Archive for September, 2009

We are all eager for fresh and creative ideas to make our courses innovative, effective and engaging for the end user. But we can’t simply rely on random activities, chance or some creative ‘greater providence’ though. It is actually a solid and well structured approach that we need in order to generate and flourish brilliant ideas.

The well known name given to this approach is ‘brainstorming’ (although some governmental organisations have recently concluded that the term is offensive to people with epilepsy, suggesting the alternative ‘mind shower’). Actually, none of the above sound particularly inviting for people like us immersed in the pouring London weather, but that’s another kettle of fish…

Behind the creative output there are several techniques and methods to explore, including brand new trends like ‘nominal group technique’, ‘group passing technique’ and ‘electronic brainstorming’, all of them with the aim of using a fun and energetic process to create a list of ideas to kick off a project. The preferred method will vary of course depending on the objective, the available time and the participants. Below is a run through of what I have found to be the most useful and effective for our specific aims: a process of illumination (you might describe it as ‘sunbathing’), dumping the old soggy ideas for the fresher brighter ones that will enlighten our projects. Hopefully my suggestions might add a little spice and improved effectiveness to your brainstorming process.

The objective

Define and agree the topic for which you will be generating ideas. It’s good practice to create a background memo and send it out with the invitation to the participants. This should contain the session name, objective, time, date, and place. Describe the objective in the form of a question, and give some example ideas and references you might have found. Send the note well in advance, so the participants can think about the subject matter beforehand and come to the discussion prepared. It’s important to gather all the possible information around the project in advance of the session, as gaps in knowledge and information appearing during the idea generation might interrupt the flow of fruitful creative juices.

The group

Brainstorming works best in small groups. If a group gets too large, more than 10 people, it can be difficult to control and some attendees may not feel as comfortable participating. A facilitator or meeting lead should take responsibility for getting everyone involved in the process. It doesn’t need to be a creative mind but someone with strong meeting leadership skills. They will then be the point person to ensure ideas flow and to drive the process, while the others bring the wildest ideas to the surface. The lead might decide to set a time limit as having a ticking clock can help keep the ideas coming. It’s also sometimes recommended that managers and superiors don’t attend, as they may inhibit and reduce the generation of unusual ideas. But make sure the group does include one good representative for each branch of expertise the project involves. For instance, for our e-learning projects it is advisable to include at least an instructional designer, a developer and a designer. You never know who will put forward the final juicy idea, so don’t underestimate the benefit of having extra points of view, as an ‘outsider’ mind might provide the unique perspective you need.

Putting pen to paper

All we need to brainstorm is a pad and pencil. Assign a person to write down all the ideas, thoughts and everything that comes to mind in order to produce a ‘mind map’ that can be easily seen by all of the attendees. Create the mind map starting with your core central concept and branching off the new ideas in different circles that connect to the central theme and to each others. All ideas and thoughts should be recorded; worry about trimming them down later. It’s important to reduce ‘dead air’ and to keep the ideas to freeflowing; do not self-censor or hesitate before offering an idea and keep writing – as the pen must be touching the page the entire time, wandering, doodling and sketching without fear.

Achieving quality through quantity

So the goal is to express very quickly as many ideas as possible. A free flux of consciousness is what can help bring up your most brilliant ideas. The point is that the more ideas you generate, the greater the chance of producing an outstanding solution: throw out any and all ideas related to a project, leading eventually to one or a few that are worth taking further. At the end you should even push yourself the extra mile – once you think you’ve exhausted all of the possibilities, take a big breath, re-examine the ideas you have got and push the group to add a few more to the box.

The ‘all ideas are good ideas’ rule

Another important rule that follows the previous one is that all ideas should be encouraged and no one should issue any criticism toward any idea presented, no matter how off base it may seem at the time. No negative comments are allowed; instead build on, extend or add to the ideas when the opportunity is given. This will help create a supportive environment and encourage every participant to take part in the process. By suspending judgment, and reserving criticism for a later stage, participants will feel free and comfortable to generate unusual and unique ideas.

An ‘ideas book’ might be a great tool to keep outside the actual sessions. You can decide to place it somewhere in your shared network and make it accessible to everyone as a place to log all the extra ideas might come to mind. This can be a powerful source for refining concepts and providing inspiration for new ones. It also gives participants some ‘soak time’ to think deeply and evolve ideas. The individuals aren’t that comfortable with the face to face sessions might find in it a great way to contribute.

Walking on the wild side

To get that long succulent list of ideas, unusual perspectives and the suspension of assumptions are needed. This is certainly not the time to hold back and the purpose is to invite everyone to participate, to dismiss nothing. You might indeed find that the ideas that seemed initially to be risky, unrealistic and nonsensical turn out to be the best one at the end. For this reason, brainstorming can be a great way to boost morale among participants and help them to feel part of the process. Just using sticky notes, markers and flip charts in a creative way to gather suggestions might add new engaging platforms. Also changing the setting could be beneficial, so don’t hesitate to move your location to the park, for instance, or anywhere might seem more inspiring. Yes, even in London there are a bunch of friendly days, fresh air and green spaces for spreading the wings of your ideas.

Fortune telling

Now that you have all the tea leaves in your cup of tea it is time for the divination and refinement of your objective. This is when you sort through your list of generated ideas, start finding connections between the ideas that are related and prioritise the most promising ones into a more finished list. If you have done a good session the shiny solution should magically appear at the top of your list and the future of your project will appear blooming and full of promise. If you feel you have got the right solution to move forward then agree a timescale and who’s responsible. After the session it is important to circulate notes and give feedback in order to spread a transparent and positive result. In doing that people feel their participation and efforts were worthwhile and have resulted in action; they will be then motivated and keen to contribute again.

Good luck – and let us know if these tips work for you, or your ideas for getting the creative juices flowing!

  • Swine questions!
  • Friday, September 18th, 2009 at 6:39 pm
  • Written by Jennifer Wrigley

Early last week I suddenly began to feel feverish and aching and suspected I might have been struck down by the dreaded disease of the moment, swine flu. After leaving work early and trying to sleep it off at home I decided that it was pointless waiting for the symptoms to get worse, instead I should call the wonderful government hotline and get an official diagnosis. With my housemates lurking at a safe distance in the next room and my head pounding like a policeman at the door, I dialled the number. After a short wait a young man with a thick Scottish accent answered in a dead-pan voice not dissimilar to that of the man who reads out the shipping reports. I soon realised why – he had the longest list of questions for me and was clearly sick of asking them.

“Are you calling on behalf of the patient or are you the patient yourself?”

After telling him I was the patient he then said,

“Is the patient currently having breathing difficulties?”

I informed him that no, I, the patient, was not having any breathing difficulties. He then said,

“Is the patient conscious and able to talk coherently?”

Now if I’d been my normal belligerent self I would have retorted by asking him whether he thought I, the patient, was currently talking to him coherently. But with a temperature of 38.5ºC I really didn’t have the energy for such rhetoric. His next question nearly changed my mind though,

“Is the patient currently having a fit or a seizure?”

Well I didn’t know about a medical fit but I, the patient, could certainly feel a big fit of rage coming on.

My point? Well, it’s not just the types of questions you ask that’s important, it’s the way you phrase them too. I know the man on the phone had to follow a list of questions, but surely he could have made the effort to stop referring to me in the third person? And, instead of asking if I was having a seizure, why didn’t he re-phrase the question to make it more of a friendly confirmation that I wasn’t having a seizure?

I made a mental note to remember these thoughts for when I got back to the office, as writing successful questions for a course is one of the biggest challenges of our job as instructional designers. Often we get fixated on whether the answers are plausible, or whether the questions are relevant and continue to engage the learner. We often forget that the actual way the question is phrased or the language we use could also have a big impact on the learner’s engagement in the course. So, the next time I’m writing questions I’ll remember my Scottish swine flu interrogator and ensure that the phrasing and language I use don’t get in the way of a good question.

All too often, a systems training course becomes a glorified user manual because it tries to train learners on everything that there is to know about the system! Read on for Saffron’s top five tips for creating great systems training that focuses on what learners need to know.

1. Define the objectives and learning outcomes

Like with all online training, the first step to creating effective systems training is to define the objectives and learning outcomes. Ask yourself – what does the learner need to know? Are there any behaviours that need changing? Remember, while user manuals provide end-to-end information, the e-learning should focus on specific areas.

2. Get familiar with the system

Ask the subject matter expert to take you through the system in the same way that they would train someone. This will help you to identify where a learner might struggle. If possible, install the software on your computer or get remote access to a testing environment so that you don’t have to worry about breaking anything and, at the same time, have unlimited access to the system.

3. Keep it real with scenarios

Just because it’s systems training, it doesn’t mean that the course shouldn’t involve scenarios. Once you’ve decided what areas of the system the training should focus on, think of some plausible scenarios. Then, set up the system with the realistic sample data – there’s nothing more frustrating than files or text fields containing words like ‘testdata1’! Remember to keep scenarios short or learners will lose interest.

4. Put yourself in the learners’ shoes

The training should simulate the real environment, allowing the learner to interact with it as they would in real life. For example, if the learner needs to type something in a text field, let them do that! But don’t make them type more than a few words – remember it’s systems training not a typing tutorial!

5. Go full-screen

Ideally, the screen shots used in the course should be full-screen and taken on one computer to ensure consistency. It’s also best to use the Print Screen function rather than any third party image capturing software to ensure that all the screen shots are the same size.


Top five tips for creating great e-learning systems training

At Saffron, we are always excited by new technologies which can be used as tools to enhance learning and usability. One of the many interesting projects I am currently involved in is the development of a RIA (rich internet application) product, using Microsoft’s Silverlight platform.

In this project, I used Expression Blend to recreate a user interface, based on the original Photoshop graphics, which was then passed on to our developers. The great thing about Blend is that it automatically converts all graphics to XAML, without the need to write code manually. Learning to work in Blend wasn’t difficult thanks to the intuitive user interface with its sleek graphite color scheme and well-arranged layout. Despite being new to this software, I found it straightforward to use which allowed me to concentrate on design rather than spending time searching for the right functions.

In the first stage, the original PSD graphics had to be converted into XAML using Blend which was a smooth process thanks to its support for importing Photoshop and Illustrator files. However, the import was not able to preserve all Photoshop effects and I found the best results were produced when importing vector layers. Blend is able to convert PSD files to XAML code with the original layer structure and names still intact. Additionally, individual layers can be selected for import whilst ignoring others; the pre-import preview function proved to be very useful for this.

After creating the initial static images, the animations were added. Creating animations, such as button controls, was painless using button transition states in Blend, especially as there was no need to write any code. The animation process itself is slightly different from Flash – in Blend, the process works with a true timeline and keyframes are created automatically as the timeline playhead is moved and the object properties changed. This approach seemed slightly quicker than using tweens in Flash but it’s hard to imagine how a frame by frame animation would work in Blend.

When animating movement, Blend creates a movement path which can easily be edited, thus controlling the movement animation; I also found this slightly more flexible than motion tweens in Flash. Another asset that deserves a special mention is the gradient tool in Blend which allows you to create and refine values of gradients directly on the object by dragging the gradient end points, which is extremely convenient to use.

One of the notable features of Silverlight, as often mentioned by Microsoft, lies in the improved designer-developer cycle. This was clearly proven in our experience as we at Saffron had a tight deadline to achieve, and it enabled both designers and developers to work in parallel. Silverlight is undoubtedly worth considering when choosing a platform for RIA, but is it a good alternative to Flash for creating engaging e-learning content? In my opinion, Silverlight can be a very useful tool for e-learning, especially in the following cases:

  • When project deadlines are very tight and the project involves making multiple changes to design. Silverlight’s superior designer-developer workflow and team collaboration support means reduced overall development time as designers and developers can work on applications simultaneously.
  • When the project involves full screen or HD videos. Silverlight 3 supports hardware graphics acceleration. This can lower CPU usage considerably, which means HD videos can be played on older low spec computers.
  • When the project involves 3D or complex animations. Silverlight’s support for 3D graphics and animation rendering is superior to Flash and provides smoother animation due to GPU acceleration capabilities and perspective 3D support. This website provides a number of examples of Flash verses Silverlight performance comparisons.

There are probably many other reasons to use Silverlight for creating engaging e-learning content that I’ve not mentioned here. Please share your experiences of working with Silverlight and Expression Blend in the comments box below.

An inaccessible e-learning course risks non compliance, frustration, anxiety and lost productivity. Our top ten tips will help you avoid all that and build something accessible, usable and ultimately more effective.

1. Revise your definition of ‘accessibility’

Yes, accessibility is about catering for users with disabilities. But it pays to take a broader view: accessibility is about usability. Everyone benefits from easy to use interactions, intuitive navigation, clear language and a considered design.

2. Build accessibility into your plans

A lot of people believe an accessible course is an expensive course, but this doesn’t have to be the case. Consider accessibility from the outset, plan how you’ll build it into your design, and you’ll find that the investment pays off.

3. Aim for accessibility, not perfection

It’s worth finding some guidelines, like the W3C standards. They apply to websites rather than e-learning, so create your own test plans that tick as many of the boxes as possible and find alternatives if you can’t meet a particular requirement.

4. Don’t be tempted to build two versions

Creating a separate version of an e-learning course isn’t inclusive, so it opens you up to equivalence issues. It also adds to your workload, which impacts on the timescales and bottom line, and it can compromise testing procedures.

5. Be aware of the common mistakes

Don’t create interactions that require intricate mouse control. Don’t design a course that relies on an awareness of the visual layout. Don’t use descriptions that will be lost on visually impaired users (‘click on the green box on the right…’).

6. Offer alternatives to multimedia elements

Audio and video are commonplace in e-learning these days, but not everyone can benefit from them (and not everybody wants to). Give your users options, such as audio they can turn on or off, or captions and transcripts of videos.

7. Create a user friendly design

When designing your course, think about font size, scroll bars (and how to avoid them) and colour blind users. Summarise graphs, charts and tables so nobody loses out, and make sure your design is consistent and intuitive.

8. Speak in plain English

Accessibility isn’t all about technical features; the language used is equally important. Content that is complex, full of jargon or out of context can put off any user, regardless of disability – including those whose first language isn’t English.

9. Don’t assume ‘accessible’ means ‘limited’

As designers, we’re creative within the parameters of brand guidelines, corporate voice and technical constraints every day. Accessibility’s no different – a good designer can create something attractive, exciting and accessible.

10. Test, test and test some more

By all means make use of the accessibility testing tools available, but don’t exclude human intervention. Ask a diverse pilot group to test thoroughly for accessibility and usability and, if possible, build more than one test into development.


Top ten tips for e-learning accessibility

Taking a step closer to British citizenship is an important event in my life. The process of applying for indefinite leave to remain involves taking the Life in the UK test which, if I pass, will supposedly show that I have the necessary grasp of the English language and understanding of UK life that one requires for citizenship.

Like anyone eager to pass, I bought the Handbook and Q&A pack for a value price of £12.99 and wrote up a timetable to study for 30 minutes every night after work. As I worked my way through the guide, I remember thinking to myself ‘this is pretty interesting stuff but there are an awful lot of statistics and dates – I hope I don’t have to remember these!’

The guide was the easy part; then came the practice tests – 24 questions per test and 45 minutes in which to finish, and most of the questions were, as I’d feared, a regurgitation of statistics and dates with a couple of practical questions thrown in to mix it up a bit! Even a pub quiz has more engaging questions.

As an instructional designer, I like to think I have a fair idea of what constitutes a good question – one that tests practical knowledge rather than memory and one that’s challenging to the learner but fair. Below are some samples of what I faced:

  • Where does Santa Claus come from?

An easy enough question, but as foreigner I might not even know who Santa Claus is. One might argue that it’s part of British culture to know about Santa Claus but surely knowing where this fictitious character comes from does not indicate my knowledge and understanding of life in the UK?!

So, how about some statistics or random facts?

  • What percentage of the UK population stated that they were Christian?
  • What percentage of the UK population is Jewish?
  • What percentage of the UK’s population is white?
  • How many members does The National Assembly for Wales have?
  • What is the distance (in miles) between the North coast of Scotland and the South coast of England?
  • How much is the deposit required for candidates standing as a Member of the European Parliament?

Clearly after becoming a British citizen, the next step is to become an MEP!

And then there were a couple of trick questions:

  • How much do you have to pay to visit the Parliament? – You don’t have to pay!
  • Who wrote the United Kingdom’s constitution? – No one, it’s an unwritten constitution!

And then a few questions to ‘help one integrate into society’:

  • Why were specialist immigration centres set up in the West Indies in the 1950s? 
  • Where did the tradition of playing jokes on one another on April 1st originate?

However, not all the questions were like this:

  • What happens if a driver has more than the permitted amount of alcohol in his/her body or refuses to take the test?
  • What is the minimum age to drive a car or motorcycle?
  • What is a CRB check?
  • True or false? It is illegal to drive a vehicle while using a mobile phone.
  • What is the highest denomination bank note in the England?
  • What is the speed limit for a motorway or dual carriageway?
  • True or false? NHS Walk-in centres provide treatment for minor injuries and illnesses seven days a week.

I was relieved to finally be presented with some relevant questions based on useful topics and facts that are useful and which any newcomer can apply to life in the UK.

The overall objective of the test was to assess my knowledge and understanding of UK life but I feel that it did neither. Although a few of the questions forced me to learn about some of the basic laws and rules that all residents of the UK must abide by, many of the questions revolved around random topics or concepts that no one needs to know about in day to day life, or facts and statistics that aren’t going to increase my ability to live in this country.

It’s been interesting studying for the Life in the UK exam whilst bearing in mind Saffron’s instructional design approach to writing knowledge test questions. It’s a shame that the exam doesn’t focus on people’s behaviours, or on choices and decisions that I’ll face in life. Wish me luck!

We’re thrilled to announce that we’ve been shortlisted for the 2009 E-Learning Award for Excellence in the Production of Learning Content – Private Sector. We’re particularly proud of this achievement as only seven entries have been shortlisted out of 24 entries.

You can find out more about the awards on the E-Learning Awards website - and watch this space!

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