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.

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 mistakes to avoid #1: Eager-beaver feedback

What’s the most common mistake scenario designers make? They provide feedback like this:

Incorrect. You should always have the customer wiggle the synderhobble first. Most noise issues are caused by a loose synderhobble.

Or this:

This wasn’t the best choice. If Lars really has witnessed an ethics violation, you need to encourage him to describe it in detail.

Or this:

Great job. You’ve helped the patient manage their anxiety and as a result they’ll be able to describe their symptoms more accurately.

“But that’s good feedback! It’s helpful!”

Yes, that feedback is helpful. It immediately tells me what I’ve done right or wrong and shoves me firmly down the path of good behavior.

But when does that feedback appear? In the middle of a story. Like this:

You’re on a call with a customer whose widget is squealing. The customer is being driven insane by the squeal, but he has to run the widget at top speed to deliver a product that’s due this afternoon. You tell the customer to oil the widget’s cooling fan.

Eager beaver just wants to helpSuddenly a beaver pops its furry head over your cubicle wall. “You shouldn’t have done that!” it squeaks. “You should always have the customer wiggle the synderhobble first!”

Helpful? Sort of. Annoying? Seriously.

The beaver is just eager to help you learn. But has it helped?

For example, how much thinking did you do after you mistakenly told the customer to oil the fan? Zero. You didn’t have a chance to think, because the beaver interrupted and told you what to think.

How much can you learn when a beaver does your thinking for you?

We can be helpful without interrupting

In the real world, we learn from the consequences of our choices. We tell the customer to oil his fan, but the squealing continues, and we realize on our own that the synderhobble might be the culprit. We’ve used some brain cells and effort, and as a result the lesson is memorable.

But in training land, this kind of learning is often considered messy and inefficient. Also, our clients sometimes think that people can’t be trusted to draw the right conclusions.

The real world lets us learn from experience. The training world tells us what to do. Here’s how we can have the best of both worlds:

  • Pose a realistic challenge.
  • Let the learner make a decision.
  • Show the real-world consequence of the decision (the widget continues to squeal).
  • Optionally offer beaver-style feedback.

In elearning, we can offer optional feedback through a link, like this:

Mr. Jackson puts down the phone and oils the widget fan. You can hear the squealing continue in the background. “That didn’t do a thing,” Mr. Jackson says when he gets back to the phone. “And now the shop stinks of oil.”

Why did this happen?

First, we show the real-world consequence. Then, people who want help from the beaver can click the link. Others can continue to try to diagnose the problem on their own.

If your software allows it, you could keep an eye on people’s choices. If someone repeatedly fails to learn from experience, you could unleash the beaver on them even though they didn’t ask for help.

In live sessions, you could pass out squealing widgets and have people try to fix them on their own. “Let me know if you need help,” you’d say. Then you’d stroll through the room, and if you see someone getting too frustrated, you could step in to nudge them toward the synderhobble or just tell them what to do.

For more on showing vs. telling feedback, see this earlier post.

Let a job aid help

Often, we use beaver-style “telling” feedback when a job aid would be better.

For example, the widget exercise could include a link to a diagnostic checklist. The link could appear on the same screen as the question. So when the caller describes the problem and we need to decide what to do first, we can either:

  • Make a decision based on our pre-existing knowledge, or
  • Look at the cheat sheet called “How to Fix a Squealing Widget” and then make a decision

We then see the real-world consequence of our decision. We can click “Why did this happen?” for an explanation that confirms or corrects our knowledge. Ideally, the explanation includes a snippet of the job aid that shows the relevant step. This tells the people who skipped the job aid, “Hey, you would have gotten this right if you’d looked at this thing.”

“But they must all be exposed to all of the information!”

Some clients insist that everyone should be “exposed” to the right way to do it, regardless of whether they made the right choice in the scenario. “They might just guess right,” the client says. “You have to tell everyone the right way.”

Here’s an easy fix: Show the real-world consequence as above, and then provide the “telling” feedback. It’s no longer optional. Everyone gets “exposed” to the information, but the exposure happens as feedback to their choices. Instead of staring at a presentation, people have to think, and they see the information when it most matters to them.

Elearning

The elearning version of this approach might look like this:

Mr. Jackson puts down the phone and oils the widget fan. You can hear the squealing continue in the background. “That didn’t do a thing,” Mr. Jackson says when he gets back to the phone. “And now the shop stinks of oil.”

Why this happened: Most noise issues are caused by a loose synderhobble, not the fan. You should have the customer wiggle the synderhobble first to see if it’s loose.

[GRAPHIC] The relevant part of “How to Fix a Squealing Widget” with a big arrow pointing to step 1, “Wiggle the synderhobble.”

You’d create scenarios for other squealing widgets, including one that represents the widgets that squeal for reasons unrelated to their synderhobbles. Widget support people go through several scenarios representing different situations until they’re using the cheat sheet with confidence, just like they should use it on the job. Along the way, they’re “exposed” repeatedly to the correct diagnostic procedures, with no need for a presentation.

Live training

Here’s one way to do it in a live session: Give everyone a squealing widget and the cheat sheet called “How to Fix a Squealing Widget.”

“You’ve got 10 minutes to fix your widget,” you say.

After 10 minutes, stop everyone and see how it went. Some widgets are still squealing. A few are squealing because their repair people didn’t use the cheat sheet, and a few are widgets that represent the minority that don’t have a loose synderhobble.

In the group discussion, confirm what most people learned: Following the cheat sheet will silence most widgets in one step. The remainder need more diagnostics. Using one of the still-squealing widgets, go through the sheet as a group, applying each step until the squealing stops.

What about branching scenarios?

If you’ve got a branching scenario, you might try this:

  • Plot the scenario with three types of endings in mind: one best ending, a few mediocre ones, and a few poor ones.
  • Build the plot, letting paths occasionally cross so players can realize they’re heading for a poor ending and get on a better path.
  • Make any job aid or other reference available at all times.
  • Have each decision result in a realistic consequence with no “telling” feedback to interrupt the story.
  • If you have any especially tricky decisions or startling consequences, consider offering an optional hint or explanation at that point, in a link.
  • At each ending, first show the end of the story. Then (optionally or not) describe how the player got to that point, point out mistakes they made, and offer hints that will help them do better when they play again.

There are lots of other approaches, of course, depending on how much experience people already have, how open they are to this type of activity, and what types of skills you want them to practice.

How does this work with “tell, show, do?”

If your client wants you to expose people to information, they probably expect you to use the “tell, show, do” formula: First you tell everyone what they might need to know, then you show them how you do it, and then finally you let them do it themselves. Kind of like this classic video on how to diagnose sigmoid rumbling in a turbo encabulator.

In a future post in this series, we’ll look at whether “tell, show, do” is always the best approach and consider some alternatives.

Scenario design courses scheduled for June and November

My hands-on scenario design course has two more sessions scheduled for this year: June (includes Australia-friendly times!) and November.

Let me tell you everything you need to know! Or not.

Plane to ZekostanCongratulations! You’ve just been assigned to work with a design team in Zekostan. You’re leaving in a week.

Your Zeko colleagues know that you’re coming from a very different culture and might have trouble fitting in. Luckily, they’ve developed some materials that help people from your culture prepare for working in theirs.

You can choose one of the following “Prepare for Zekostan” packages. Which will you choose?

PACKAGE 1. A 56-slide online course in which a nice Zeko woman describes some cultural differences, bulleted tips appear on the screen, and you complete a quiz to confirm your understanding.

PACKAGE 2. A one-page PDF of tips, plus eight online branching scenarios in which you practice responding appropriately during typical interactions in the Zeko workplace.

If you’re like most people, you want package 2, the PDF and scenarios. You can put the PDF of tips on your smartphone to review as often as you like, and the scenarios will help you practice applying the tips in a safe but realistic-enough setting. You’ll be able to make mistakes in private and learn from them, instead of making them in front of your new colleagues.

Separate the info from the activity: It’s the Zeko way

Your preference for package 2 will also reassure your Zeko colleagues that you share their views about design. They’ve moved away from presenting information in an “engaging” way and then testing recall.

Instead, they put the information in a simple format that people can easily refer to whenever they want. They focus their design time on creating challenging, realistic activities that help people practice the decisions they need to make on the job. As people try the activities, they can refer to the information.

Example: Greet your colleague

How do the packages compare? Let’s look at how each package “teaches” a greeting.

PACKAGE 1: A nice Zeko lady appears as a talking head on the screen. “People new to the Zeko workplace are often surprised by our way of greeting our colleagues,” she says in a pleasant voice. “Greetings are of course very important in every culture. In Zekostan, we use greetings to show our connection to others by highlighting what we have in common. So when we greet each other at work, we identify a role that we have and that the other person also has, and we salute them from that role. For example, if you are an engineer and you are greeting another engineer, you would say, ‘The engineer in me salutes the engineer in you.'”

The following appears as a bullet point on the screen: “Salute new colleagues using the job role that you have in common.”

Eventually, you get to a quiz. One of the questions is, “How should you greet a new colleague?” and one of the options is, “Salute them using the job role that you have in common.”

PACKAGE 2: The PDF has a section that looks like this:

GREETINGS
New colleagues
Goal: Highlight what you have in common
Technique:
     1. Identify a job role or responsibility that both of you have.
     2. Say, “The [job role] in me salutes the [same job role] in you.”
Example: “The engineer in me salutes the engineer in you.”

The practice activities in package 2 often begin with you meeting new colleagues. In one of the scenarios, you’re a project manager, and your new boss introduces you to a team mate who’s also a project manager. You have to decide what to say. You choose, “The project manager in me salutes the project manager in you,” and your new colleague welcomes you warmly.

In another scenario, you’re a quality assurance manager. Your boss introduces you to a colleague who’s an editor. What should you say?

  1. The quality assurance manager in me salutes the editor in you.
  2. The quality advocate in me salutes the quality advocate in you.
  3. The detail freak in me salutes the detail freak in you.
  4. The team member in me salutes the team member in you.

You take the safe route and choose 4. Your new colleague gives you a decidedly cool welcome. You click “Why did this happen?” and see the following:

You’ve suggested that the only thing you have in common is that you’re assigned to the same team. This can be interpreted a veiled insult. When you don’t have the same title as your colleague, choose the most flattering responsibility or trait that you have in common. In this case, “quality advocate” would be best.

Look at the information or not: It’s up to you

In package 2, you’re not required to read the PDF before you start the activities. For example, you could ignore the PDF, jump right into the activities, offend people, click the optional feedback to find out what you did wrong, go back and make better decisions, and finally look at the PDF, treating it as a summary of what you learned through experience.

“The adult in me salutes the adult in you.”

Your new Zeko colleagues think it’s disrespectful to require grownups to all be exposed to the same information presentation, regardless of their prior knowledge. They think we treat adults like children when we tell them what to think and test them 5 minutes later to see if they can still think it.

Instead, your new colleagues base their design decisions on the following facts:

  • The people using the material are adults who have been learning from experience for decades.
  • They might already know some of what we’re supposed to “teach” them.
  • Some of their most memorable lessons started out as mistakes.
  • Adults’ self-esteem will not be squashed by a mistake in a training scenario.
  • When people struggle a bit, they can learn more deeply.
  • If people don’t want to struggle, they can always look at the supporting information or optional help.
  • Well-designed scenarios help people prove that they know something while they also practice doing it.
  • We’re in business, not education. We want people to do stuff, not just know stuff.

Obviously, the examples were simplified, and both packages provide just a band-aid approach to cross-cultural skills. A more effective preparation would dig below the surface pleasantries to help newcomers see from the Zeko perspective. In that case, I’d argue that scenarios would become even more important, because they’d help people notice subtle cues and shift perspectives in complex social interactions.

Explore some more

Scenario design course starts on Feb. 10
For a lot more on helping people learn through scenarios, consider signing up for my scenario design course, which starts on Feb. 10. There’s still room in the European session, which meets in the morning in the Americas.

Learning Technologies in London
If you like the idea of taking information presentation out of activities, you might like my London Learning Technologies session, “Throw them in at the deep end.” You’ll overhaul some conventional activities to make them more immersive and challenging. I’ll also be talking with practitioners at Booth H21 as part of the LT eXchange, and I’ll be part of the BarCamp with Aaron Silvers, Shannon Tipton, and David Kelly. All of this happens on Feb. 3. I hope to see you there!

Photo by Colby Stopa

3 quick tips for strong scenarios

Tips and tricksIt can be hard to write subtle scenario questions. Here are some techniques that can help.

1. Put dialog in quotation marks.

This trick helps ban the bureaucratic from your writing. Instead of paraphrasing what people say, stick it in quotation marks and it will magically rewrite itself. Here’s an example.

Before: Nuria has been wrangling widgets for three weeks and is frustrated. It is difficult for her to determine the correct wrangling angle.

During: “I am frustrated,” Nuria says. “I have been wrangling widgets for three weeks and it is difficult for me to determine the correct wrangling angle.”

After: “This is driving me nuts,” Nuria says. “I’ve been wrangling widgets for three weeks and I still can’t get the angle right.”

The minute you put your dry prose in quotes, you realize how very dry it is. Then it becomes easy to make it sound more natural. This trick also moves you from boring “telling” to more vivid “showing.”

2. Ask, “Why aren’t they doing it?”

In action mapping, you set a business goal and list what people need to do on the job to reach that goal. And then for each important task, you ask, “Why aren’t they doing it now?”

Unfortunately, it’s common to skip that question and go straight from “Here’s what they need to do” to “Here’s an activity that will help them practice doing it.” This often results in a scenario question that’s generic and too easy.

Instead, take a little time to identify the main barriers to performance: “Why aren’t people wrangling widgets well?” You might talk to a few people who do the job and use this flowchart to guide the discussion. You’ll find out if training will really help and, crucially, you’ll learn the challenges that people face. You’ll have the understanding you need to design subtle scenarios that target what’s really causing the problem.

3. Branching? Start with the end in mind.

Before you write any part of a branching scenario, think of the endings that will make the points you want to make. You might aim for one best ending, a few “fair” endings, and some “poor” endings. Then write a high-level plot that provides several intersecting routes to those endings. You might first write the “best” path and then add the less-great paths. Test your plot on subject matter experts and some future learners to make sure it’s realistic and not too easy. Only then is it safe to start fleshing it out with dialog and details.

What techniques have you discovered that help you write strong scenarios? Let us know in the comments.

Scenario design course: New sessions available

Two new sessions of my four-week, hands-on scenario design course have been scheduled, starting on Oct. 28 and Feb. 10. Learn more about the class and sign up for future announcements here. The action mapping book used in the course will be published this year; I’ll be sure to announce it in the blog when it’s available.

Tips & tricks image © Aquir and iStock

Is it ever okay to be a control freak?

Here’s a short scenario that uses a particular type of structure. What do you think about it?

Sample scenario

Spoiler alert! Play the scenario before you read on.

What type of branching is this?

Here’s how the scenario looks as a flowchart in BranchTrack‘s editor. No matter what we decide at decision point A, we all end up at decision point B. It’s like we have no free will!

linear scenario

If you’re feeling cranky, you could call this the “control freak” approach to scenario design: No one may advance without first making the correct choice, and then all people must advance as one obedient mass to the same scene.

If you’re feeling more generous, you might call it a “teaching” scenario.

It might be helpful for raw beginners

The extreme control exercised by the designer could actually be useful in the following conditions:

  • The people playing the scenario are beginners in the subject matter AND
  • We haven’t preceded the scenario with a bunch of information telling people everything they might need to know.

In other words, people new to the topic learn about it through a guided experience first, not through an information presentation followed by a “practice” activity.

Like this kind of discussion? Then you’ll like the scenario design workshops that I’m giving soon in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Sydney.

What could happen if we put the information first?

Let’s run an imaginary experiment. Let’s not start with the scenario. Instead, we’ll give our learners lots of do’s and don’ts about classroom management. We’ll follow that with a video of an expert talking about how honorifics like “Ms” supposedly squash students’ self-esteem, and then, finally, we’ll send them into the scenario to “practice what they’ve learned.”

Now that our learners are no longer absolute beginners, the relentless feedback and forced re-tries are likely to feel annoying and even patronizing.

“But we have to give them information!”

I agree, we do — after the scenario.

We can give people a chance to learn through the (very!) structured experience first, and then help them synthesize what they learned by giving them some reinforcing information. We can trot out the video expert after the scenario, for example, to reinforce the scenario’s message about honorifics.

Putting the scenario first does several things. It:

  • Helps people gauge their pre-existing knowledge, if any
  • Shows the learner through their mistakes that they need to learn this stuff, making them pay more attention to the information that follows
  • Gives them a concrete, memorable story with which to organize the more abstract information that follows, possibly helping with retention and transfer
  • Gives them beginner-level information in an engaging way, possibly motivating them to continue

For more on this activity-first approach, see my post “Throw them in the deep end!”

However, I still recommend true branching for most audiences

I focus on instructional design for adults in the working world. Most people in this world already have at least some previous experience or knowledge of the common topics covered in corporate training (how to treat people nicely, how to sell stuff, how to avoid breaking laws…).

As a result, I suspect that in most situations, a truly branching scenario would be more satisfying for the players. By letting people make mistakes, see the consequences of those mistakes, and draw conclusions, we’re saying, “I acknowledge that you’re an adult with a brain and life experience, and I trust you to be able to learn from more experience.”

Our careful handling of the branches, feedback at the ends of the paths, and optional help or resources along the way will help make sure that players are drawing the right conclusions without getting too frustrated. It’s all about choosing the appropriate amount of scaffolding for our audience.

For an example of a “real” branching scenario for people with some prior knowledge, try playing AutoLoon Ethics Training, which helps you practice your action mapping and consulting skills.

What do you think? And how do you manage stakeholders who want to be control freaks when it’s not appropriate? Let us know in the comments.


Design challenging scenarios that your learners love with my workshops this September and October in Los Angeles, Chicago, and Sydney. The first workshop is on Sept. 19 and spaces are limited, so check out the details and make your plans!

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Jettison the genies and let learners think

Elearning has genies, superheroes, and wizards. Live training has the all-knowing instructor. I say all of them should stop being so darned helpful. Here’s why.

Let’s say that you’ve dusted off your bike and have been riding it to work, but it’s no longer shifting smoothly and the chain keeps falling off. You tightened a nut that you thought might help, but the chain fell off again.

Now what? Which of the following will make you a smarter biker?

A. You download a troubleshooting guide from the internet. You spend two minutes going through its steps to check cable tension and the condition of the chain, and you discover that a loose Dunlowbrat was the problem. You tighten the Dunlowbrat and you’re ready to roll.

or

B. A hipster genie appears with a poof. “In cases like this,” he says smugly, “you need to tighten this thing here. It’s called a Dunlowbrat. Here’s a screwdriver. Now tighten the Dunlowbrat.”

Hipster genie promising to make you awesomeWhich is more efficient? Solution B, obviously. You didn’t waste two minutes checking other connections or puzzling things out. The hipster saved you time by telling you what to do.

Which will make you a smarter biker? Solution A. When you went through the troubleshooting process, you learned that cable tension and chain condition can also cause problems, which will make future problem-solving go faster and give you a better understanding of how a bike works.

You also might be more likely to remember a solution you discovered on your own rather than the one that someone with “superior knowledge” simply told you, although the trauma of having a hipster genie suddenly appear would certainly be memorable.

What does this have to do with instructional design?

Let’s turn your bike problem into an elearning activity with a clickable bike.

Challenge: Your bike no longer shifts smoothly, and the chain keeps falling off. Click the part of the bike that is probably causing the problem.

You click a likely-looking nut.

Feedback: A hipster genie pops onto the screen. “Nope! That won’t work. In cases like this, you need to tighten this thing.” He points at a screw on the bike. “It’s called a Dunlowbrat. Click the Dunlowbrat to tighten it.”

You obediently click the Dunlowbrat and an animation makes it look like it’s tightening.

Hipster genie: “Awesome! You rule!”

Your dignity and your brain wither simultaneously.

Genie-free rewrite

Let’s jettison the genie from our elearning version and see what happens.

Challenge: Your bike no longer shifts smoothly, and the chain keeps falling off. Click the part of the bike that is probably causing the problem. If you’re not sure, follow this troubleshooting guide.

You ignore the troubleshooting guide and click the wrong nut.

Feedback: The chain falls off again as you’re climbing a hill, and you get grease on your clothes right before your meeting with the directors of HugelyImportant, Inc. Try the steps in this troubleshooting guide.

You open the troubleshooting guide, which has you click on a bike part for each step and concisely explains why you’re checking each part. When you click the first part, you’re told that it feels tight already. The same happens for the second part. When you click the Dunlowbrat, you’re told it feels loose. You choose to tighten it, and you get the following feedback.

Feedback: The bike shifts smoothly and the chain stays in place. You roll into work relaxed and grease-free.

Face-to-face version

Obviously, in face-to-face training this would be a heck of a lot easier. Let’s say we have a bike-maintenance class in a parking lot. The instructor could bring out a bike that has a loose Dunlowbrat and have someone ride it around the parking lot while shifting. Everyone watches as the chain falls off. The rider also reports that shifting was rough.

The instructor says, “What should we do?” and a few members of the class propose tightening the wrong nut. “A lot of people do that,” the instructor says agreeably. “Let’s tighten that nut and see what happens.”

The chain falls off again, the class is puzzled, and the instructor doesn’t say, “It’s a loose Dunlowbrat.” Instead, he says, “There’s a process we use to diagnose this type of problem. Here’s a handout. Let’s go through it together.”

But genies are fun!

If you’re sure that your audience likes genies, superheroes, and wizards, you’ll probably want to keep using them. But I’d suggest that you encourage the genies to act more like the instructor in the face-to-face example above, helping people find the best solution, and don’t let them tell people what to do or how to think.

You might also want to tell your genies to keep their feedback (“Awesome!”) in line with the level of learners’ accomplishment, unless you’re intentionally using over-the-top humor. Our hipster genie could actually be a fun, over-the-top guide, but only if he uses the techniques of the real-life instructor and helps us figure things out for ourselves.

Genies are a symptom of a deeper problem

The main reason we add genies and their superpowered friends is because we’ve let the material be primarily a presentation, and we just want to make the presentation more “fun.” A deeper solution is to overhaul the design so there’s far less presentation and a lot more learning by doing.

What do you think? Do you think genies can use their magical powers to deepen learning, or are they just another way to add bling to boring presentation? Let us know in the comments.

All photos in this post (c) iStock


Typical stock photo woman ponders the futureFrustrated with stock photos? Here’s your chance to vent! Please complete this 7-question survey to tell me everything that’s wrong with the currently available photos of people. I’m considering creating photos for use in elearning and scenarios, and I want to make sure I know what you need. Thanks!

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4 ideas you should steal from interactive fiction

Here are a few fun stories from the wild world of interactive fiction. Try them out to see cool techniques you can steal for your training scenarios.

1. Put the backstory in links.

The most realistic scenarios are rich in detail, but lots of detail can mean lots of text on the screen. One way to lighten the load is to put the backstory in optional links.

In Remembered, by Chris Klimas, you explore links to learn more about the history of the characters. The more backstory you read, the richer your experience.

This technique could be used to add depth to the typical management scenario. For example, here’s a scene from a (fake) scenario.

Earlier today, Noah emailed you to ask for a 10-minute meeting. Now he’s arrived for the meeting and looks flustered.

“It’s Brian,” he says. “He’s always been a procrastinator, but now it’s affecting my ability to meet my deadlines. He was supposed to give me Phase 1 three days ago and and when I ask about it, he only says, ‘I just need another day.’”

What do you do?

When you click “Noah,” you see this:

Noah transferred to your department 3 months ago, citing personality differences in his previous department. He’s reliable and does solid work.

He can look impatient in meetings, glancing often at his watch, and when someone offers a new idea, he’s likely to point out problems with it. He seems committed to meeting the unit’s goals and has proposed changes that improved efficiency. He’s the team lead for the project.

The link about Brian, a quiet man, points out that he recently asked to be moved away from a noisy coworker and has been looking tired.

This isn’t Dostoevsky, but the bits of backstory add more dimension to what could have been a generic management scenario with shallow, thought-free options. You get realistic details that make the decision more nuanced, but without feeling like you’re slogging through a novel.

2. Build the entire story on the screen.

Putting the backstory in links lightens the load, but it can make the story feel fragmented. Another approach is to build the entire narrative on one screen.

Cover of a playIn The Play by Deirdra Kiai, you need to manage the egos and poor preparation of actors in a play. The result of each decision is added to the narrative on the screen rather than bringing you to another “slide.”

Bonus: As you play, keep an eye on the list of cast members on the right. It doubles as a record of their emotional states and your ability to manage them.

Having the final story appear all on one screen makes it far easier for the player to review it. This approach could be useful for longer scenarios about negotiation, difficult conversations, leadership, and other complex issues.

See the attribution box on the left of the story for a link to the tool used to create it.

3. Reconsider your belief that text is bad.

Did you suffer from the lack of images in the above two stories? Probably not.

Many scenarios that we create in training-land don’t really require visuals. Instead of spending an hour searching for non-awful stock photos of people talking on the phone, we could spend that hour making the story stronger.

4. Don’t leave the homestead.

The fake-translated-Russian story Small Child in Woods has an important lesson for us all.

A note about tools
“Remembered” and “Small Child in Woods” were created with Twine, a free tool that I explored in this post. You might also want to check out BranchTrack, a slick tool that makes it easy to build branching scenarios and doesn’t suffer the technical glitches that can plague Twine on corporate PCs.


Scenario design online course open for registration

Become a scenario design master with “Scenario design: In-depth and hands-on,” my new online course. Registration is open for sessions that start in January.

Australia workshops!

  • Nov. 13, Sydney: Training design master class for training managers at the Learning@Work conference
  • Nov. 22, Melbourne: Breakfast session on training ROI at ConVerge
  • Nov. 26, Melbourne: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day workshop for ElNet
  • Nov. 29, Sydney: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day workshop for ElNet

Get your free 23-page ebook: Training Designer's Guide to Saving the World

12 cool ways to use scenarios

Desperate woman wants to know what happens next in scenarioDecision-making scenarios aren’t just for elearning. Here are 12 ideas for other ways you can use branched scenarios to help people practice solving problems.

First, some vocabulary. Each “decision point” in a branching scenario contains the following:

  • The result of the previous decision, such as, “The forklift continues to speed toward the plate glass window.”
  • The stem and options for a new decision, such as, “What should you do?” followed by three or four actions.

Face-to-face training

One of the great benefits of a challenging branched scenario is that it provokes discussion. No more glassy-eyed stares! Some ideas:

  1. Go through an online scenario together: Project the scenario on a screen and as a group decide what option to take at each point.
  2. Act it out: Assign roles in the story and have participants read and act their lines once the group has decided what they should do.
  3. Go through the scenario in small groups: Divide participants into groups of four or so. Have them work through the scenario as a group, then report back to the larger group why they think they got the result they did.
  4. Require someone to defend each option: To bring the discussion to a deeper level, assign each option to a participant: “Bob, you’ll argue for option B every time, whether you agree with it or not. Give it your best shot!” You can do this in large or small groups. If you have four options at each decision point, you might create groups of four and, before they start the scenario, have each person choose an option to always defend.
  5. Ask the group to improve the scenario. Ideally, you tested an earlier version of the scenario on a sample of your audience and improved it based on their suggestions. Now do it again, but as a learning exercise. You could ask what options participants wanted to have but didn’t, how the plot could be made more realistic, and how failure and success should be measured.
  6. Have groups design their own scenarios. After going through and discussing a scenario you wrote, form small groups and have them each design a branching scenario for their colleagues. You might offer a list of story ideas for them to choose from, each offering the opportunity to closely examine the complex decisions that happen on the job. The design project should probably take place over a couple of weeks rather than in one intensive session, and each group’s deliverable could be a simple, text-only PowerPoint or Twine scenario that’s run at another gathering of the full group. You’ll need to win the participation of managers and subject matter experts, but considering how deeply we have to examine every decision to write a good scenario, this exercise could be really powerful.
Sample from a paper-based branching scenario

A branching scenario can be as simple as a printout, with one decision point on each page.
This low-tech scenario inspired intense discussion in a class at West Point.

Email and mobile

Keep your audience engaged by feeding them one scene a day. It’s an email soap opera!

  1. Send an email episode each day to participants showing the results of their last decision and presenting them with another decision in the story. Have them click an HTML link in the email to register their choice — and make them wait until the next day to see how it turns out. You could set this up with an email auto-responder, which your marketing staff should be familiar with, although the branching could be more complex than they’re used to. The email could be plain text or use HTML and images.
  2. Use text messages to deliver one decision point a day to a mobile audience. Participants can make their choice by sending the appropriate code from their phone. Entire novels have been delivered through text message!
  3. Encourage discussion throughout the run of the soap opera. For example, you could set up a discussion forum, assign some people to add posts to keep it lively, and include links to it in the emails or text messages.
  4. Have the scenario play out in real time: If you want people to practice making decisions in a process that plays out over weeks, and the lapse of time is important, you could insert realistic delays between the decision points. You could send emails from scenario characters or other messages that provide the same kind of information that people would receive if this were a real situation, or remind them to perform the same monitoring that they would need to do in real life so they can make a good decision at the next point.

Audio and video

Are podcasts popular in your organization? Are you allowed to use YouTube? Go for it! You might also set up a discussion forum as described above or otherwise encourage people to talk about the scenario as it unfolds.

  1. Record an audio file of each decision point and its options. When participants click a link to choose an option, they receive the file for the next decision point, either immediately or after a realistic lapse of time. You might use participants’ colleagues as actors in the scenario to increase its appeal.
  2. Create a branched video story: Create a separate video for each decision point, and then use YouTube’s annotations feature to link to each option at the end of the video. Here’s an example. If you can’t use YouTube, this tool designed for marketers might work for you.

Make it controversial, and don’t forget the debrief!

One of the strengths of scenarios is that they inspire discussion. Encourage that discussion by intentionally making your scenario not only challenging but also a little controversial, such as by failing to include a popular option or by making a common mistake so appealing that a lot of people fall for it.

Finally, I don’t recommend using scenarios alone, no matter what setting you put them in. Learners need a debrief, some structured way to discuss, draw conclusions, build a model, and identify how they’re going to change what they do.

What did I miss? What’s another way to use scenarios to get people thinking and talking? Let us know in the comments!

Scenario design workshop open for registration

Become a scenario design master! Starting Oct. 15, I’m offering Scenario design: In-depth and hands-on, a four-session online course. We’ll meet for 90 minutes starting at 1 PM US Eastern time on Oct. 15, 17, 22, and 24. Please see this page for details and registration.

Australia workshops open for registration

  • Nov. 13, Sydney: Training design master class for training managers at the Learning@Work conference
  • Nov. 26, Melbourne: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day workshop for ElNet
  • Nov. 29, Sydney: Elearning Design for Business Results one-day workshop for ElNet

Get your free 23-page ebook: Training Designer's Guide to Saving the World