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Storyboarding, prototypes and e-learning design

October 11, 2011

Have you heard of The Toolbar? It’s a podcast by Brian and Judy on e-learning. And beer. Why not?

(Although I’m not a Mac user, I hope that doesn’t completely eliminate me as a target listener).

This week they talked a bit about storyboarding. During the listening of the podcast, I found myself wanting to ask questions, jump in, get clarification, etc. Which is a great thing. I think it’s a sign of an engaging program.  Turns out, others were listening too! As a matter of fact, it seemed to be a bit of a trend. I saw this post on the Captivate blog as well.

Kevin Thorn (aka learnnugget) was the guest and he said he is not a fan of showing any kind of graphic to client in the initial stages, as the client can become fixated with that element and derail the higher level instructional framework. He starts with the storyboard and maps it out. Judy talked about prototyping, referencing Michael Allen’s approach (alluding to this, but not necessarily endorsing).  It made me think about my design process, more specifically marrying the graphic or visual design with the instructional flow. I’m not sure what to call my approach, because I don’t think it’s strictly storyboarding, nor is it prototyping. It’s more like information architecture with a splash of film treatment, like the elearning coach says.

I don’t have the design chops that Kevin has or the development skills that Judy has, so can’t really subscribe to one camp or the other. What I find that I need is a design concept to not only organize the content, but contextualize the instructional activities, envision the navigation, filter and organize the content and narrow down visual/graphic design ideas and usability and finally to anchor the project. And, I can’t do it all sequentially or in a linear mode. I sort of flesh it out organically.

In fact, I have a tendency to show different approaches/design concepts with clients to test their reaction and elicit feedback (“hate that idea”, “too hokey”, “we’ve already used metaphor X”, “I like this, but toned down a little”…). Usually I do those as categories: process-driven, scenario-heavy, realistic, etc. The things that the client reacts to, gives me insight and somewhere to discuss.  For example, I recently reviewed some options with a client and he loved one element, but did not want to use it for the whole course, but for certain activities. We talked some more about things and he said “well this program is like a classic hero’s journey” which gave me tons of new ideas, inspiration…they all seemed a bit too contrived, but it’s all an iterative process isn’t it?  I probably should follow Tom Kuhlmann’s advice though…pare it down a little.

Once I have the concept, then I can decide storyboard or prototype or something else. But, without the pitch (think The Player, as in the movie), then I find it hard for the client or SME to get it and agree that this the kind of experience you are going to build together.

I’m curious to know: how do you approach elearning design?

22 Comments leave one →
  1. October 11, 2011 12:34 pm

    Hi Holly – I think this is becoming quite a hot topic at the moment, but it seems the rapid prototyping approach, favored by Allen interactions, may have been taken out of context. As far as I can tell they use it because they have adopted an agile development process, which I think has massive potential for improving elearning development workflows. However, it seems like you really need to have a team of people for it to work properly, which for many of us makes it tricky to engineer. Don Clark (the American one!) put together this great post which adapts the agile manifesto to learning design.

    • hollymacdonald permalink*
      October 12, 2011 9:13 am

      Hi Sam – thanks for your input – agree the agile model is something to consider, I don’t know enough to speak about it. I’ll check out Don’s post ( Are you an agile user? Does it provide some guidance around how to infuse the look/feel to the learning experience? Should I invest some energy in looking at that?

      It seems that we borrow from graphic design, human computer interaction, film-making (and others) as we deal more and more with designing for learning online. Perhaps it is ignorance on my part, I’m certainly no expert, but wondered if I was unique in my struggle to find an approach that works, not just for rapid e-learning (the dreaded powerpoint conversions) but all learning.

      Hope to see more comments, even ones that tell me I’m full of it!


      • October 12, 2011 2:09 pm

        To be honest Holly it’s only very recently that I’ve been learning about it and seeing the possible benefits. The last two projects I did unwittingly used parts of agile, then I stumbled upon a post on Twitter that made me join the dots. Since then I’ve been collecting resources on diigo; but I haven’t really had time to reflect on them properly. One of the more interesting resources on there is this wiki; which expands the application of agile principles to learning in general.
        I’ll blog about it myself in the near future as I try to figure out ways to apply some of the principles.

      • hollymacdonald permalink*
        October 12, 2011 2:15 pm

        Awesome, thanks for sharing Sam. I’ll be checking out your suggested resources, and look forward to your blog post. Feel free to link back here or tweet it, so I can read it.

  2. Greg (@gdochuk) permalink
    October 12, 2011 6:59 am

    Thanks Holly for this post. Its making me think about the way I approach and structure an elearning experience. I especially appreciate your reference to taking a more “organic” approach which I believe is essential to “personalizing” a course.

    In things like storyboarding I always find the challenge is balancing the content with the design and making sure they work in tandem. This is where planning – followed by interaction – really helps.

    • hollymacdonald permalink*
      October 12, 2011 9:18 am

      Thanks for your feedback Greg and glad to know it is making you think. I don’t have the answers, and believe that some of the approaches we take are based on personal style and preference, but the podcast made me wonder where I fit. I do think the experience part is important. If we are to develop engaging “learning products”, then we need to think about experiences. I’m looking for input from other readers that will help me learn more about the processes that others take and how they deal with the whole ball of wax.

  3. October 12, 2011 10:01 am

    Hi Holly. I’m working on this with govt and have samples, diagrams of process and templates. It’s been a challenge to take what would be an original, quasi-organiz process and adjust it to become a repeatable model. Definately trade-offs but so far a large team is able to work with the process even though they are not experts at any aspect of elearning from writing to design to development. Anyway, I will share what I have learned with the community soon!


    • hollymacdonald permalink*
      October 12, 2011 10:54 am

      Always like it when you share Stephanie!


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