What needs to be done before you start a storyboard - Podcast

Posted by Robin Petterd on 7 November 2016

An interview with Anna Sabramowicz, Co-Founder of Elearner Engaged, about what an instructional designer needs to do before they start a working on a storyboard.

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Robin:
It's Robin Petterd here, host of the Learning While Working podcast. With this next podcast, again we explore instructional design processes and practices. I’m talking with Anna from Elearner Engaged. In this interview, we talk about what needs to be started before an instructional designer can start on a storyboard. Also explored are some issues around storyboarding as well.

Anna, thank you for joining me today on the podcast.

Anna:
My pleasure, thank you for having me Robin.

Robin:
Cool. I'm hoping to talk to you today a little bit about your storyboarding process and can you just talk a little bit about what you do before you start storyboarding?

Anna:
Yes. When you say before I start storyboarding, you mean starting an e-learning project specifically?

Robin:
Yes, before you start an e-learning project, before you get to that stage where you start to think what goes on screens and what goes on pages. What are some of the steps you do before you actually even get to that point?

Anna:
Excellent question. There's actually quite a lot that happens before you get to—it's almost like the storyboard is your design specs. Before you get to the design specs and say, "This is the solution, this is the interactions that are going to help me achieve my business goal or my learning goal," I really have to step back and think about what am I trying to achieve? To get to a storyboard it takes some decisions. That takes some vetting as well because you have to have made the decision that this indeed is the right action to take and how am I going to prove that this solution is going to be successful, what are some ways that I'm going to have my learners prove mastery to me, prove confidence? How is that going to translate into a successful business outcome? Will it change behaviour, how do I do that, and is that our goal, and how are we going to observe that after this dissolution is going to be implemented?

There's a lot more of a—I think about the business and what are the specific problems that we're trying to solve and sometimes the storyboard is not the way to go. If I'm at the storyboard piece, I've already done a lot of questioning and a lot of assessment and a lot of justification that I should be there.

Robin:
There was a HR graduate that joined us at one stage at Sprout Labs to do some research work. She sort of, in the first way she did, "What's an instructional designer do?" She explained and she went, "Oh, they must be really good at asking questions." It was interesting because I went "Actually, you get what that role is really about," because that thing of questioning is almost what I think that first stage is really about.

'Vetting' is a really interesting word in terms of that. What sort of thinking goes into that vetting process for you around what goes in and what goes out and what things help inform that?

Anna:
I think you'd be pretty familiar with this concept. I don't know if your audience would be but for me the vetting is that moment of, "Where are we going to have the most impact with this solution?" The vetting happens with the medium that we're going to use. I always refer to the Five Moments of Need developed by Conrad Gottfredson and Bob Mosher who said that learning takes place in certain points of an employee's or a person's, let's say life or workplace area. That learning is accessed at different points for different reasons whether it is initially to learn something new or later to learn something more, or later to get a refresher or as a reference. All of those points warrant a different type of solution, they can't all be— You can't use e-learning as a reference. It's just not scalable or helpful. You can't use that up necessarily a manual for learning because that's more of a reference thing instead of a learning thing. Usually manuals are written in a certain language that isn't conducive necessarily to learning but more to execution.

Basically the vetting I do is to think about where will this solution, this problem that we're trying to solve, where can I almost—what's the 20 percent that's going to deliver the most value to this business? If that means that we're recording a great, let's say story, a learning story that people get to listen to on their commute to work because that's going to have that cultural impact and maybe start some conversations around the [water] cooler, then that's the way to go. The vetting is really what's going to give me the most value for the time that we're going to ask the learner to spend with our whatever we're going to build or repurpose.

Robin:
That's some really interesting ideas there. In one of the podcasts that's in the first batch of podcasts is actually me discussing the idea that my favorite learning word was actually 'Impact' because I think it really, if you focus on the impact word, changes the way you think about what you design. It changes the way you think about what you evaluate. It's just nice emotional word as well that people get very quickly. I think it really puts discussions with subject matter experts and stakeholders in a really different place.

Anna:
I agree and I like the fact that you said that it's emotional because I've never actually thought about it that way but it's true. You're right. I think when you do have those conversations with stakeholders and to me it's that—just focusing on that aspect of it alone, it changes your conversation. We're no longer saying everything's important, we're now being very judicious about why we're doing what we're doing and what's going to be included as far as either whether it is activities or content or something else.

Robin:
Yeah. That Five Moments of Need, I've actually never heard that be used as that sort of process of figuring out which type of e-learning do we need in this particular spot. It's quite a nice framework for doing that, because if you all of a sudden say we need something that's a reference material, you're going a really different direction. That can be really useful and as if you mix up those things you end up in a really messy spot. I've had a couple of HR people say to me a couple of times, "Oh, we want the e-learning to be the reference that people go back to," and I go, "Actually I've never heard of anyone going back to an e-learning module as a reference."

Anna:
Never.

Robin:
Never. Never ever.

Anna:
Can you Google it? That's reference, right?

Robin:
Yeah. I've actually even heard someone recently talk about the fact that people would ask them for screenshots for references because they were so scared to go back into the modules afterwards, that they'll be marked as an incomplete.

Anna:
That's terrible. That's a terrible way to get ... Entry even to just be afraid that you might be—I reset my mark.

Robin:
Some of this process of thinking through questioning and refining, we've tried a few different ways of trying to document it, including design documents and the outlines. A couple of times we've ended up with sticky notes all over the office wall. Just really interested to hear how you try to bring some of this stuff and this thinking process together and how you share it with the rest of the team and your clients as well?

Anna:
I feel like of all the challenges that professionally I've had is to have an artifact that can be shared easily and understood easily by everyone on the team. The storyboard is one of those things where you just—it can become, when you try to meet too many people's needs it just becomes this bloat. For me, it can be like working in the software where all of a sudden it becomes the focus instead of the big picture strategy.

Yes, when you said you end up having all these stickies all over and these are just ideas. It's a process that you can—I feel like we can't work in the computer to be creative. You do have to have almost this idea of stepping outside of it, having all these ideas in front of you on a wall and then tearing down the things that don't work, going through that evaluation process. I find that still to be a very natural and creative and comprehensive thing you can do with your team. I love that and I still do that. I don't know if other people would agree because I still, even though we're going from that creative process of identifying what are going to be our key activities, let's say, that are going to drive the most value. That vetting process then gets extremely constrained but the initial brainstorming of what we're going to include is very creative. I think you have to be there to push past your past project's paradigms and all those kinds of things.

Robin:
Yeah and that thing of making it physical just makes it easier to collaborate and work between SMEs and other stakeholders, and that lovely sorting process you just talked about happens very naturally in terms of the fact that you put everything out there and then all of a sudden you can sort that so quickly and have so much clarity to it as well.

Anna:
Yeah.

Robin:
Yeah. Anna, do you do that face to face or do you do that remotely? Do you do that sort of work in a workshop or how's that work for you?

Anna:
I do both. I do it ... No, because you said three options.

Robin:
Sorry.

Anna:
No, no that's my fault. I do the three, no. Usually actually I do the work remotely. Basically via Skype we look at each other's whiteboards and brainstorm together in a team setting. That's still a very collaborative process. I do a little bit of learning, or teaching up front so that the team's ready to do that because I feel most people are—even if you're doing it in person, which I have done in person, a lot of people are afraid to be creative and also they're not used to, let's say collaborating in a group of six people where they don't necessarily know where it's going to go.

Robin:
Yeah.

Anna:
That takes some warm up. I do workshops, which is the workshop usually is where I actually I'm teaching people how to do better for themselves and next project is basically them having a guide going away saying, "Okay, we're going to do this process with our own internal instructional designers." I've just handed off what I think will be a good strategy on how to do that creatively without pissing people off or feeling like you’re stepping on other toes. That also comes from having some common elements to work towards and say, "Okay, at the end of this we're looking to have this kind of an artifact and that is going to allow us to have a direction for the team. Here's the process that will get us there," but first we start with stickies.

Robin:
Yeah. It's actually one of the lovely things I love about those sorts of brainstorming and collaborative processes online in things like WebEx and on some of the shared whiteboards. It's actually fine more people participate because doing those things face to face is always a facilitator who's normally an instructional designer or me actually doing a bit of filtering and that's not always healthy. It's quite nice that people have that power to be able to put things up on the screen with it out there. That can be quite nice.

Anna:
You're right. You're right because when you get to brainstorming, you know how they're like in brainstorming there's no bad ideas, right? You will vet. You're like, "Ugh, that's not really related or that's not possible." You will inadvertently do some vetting. That's an excellent point. Now I have no excuses to not doing these things remotely because everybody has equal power in those meetings.

Robin:
Yeah. To be honest I'm still in two minds about it, I particularly find lessons-learned processes are really a whole lot easier online because they can sometimes be emotional.

Anna:
Yes.

Robin:
An anonymous process is quite nice but I do quite like doing these sorts of processes face to face.

Anna:
They energise you, right? You do pick up people's energy and ideas. If you have the right team, you're right it can be—there is no substitute. I have to, I kind of have to.

Robin:
You talk about an artifact from those sorts of workshops. What, for you, does that sort of look like?

Anna:
It's road map really with some—really what I'm doing there is consensus building and that consensus building is about—there's a lot of anxiety still around learning projects, are we going to be successful and all those things. What that does is it's not necessarily—that artifact is not necessarily, it's not made in stone but it's almost like saying, "Here's some things that we do agree on and we can move forward," and that gives us the certainty to feel like we're moving in the right direction and that the team is on board. That road map is what are we trying to accomplish, what kind of language are we going to use, what kind of style. What are our priorities, who do we care about, and why would they care about what we're doing? Then maybe, if possible, if we're that advanced, we talk about some of the key learning interactions or activities that would actually make sense to help us achieve what we're going to achieve.

Robin:
Yeah, so you start to, if they emerge during those sessions you start to capture those and then really put those in place at that stage. That's a really nice series of headings that could lead itself into a nice planning tool as well.

Anna:
Yeah.

Robin:
The thing that I've repeatedly found is, and actually it was when I did my instructional design post-grad training, I built a really great tool for doing this style of thing but it was just day to day way too complicated. Ending up with just three or four questions, like what you're talking about, can be really powerful rather than the full complicated academic process we sometimes get into.

Anna:
It's almost like it's good to have—I would almost say it's good to have, like you said, your baseline. If nothing else gets answered, these are the four questions we have to address. How are we going to help our learner? Why will this matter to them? How are we going to help them get better? You have that baseline that to get everybody on the same page and the impact question is there. Then the rest is more situational, like okay, I'm drawing a blank here, I have more of a repository of questions to ask—but yeah, you're right. When it comes down to it you can get by and have great conversations when you have those four going on. Those four questions.

Robin:
Yeah. To backtrack a little bit, you talked a little bit about the audiences and the different audiences for a storyboard. We're actually having at Sprout Labs quite a few debates about this. Even one instructional developer is quite keen on the idea that you have what he calls the SME and reviewer storyboard. That has no developer notes or instructions in it. Then after that you build another storyboard, which is actually the one that gets handed over to the developers and the illustrators. What's your thought on how you deal with all the different audiences that document needs?

Anna:
I've been in the place where I've had the storyboard that is trying to meet everybody's needs. It has the development notes, it has the feedback from the subject matter experts but my subject matter experts are not experts at software development so then they would read the software pieces instead of focusing on the interactions and if the story and the context made sense—and it would be very confusing to them. I've actually, what I've done is in the development part, what we've created is a set of activity templates basically. They're models that we use consistently and we have about, at this point maybe 45 of them. These 45 models are coded.

When I'm introducing the storyboard to my subject matter expert, it's very simple because it only includes the words and the context and the flow of the story. Then it’s kind of difficult to explain. Basically what happens is the subject matter expert sees the context and the flow in the story and then what I do on the side is I include a code that represents a certain type of interaction, then the developer that gets that same storyboard now knows exactly where all this story is going into and what kind of interaction to use to represent it. There will be moments where there is some tweaking because not all processes are four steps, not all questions are branched two ways. There is a consistency so now there's less noise from me on the storyboard and there's also bigger clarity when the developer gets it that he knows exactly what my vision is without us having to have a big second board. Which—that's just through my trial and error.

Robin:
Yeah.

Anna:
What do you think about that?

Robin:
I think that's quite a nice one because the thing I saw a little bit about is the whole notion that quite often architects will do client sketches and then they'll hand it over to an engineer and the engineer will add all the notes and then it will become more detailed. What you're talking about is a little bit of a hybrid. Literally you're talking about little numbers and letters that define the different activity types.

Anna:
Yes.

Robin:
Yeah, cool. In your actual storyboard, do you actually have each one of those 45 templates of story and flow that looks different to the SME?

Anna:
Yes.

Robin:
Yeah, okay.

Anna:
It has to be because I think that's one of the challenges that we have with storyboards is because the—a single interaction is probably, it gets pretty technical here, but even if we're doing, say, a multiple choice question. That's not just a multiple choice question: you have a layer for feedback, you have a layer for the incorrect feedback, you have a layer for something else. How do you work that into a storyboard? It ends up being this flow grid and in some cases I actually just let the subject matter expert—the way I write it is to say, "Is this all correct as far as would this work in a scenario or a story?" Then we build it out and then when they see it I feel like that's when they make a connection about how these things are going to look in the end. I feel like sometimes we're saying, "Okay, see this, this looks like a block of text but I have these little subsections. They're all going to be popping up all over the place when you do this." There's a bit of a normalisation process after they see the first prototype built out for them based on their language and words.

Robin:
Yeah, we had an experience this year where a poor reviewer was sitting there and with the incorrect questions, and he was getting confused about which one was incorrect and correct. He was reviewing the incorrect ones and it was just because the format was confusing. Yeah, that's a nice way of working through that. Also sounds like you work with your SMEs in a very collaborative way, developing those scenarios as well.

Anna:
I always do. I find, I don't know if this is the norm, but I find that I talk to people who get handed things and then they have to come up with context and stories. They become the subject matter expert, they're an instructional designer but now they're the subject matter expert as well. I've tried to do that and I have done that but I feel like there's so many more stories that a subject matter expert would have that I could weave into scenarios and add the value behind why we're actually learning certain things that I now, I won't take on a project if I don't have a subject matter expert that I can actually talk to and say, "Is this ridiculous? Am I making this up?"

Robin:
Yeah, it's actually been interesting for us because we work in quite complex areas, lots of healthcare. Essentially we just can't get the knowledge to be able to do that and to build stories into scenarios because we don't have the right post-graduate degree.

Anna:
Yeah, exactly.

Robin:
You need that SME support. Then when we go back to some things where people just hand you a document and say, "Put this online," I just—my heart falls.

Anna:
Yeah.

Robin:
I've actually even been trying to think about those people, what can I say to them that they need to do before they come to an e-learning developer? It's definitely not to write the quiz questions.

Anna:
People are terrible at those things. I feel like we could have a whole line of personal development courses that just focus on writing excellent questions and that alone would revolutionise e-learning as far as I'm concerned. Yeah, and it's funny because I don't know how many times this has happened to you where people will come to you or organisations will approach you and they'll say, "Yeah, we just need a build, we've spent a year developing all our training materials. We just need you to build it."

Robin:
Yeah.

Anna:
I think, "My god, no."

Robin:
We definitely say no now, Anna, is my comment. That's what we ended up in the spot where people say that we just go, "No, we don't do that. That's what our expertise primarily is learning design and instructional design. If you're not paying us to do that we're not interested in working with you."

Anna:
I've had a couple of people who are like, "Yeah, we've got the storyboard ready." They give it to me and I say, "I can make this better, will you consider that?" I've had a couple of people who actually were open because I showed them opportunities but there's a balance. Some people are like, "Oh, this'll cut the cost in half," and I also tell them, "This will also cut your results and engagement in half, if not more because you don't really know what you're doing. You're an expert in this, in say, the medical field, but you're not an expert in designing e-learning." Even if somebody's a teacher, I feel they're missing—the e-learning field is a completely different, it's a learning curve. It's a different medium and you have to learn for that medium.

Robin:
That questioning thing is really interesting, it's almost like the core skill of learning and development just on instructional designers to be able to actually ask really good questions at the analysis stage to then build really great learning experiences and the flow on for that. It comes very naturally to some people and some people just need a little bit more thinking through to get there.

Anna:
Yeah. I've just in the past two years finally managed to understand what it takes to have an open ended question because I used to always ask open ended questions. I was like, "How do I do that? They already made statement, how do I do that?" It takes serious practice to get good at questions, open ended questions even, and then to shut up and let people answer them fully without making—I feel almost like you step into a situation especially with learning and you can make a lot of assumptions about what the subject would be, what the context will be but I think the best projects that I've ever done were when I really let go of any assumptions and just listened and then asked and then listened. You get so much more value and so many good stories that you wouldn't otherwise get. It takes time to warm up people to that too.

Robin:
This is probably a nice point to talk about, some of the PD work you do with other instructional designers around helping around some of these skills.

Anna:
I do have a course that I run and also I put on webinars and blog. I feel like when you say 'work out loud' and 'learn out loud,' those are things that I believe in too. I believe you get better as people observe your work and I feel we need to have more globally, more peer reviews, more vetting of each other's work and feedback and critiquing. I feel there's a lot of yes men out there but not enough of a community of growth. That's one of the things that I really want to foster. If anybody wants to learn more about building strategies or things like that, ElearnerEngaged.com, that's where I try to keep everything.

Robin:
Cool. Great, thanks so much for joining me today Anna. That was a really interesting conversation.

Anna:
Thank you for having me and have a great day.


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