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Using Microsoft® Word for Rapid Storyboard Development: Efficient Production of Professional e-Learning Storyboards

by Cynthia Holmes-Radner

June 13, 2005


by Cynthia Holmes-Radner

June 13, 2005

By setting up the storyboard tool with the standard screens and on-screen elements that would be used across courses before writing commenced, we were able to better control the quality and consistency of the end product. We did have to add new elements to the toolbar as new design requirements came to light over the course of the project, but the main elements stayed the same. Once changes were made and reviewed , we simply redistributed the updated tool.

Have you ever found yourself writing a standard course introduction for what seems like the hundredth time? Instead of reinventing the wheel, gather your best writing, combine it with your best instructional strategies, and make it easily available for all of your instructional designers to use every day. With Microsoft Word®, and some of our easy-to-follow steps, you can develop a storyboard template based on your own best practices that will provide professional results every time.

Editor’s Note: Parts of this article may not format well on smartphones and smaller mobile devices. We recommend viewing on larger screens.

How our journey began

RWD Technologies, Inc., a Maryland-based company involved in training and end-user performance support since 1988, made a natural segue into the Web-based e-Learning field in 1996. During several ensuing years of varied client engagements in the banking, pharmaceutical, automotive, telecommunications, manufacturing, information technology, and services industries, our e-Learning and Performance Support group became more efficient and comfortable working together as a collaborative creative team. Each of our project teams typically included instructional designers, graphic artists, multimedia developers, programmers, testers, and project managers. Many of us had been working in the online learning field for more than 10 years. Team members worked from several different office locations inside and outside of the U.S. and often juggled more than one project at a time. Our project teams were formed and reformed as different client engagements began and ended.

Survey says...

One of our guiding principles at RWD is to learn continuously. To this end, we distributed an internal process improvement survey to all the members of our e-Learning Development team. Our goal was to use our considerable collective experience to enhance our work processes. This survey helped us to identify the changes that team members would find most valuable. Among other areas of improvement, the responses we received pointed out that we urgently needed to standardize our storyboard tool.

As evidenced by our survey responses, our geographically dispersed teams and our fluid organization often resulted in different projects using different storyboard formats. One survey response read:

“Currently, the team seems to use a new storyboard format with almost each new project. This unnecessarily adds ramp-up time to the process for all team members.”

It turned out that each of our instructional designers had been using their own favorite storyboard tool to write courses. These tools had been created using various applications like FileMaker Pro, Microsoft PowerPoint, and Microsoft Word, and each tool had its own unique layout and format. When following a completed storyboard to create a new course (or courses), our developers and testers found it both time-consuming and frustrating to switch between the various storyboard tools and formats. For those people who were working on multiple projects simultaneously, it could be extremely disconcerting to work with several different tools. We clearly needed a more efficient approach, so we set out to develop a standard, consistent storyboard tool.

Defining the requirements

To create a standard storyboard tool, we realized that there were several important criteria we had to meet. Our standard storyboard tool needed to meet the following seven criteria:

Be quick and easy for all team members to use

We wanted to eliminate — as much as possible — any learning curve for using the tool to write or review storyboards. When development is on a tight schedule this helps eliminate ramp-up time for new personnel assigned to the project. To collect team member comments on a storyboard’s content, it was important to use a software package that was easily shared and used by all. We would need to take advantage of this application’s automation capabilities while keeping the tool user friendly.

Be quick and easy for clients to use

We also needed to eliminate or minimize any learning curve for clients. With busy clients it is often difficult to get a thorough review of storyboards in any form. We did not want to further encroach upon their time by having them use an unfamiliar tool. Many clients have “locked-down” configurations, in which adding even a simple plug-in becomes a logistical nightmare, so we also wanted to avoid using a tool that would require them to install any software on their computers. To collect client comments on the storyboard, we needed to use a software package that was both readily available on a client’s desktop, and easy to use.

Clearly communicate ideas from the instructional designer

When it comes to storyboards for e-Learning, we don’t simply deliver a storyboard to developers or clients without any other interaction (known as the “throw it over the wall” method), but even when following best practices of having regular client contact and production hand-off meetings, the communication is never perfect. (See the March 2002 Learning Solutions Magazine article and accompanying checklist by Chris Frederick Willis, “Storyboards: Ready? Set? NO!” for a guide to a smooth handoff.)

Based on our years of experience, we knew that if a client or developer misunderstood how a screen described in a storyboard was actually intended to look or function, it could cause agonizing rework later in the development process. Since correcting errors becomes more and more expensive the further we progress in the development process, it was critical for our standard tool to result in a storyboard that was as WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) as possible. This would help ensure that all stakeholders could easily understand it.

Be flexible enough to accommodate different design approaches

Different subjects and different clients require a variety of instructional strategies and formats. Although many of our e-Learning products are menu-driven, we also needed to allow for non-linear branching. We needed a tool that could easily include a broad assortment of strategies and navigation schemes.

Efficiently collect team comments

Collecting comments from our team for a storyboard is a critical part of our review cycle. Before any storyboard is released to the client, at a minimum we conduct editorial and instructional design reviews. A programming review, a project management review, or both, may also be conducted. The instructional designer who wrote the storyboard then addresses and incorporates any comments that are made before releasing the storyboard to the client for review.

Efficiently collect client comments

Once the storyboard is released to the client, it is likely that more than one member of the client’s team will have comments to make, and some can be rather lengthy. Since we ask clients to provide us with a set of consolidated comments, this often means that the client’s lead reviewer must read and collate multiple sets of comments before returning the storyboard to us. We coach clients to be as specific as possible at this stage and to give us any requested wording changes verbatim.

Allow for quick incorporation of changes.

Anyone who has had to respond to either handwritten comments from a client or to comments provided in a document separate from the storyboard will understand why this is a requirement! Both of these approaches tend to slow down the workflow and adversely affect the accurate incorporation of changes and comments. Once the client has supplied comments it is critical to correctly reflect the requested changes in the storyboard so production can commence. Comments embedded within a storyboard allow us to quickly see and respond to any requested changes.

Deciding on a software application

To decide upon a software package to use to create our storyboard tool, we mulled over both what we currently used, and our alternatives. FileMaker Pro, although a powerful tool with some distinct advantages, was not a software package widely used by all of our clients. Microsoft PowerPoint allowed for very WYSIWYG storyboards, but did not provide a native feature for adding comments or tracking changes. Microsoft Word was widely available, commonly used in our office and in our clients’ offices, and provided both a comment feature and automatically tracked changes. We decided not to look at other products since purchasing a new tool was not in the budget at that time. Some of the typical products used across the industry for creating storyboards are listed in Table 1.


TABLE 1 Typical products used for creating e-Learning storyboards
Software/method Company Cost per user (as of March 2005) Output Ease of use
Designer’s Edge® Allen Communication Learning Services Call for pricing HTML, GIF/JPG, PDF, and more Difficult
Dreamweaver® Macromedia, Inc.
  • $899 for 1 full version license or $199 for 1 upgrade of MX Studio
  • $399 for 1 full version license or $199 for 1 upgrade of DreamWeaver MX
HTML, GIF, JPG Moderate
FileMaker®Pro FileMaker, Inc. $299 for 1 full version license or $149 for 1 upgrade PDF, HTML, XML Moderate
Flash™ Macromedia, Inc.
  • $899 for 1 full version license or $199 for 1 upgrade of MX Studio
  • $499 for 1 full version license or $199 for 1 upgrade of Flash MX
FLA, SWF Difficult
FrontPage® Microsoft Corporation $199 for 1 full version license or $110 for 1 upgrade HTML, GIF, JPG Moderate
InDesign® Adobe $699 for 1 full version license or $169 for 1 upgrade PDF, PDFX, HTML Moderate to Difficult
Pencil and paper Your paper provider Depending on how well you write, this can be extremely inexpensive Paper Easy
PowerPoint® Microsoft Corporation As much as $500 for 1 full version license or as little as $240 for 1 upgrade PPT, HTML, Design Template (MPP) Easy
QuarkXpress® Quark, Inc. $1,045 for 1 full version license or between $199 and $499 for 1 upgrade depending on the version PDF, HTML, XML Moderate to Difficult
Sculptoris eLearning Authoring and Design Tool Imaira Digital Media & Learning
  • Standard Hosted: $299/year for 10 users, 10mb of storage space
  • Enterprise Hosted: $999/year for unlimited users, 100mb of storage space
  • Open Source Licensing: Is hosted on your own in-house server; allows customization of program.
HTML or SCORM HTML Moderate to Difficult
Word Microsoft Corporation As much as $500 for 1 full version license or as little as $240 for 1 upgrade DOC, DOT, HTML, PDF Easy


Choosing a format

Like the software tool choice, selecting a standard format was the cause of much discussion and some heated debate. Some team members favored a tabular format because all pertinent information about a screen appeared in one row (see Figure 1). Others preferred a narrative format to be more in keeping with the WYSIWYG requirement (see Figure 2). Since there is no one “right” solution, we ultimately followed an executive directive to choose the approach that would work best for our clients and for our team.


Figure 1 A tabular storyboard format places all pertinent information about a screen in a single row.


Figure 2 A narrative storyboard format is more in keeping with the WYSIWYG requirement.

We decided that for our standard format, each page of the storyboard would include a narrative area at the top to convey the WYSIWYG look and feel of a screen with the information necessary to describe and create it located underneath. Bill Brandon outlined the typical information required in an e-Learning storyboard in the May 3, 2004 issue of Learning Solutions Magazine (Storyboards Tailored to You: Do-it-Yourself Magic Arrows — Table 1).

Creating our storyboard template

We decided on the widely used Microsoft Word 2000 software package to develop a standard storyboard template file (.DOT) for all of our instructional designers to use when creating storyboard documents. This template would serve as our standard, but also could be modified as needed for a specific client or project. The plan for this template was to develop a toolbar that would provide access to all of our available best-practice strategies and content. The instructional designer could then create a document based on this template and, while writing, could easily pick and choose from the toolbar the appropriate elements required to build a storyboard.

As Microsoft Word 2000 Help explains, “AutoText offers a way to store and quickly insert text, graphics, fields, tables, bookmarks, and other items that you use frequently.” We took advantage of this robust AutoText tool along with Microsoft Word’s Custom Toolbar feature to create a toolbar with standard storyboarding elements such as audio and video scripts, screen layouts, frameworks for interactions, and notes.

After many years of creating e-Learning, we had a wide variety of elements to include on the toolbar. An effort was made to unify all of our elements from various courses before adding them to the template. One of the strategies we used was to create an individual style that was applied to each unique element. For example, storyboard numbers that appear at the top of each storyboard page are always a specific color, font, size, etc. and have the custom style “storyboard number” applied to them whenever they are used in an element. This means that no matter which elements the instructional designer chooses from the toolbar to include in the storyboard, the end result is smooth and professional looking.

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