Managing the Complexity of Branching Scenarios

On reddit, someone asked how to manage the complexity of branching scenarios and keep them from growing out of control. One of the issues with branching scenarios is that you can get exponential growth. If each choice has 3 options, you end up with 9 slides after just 2 choices, and 27 after 3 choices. This is 40 pages total with only 3 decisions per path. For most projects, that’s more complexity than you want or need.

Branching scenario with exponential growth

So how do you manage this complexity?

Use Twine

One way to make this branching easier to manage is by creating your scenarios in Twine. Twine makes it very easy to draft scenarios and check how all the connections flow together. No matter how complex your scenario is, Twine makes it easier to create it. Cathy Moore has an example of a scenario she built in Twine. This scenario has 57 total decision points, but it only took her 8 hours to create.

You can use Twine as your initial prototype, or you can use it as your final product. I have used Twine as my initial draft and prototype, then exported everything to Word as a storyboard for developers to build the final version in Storyline.

Planning a Scenario

Before I sit down to write a scenario, I always know my objectives. What are you teaching or assessing?

I usually have an idea of how long the ideal or perfect path will be. If you have a multi-step process, that’s your ideal path. If there’s going to be 4 decision points on the shortest path, I know what those are before I start writing.

I also usually know at least some of the decision points based on errors or mistakes I need to address.

There’s a limit to how much you can plan before you just start writing it out though. I find it’s easier to just open up Twine and figure it out within that system.

Allow Opportunities to Fix Mistakes

One trick for managing the potentially exponential growth is by giving learners a chance to get back on the right path if they make a minor error. If they make 2 or 3 errors in a row, they get to an ending and have to restart the whole thing.

For example, maybe you’re teaching a communication skill where they should start with an open-ended question before launching into a sales pitch. Choice A is the open-ended question (the best choice). Choice B is a closed question (an OK choice). Choice C is jumping right into the sales pitch without asking (bad choice). After the customer response for choice B, I’d give them an opportunity to use the open-ended question (A) as their follow up. Reusing some choices helps keep it from growing out of control. In this image, reusing choices cuts the total number of pages from 40 to 20.

Flowchart for branching scenario with 20 pages Make Some Paths Shorter

Not every path needs to be the same length. In the above image, one branch from choice C is shorter. It ends after 2 choices instead of 3. You might make a short path if people make several major errors in a row. Past a certain point, it makes sense to  ask people to reset the scenario from the beginning or backtrack to a previous decision.

Good, OK, and Bad

In branching scenarios, not everything is as black and white as a clear-cut right or wrong answer. You can have good, OK, and bad choices and endings. In this example from my portfolio, green is good choices/endings, orange is OK choices/endings, and red is bad choices/endings. In this scenario, if you choose 39 (bad), you have 3 options: 40 (back on the good path, recovering from the mistake), 41 (OK), and 42 (a bad choice leading to a restart). This example has 15 endings, which is still more than I would like; if I was redoing it now I would probably collapse a few more of those endings together.

Branching scenario flowchart with good, OK, and bad choices and endings

Your Ideas?

Do you have any suggestions or tips for managing and reducing the complexity of branching scenarios? Please share in the comments.

Instructional Design Isn’t Dying. It’s Evolving.

You may have read dire predictions that instructional design is dead. The eLearning Guild just published a report titled “Is instructional design a dying art?” One of the guild’s recent surveys asked participants if ID is a dying field. Is it really?

Recently emerged monarch butterfly

No, It’s Not Dying; It’s Evolving

Instructional design is not dead or dying. That’s clickbait. This is a perennial hand wringing exercise. Marc Rosenberg wrote about it in 2004, and even 13 years ago he mentioned that this pops up every few years.

Instructional design isn’t dying; it’s evolving. Instructional design previously evolved from only classroom training to classroom plus online training. Now the field continues to evolve and expand. In fact, in the Guild report mentioned above, all 13 industry thought leaders agreed that instructional design is changing rather than dying.

As the field evolves, the name may change from instructional design to learning design, learning experience design or something else. I now call myself a “learning design consultant” rather than instructional designer. Regardless of the name, the core skills of instructional design will continue to be valuable and needed in the workplace.

Fragmentation and Diversification

I think instructional design will continue to fragment and diversify. Formal training isn’t disappearing; workers have too many skills they need and switch careers too often. In fact, I think ongoing formal training may even increase. Formal training will be accompanied by more informal training and performance support.

We will continue to have more potential skills than any single person can learn, so we will work more often in teams with specialists in particular skills.

New Technology and More Options

New technologies will give IDs new options. New technology often won’t completely replace old technology, but old and new will exist side-by-side. Sometimes how we use older technology will change. When TV became prevalent, radio didn’t disappear, but we listen in our cars now. Physical books haven’t vanished due to ebooks, but how we buy them has changed. Our future will likely include computers, mobile, AR, and VR. VR will be fantastic in certain situations, but it’s not going to be the right solution for every learning need.

Karl Kapp has noted that new technology is one reason the job outlook for instructional designers is still good.

Google Trends

One reason for the concern about instructional design dying is that it has been trending down on Google for a number of years. The trend has mostly flattened out, but it is much lower than it was in 2004. Brent Schlenker observed this trend in 2016.

Google Trends for "instructional design" 2004-2017

If you compare instructional design and learning design (the red line), you’ll see that learning design is now searched more often than instructional design. Learning design has also trended down, but not quite as far as instructional design.

Google trend comparing "instructional design" and "learning design"

While instructional design and learning design have trended down, elearning is trending up. I don’t believe the interest in online learning overall is likely to diminish, although it will evolve. Traditional self-paced elearning may decrease, but not all online learning.

 

Google trends showing elearning increasing

Looking Ahead

I see a fairly rosy future for instructional designers and learning designers, especially those who focus on lifelong learning and reflective practice. We will have to evolve to continue to be successful, but that need to constantly learn is part of what makes this field so rewarding. We will have to give up some of our old ways, but we can learn to change and be amazing.

“How does one become a butterfly?” she asked.
“You must want to fly so much that you are willing to give up being a caterpillar.”

—Trina Paulus, Hope for the Flowers

What do you think? Is instructional design doomed, or will we survive in a changed form?

 

 

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ID and E-Learning Links (6/26/17)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Instructional Design and E-Learning Links

Objections to Stories for Learning

“Not everyone can be a storyteller.”

“Stories are a waste of learners’ time.”

“Stories don’t work for all kinds of training.”

Have you heard any of these objections? Maybe you’ve even raised some of these objections yourself. Here’s how I would respond to each of these objections.

Objections to Stories for Learning

“Not everyone can be a storyteller.”

Imagine you’re on the phone with someone explaining a bad day and everything went wrong. What happened first that made it a bad day? What happened next? What did you do about it? How did you feel? Did anything change by the end of the day?

Can you imagine yourself telling the story of a bad day? Congratulations–you’re a storyteller! We tell stories about ourselves all the time. We explain our lives in narrative form.

No one is born a storyteller. Telling stories is a skill like anything else. You can develop it with practice and training. Maybe you’ll never write the “great American novel,” but that’s not what you need for creating stories for learning. You need specific skills for creating relevant stories to meet learning goals. Stories for learning are often short, maybe even only a few sentences long.

You CAN learn to be a better storyteller. This is a skill like anything else. With practice, feedback, and the right strategies, you can improve your story writing skills.

“Stories are a waste of learners’ time.”

In a LinkedIn group discussion, someone (we’ll call him “T”) argued, “Learners aren’t there to be entertained. They have a very low tolerance for time-wasting content. If you include games or stories, use them sparingly, and don’t patronize your learner.”

First, I think it’s arguable whether or not learners want to be entertained. However, I think it’s fair to say that learners primarily want to accomplish a goal or solve a problem. We should use stories when they help us meet our objectives. If a story doesn’t support the objectives (or distracts from the objectives), we shouldn’t use it.

Stories can be a waste of learners’ time. “T” shared an example of content with a pirate theme that had nothing to do with the course content. Learners had to click 12 times to get through the intro story before they got to any substance. I agree with “T” on this example; that’s a waste of time. It’s a flashy wrapper around content. It doesn’t add context or relevance.

If you’re going to use stories, focus on how they can help you meet your learning objectives. That might mean using stories as examples or mini-scenarios for assessment. You have a range of options for storytelling available; pick the kind of story that best meets your objectives. Make your stories relevant, not just flashy distractions.

“Stories don’t work for all kinds of training.”

Stories aren’t always appropriate or necessary, but they can work in most kinds of training. For example, software training can use stories for motivation, to show why certain features are used, or to model the thought process of using the program.

For compliance training, every regulation, rule, or policy has a reason behind it. (It may not be a great reason, but set that aside for now.) Chances are, the rule exists because someone broke it. What are the consequences? Why does it matter if people follow the rule?

In compliance training, you can use stories to show people the consequences of violating policies rather than just telling them. You could start by showing a disaster or accident to hook learners in the story. After the intro, go back in time. Show the sequence of events and decisions that led to things getting so bad.

A fantastic example of this is The Lab from the Office of Research Integrity (Flash required). Ethics in research is a topic that could be dry and boring, but this brings it to life and shows the real long-term consequences of decisions. The very first words in the video are “It was a bad day.” You see a reporter questioning someone about questionable lab results. In this branching scenario, you have an opportunity to go back in time to undo the mistakes and avoid the public scandal. Even if you don’t have the budget for something at this level, you can use this worst case scenario strategy.

You can also set up a scenario where learners have to make a decision following the policy. Use the story to give them motivation to look up the relevant rules.

Other Objections?

What other objections do you hear or have to using stories to support learning? How do you respond to objections? Tell me in the comments.

Image: Graphic Stock

Software Training with Stories

“Stories don’t work for all kinds of training.”

One of the common objections I hear to using storytelling in training is that “stories don’t work for all kinds of training.” Those who are skeptical of storytelling often use software training as an example where stories don’t work. However, I think stories can have a place in some (maybe even most) software training.

Software Training with Stories

When to Avoid Stories and Focus on Features

Sometimes software training should be just about the features. In that case, you’re often doing more technical writing than instructional design. Just get in, show the features, and be done. Short tutorials and demos are great for that, and they don’t always need a story. If your goal is to create 5 minute tutorials to help people solve a problem at a moment of need, they’re already motivated and engaged. You don’t need stories in that case.

We often provide software training in advance of the need though. Instead of something learners seek out to solve their own problems, we’re training them about what they’ll do in the future. That training is often much longer; instead of 5 minutes, we might spend hours reviewing everything software can do. Have you ever gone through software training that was just a list of features with no context? How helpful was it? Did you wonder WHY you might use certain features or why a software update would help you?

Examples as Stories

With a few exceptions, nearly any training can benefit from examples. Those examples are often stories. When I taught Microsoft Office as a classroom trainer, I often told stories as examples. I had a collection of stories about colleagues or past students who had solved a specific problem like this one.

“One of my past students had a spreadsheet that needed to be updated every day. She added new data at the bottom, and then she sorted the spreadsheet. The way it was set up required significant manual cleanup. She spent at least an hour or two every day making manual adjustments to the spreadsheet. We found several ways to adjust the structure of the spreadsheet so nearly everything was automated. Instead of one or two hours, the new process only took her about 15 minutes a day. With a bit of initial work to set up the spreadsheet, we saved her at least 5 hours a week of wasted time. That’s why this information I’m about to explain about setting up your spreadsheet for sorting and filtering is so important.”

That’s a real story (it’s the only time in my training career where a student literally jumped up and down with excitement at the end of the course). When I was training Excel, I didn’t just tell students, “It’s important for you to set up your spreadsheets to make it easier for sorting and filtering.” I gave them the example so they understood why it was important and why it would matter to them. I made it concrete and relevant.

In elearning, this example could be presented similarly to how I used it in my classroom training. Instead of having a narrator tell it in the third person, I’d probably reword it to come from the point of view of the user. “I had a spreadsheet that needed to be updated every day…”

Stories to Increase Motivation

When we create software training, we want people to change their behavior. We want them to use the software and use it in specific ways. We want them to be motivated to use the software effectively.

This is especially important when software is updated and people need to change how they use it. It’s not always enough to just say, “here’s a new feature.” Sometimes we need to show people why that feature is going to make them better. Stories and scenarios put those features in context so users are more motivated to try them.

Hands-On Practice with Scenarios

As a software trainer, the books I taught from included examples that were often scenarios. Excel pivot tables are much easier to understand if you have a realistic project where you need answers from data. Those projects are scenarios, whether you’re teaching in a classroom or creating elearning.

The example above with the poorly formatted spreadsheet could easily be converted to a practice scenario. Instead of simply giving people a set of steps to follow, the scenario provides some context.

Why and When to Use Features

If your software training is meant to help people solve a problem while they’re in the middle of working, then microlearning focused on just the features can work. If your software training is intended to give people an overview of complex software, including why and when to use certain features, stories can be helpful.

For example, layer masks are a critical tool in Photoshop. It’s not always obvious to novices why they’re important though. This tutorial puts layer masks in context by creating a realistic scenario (merging together two wedding photos for a client). The author even starts by explaining how to merge the photos with an easy but incorrect and destructive technique. This shows the benefits of using the right technique and addresses a common mistake. There are plenty of tutorials out there explaining various features of Photoshop. Not so many explain how to select the correct tool for the job–that’s what’s valuable in this example.

In complex software, it’s often not enough to know how to use various features. Sometimes you have multiple options for an action, each with pros and cons. In Captivate, you can use a regular Advanced Action or a Shared Action. Depending on your needs, one or the other may be a better choice and make your development more efficient. Stories and scenarios help learners understand how to choose the right tools.

Model the Thought Process

Stories can also be helpful for modeling the thought process that accompanies using software. For example, I once created a software tutorial on how to troubleshoot a particularly problematic task in an LMS. We wanted the online instructors to do some basic error checking themselves before contacting technical support. While I could have simply provided a PDF document with the steps to troubleshoot (and I did provide that as a job aid), I also created an interactive simulation.

In the simulation, an instructor (represented with voice over plus character photos) narrated how she solved the problem. She walked through each step of her thought process. The actual story was pretty thin (an instructor has a problem in the LMS), but the character gave learners enough to relate to. This training gave learners more confidence that they could troubleshoot it because the process was modeled by a character similar to themselves.

How Do You Use Stories and Scenarios?

How do you use stories and scenarios in software training? Do you have a great example of your own? Share it in the comments.

If you’re developing software training and are feeling stuck, feel free to share that in the comments as well. We can brainstorm together ways to use stories to make your training more relevant and engaging.

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