importance.
  • Explain how prompt customer service has helped us stand out in the widget field.
  • Explain that despite the stellar quality of our engineering, any widget could eventually develop a squeal.
  • Show a video of a squealing widget.
  • Show all the moving parts in a typical widget and what they do.
  • Explain that most squealing widgets have a wobbling synderhobble, and the squealing will stop when the synderhobble is screwed back into place.
  • Open a squealing widget, point to the wobbling synderhobble, and screw it back into place.
  • Say, “Now you do it.”
  • Watch as the “learners” obediently imitate what they saw five seconds ago by opening their widgets and screwing the synderhobble back into place.
  • Display a bulleted list of the other, less common causes of squealing widgets.
  • Move onto the next topic: Wobbling Widgets.

What’s wrong with this?

We make people eat when they’re full

We assume that everyone in the audience is equally and profoundly ignorant of the topic. But our audience consists of adults with decades of experience tinkering with gadgets — that’s why they signed up to be widget technicians. Some of them have already worked with widgets or with widget-like technology. Yet we stuff them with information they might already know, slowly suffocating what motivation they might have had.

We make people rely on short-term memory

Worse, our “scenario” came immediately after we showed them what to do. We used a version of “tell, show, do” that short-circuits independent thought.

Mike, a new widget technician, watched us screw the synderhobble into place, and 20 seconds later he had half-heartedly imitated what he saw. He was actually thinking about the vintage motorcycle he’s been taking apart in his garage.

Did Mike learn what we wanted him to learn? Was the behavior we wanted “Screw a synderhobble into place?” or was it “Correctly diagnose the cause of a squealing widget?”

Screwing the synderhobble into place is easy. Correctly diagnosing the cause of a squealing widget while an irritated customer waits impatiently is much harder. But instead of having people practice the hard stuff, we fed them the answer immediately and had them practice the easy task.

An alternative

The first post in this series describes an activity that would help Mike practice the harder stuff: He’s on a fictional phone call with a customer whose widget is squealing.

We haven’t shown Mike the history of widgets, and we haven’t told him that the most common cause of squealing is the synderhobble. We’ve just plunged him into the fictional phone call and provided optional help.

In elearning, that optional help could be links, such as:

  • A downloadable job aid: “How to Diagnose a Squealing Widget”
  • A short presentation, “The Moving Parts in a Widget,” that’s always available online

In face-to-face training, the optional help could be a printed version of the job aid and a link to the presentation on everyone’s smart phone. Since technicians often go into the field, this information needs to be portable.

When he’s in the scenario, Mike can look at the help or not, depending on his pre-existing knowledge and his willingness to try and possibly fail. The feedback shows the consequence of his choice, as described in the previous post.

Mike has to think on several levels: What do I know about this already? Is it accurate? What could be causing the squeal? What should I try first? And when he looks for information, it’s because he wants it. The information is a tempting buffet, not a mass forced-feeding.

Mike thinks hard and practices the hard stuff — diagnosing a squealing widget. He’s not daydreaming about the vintage motorcycle, and he’s probably more likely to transfer what he learned to his job. We’ve also made transfer easier by giving him a job aid and some information that’s always available on his phone.

I rant about this a lot, in posts like the following:

For the research supporting this approach, see Where’s the research support for scenarios? in my knowledgebase, the research cited in the post Throw them in the deep end, and books that summarize learning research, including Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning and Design for How People Learn.

Action mapping workflow available as an interactive graphic

Action mapping workflowWith help from readers’ feedback on the draft version, I’ve improved the action mapping workflow and summarized it in an interactive graphic.

You can download the graphic and a Word version of the workflow from that page.

Photo credit: Platter of paella by Joanbrebo via Compfight cc

New job aid summarizes action mapping for teams

I’ve drafted a job aid that summarizes the entire action mapping process. You can download it as a Word doc here. (Did it download as XML gibberish? Here’s the quick solution.)

Use the job aid with your client and subject matter expert to show them the process at a glance, from the initial analysis of the problem to the rollout of the solutions.

The aid is intended to help everyone on a project do the following:

  • See at a glance what their responsibilities are and when they’ll be required
  • See that your role is not “convert content into training”
  • Focus on solving the performance problem, not delivering an information dump
  • Use an agile approach based on prototypes and outlines

Snippet of action mapping job aid

The job aid is a draft. Help me improve it! Please comment on this post with any suggestions you have, or send me a private message.

The job aid mentions some tools you can use at each step. Here are two of them:

Goal template: You’ll find the template and some tips in my post How to create a training goal in two quick steps.

Problem analysis flowchart: You can download it and see how to use it in my post Is training really the answer? Ask the flowchart.

I’m working on an activity-design planner that will help you ask your SME the most useful questions so you can design realistic challenges. I’m also working on a template you can use for a project outline, which could replace the traditional and often rigid design document. I’m hoping to release these with the book, and when they’re ready I’ll be sure to announce them in the blog.

What do you think? What would make the job aid more useful for you?


Scenario design course scheduled for November

There are still seats available in the November session of my hands-on scenario design course. The courses usually sell out, so you might want to register now if you can.