Posts Tagged ‘Instructional Design best practices’

Does an approach to instructional design and technical communication that minimizes the amount of content vs. the usefulness of the content always work better than a more comprehensive or “systems” approach?

Well, it depends.  It depends on the user, the medium and/or modes of delivery and, in some cases, who is authoring the content/instruction.  Generally, a minimalist approach to instructional design and end user documentation focuses on the novice user of a technology or tool.  Complex task domains and power users may not be the ideal audience for a minimalist instructional design and documentations approach. 

Expert users often require richer, more scenario driven content than a minimalist approach can (or should provide).  Understanding the level of task that the audience needs to have represented is the key to documentation/instructions for expert users.

For instance, training and/or documentation on how to use a new feature of a surgical device may require more than the step action, task based approach commonly used in minimalist systems documentation.  The surgeon needs to know the context in which the device should be used, what a “successful” use of the device looks likes, and, most importantly, what the consequences of an error might be and how to recover from it.

Since their goals are well defined expert users want to spend little time reading procedural information and more time working with the software (or other tools). A key minimalist guideline is: allow experts to avoid excessive reading.  Providing directions they can pursue rather than step-by-step instructions takes advantage of their interest in exploratory learning. 

Instructional designers and technical writers tread a very fine line in looking for the right approach, that will enable the best performance for the right user at the right time.  Guidelines for the development of instruction for novice users are numerous – but few and far between for the development of instruction for expert users. Barbara Mirel (User experience and Usability lead at University of Michigan National Center for Integrative Biomedical Informatics) lists five themes that help lead instruction for complex tasks away from the conventional:

  • Develop rich scenarios about activity in context rather than narrow scenarios about unit tasks.
  • Build interactivity into instruction instead of presenting, for example, view only semantic maps and graphic browsers.
  • Provide multiple cases that are thematically linked and not just single cases (elaborated examples).
  • Bring misconceptions to the surface and examine them as part of instructing users in detecting, diagnosing, and recovering from errors.
  • Develop multiple analogies, metaphors, and examples that mutually support a single point or purpose and not merely one analogy, metaphor or example per point.

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Have you ever read a user manual or training manual cover to cover?  Very few users of technology manuals or any instructional artifact read from start to finish or  follow a linear step-by-step reading process through a document.

Human computer interaction (HCI) and technical communication research has consistently shown that users will hunt and gather information as they go – rather than consistently work through supporting materials in a linear fashion.  Still, most user manuals and software training continues to consistently follow a “systems” approach where every feature and function is documented – whether anyone will actually use it or not.

As technical writers, instructional designers, and digital designers we can help users more if we provide them with less.  How? I advocate a minimalist approach of design and instruction that is based on the notion that users need useful, but not comprehensive information to learn.

First articulated by former IBM researcher John Carroll, the principles of minimalism were first developed to help novice users learn how to get to competency faster:

“Our strategy in developing training designs was to accommodate, indeed to try to capitalize on, manifest learning styles, strategies, and goals…we became committed to minimizing the obtrusiveness to the learner of the training material –hence the term minimalist.” (Carroll, 1990, p. 7)

Three key aspects of the minimalist instructional approach are:

  1. Allow learners to start immediately on meaningfully realistic tasks
  2. Reduce the amount of reading time and other passive activity in training
  3. Help to make errors and error recovery less traumatic and more pedagogically productive

Carroll’s research (along with that of Janice Redish and Jo Ann Hackos) has determined that users are “reading-to-learn-to do” and want immediate opportunities to act-not reading about how to manipulate the tools that will get them there.  Designing usable content requires a constant attempt to balance the learner’s desire for knowledge with the learner’s desire to accomplish the task at hand.  The priority in designing minimalist instruction is to invite users to act and to support their action.

How do practitioners make this active learning approach work in their designs?

To design minimally we need to know the maximum about our users: 

  • Are they novices, intermediate or expert users? 
  • Do they have any preconceived notions about the tasks or outcomes of those tasks?
  • What previous experience do they bring to the tool, interface or the instruction?
  • What can we determine about the users’ motivation for using the technology and taking the training or reading the documentation? 
  • What errors are users likely to make in the use of a tool or process? 
  • How can the designer best help them quickly recover from an error and learn from that mistake to become a “better” user?

A minimalist approach requires a significant investment of designer/writer input and time in the development process, a motivation (and the freedom) to move beyond standard audience analysis techniques, and a willingness to advocate for instructional materials that are more useful than they are “complete”.  Practitioners often run into resistance to a technique that calls for giving users incomplete information, documenting real tasks versus documenting system features, and presents tough choices about how and when to integrate comprehensive documentation with other kinds of support.

Next post: Is a minimalist approach to technology instruction always the right approach?

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I had a recent experience working with a large group of subject matter experts (approximately 17 teachers, curriculum writers, and program specialists). The goal was to create a course outline in one 7-hour design session. As you can imagine, gaining consensus with a group of this size can be quite a challenge. It was by far the largest group I’ve worked with for this purpose. By structuring the day carefully, applying strategies to engage the group, and using design templates, I was able to keep the group focused and productive, and I felt some of the methods I used would be beneficial to share.

Prior to the Session

Before meeting with the group, I talked with key stakeholders for the project to collect as much background information as possible about the proposed course, including course goals, targeted audience, and technology requirements. Understanding the targeted audience, teachers, helped to determine what form this course should take. Also, I reviewed any available content prior to the design session and read an evaluation report relating to the curriculum upon which the course would be based. By gathering this information beforehand, I was able to ramp up and was well positioned to guide the design meeting, using the course goals as my guide.

Recognizing Expertise

An important strategy I used was to recognize and elicit the feedback from all members of the group as a lead in to the actual course outlining. Each person attending the meeting had a valuable perspective to contribute, so I devoted time to let them share their ideas relating to the course we were planning. An added benefit of encouraging participation from everyone was that the individual participants seemed to have more of a vested interest in accomplishing the goals of the meeting when they were actively contributing. I do think it’s important to keep some structure, though, so I had some guiding questions that I used to organize this conversation.

Identifying Key Questions

In my experience, different strategies work for different clients when it comes to developing a course. With this particular group, it was helpful to first identify what key questions teachers might have about the course content, since this training was intended to support teachers in using a particular curriculum. Using this strategy, we were able to identify 4-5 key questions relating to the curriculum, and related sub-questions for each key question. These questions then formed the basis for identifying our course objectives. For each key question, we translated it into what a teacher would need to know or do to answer each question. Using this process, we soon had a list of learning objectives for the course.

Keeping the Group on Track

Once we identified our objectives, we were able to use the key questions we started with as our lesson themes under which each set objectives resided. To help keep things moving throughout the design session, it helped to return to the course goals when we were going off on a tangent.

I used a course outlining template to sequence the lessons and objectives we were identifying. I projected the various templates onto a screen for the group as we worked so they could see the outline being developed. Next, we mapped any curriculum elements that already exist to the objectives and identified gaps to help support the rapid build out of this course. Finally, we brainstormed ideas for interactivity to support each topic in the course.

The clients were very happy with the results of this session, and the course outline holds potential for us as a future project. While the outlining session was challenging, it reconfirms in my mind the importance of striking a balance between structure and flexibility when designing, especially with large groups.

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How many times have you heard “We need an eLearning course that we can launch in <insert any abbreviated timeframe> and it has to be engaging, exciting, effective and can only cost <insert any really low dollar amount>?”  It’s a challenge we all know too well.  It’s also the reason many of us have developed internal project strategies for rapidly executing eLearning design and development.  Our goal on any project we encounter is to provide great learning to our customers while designing effectively and efficiently and to reuse and repurpose good learning strategies wherever possible. 


So that brings up the question, how do you reuse and repurpose effectively?  Can it be as simple as reusing assets from a repository and applying a templated approach?  Or is it more than that?   Templates have a bad rep as being inflexible as well as a format that can sap the creativity out of good designers.  Overall, I tend to disagree.  Templates, when used properly, can provide direction and structure while still allowing a designer the freedom to be creative and having a repository of assets to draw from is key to being efficient in design and development.  So, this brings up question #2, how do you use templates properly?   


I was doing some reading on principles of adult learning and the learner-centered approach to eLearning when I found an article that discussed the topic of a templated approach versus a patterned approach to eLearning.  The article is titled “Creating Interactive, Engaging and Effective E-Learning through Patterns” (by Prashanth Prabu, October 2006).  In defining the patterns approach, Prabu explains that a patterns-based approach for creating reusable solutions at the learning objective level allows designers to create effective eLearning experiences.  The key phrase is “reusable solutions at the learning objective level”.  And to break it down a step further for those of us that pride ourselves on crafting meaningful learning solutions and solid instructional design strategies, patterns are mapped to learning problems at the learning objective level.  It all comes back to identifying the learning problems and creating solid learning objectives that solve those problems.   


There is hope!  I really like this approach because this is fundamental to what we do as instructional designers and learning solution gurus – – we identify learning problems and then create solutions that are engaging, exciting and effective using the core principles of instructional design and adult learning that we all know and love.  Reusable solutions at the learning objective level are truly learning solutions that can be called a template or a pattern but fit the bill of being reproducible learning elements that are foundational building blocks for good course design.  I think it’s worth the effort






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