Archive for October, 2009

‘Show your mouse the finger’, written by Angus last week, talked about the types of cool futuristic gadgets and interfaces that made up Spielberg’s futuristic vision of the world in 2054 in the film Minority Report. I actually think that we may not have to wait another 45 years to realise some of the technologies used in the film.

The University of Bristol has just developed software reminiscent of this film, which captures eye movement data from people engaged in activities such as window shopping and, from analysis of the data, they can monitor what grabs people’s attention in shops. Just think about how this type of technology could influence the world of training (and in particular e-learning) and how powerful instant feedback on what elements of a particular course are grabbing the attention of the learner would be.

My nephew’s attention has certainly been grabbed. He’s already talking excitedly about a range of games that go one further than the mouse-less technology Angus talked about and don’t even use hand gestures. This Christmas he’s coveting a range of games based on thought control. These games feature wireless headsets that claim to have the ability to sense signals generated by brainwaves that are then filtered and processed to control the device or computer. These new games rely on technology licensed from biosensor companies that capture brain activity according to whether the user is concentrating or relaxing. So a grimace or a smile can fundamentally change the end result of the game. It’s all to do with BCI – brain computer interface. So we are not only seeing technological advancements in eye movement but also now in facial gestures. What next? It’s still only 2009.

Well how about a world where the power of thought alone could transmit information? Where just thinking about an action would cause a light to be switched on or (dare I say it) a click and reveal decision to be made. If a wireless headset is capable of detecting different expressions and muscle movements to control a video game on a PC, just think what the world would look like if the thoughts of one person could be communicated to another across the internet and without either of them using a keyboard, hand gestures or facial movements – that is, if we moved from brain computer interface to brain to brain interface. The University of Southampton has taken a giant leap forward recently in managing to translate thoughts into binary signals or commands that a conventional computer can understand. It’s a matter of transmitting thoughts from the motor cortex of one person to the visual cortex of another for that ‘eureka’ moment. Of course, there are a few things that can go wrong at this stage – the transfer of thinking is not immediate and thoughts are subject to interference and distraction for instance – but experiments conducted so far prove that the power of thought alone can potentially achieve brain to brain communication. This brain to brain interfacing is certainly expected to have applications for gaming – and therefore possibly learning.

So what could this mean for e-learning? What sort of learning experience will my 15 year old nephew have when he signs into his first e-learning module in years to come? The possibilities held by the future seem endless and I for one believe that it won’t be too many years from now that we are able to track how engaged a learner is through some of these types of scientific developments.

The big question is, what do you think e-learning will look like in 2054?

Creating original graphics for an e-learning course can be a challenging task, particularly when anything that’s created has to comply with strict branding guidelines. An engaging graphic environment is essential for an interesting and successful learning experience. Read on for our top five tips for achieving this.

1. Work on the concept

A strong concept is a must for any design. An interesting theme that runs throughout the course can help keep learners focused and engaged in the content. While the idea should be based around the subject matter, using metaphors and indirect associations can often provide the most attention grabbing results.

2. Explore different technologies

Advances in technology have created new opportunities in every field of design, including e-learning. Subscribe to blogs, magazines and training websites like to make sure you stay up to date with new software and techniques. If the budget is tight, using free software like Google SketchUp can help add new elements to your work.

3. Never stop experimenting

It is easy to get comfortable with a proven style or concept that you know has always worked in the past. Attempting something new might not always be as successful as your proven techniques but exploring new creative methods can lead to improved and more exciting graphic solutions.

4. Do not decorate – communicate

Each visual element should serve a purpose – it should help to communicate the message (the content of the course) and contribute to the overall design concept. Check your work carefully to ensure there are no elements that serve a purely decorative purpose as they can be distracting for the learner.

5. Make it unique

While stock photography can be useful, relying on it entirely can often result in dry and unoriginal work. Use your own photographs to assemble interesting compositions. Ask a colleague to be a model for a photo that can then be used as a reference for an illustration. Include scanned and hand drawn elements to add a personal touch to your work.


Top five tips for designing engaging graphics for e-learning

In 1999 director Steven Spielberg assembled a team of 15 of the world’s leading futurologists and scientists and tasked them with creating a plausible vision of what life would be like in the year 2054. The best ideas were picked and used in the film Minority Report.

If you’ve seen that film you’ll likely remember a number of cool futuristic gadgets and technologies that make up Spielberg’s future world – jetpacks, robots, hologram films – there’s a lot to look forward to in 2054.

However, we may not have to wait that long to experience what I personally thought was the most memorable of futuristic technologies in the film – the computer which Tom Cruise fully controls with his hands, grabbing windows and physically pushing them around the display in order to navigate through the information. You can watch a clip of it here.

This immersive interface seemed not only stylish, but also an intuitive and practical way to interact with the virtual assets of a computer. Not for futuristic Tom Cruise the clunky old interface of a mouse. In the future it seems there’ll be no more pointing and clicking and we won’t be using the proxy of a cursor to do our on-screen bidding. Instead we’ll be taking an altogether more hands on approach – using natural gestures of our hands and fingers to zoom round files.

For a film that is all about seeing the future, it seems Minority Report was suitably prescient, and of course interfaces like this are no longer purely science fiction. When Apple introduced multi-touch for the iPhone in 2007 we all moved a step closer to this kind of control. Although it’s on quite a small scale, the touch screen interface of the iPhone has removed cursors and buttons from the interaction and replaced them with simple finger controls. Flicks, taps, and twirls of the fingers on the screen can activate a myriad of controls, and lets users manipulate content in a way that comes naturally.

As well as Apple’s efforts, there’s been a general swell of touch screen technologies which progress gestural interfaces, and the last week has seen some significant technology releases in this area.

First, the Palm Pre – the so called ‘iPhone Killer’ – has been released in the UK, and picks up where the iPhone left off. In our office, Mariette is already the proud owner of one of these phones, and has been enthusiastic in showing off the touch screen controls. For the Pre, gestures are all important. Not only can applications be slid around screen, or even flicked off it if they are no longer needed, but gestural controls have also moved off the screen to areas where buttons once were. Pushing your finger over certain areas of the body of the phone reveals menus or applications on the screen. This makes using the phone very uncomplicated and tactile.

Secondly, Windows 7 has been launched with much fanfare. It seems that many improvements have been made over Vista, but there’s an interesting feature added to the operating system which hasn’t yet received much attention. A touch screen pack has been created which allows Windows to be run effectively on touch screen enabled PCs. This pack adds in a number of gestural controls which normal mouse users don’t have access to, such as flicking to scroll quickly through pages, zooming with a familiar pinch movement, and rotating objects by circling two fingers around each other. You can see examples here.

What this pack indicates is that big players like Microsoft are seriously planning for a future where touch screen and gesture controls are much more common. This raises questions about how desktop PCs will be designed and arranged in the future, and there’s already a great deal of thought going into this (see here for an example). For anyone designing user interfaces at the moment, however, I think there are more immediate considerations.

Even before PCs become completely gesture controlled, users are going to become familiar with and reliant on these simple movements to navigate through their virtual world, and traditional interfaces will begin to feel cumbersome in comparison. It already seems elaborate to point and click through something like a photo album on a PC, when the same can be done on a touch screen device with a flick of the finger. It’s the job of good interface designers to start trying to transition the simplicity and fluidity of these new gestural commands to the interfaces they are designing now, and not wait till we’re zooming round on jet packs in 2054.

A couple of years ago Adobe acquired an online word processor called BuzzWord from a company called Virtual Ubiquity in order to further enhance their collection of online applications. The web-based word processor was built using the Flex framework which is part of the Adobe product line and targeted at creating rich internet applications (RIAs) that can be deployed to the web or desktop through the Flash and AIR runtime environments. So how user-friendly and effective is BuzzWord as an online word processor?

Well, at first glance when you login to BuzzWord you will notice that Adobe has obviously taken great care when planning out a slick user interface to enhance the experience of their application. Once you login using your Adobe ID, you are presented with the home screen showing you an overview of available documents. Using the main menu of the home screen you are also able to filter the documents alphabetically or by author, time last changed, size (which means pages rather than file size) and role. Initially when you start using BuzzWord you will probably not have that many documents to manage but the filter options will become very helpful as your collection of documents starts to grow, especially filtering by author if you are sharing documents between friends or colleagues.

Okay, so you have found the document you want to edit, it’s opened up into full view and you are ready to start typing. Around the document the menu and submenu bars have been updated to provide controls to handle fonts, paragraphs, rules, lists, tables, images, version control, and comments. All of which makes for a pretty comprehensive arsenal to choose from when writing your documents. As you start to type in your document the live preview is updated allowing you to see how text wraps around images or tables instantly. One extra that I have not noticed in many of the other online word processors is that BuzzWord also shows your content in a page view so it is a little easier to see how your content will look when it is printed out or exported from Buzzword.

The final step for BuzzWord is to package your document into something you can print or share. The export options currently include PDF, DOC, XML, RTF, ZIP, TXT, ODT and EPUB, which should be enough to cover most situations. I’ve tested exporting to Word from BuzzWord and it does a pretty good job of keeping formatting intact, even headers and footers were converted correctly into the exported version.

Overall, I think BuzzWord is a great online word processor and the fact that it has built in support for version control makes it a great way to manage documents between different people. Best of all, it’s free!

I hate telling someone I studied languages at university and then having them say ‘ooh, say something in French’. There’s nothing worse than being put on the spot and there’s no surer way to scare all the fancy French words from my head and leave my mind blank. It’s the same with creativity. Inspiration strikes at the most random moments and more often than not eludes you when you most need it – like when you’re racking your brains for a new take on performance management training or trying to come up with a catchy course title. It’s not always easy to be creative on demand, day in, day out.

That’s not the only challenge though. We all want each new project to be an opportunity to do something fresh and innovative and we all try to ‘think outside the box’. But the fact is we often don’t have that freedom. We’re so often confronted with ‘we need it yesterday’ deadlines, ‘we can’t spend a penny more’ budgets and ‘our technology can’t do that’ restrictions. It can be easy to get stuck in a rut (or feel like you are) when faced with limitations like this and even easier to end up using them as excuses for simply churning out the tried and tested solutions time and time again.

But that’s the reality of what we do, our industry does require us to work within these considerations. What we need to do is see the constraints of budgets, timescales, resources and so on as an opportunity for even greater creativity. Sometimes, having a limited set of options or tools can actually result in a more creative output (one of my colleagues wrote a few months ago about how the reverse is true – too many options can be counterproductive to creativity) and working within a tight timeframe can also be a stimulus for creativity (how many students have written their best essays in the early hours of the morning of the deadline?).

We’ve recently introduced a new element to our team meetings, trying out some exercises to boost our creativity (you can find some starting points here) and we’d love to hear any other tips and ideas that we can try out. But I think a lot of it comes down to attitude. Rather than seeing deadlines and budgets as limitations on creativity, we need to rise to the challenge and find new ways to be creativity within those parameters. So rather than always trying to think outside the box, we need to start thinking creatively inside the box.

XML can be a great tool when used correctly, but it does sometimes suffer from being a development buzzword. The trick to understanding how best to use XML is to remember that its focus is to provide an independent structure for a collection of data. What happens with that data is a problem for other programming languages that need to work with it.

1. Create a stylesheet

XML can be viewed in many different formats but creating a stylesheet is a great way to ensure that the data is displayed in a readable way. Using tools like Microsoft InfoPath it’s possible to create a customisable view that will allow users to make updates to your XML document using familiar form based controls like textboxes and dropdown menus.

2. Group data

When using elements that belong in a group it’s best to create an element to represent that group. For example, if you wanted to create an XML document to show information on a series of books, you would want to create an element labelled “books”, then create sub-elements within the group to hold the information on each specific book.

3. Use elements and attributes appropriately

When choosing between elements and attributes, try to remember that elements should be used to group or hold data and attributes should be used to store meta-information for a specific element. Also try to avoid starting any names in your document with the letters XML or any punctuation characters.

4. Ensure compatibility

There are various ways to encode XML, such as ASCII and ISO/IEC 8859, but to ensure greater compatibility it’s generally best to make sure your documents are saved encoded as UTF-8. You can usually see how your document is encoded by opening your XML document in a simple text editor and checking the encoding attribute on the first line.

5. Experiment with your software

You don’t always have to have expensive dedicated software to edit your XML documents correctly. Programs like Microsoft Word are capable of transforming an XML document directly into a familiar looking editable document that you can save onto your PC.


Top five tips for writing XML for beginners

The most recent post on the Spicy Learning Blog is an extra special one, because it’s our 50th post – a great milestone which we’re very proud of!

Over the past nine or ten months, the Spicy Learning Blog has explored a range of topics from the world of technology supported learning in the workplace – including instructional design issues, design and development questions, the potential of mobile learning, project management best practice and wider business strategy considerations. We’ve also recently started a series of ‘how to’ guides, offering our tips on a whole host of things.

The blog has also been generating discussion, with around 25 comments added – and this is something we’d love to build on. We’re really interested to know what the rest of the learning and development world is thinking and talking about, so whether you think we’re slightly off the mark or we’ve hit the nail on the head, please do let us know!

Some of the most discussed questions (both inside and outside Saffron) include:

Thanks to everyone who has read and contributed to the Spicy Learning Blog over the course of 2009 so far – and here’s to the next 50!

The recent turmoil in the financial markets and the resulting chaos in all of our businesses have both intensified our desire to be ‘rapid’. We want things faster and cheaper. We want minimal fuss and we just want to get on with it. We’re practical people, we get things done and we want to prove this to the world. Music to the ears of anyone selling a rapid development tool but what about instructional designers (IDs)? Where do they fit in? Pah, I hear you say. Who needs an ID? Our subject matter experts know all there is to know. If we give them a tool that allows them to put their knowledge online, surely this will be better and more authentic than having a third party develop the material? It will certainly be a lot cheaper and faster!

This is when I get worried. Not because I make my living from bespoke e-learning but because this kind of talk is dangerous. It subjects thousands of people to the tyranny of poorly designed training and holds them accountable for what they should have learnt. When we talk the ‘we don’t need instructional design’ nonsense, we forget that the true cost of training does not lie in the development. The true cost comes when we find out that the training hasn’t worked. For example, if you run a project management course, online or in the classroom, this may cost you a few thousand pounds. However, if the training is not effective and your people still can’t manage projects, the cost may run into the millions. Therefore, it’s critical that you ensure any learning intervention you invest in has the best chance of returning the benefits that your organisation is demanding. Otherwise, why bother at all? This is where instructional design comes in.

You’ll be glad to know that I’m not the only person that holds this view. At a recent presentation, Dr Itiel Dror demonstrated that we can all give knowledge but does this mean that our learners receive it as intended and can apply it? The answer is probably no. He explained that our brain works in a particular way and that when we want to build effective training material, we need to take this into account. For instance, all one hundred of us in the audience were unable to count the number of Fs on a screen, even though they were in front of our eyes in black and white, and we missed a gorilla doing a jig in the middle of a video. It’s all to do with the way the brain works, he explained. Instructional designers know this and build this into their content design.

I’m a big fan of rapid development and think we should do more of it. But, please, don’t sacrifice good learning design in order to meet your desire to be rapid. Appreciate that content development, to be effective, will take some time but this time will be well spent when you measure the benefits.

For a flavour of Dr Dror’s work, go to and click here to see or miss the gorilla.

How can we help

Click here to download a handy PDF about who we are and what we do.

Working for

Click here to find out more about jobs at Saffron.

t: 020 7651 4960

Or click here to use our online form.