This article is a continuation of my interview with Nick Floro; the first part of the interview appeared in Learning Solutions Magazine on October 6, 2016. In case you missed that part, Nick is the president of Sealworks Interactive Studios. The eLearning Guild recognized him as a Guild Master at FocusOn Learning 2016 Conference & Expo.
In this part of the interview, I asked Nick to give his thoughts about what new eLearning designers and developers should focus on and the value of iterative design and development. The interview has been edited for clarity.
Pamela S. Hogle: Many of our members and readers are relative newcomers to eLearning—new eLearning designers or developers or even people with little experience in either of those areas. What suggestions or advice can you offer them for launching an eLearning initiative in their companies or organizations and for creating engaging content, often on a tight budget?
Nick Floro: Welcome to an amazing world of learning! I believe one of the biggest hurdles to overcome and understand is that there are so many amazing ways to create learning today that you need to focus on what is best for your audience, what’s possible in your timeline, and what tools you have. I would highly recommend adopting a model that is flexible and lets you test, gather feedback, launch, gather feedback—and that allows you to change and adapt to your audience’s needs with each iteration. Too often, we select a technology, a workflow, or a technique, and we forget to look up as we create a factory to push out the “learning.”
You also need to constantly look outside at what others are doing; the Guild offers an amazing resource at each event’s DemoFest and an online library where you can see hundreds of examples, along with insight into the challenges and techniques, as well as the benefits, of each project. This is such a great way to learn what worked and what didn’t, and to quickly build a library of ideas and examples of what is possible. If you launched a project this year, submit it for DemoFest and share what worked, what didn’t, and how your project helped improve learning with your audience.
I had the opportunity to participate in and attend the Hyperdrive event last year at DevLearn , and it was another great way to see, hear, and learn about what is possible in learning. One particular presenter, Ravi Singh, presented a great example—Mobile Performance Support System—which won.
In this learning project, they combined a mobile device with QR codes to provide just-in-time learning. It was a great example of how a simple solution can equal big results. They ended up reducing costs dramatically by training staff on site. If there were, say, seven pieces of equipment, if the red lights were on the third area, they’d just scan that code and the video would go right to telling you what to do to correct the problem; instead of looking through a 200-page manual or asking someone or calling for training, they were able to get the information instantly. It was just so simple; it was a beautiful solution. It was so simple and cost-effective, and it provided support and training exactly when they needed it, based on what QR code they scanned at each step of the actual process. Hyperdrive will be back at DevLearn 2016, so it’s another great reason to attend the conference.
I would also recommend taking advantage of the amazing Guild community and all the opportunities to connect, whether on LinkedIn or via Twitter or a webinar, to learn, explore, and share with your team what’s possible and test some new ideas with your audience.
PH: Can you share any words of wisdom on estimating time and cost for an eLearning project?
NF: Estimating time is an art, like design or coding, where the more you do it, the better you’ll get at it. I’ve been producing projects for over 22 years, and every time we launch a new project, we always ask: What did we learn? What can we improve? What would we want to improve?
You also consider looking at what works best for your organization and work flow, and I would encourage you to launch quickly, gather feedback, and change and evolve each offering when possible. Look at building in audience feedback: Talk to a set of users and ask them what they thought, what helped, and what you can improve.
As you gain experience, you will get better and better at estimating. One big piece of advice: It’s never as simple as you think or as it seems, so if you are estimating a day, always [double] to allow for time to test, review, and evolve a concept. That is hard in most organizations, to get buy-in, but when you see improved results, it becomes easier to grow the concept.
PH: What causes projects to fail? What should new eLearning designers or developers do to enhance their chance of succeeding?
NF: I feel like I am saying the same thing over and over, but it is so important to articulate it: Asking these key questions up front is critical. One of the big things you run into, especially when you’re beginning your learning journey, is getting stuck in a pattern—you know, using a particular tool, and the boss or stakeholder says “do this,” and you just jump in and do it without thinking or asking questions.
I think that’s where we fail, because we’re not thinking “bigger picture” and we’re not talking to the actual audience. We may not have that opportunity because of time crunches and everything else that we’re doing, but I think that if we can stop and build feedback and communication into our workflows, asking simple questions like, “Is this really the right way to do this?” will help.
One of the other things that I think we’re afraid of doing is using a simple solution. I think it’s OK to launch with a web page, a PDF, or a text document to provide learning. It doesn’t always have to be the clicky-clicky thing with the audio; it doesn’t have to be a full 3-D animation. Based on what the need is, you might be able to use something else to help a particular audience member with that particular learning path. You might add a video or a scenario to a lesson. You might start off with a simple page of information, and then expand or add to it over a couple of phases. If there is an immediate need, think: How can I help my audience today, next week, and next month? You should also consider different audience types—whether a user prefers to read, listen, watch, or participate—and how you can build these types into your offerings.
Stop and think, and then ask. Don’t be afraid to try it.
The other thing I talk about a lot in presentations is when the stakeholder comes in and makes a general statement. Make sure you ask and understand the need, challenge the assumption, and gather data to help design and develop the best solution.
An example we’ve heard over the past several years is, “We need everything to work on mobile.”
But when we actually look at data on the audience, we discover they’re not there yet. Either they don’t have mobile devices yet or they’re not using them because they’re not common in their workflow.
We also see in the industry that trends come in and out, and that it’s important to understand what’s best for the audience because it may not always align with industry trends. I feel that mobile is still important because devices are transforming and the technology is evolving, so we look to design our experiences around mobile. If the audience is getting tablets or new laptops that include touch-based technology in six months—or two years—that’s when we need to plan and design content solutions that will work both now and in the future.
PH: So, it sounds like you are saying to stop and ask the questions rather than getting caught up in the technology or the tools or the way you’ve always done things.
NF: Yes. Question everything. Question everything, and focus on what the goal is or what the need is. Not “everyone’s doing mobile, so we have to do mobile.” Or we think we know what the audience wants, but when we ask the audience, they say, “No, we’ve got that. What we really need is…” and you’ve spent six weeks building something that they don’t even need.
By talking to the actual users, and by getting feedback, we’re better able to judge. Often we jump to the next project, and we’re not able to measure. We see that 1,000 people do it, but is that because they are required to do it? Did they get anything out of it? We need be better at understanding the need, the data, and the results. We call them feedback loops. It’s talking to a series of actual users to find out what’s working and what’s not. And then evolving our delivery to help make it better for them. I love that because it helps us build and design better experiences.
PH: So that’s using iterative design.
NF: Yes. People get afraid because they think it’s going to take them six weeks instead of two weeks to do it, but you’re not really working on it for six weeks. You’re iterating—it’s evolving. It might take three days to build it and then another day to add to it … or it might take weeks, depending on the size of the project.
PH: I think people feel like that process is never finished because you can always make something better. Maybe that’s what’s scary.
NF: That’s a great point, and we have to look at that. But at some point, we’re going to say it’s done and we’re going to look at it, whether it’s three months, six months, a year, or when the next release is. In the old days, we’d build something and it would last for a couple of years. Today, we don’t have that luxury because things change so quickly and we are used to constant updates and changes.
PH: Do you use agile methodology or other concepts from software design, such as interaction design strategy and personas?
NF: Yes. As a software development company, I think that having experience in traditional design and development will help you improve your process and strategy from brainstorming to launch. We test and modify our workflow and, with each launch, reanalyze and look for ways to improve our process. This is a constant evolution, and, while it takes time, I believe we are now able to create solutions faster, at lower cost, and with less rework so we can focus on enhancing, improving, and expanding an experience.
PH: Where are these most useful in eLearning creation?
NF: I can’t get excited enough and encourage everyone, if you are not currently sketching, wire framing, and prototyping in your process, you need to take advantage of these techniques. The basic concept is to allow you to illustrate through a simple drawing of a concept, an activity, or a function, rather than in writing, so that you can get quick feedback in person or via a shared experience either directly in person or via remote review.
It’s so easy. The idea is that I am talking to a stakeholder about a project, and they describe an activity. If you write down those notes in bullets, it looks good, and you’re repeating it back to them. But if you sketch the idea, and they’re saying that they want a picture—but they don’t have an idea what the question is. It might be two words or three paragraphs. Because you don’t have the data when you start to sketch, you show them: You have some squiggly lines representing a short question and some squiggly lines representing a long question, they are able to visualize what will happen if I deliver this to a phone vs. a tablet vs. a computer [Figure 1]. How much real estate do we have to work with? So when you start to sketch out the interface and those different objects, it helps you to visualize the challenges and articulate them very quickly so you don’t waste a week trying to build what they asked for. Working together, then, you can say, “Here’s one way to do it; here’s another way.” Then you are able to focus more on that solution.
The more you sketch, the better you will get; I’ve been amazed in sessions that we’ve done with the Guild first-time users to the concept—how good they are at it!
Figure 1: Two visualization sketches
I would also encourage, before you launch a tool, to use prototyping in a tool or a PDF to demonstrate and test a concept before you invest in development, because it will save time by getting audience and stakeholder feedback.
PH: Do you have any other advice to offer new eLearning designers?
NF: Attending Guild events keeps that excitement and inspiration and helps you to imagine the next generation of learning. Participating in the Guild has been such a great experience, as an attendee and then as a participant, from speaking and collaborating through all the active channels that are offered.
I think the first DemoFest we participated in, and we won an award, was several years ago when it was first launched. So we’ve been active and learning with The eLearning Guild and community for a while now. I’ve learned so much, and I keep coming back for inspiration and ideas as well as to share what we’ve learned. That QR code example we mentioned earlier: It was a great example based on the audience, needs, and environment of how we can mix learning in an active environment just when it’s needed. We’ve all been talking about QR codes, but I’d never seen such a great, practical example. That gentleman saved his company thousands of dollars. It’s genius. It’s practical. It helps connect the dots of what’s possible and what’s useful.I think that’s why DemoFest is so important to our community. I see that in the upcoming DevLearn 2016 Conference & Expo [November 16 – 18 in Las Vegas], you have a case study [special focus], which is huge. I think it’s a great way to learn. I always look for sessions to watch of people talking about what they did, what worked, what didn’t work—so I can learn from their mistakes and what they did that’s positive, so I can use that in what we’re doing. It saves time and money, and you get that practical advice, which I love.