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

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?


Photo by naosuke ii cc

Spoiler alert! Play the scenario above before you read on.

What type of branching is this?

Here’s how the scenario looks as a flowchart in Twine. 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!

Flowchart view in Twine

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.

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.

This post was updated 29 May 2016.

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

5 quick ways to pull learners into a course

Typically bad stock photo“Welcome to the course Online Responsibility,” a too-perfect male voice intones while you stare at a stock photo of a man who’s grinning idiotically at a computer.

“Billions of bits of data travel through our firm every day,” the voice drones on while the stock photo changes to science-fictiony swirling lines and numbers. “Since the dawn of the digital age, electronic communication has…”

You lunge for the Next button, but you’re not allowed to click it until the droning man finishes, which he finally does while you’re in another browser tab, watching a video of a cat playing the piano.

I’ve seen a ton of elearning, and the painful majority of it starts this way. What are some alternatives?

1. Use a meaningful course name and skip the explanation.

If the title of the course is “Data Privacy,” then you can trust learners to understand that it concerns keeping data private. A meaningful title frees you from having to ponderously explain what the course is about.

2. Nix the narrator.

In corporate L&D, our learners are adults who can read for themselves, and they do it a heck of a lot faster than a narrator talks. Nothing squashes my interest in a subject more thoroughly than having the material spoon-fed to me by a slow speaker who apparently thinks I’m dense. In my sacrilegious opinion, the best use for a narrator is to talk about a graphic that isn’t already self-explanatory, not to deliver information that could be more concisely and quickly delivered through text. Here’s some research to support this. (And our main goal should be to design experiences, not information.)

3. Immediately show concise, appealing objectives.

Briefly tell the learner what they’ll be able to do as a result of the course, and focus on what they care about. Here’s a sample makeover of some boring objectives.

4. Motivate by showing, not telling.

Normally, your objectives should be motivating enough. If you think your learners need even more motivation, avoid the temptation to present statistics or to otherwise tell them why the topic is important. Show them through a story.

For example, you could (quickly!) show a young couple with a baby being turned down for a mortgage because one of our employees accidentally released their private data, which a bad guy used to get credit cards and destroy their credit history. For more on using stories to motivate, see Made to Stick.

5. Put basic information in activities, not a presentation, and let people prove that they already know it.

If you want to make sure everyone has the same basic knowledge before continuing, design activities that let people either prove they know the basics or discover the basics through feedback.

For example, in my scenario design course, I want everyone to have the same definition of “scenario.” However, I don’t show the definition at the start. Instead, I just say, “Let’s see if you can identify what I think a scenario is.” I then show several examples and non-examples and ask for each one, “Is this a scenario?” In the feedback I explain why the example fits or doesn’t fit my definition of “scenario.”

This starts the material with an activity, rather than a presentation, and I suspect it makes the definition more clear than a text blurb would have. It also lets people who already know the definition skip ahead by skipping the detailed feedback once they’ve confirmed that they made the right choice.

What do you think? What techniques have you seen or used that get learners immediately, actively involved in a course? Let us know in the comments.


London workshop on June 6

Please join me and Norman Lamont in London on June 6 for the fun, hands-on workshop “Training design for business results.” It’s action mapping on steroids. You’ll get in-depth practice applying activity-centered design to one of your projects. Learn more about the workshop.

Tips for webinars or virtual training

“What works for webinars?” People have asked this a lot lately, so here’s my opinionated answer.

I do a lot of online workshops, such as the scenario design course that starts soon. I’ve ditched many of the conventional webinar techniques. Here’s what’s left on my list.

My main recommendation:

  • Include many, many thought-provoking questions for people to answer in the chat.

These aren’t polls or multiple-choice questions. They’re more like, “Here’s a problem. How do you think we should solve it?” or “Here’s a draft of a solution. What’s wrong with it?”

Dialogue bubblesI try to ask a question like this every couple of minutes. In my personal notes for the presentation, I highlight in blue every question I plan to make and then scroll through the file to make sure there are blue blobs sprinkled everywhere.

This results in slides that tend to be activities instead of information presentations. For example, I’ll display a slide that has a draft of a scenario question and ask what should be done to make it better. Information that might have spawned a series of bullet-heavy slides called “97 rules of scenario design” goes in the handout, where text belongs.

You could also repurpose a self-paced elearning activity. For example, you could run a scenario in the session. Display the first decision point and ask everyone what they want to do and why. As the debate goes on, one choice will probably surface as the preferred one, so click that and continue the scenario.

Again, I’m suggesting you do this as a discussion, not a poll. It’s harder on you, because you have to read a lot of chat comments, but the learning is far deeper and the issues raised will be surprising.

The chat is where it’s at!

This one change — your commitment to ask a ton of thought-provoking, open-ended questions — means that you’ll design a series of mini-activities instead of an information dump. Your participants will stay with you, thinking and participating, instead of clicking away to plan their Bali trip while you talk to an empty room.

This one change will require a few more changes:

  • You’ll need a webinar platform with a big, public chat window. For now, I’m using WebEx. I hope to use FuzeBox in the future when I’m sure that it plays well with the extreme firewalls some of my customers have. GotoMeeting is out for me because the chat window can’t be resized on my Mac.
  • You’ll need to stop talking and listen. I periodically say, “Hang on, I need to catch up with the chat.” I’m silent while I read what has happened in the chat, and then I respond to it.
  • If you’re recording the session and the chat won’t be recorded, you’ll want to read chat items aloud so the recording makes sense to someone who wasn’t there. Just as you do when presenting to a big group, repeat the question aloud before you answer it. It’s often impossible to read everything; I just hit the major points.
  • If the chat is super-busy, some participants might hide it so they can focus on you. That’s another reason to pause periodically and read aloud the major points being made.
  • As soon as people realize that you want them to use the chat, they will definitely use the chat. This might happen in ways you might not have intended, such as answering each other’s questions or literally chatting. Don’t try to control them. At least they’re in the room with you instead of pricing hotels in Bali.

Yes, you can handle the chat! It can help to have a second person, but I’ve flown solo with up to 400 people typing furiously away. They realize you can’t read and respond to everything. All you need to do is pause occasionally to catch up with the major points or questions.

Everything else

Some more tips:

  • Avoid headaches and reduce development time by creating a presentation without animations or transitions — PDF is usually safe.
  • Use a headset with a decent mic, not the computer’s default mic.
  • Limit sessions to 90 minutes at most.
  • If you’re providing a handout, make it useful, not just a copy of the slide deck. You might create a handout that includes the main slides with additional text.
  • Make the handout available at the beginning or shortly before the presentation, so participants can use it to take notes. If it’s in Word or another easily edited format, they can take notes right in the handout.
  • Practice giving your presentation, of course, timing yourself and allowing lots of time for the chat.

Finally, here are some common webinar techniques that I avoid. Maybe you can convince me that they’re great — leave a comment!

  • Not allowing public chat. This is Mortal Webinar Sin #1 for me. Probably 90% of the sessions that I’ve attended have no chat. You’re only allowed to send questions in secret, and they go only to the presenter. I rarely stick around.
  • Adding “interactivity” by using polls to vote on non-questions, such as “How many people here have seen a boring PowerPoint presentation?”
  • Sending people to breakout rooms. Maybe I just haven’t seen this done well. When I’ve been a participant, breakout rooms have meant five minutes of technological confusion followed by several minutes of “Is anyone else here?” and then “What are we supposed to be doing?” followed by me quietly disappearing to watch the Shiba Inu puppycam.

How about you? What are your favorite techniques for live virtual sessions? What do you recommend avoiding? Let us know in the comments!


Scenario design online course open for January and February

Become a scenario design master with “Scenario design: In-depth and hands-on,” a live online course (with lots of chat!). There’s still room in two of the sessions that start in January and February.

People who have signed up for the course alert list learn about new courses before they’re announced in the blog. Sign up and you’ll be among the first to know when the next sessions are scheduled. The US session sold out quickly after the last mailing — sign up so you don’t miss out next time!

My current very tentative plans are to have an on-demand version of the course available in April and to give another live version in July.

Image credit: iStockPhoto ©petekarici

“Learning should be fun!” But what’s “fun?”

We hear it all the time: “Learning should be fun!” Here’s how it’s often interpreted:

  • “Let’s use a Jeopardy-style game for the quiz.”
  • “Let’s have them explore a haunted museum, clicking on silly things to learn about data privacy.”
  • “We should have a funny-looking wizard explain how the inventory control system works, and he could use his wand to make the data appear on the screen.”
  • “How about a talking frog to explain the supply chain?”

You want me to listen to a talking frog?All of the above are examples of smearing “fun” lipstick on the pig of an information presentation. We’re not challenging the learners in any meaningful way, and we’re probably not motivating them, either.

Then why do we do it? Many people will say that exploring the museum to reveal all the bullet points about data privacy is gamelike and therefore “fun.” However, according to this well-researched post by game researcher Ben Lewis-Evans, it’s not that simple.

The post looks at how games (and in my opinion elearning) might affect dopamine, often presented as the “I like it!” hormone.

The upshot of the research Lewis-Evans examined “is that it appears that dopamine is not directly about pleasure (or learning) but rather it is about motivation or, if you want to be more sinister, compulsion.”

What’s really motivating?

Motivation doesn’t come from clicking a spider web to reveal a couple of sentences and move the progress bar one millimeter. According to Lewis-Evans’ review of the research, many other elements are better at motivating us. Here are the ones that caught my eye:

  • “Rewards should be meaningful.”
  • “Learning to get and want a certain reward is enhanced by immediate feedback about what behavioral response produced that reward.”
  • “People tend to dislike rewards that are delivered in a way that is perceived to be controlling.”
  • “Feelings of mastery, self-achievement, and effortless high performance appear to be quite rewarding.”

Feelings of mastery should be our goal. Clicking a messy desk to reveal preachy warnings about filing forms builds zero mastery. Successfully making increasingly difficult choices in a realistic scenario is far more likely to build a sense of mastery.

If a stakeholder wants you to add alien spacecraft, treasure hunts, or talking animals, they mean well. However, you might respond that building mastery provides the real fun. So rather than spending time drawing the spacecraft, we should use that time to design challenging, realistic activities that give people a sense of accomplishment.

Have you had to talk someone out of a “fun” way to present information? Let us know how it went in the comments.

Why you want to put the activity first

Let’s say we’re designing a course that will help widget sales people overcome buyers’ objections. The objection we’re focusing on right now is this one: “I’ve read that your widget creates a lot of heat.” We have a specific way we’d like our sales people to respond to that objection.

Some people in our audience are familiar with the concerns about heat, while new people might not know as much.

How do you think most training designers would approach this? I think they’d do it like this.

Presentation followed by activity

The designers would think, “First, we’ll tell them the common concerns about heat, to make sure everyone knows them. Then we’ll tell them what our own research shows about the heat and why it’s not a big deal. Then we’ll tell them how to respond to heat objections, and finally we’ll let them practice with a scenario.”

Why did I label this “boring and inefficient?”

  • The learners have to trudge through many screens before they finally get to use their brains.
  • Some people already know the stuff presented on the many screens.
  • The how-to info is presented immediately before the scenario, making the scenario a simple check of short-term memory.

Here’s a more efficient approach that has the added advantage of helping people learn by doing.

Series of activities followed by a recap

We immediately plunge learners into a realistic scenario — followed by another and another. Then we concisely recap what they’ve figured out through the scenarios.

The material feels like a stream of activities, not pages of information followed by one lonely memory check. The recap will be memorable and concise because it refers back to concrete examples, such as, “As you saw with Ravi’s objection, it’s best to …”

But what about the information?

We can include the information about heat issues as optional links in the scenario.

Screen from scenario with links to optional information

Now our material is more efficient and a heck of a lot more interesting. People who already know all about the heat issues (or, importantly, think they know) will forge ahead without reading the optional documents. Newer or more careful people will check the documents to make sure they know what’s going on. Both groups will figure out if they chose correctly when they see the results of their choices.

In addition, the optional documents are low-tech PDFs or pages on the intranet, the same documents that people use on the job. This makes the information much easier to update and puts the scenario in a more realistic context.

But they might just guess and miss important information!

The usual argument for the boring and inefficient approach is, “We have to make sure everyone is exposed to the information.” But who cares whether they’ve been exposed to it? What we care about is whether they know it and can apply it.

So we’ll design scenarios that make them prove they know it, and we’ll design enough challenging scenarios about the same important information to make sure no one is slipping through the cracks. And if we’re really worried about information being missed, we can include it in the feedback, as shown in this post.

But you didn’t show them how to overcome objections!

We haven’t led them by the nose through the Heat Objection Handling Process because we want them to figure it out through experience. Our feedback will help. For example, if someone chooses option C above, they’ll see the following result:

“I’m not surprised that your studies don’t show any problems,” Ravi says, sounding a little annoyed. “But Widget World does rigorous, independent testing, and they found heat issues. What can you tell me about the heat?”

From this, learners realize that shoving research at the customer backfires. It sounds like option A was the better option, and for their next step, they’ll want to calmly discuss the concerns. (This post goes into more detail on why we’re just showing the result rather than telling the learner what they did right or wrong.)

More design time, less development

This approach usually requires more in-depth discussions with the subject matter experts and more careful script writing. However, it often results in quicker and easier development. We’re building fewer screens and, happily, we feel less compelled to add bling in a desperate attempt to make a boring presentation more interesting.

Have you had any success designing material that puts the activities first? Let us know in the comments!

3 powerful ideas you should steal from marketing

Marketers and trainers have the same goals: They want people to do something. But they achieve those goals in vastly different ways, and I think marketers often do it better. Let’s look at some techniques we can steal from a successful marketing video.

This post includes two embeds that probably won’t appear if you’re reading it through email or an RSS reader. I recommend you view this post in the blog.

Here’s our role model, the immensely popular commercial for the Dollar Shave Club. Not allowed to watch YouTube? Watch the same video here on Vimeo.

Put on your headphones — inappropriate language is bleeped out but could still offend.

The video was so effective that the influx of traffic knocked the Dollar Shave Club site offline. The commercial has been featured in several publications as an example of highly effective, low-budget marketing.

Now for the “training” version

What does the Dollar Shave Club guy want us to do? He wants us to go to his site and sign up for his service. Let’s look at how an instructional designer might try to inspire the same action.

Here’s the training version, without audio. Many elearning developers would have a narrator read the screen to you, but I couldn’t make myself do it.

 
What does the Dollar Shave Club guy do differently?

Here are just a few differences.

1. “I think you’re smart.”

The Dollar Shave Club guy uses a fast pace, he mocks other commercials because he knows we see them as dumb, and he lets us draw conclusions rather than telling us everything explicitly. He says, “I think you’re smart,” and that makes us like him.

The training version plods and spoon-feeds us predigested information. It doesn’t let us draw any conclusions on our own. It says, “I think you’re dumb, so dumb that I have to lead you by the nose through the most basic of information.” Who wants to be told they’re dumb?

2. “I’m an actual human being with a personality.”

The Dollar Shave Club guy really is the Dollar Shave Club guy. He’s talking about his business. He’s also an underdog in the world of shaving products, and we tend to root for underdogs.

Who’s the person behind the training version? There’s no one there. It’s the tiresome Omniscient One, the faceless, personality-free voice of the nobody who knows everything. It’s no underdog, it’s Big Brother.

Also, in the video we meet Alejandra, a person who’s real and therefore memorable. In the training version, she’s replaced by a forgettable abstraction, an “order fulfillment position.”

3. Surprise!

The Dollar Shave Club commercial is one huge surprise filled with many smaller surprises. Big surprise: “This can’t be a real ad! Wait, it is!” Smaller surprises: Everything else.

The training version, like most training materials, has zero surprises. It’s a dry, predictable conveyor belt of dry, predictable information.

Objections

You or your stakeholders might already be saying the following.

“We don’t have that kind of budget!” It’s not the budget, it’s the ideas. I’m not saying, “Produce a funny video commercial.” I’m saying, “Treat your audience like they’re smart,” “Use a real person with a personality,” and “Don’t be so predictable.”

“But we’re not selling anything. The comparison is unfair.” Marketers want to inspire a specific action. It can be “Buy the razor,” but it can also be “Sign up for our email list” or “Test drive our car.” Just like marketers, we want people to do something. We want them to encrypt emails, use the 5-step Difficult Conversations model, stop standing on chairs to reach high shelves… Marketing has tested a bajillion ways to get people to act, and we should steal the good ones.

“Obscenities are a low form of humor and we could never use them.” I’m not suggesting you use any obscenities. I’m suggesting you look at the larger picture, such as the three ideas listed above that separate lively marketing from conventional training.

What do you think? What ideas can we steal from marketing? Do you know of any elearning that applies any of these principles? Let us know in the comments!

If you thought the commercial was funny and would like to use humor in your materials, you might like my post How humor helps.

How humor helps + Powtoon review

I recently created a funny (I hope!) cartoon to motivate people to learn more, and it motivated me to learn more about how humor can improve learning.

If you don’t see the cartoon below, you can watch it here.

(If you’re a blog subscriber and are reading this in your email or RSS reader, you should see a link to the ebook at the bottom of this post.)

The cartoon is a trailer more than a “teaching” tool, since it just touches on the main points. Its design comes straight from marketing: Remind them of the pain they’re feeling, tell them they can get the cure, and ask them to act. The same pattern would probably work in any training trailer to boost enrollments.

In a recent LinkedIn discussion about the cartoon, Megan Torrance reported that in one of her projects, elearning modules with a funny cartoon trailer had twice as many signups as modules without the trailer.

The same type of cartoon could be used when a client wants “awareness” but can’t identify any behaviors that actually require that awareness. When a “course” must be created regardless of its usefulness, a cartoon would at least be more fun than an information dump.

What research says about humor

I poked around Google Scholar and found studies that seem to agree that (relevant!) humor in teaching can increase retention, motivation, and comprehension.

The use of positive humor can also increase the likeability of the instructor. This could be especially helpful in corporate elearning, where the “presenter” is often faceless and personality-free.

The article “How Laughing Leads to Learning” offers a readable summary of some research and makes several points that are relevant to corporate training. Thanks, Matthias Herrmann, for pointing it out. My main takeaways from the article:

  • Humor appears to reduce anxiety by decreasing the effects of stress hormones.
  • It appears to improve motivation and recall.
  • It should be appropriate to the audience and sprinkled here and there rather than applied with a firehose.

I’d add that humor is surprising, and surprises are memorable. As Julie Dirksen explains in her (funny!) book Design for How People Learn, “If something is exactly the way we thought it would be, there’s really no reason to allocate mental resources to reinforcing that thought or idea.”

Finally, humor often uses analogy, exaggeration, emotion, vivid imagery, and unique sounds, all of which probably make the content more memorable.

Design decisions for the cartoon

Narration: I could have uploaded narration to the tool I used, but I thought, why? What would it add? So I didn’t add it. Plus, I’m not a fan of narration, as I’ve probably made clear in this blog (like in this post).

Pacing: The quick pacing is more marketing style than training style. Even when it’s just offering the high points, training tends to be a lot slower because … why? I actually wish that elearning developers would speed up, which is another reason for my burning hatred dislike of narration. It’s ironic that we easily digest quick messages from marketing but then design elearning that plods.

Powtoon review

I made the cartoon with Powtoon, a web app. You edit and save your work online and export the files as MP4s. Although you can upload audio and visuals, all the content of my cartoon is provided by Powtoon.

Pros:

  • It’s intuitive — the timeline is simple; it’s easy to change entrances and exits.
  • The stock characters and animations inspire you to use humor.
  • There’s a decent supply of images within each “style” of images.
  • It’s easy to preview and export your cartoon.
  • Non-artists like me can easily create cartoons.

Cons:

  • You can’t change music files in the middle of a cartoon or fade the audio. I had to make two cartoons and join them in iMovie, where I also edited the audio.
  • The shortest interval on the timeline is one second.
  • The range of character styles is limited but will likely grow.
  • Other users report that it’s hard to sync narration. If I wanted to add narration to the cartoon (when pigs fly), I’d record it separately while watching the cartoon and then connect the cartoon and audio in a video editor.
  • I noticed some visual artifacts when editing, and when I exported a cartoon, it often had a random audio glitch that re-exporting usually fixed.

More thoughts on humor

I think we have a bajillion opportunities to make things lighter and more memorable without offending someone somewhere, but all I hear when I mention humor is fear. I’ve got some tips for incorporating humor in this early blog post (along with the dramatic front page of the tabloid Elearning Informer).

What do you think? Is this kind of cartoon too risky? Why don’t we use humor more often?

Can we use training to motivate?

In my previous post, I showed a flowchart that could help you find the best solution to a performance problem. Thanks to your comments and questions, I’ve improved the chart to make clear two of my opinions:

  • Training is rarely the solution for low motivation
  • When training could help, it’s best to let learners become motivated through experience (decision-making scenarios) rather than preaching at them (presentations)

First, you might want to download the revamped flowchart. Here’s how the motivation bit looks now:

Motivation section of the action mapping flowchart

I’ve added a new loop that sends you back to the main analysis node because low motivation is usually a side effect, not a core problem. It’s often caused by one of the other three problems in the chart.

  • Environment: High pressure, a poorly managed organizational change, user-hostile software, heavy-handed management … these can all lead to low motivation. Training is unlikely to help, unless you can train away the environmental problem, such as by improving managers’ skills.
  • Knowledge: If the employees who do the data-entry drudgery for the TPS reports don’t know the painful results of their screwups, they’ll be less motivated to avoid errors. For example, we could show them that a rejected TPS record can mean that a client doesn’t get the check she needs to buy medication. If this is included in the results of a branching scenario that we’re also using to practice entering TPS records, then I’d be willing to call it training. However, if it’s just a finger-wagging exhortation divorced from any application, it’s not training in my book.
  • Skills: If I don’t have the skill to quickly and painlessly parametize widgets, I will dislike having to parametize widgets. Give me training!

When low motivation can’t be blamed on anything else

I’ve heard several reports of “lazy” workers. “They just don’t want to do it,” the client says. “They don’t care.” [Read more…]

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