Saturday, September 1, 2012

Can we bring them together?

The other day, someone asked me to look at an e-learning course on aviation in order to estimate the effort for developing similar courses. I had less than an hour of access to the course. As usual, my brain went into a hyper mode, absorbing and analyzing everything I saw.

My first reaction was sheer pleasure. The illustrations of the airport and planes were done fabulously. There not an element out of place. Layouts were varied and polished. Text holders were contextual, derived from the aviation world- some in the shape of a display screen at airports, some others in the form of tickets and so on. Animations were short, sweet and well executed. Just the kind of stuff I love to see. (I wish I could share some screenshots but I don't have the rights to).

Not only me, I thought to myself, this will also be the first impression that any lay person will form upon seeing the course. But I am no lay person in this context, so I started to check what the content was really about. The topics included history of aviation, agencies involved, key functions/parts of airports and the type of staff needed to operate airports- a strange mix indeed. I began to wonder who the audience was. Who would need this information, which seemed too superficial for airport staff and too detailed for general public?

I dug deeper. Why wasn't I getting hooked to the content? I noticed that the contextual text holders occupied only about 50% of the screen area available. The rest of the screen was used to hold absolutely unimportant (though contextual) illustrations and animations, like some passengers standing around inside the airport, a plane taking off at the back, some clouds moving across the skies etc. The limited space inside the text holders meant that all the content was cramped inside them, making it difficult to read. This was especially a problem when the content talked about logos of various aviation agencies. The space was so limited that the logos were quite minuscule and I never really could differentiate one from another. The other text holders like the airplane ticket posed similar problems but had an additional issue of navigation. Every time I clicked a ticket, another one popped out in front of it, but there was no way to go back to view the previous roles.

I went through the pages several times to "get" what I was expected to understand from the content, but each time I only got bits and pieces. There was no connection between the pieces and no attempt was made to connect them even artificially. I had no reason to learn anything specifically because it seemed like an information dump. I became aware of this problem acutely when I found myself struggling to answer the most basic recollection-type quizzes!

I have to mention that the quizzes that tested me on stuff I never really got to learn were done very cutely- an airplane would carry the options to the placed I selected! Misplaced efforts? But who am I to say that? From what I knew, the customer was very happy with the course and wanted more of the same type.

At that moment, I had this sense of helplessness. After years (16-17 years) of dealing with this issue, here it is again, just in another form. On one end of the spectrum are arrogant designers who defend PowerPoint-like (and ineffective) courses by pontificating about the deep instructional value of the work they do, and the insignificance of aesthetics and visual design to their work. On the other end are clueless designers who hide poor instructional material behind flashy layouts and cute animations.

I am left with questions that linger on even today, weeks after I saw this course.
  • Is it so hard to bring the best of the two worlds together? 
  • Why can't good instructional and visual designers collaborate to create learning material that actually helps people learn? 
  • Why do people in the industry continue to struggle with this issue after years of working at it? 
  • I know it can be solved- after all I had seen it solved in KP when I was there, but is it sustainable or is it linked to specific people and their skills?
  • Will our industry elevate itself out of this rut one day or is it the nature of the beast?


  1. TOtally agree and understand. In my recent experience, the issue lies in
    1. a lack of Instructional Design skill
    2. a lack of involvement and passion for ID
    3. a lack of time from SME's to explain the subject and what they want as key take away.
    The third can be a big challenge in particular if products are for internal consumption as time is limited and scarce and so is willingness to ponder.

    1. Appreciate your insight Sonia. What do you see more of? ID's who couldn't be bothered about visuals or IDs who hide bad work behind pretty pictures?

  2. Me too totally concur the same. I believe that you just watched an arty movie. I thought I will put down my few initial and general views and understanding, primarily from graphics point of view -

    Template space: A graphic designer essentially designs space, and its utilization for learning, using visual components and that’s not just deliberately putting graphics, animations, illustrations, images, etc which could needlessly divert attention from learning. Template space isn’t an art canvas.

    Over-designing: The other issue for designer is how not to be tempted with ‘over-designing’ and recognize that. The primary reasons to know that there are evidences of ‘over-designing’ are notice attempts to impress (example, a collage which looks like a cinema poster and is of no use) or to make creative expression (example, deliberate use of a latest special effect) or a thought to perceive work as a personal portfolio (example, this will look good in my website too). Every design element has a reason to exist or not to exist in a learning material. Developing a learning product as a team, we should constantly be reminding ourselves, what is the audience learning here covering the smallest graphic element or feature of the product (example, why a different font). In here, the aviation industry learning material certainly gives a graphic designer more exciting scope of graphic usage and thus as I gather it has been overdone.

    Responsibility: The graphic designers generally avoid taking responsibility of the learning product as a whole (they take this as a transitory project or my limited role) but on the other hand, at times they are not given the ownership as well. Responsibility makes you more accountable to the graphic designs you have created and it’s not only an accountability of instructional designer and/or a project manager and or any other person.

    Visual direction: The graphic designer or artist here has to see himself to be in a role a visual instructor or communicator. Visualization is the key which is aligned and attached to the learning goals of the product. There is a big picture and it contains smaller picture in the form of storyboard. The graphic designer should have ample knowledge of the product, technicalities, goals of learning, audience, requirements, etc

    Accepting mistakes: Creative ego is not only big but is made of concrete so, if there is a mistake in visual, it becomes hard to accept. There should always be a space of flexibility of updating and redoing visual directions and designs in between.

    Make standards: Too many visual elements may confuse. A learner should be able to recall concepts through consistent visual elements. So, make standards.

    Simplification: Many designers fail to do a sincere self-review. It’s tough to remove what you have created if you found later that it is irrelevant to the learning process. Simplification should be kept in at all times specially during self-review. How comfortably and easily visuals can be grasped and comprehended by the audience can be a key ingredient of self-review. Simplification should not be just the not the matter of timeline.

    Nevertheless, graphics is not only subjective but talk about graphics and its processes and opinions are also subjective. Above all, it's all about having fun makes a good product :-)

    1. Thanks for the perspective from the other side James. Very very interesting, especially about personal portfolio.

      I dream of teams that have great visual designers and IDs working together and creating magic for the learners...and having a lot of fun doing that.

      We need the best of both and we need them working together.

  3. Another comment that came to be via email:

    3 factors that affects almost everything I guess: Time, People and Place

    Time: Turnaround time for the project in hand? Is sufficient time given/distractions paved away for the people involved in the job?

    People: Takes effort and a stroke of luck to bring the best ensemble together, and even then, most talented people have a mind of their own, getting together to agree on something is already challenging! Another potential tumbling block might be the SME in charge of the courseware or the person who have the final say.

    Place: This can be the work environment, work culture etc.

    Read the comments your readers left too, and I should say the observations and insights are all very interesting and spot-on in most described cases.