By Cathy Moore
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.
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?
I spent about the same amount of time writing and producing this as I did in creating the above scenario. But it’s a more realistic conversation and goes into more depth.
I saved time by using Twine, which makes it easy to manage branches and that combines writing and production.
Another big savings came from not searching for multiple images showing the client with subtly different expressions. 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 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’ve seen it work.
I’ve 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, “Photos and graphics are a sign of a fluffy activity” or “Lack of photos and graphics 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.