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Go Beyond Busy Work: e-Learning Design with ACTION


by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist | @ethanaedwards

Ethan Edwards

One of the most common complaints I hear from designers of e-learning is that the learners are disengaged and find the e-learning boring. They know this by seeing how strategies for guessing and skipping content are more prevalent than elevated attention. They know this when they see students reading emails while waiting for the e-learning narration to complete. They know this when learners take great effort to get the “answers” from co-workers rather than figuring it out on their own.

There are many design factors that account for failure to engage the learner’s attention and energy, but chief among them is the fact that a lot of e-learning doesn’t expect the learner to DO anything significant – making the course feel more like busy work than an opportunity to learn.

In general, here’s the extent of what many learners are asked to do “to learn”, in my best guess as to amount of time spent, from most to least:

  • Read (without knowing the purpose)
  • Press the NEXT button
  • Move the cursor to a button labeled A, B, C, or D and click
  • Move the cursor to a button labeled T or F and click
  • Click a button to Play audio (or more commonly, mute audio)
  • Click on section labels to get out of whatever is happening now
  • Move a word into an arbitrary region

Of course this is just a generalization, and there are any number of variations on these elements. I challenge you to reread the list and think about what is memorable or engaging or even instructive about any of those elements. In what way do they correspond to the work environment that your learners perform in?

I’ve been consulting in training organizations for almost 30 years, and I have yet to come across a position where the listed actions matter. Reading is the only one that comes close to being useful, but on the job, reading is only done as a means to solve a problem—not as an end in itself. 

No wonder learners fail to connect with the training. They feel the requirements are busy work because, indeed, most e-learning training IS filled with busy work.


There are many ways to try to fix this, but one of the easiest is just to start asking the learner to DO something that feels real and relevant. In the CCAF-based Design Model for creating instructional interactivity, this is the ACTIVITY, or as I like to think of it, the ACTION. What actual physical actions are you going to have the learner do? Discard the idea of learner RESPONSES and instead focus on learner ACTIONS. Responses lack initiative, are passive, and are often not compelling. Actions require energy, initiative, purpose, and intent—all factors in helping learners own the learning process. 

  • Clicking the letter “A” is a response. Examining an image of a malfunctioning piece of equipment and clicking on the faulty component is an action.
  • Dragging a letter to match a corresponding definition in a list of distractors is a response. Generating data and manipulating a software screen to input that data in the correct field is an action. 
  • Reading a description and deciding if it is true or not is a response. Participating in a conversation and deciding when it is appropriate to apply a policy or correct improper behavior is an action.

When I face a new design, often it is the Activity that demands my attention and imagination first. The actions are going to be the most significant thing the learner can easily take away from the modules. If those feel trivial, it matters little what else goes on in the module. 

If you are interested in designing engaging activities, consider joining me for a complimentary webinar from Training Magazine webinar, “Actions Speak Louder than Words” this Thursday at 12:00 PM Central.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words Subscribe to the e-Learning Leadership Blog

ASTD 2014 - Free Expo Passes, SAM, ZebraZapps & More!



At ASTD 2014, join more than 9,000 of your learning colleagues from around the globe in Washington, D.C., May 4 - 7, 2014, to share best practices and insights. You'll learn current and future trends, and find out how to apply them on the job to get results. You'll learn from world-renowned thought leaders, and industry luminaries. ASTD 2014 will provide the tools and resources necessary to move you and your organization forward. Learn More & Register ▶

More details on what we have happening at ASTD ICE are below! We hope to see you there!

Free Expo Passes:

If you are in the area and want to drop by and check out the Expo Hall, it’s complimentary―register here! Use invitation code: 1013. 

And don't forget to visit us at Booth 1101 where you can enter to win a free seat in an upcoming ASTD Leaving ADDIE for SAM Mega Workshop and talk to the co-authors of the soon-to-be-released Leaving ADDIE for SAM Field Guide which will be available at the show―pre-order it now!

Leaving ADDIE for SAM

Speaking Events: 

Get the full scoop and applicable hands-on experience with SAM at the two-day workshop. 

Then, hear about the 5 Advantages of SAM over ADDIE from Michael Allen, creator of SAM―The Successive Approximation Model.

Next, learn why it's time we Get Serious About e-Learning at the panel by Michael Allen, Julie Dirksen, and Clark Quinn.

Finally, discover ZebraZapps' authoring prowess for creating serious games! 

ASTD Leaving ADDIE for SAM Mega Workshop
Friday, May 2 - Saturday, May 3 | 9:00 am - 5:00 pm
Learn More & Register ▶

ASTD Advanced e-Learning Instructional Design Certificate Program
Friday, May 2 - Saturday, May 3 | 8:30 am - 4:30 pm
Learn More & Register ▶

5 Advantages of SAM over ADDIE
Monday, May 5 | 3:00 - 4:15 pm
Speaker: Michael Allen, chairman & CEO
Learn More ▶

Getting Serious About e-Learning
Tuesday, May 6 | 4:00 - 5:00 pm
Speakers: Michael Allen, Julie Dirksen, Clark Quinn
Learn More ▶

Discover How to Build Serious e-Learning Games with ZebraZapps
Wednesday, May 7 | 10:45 am - 12:00 pm
Speaker: Steve Lee, co-founder
Learn More ▶

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Tips for Developing Successful Leadership Training


by relationship management assistant

Hannah Von Bank Blog, sales assistant coordinator

In the past, employers had their pick of often hundreds of qualified applicants for a limited number of positions – but that is set to change. Ten thousand American workers reached the age of 65 today and about 10,000 more will reach retirement age everyday for the next 17 years. Baby boomers are retiring in droves and are taking their knowledge and experience with them. To quote this month’s issue of Chief Learning Officer Magazine: “The forecast suggests the talent, skills and knowledge needed will no longer be available via thousands of applicants.”

Is your organization struggling with how to internally develop and retain the skilled leaders necessary for keeping your business successful for years to come? While developing a leadership development curriculum may be daunting task, here are some tips for starting out.

1. Identify crucial leadership skills

Leadership TrainingWhat would your ideal leadership team look like? How would they work together to support your organization? What talent and competencies should they possess? Compare your vision to the current state of your team―can you identify any skill gaps or efficiencies you want to preserve and pass on? Industry and position-specific skills are sure to vary between companies, but some leadership skills are universal, such as:

  • The ability to effectively delegate
  • Motivational skills
  • Organizational Skills
  • Communication Skills
  • Ethics and Integrity
  • Conflict Resolution

By identifying the skills you need to focus on, you are well on your way to building your curriculum.

2. Interview your Resources

Now that you’ve identified the skills you want to foster, it’s time to gather best practices for applying those skills on the job. A great way to do this is to interview your most successful internal leaders. There are many questions you can ask—here are a few to get you started:

  • What do you wish you knew when you started in this position?
  • What aspect of your job is most challenging for you? The most rewarding?
  • What does ______ skill look like on the job? For instance, how do you motivate your team? What does effective communication mean to your sales associates? How do you make decisions regarding task delegation?
  • How do you measure success for yourself and for the employees you supervise?
  • What are your best practices for coaching new employees? 

3. Organize your ideas

Building out a grid like the one below is a quick way to organize and prioritize all your learning goals, audiences, activities, and timelines in one easy-to-find place:

Leadership plan for all staff and volunteers


Leadership Development Activities


Team leads will learn how to hold effective meetings

In person training and role-play given by Jasmine, Program Director

Next Month

Increase ability to work as a team among all staff members

Have group rotate leadership in community development projects; Executive Director, Carmine, will teach people how to support each other's leadership

This Year

Increase diversity awareness among all staff

Ongoing diversity awareness program; bring in an outside facilitator

Meet monthly throughout this year


4. Choose your training methods

As you build out your plan, think about the mix of modalities you are going use to reach your audience. There are a number of methods you can use to motivate and disperse information to your future leaders: mentorship programs, e-learning courses, webinars, seminars, team retreats, classroom training, mobile apps, and professional speakers to name a few. Each modality has unique strengths and weaknesses. When making your decisions, consider:

  • Which skills are most crucial to learner success? What skills require the most hands-on practice? An activity-focused e-learning course or a highly interactive in-class training might be best for these skills.
  • How can I scale this training for future learners? One-off lessons that don’t need to be repeated might be covered in person through a speaking event or meeting with a supervisor. Training you’ll want to repeat in the future may best be handled through e-learning, on-the-job coaching, or recorded webinars.
  • Do my learners need to put this information into memory or do they simply need to know where to find the information if they have a question? A PDF or mobile reference material gives learners the ability to find the information they need quickly and easily.
  • Are there outside organizations that can provide this training? Many colleges and professional organizations (like our partner, ASTD) offer proven professional development and software training programs that your employees can take advantage of.

Are you considering implementing or improving upon a leadership development program for your organization? What challenges are you facing?

e-Learning Motivation Kit Download Subscribe to the e-Learning Leadership Blog

Iterative e-Learning Development: SAM Uncovered


By , senior instructional strategist | @LearnerAdvocate
Angel Green senior instructional strategist


Perhaps you’ve heard the hype around SAM. Maybe you’ve even read Leaving ADDIE for SAM by Michael Allen and Richard Sites. But, you wonderis it really that different than ADDIE?

Do you have questions about SAM?

Successive Approximation Model (SAM)

  • Are you curious about the SAVVY Start (and what SAVVY even means)? 
  • Do you wonder how it is possible that an instructional process can improve the quality of your learning events?  
  • Is it unclear to you what prototypes look like? 
  • Do you have questions on how SMEs are used in SAM?  
  • Is there confusion in your mind between an iteration and a revision? 
  • Can your required signoffs and approvals be handled in SAM?
  • Do you deliver instructor-led training and want to move to SAM but question if SAM is a fit for ILT?

If any of these questions sound familiar, or you have questions of your own, join Richard Sites and me for our upcoming ASTD Webinar on Friday, April 11th, See SAM in Action.

In this free one-hour webinar, Richard and I will walk you through the SAM process from beginning to end and will:

  • Describe the Savvy Start
  • Show prototypes
  • Explain the role of the SME
  • Uncover how content is developed in SAM
  • Discuss the benefits of iterating toward a final product
We’ll jam pack this hour with our most frequently asked SAM questions and allow attendees the opportunity to ask us questions.

The webinar will be recorded, so even if you can’t attend this Friday, April 11th, be sure to register to receive access to the recording!

Register Here ▶

Subscribe to the e-Learning Leadership Blog See SAM in Action: Upcoming ASTD Webinar

See SAM In Action & 6 Steps To Improved e-Learning Activities



See SAM In Action
Friday, April 11, 2-3 pm Eastern
Sponsored by ASTD
Cost: Free


This webcast will demonstrate the techniques vital to creating successful e-learning programs and will provide participants with the skills to use advanced design techniques to create e-learning programs that drive productivity. You will learn effective ways to design learning events that go far beyond the transmission of information to achieve behavior change and targeted performance levels.

Presented by: 

Angel Green - senior instructional strategist

Angel Green
senior instructional strategist | @LearnerAdvocate
Co-author of the Leaving ADDIE for SAM Field Guide 



Richard Sites, vice president - training and marketing

Richard Sitesvice president - training and marketing | @rhillsites
Co-author of Leaving ADDIE for SAM and the Leaving ADDIE for SAM Field Guide 



Actions Speak Louder Than Words: 6 Steps to Improved e-Learning Activities
Thursday, April 24, 1-2 pm Eastern
Sponsored by Training Magazine
Cost: Free 


There’s much frustration with the limited range of interactivity found in e-learning programs. Arbitrary multiple-choice and true-and-false questions, even when masquerading under flashy game-like interfaces, fail to engage learners’ attention. Worse yet, they usually fail to teach. Too often designers feel bound by the limits of actions available to the learner—senseless button clicking, random dragging, confusing entries. But, even working within the constraints of low-level authoring tools, it is possible to design eLearning activities that will engage, motivate, and captivate the learner’s imagination and enhance post-training performance.

Edwards will present six simple and easily achievable transformations to make your elearning interactions more impactful. 

Presented by:

 Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist

Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist | @ethanaedwards





E-Learning Design's Lost Focus on the Learner


by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist | @ethanaedwards

Ethan Edwards

E-learning enjoys the odd distinction of continuously being viewed as “new” even though it has been around for quite some time. Indeed, I am by no means a pioneer in the field, and I designed and built my first lesson way back in 1982.

E-learning likely maintains this identity because technology evolves at such a fast pace that it always seems like there are as many people just starting out in the industry as there are experienced practitioners.

The result of this endless “newness” is that the conversation surrounding the field is focused more on how to get started than on how to improve e-learning. Focusing on how to get started almost always seems to center on what the designer should do—and buy. Typical questions are:

  • What tool should I buy?Focus on e-Learning Design
  • What LMS should I engage?
  • How do I incorporate video into my work?
  • Are there graphic and animation tools I should use?
  • How do I create a useful storyboard?

You get the idea. More important, I hope you noticed something in common with each of those questions: “I.” But the “I” is the designer; the learner is nowhere in the picture. 

Now, I’m not saying those issues aren’t important; they are necessary matters that must be grappled with. However, answering those questions alone is not sufficient for creating effective e-learning experiences.

Instead, e-learning professionals need to start their design process focused on the learner and the experiences that are necessary to elicit desired changes in performance. This is hard because, as designers, we often are separated from the target learners.

Even our language gets in the way; “the learner” seems so remote. Let’s make it personal and say: “You.”

With that mindset, start the design process by asking questions with the learner in mind:

  • Why should You care about this?
  • What do You need to be able to do?
  • What goal or challenge will create and hold Your interest?
  • What kind of feedback will help You do better?

We need to focus a lot more on what matters to the learner at the time of instruction than on what we are doing in our roles as e-learning designers and developers. You can make a great learner-centric idea workable with a crude PowerPoint presentation, but building media and connectivity around a content-centric idea will never result in effective training.

I know this message goes a bit against the mainstream messaging from software companies, LMS suppliers, and even some established instructional design traditions, but focusing on the learner and interactivity really is at the heart of every successful e-learning solution I’ve encountered. 

If you want to explore these ideas further, I suggest two things:

  1. Download a white paper and on-demand webinar on Creating e-Learning That Makes a Difference, which lays out a framework for design of interactivity. 
  2. Attend ASTD’s E-Learning Instructional Design Certificate program to learn about these ideas in even more detail.
CCAF Kit Download | Creating Engaging e-Learning | Design with the Learner in Mind | e-Learning Subscribe to the e-Learning Leadership Blog

A New Instructional Road Map to Transform Your e-Learning Designs


by Ethan Edwards, chief instructional strategist | @ethanaedwards

Ethan Edwards

Next week I’ll be presenting a two-hour online webinar titled “A New Instructional Road Map to Transform Your Interactivity”. I look forward to sharing some of the detailed design thinking that goes into creating engaging and effective online interactivity, specifically for guiding designers towards building a more meaningful context. We’ve sensed a lot of excitement building around this event, but I’ve also fielded a few questions from prospective attendees, the answers to which I’d like to share more broadly. I hope these additional details will help you decide whether this an event and content you'd find valuable in attending next week.

I’ve heard you talk about CCAF before. What’s different about this webinar?

CCAF forms the bedrock of Allen Interactions’ CCAF-based Design Model for creating meaningful interactivity in e-learning, and it is at the heart of all of our work. Thus it does appear in many of our presentations and publications. But as frequently as I present these ideas in workshops and conversations with designers and students, it is clear that while the ideas make sense, it is still challenging for many e-learning professionals to implement CCAF-based Design effectively in their own e-learning designs. So frankly, I’m trying a new approach, hoping to go beyond a strictly philosophical understanding and to provide some concrete assistance for instructionals designers who want to create better interactivity. I’ll be sharing some very specific techniques that you can put into practice immediately.

Can you share a little bit more about what you’ll talk about?

While CCAF-based Design is an integrated model, where Context, Challenge, Activity, and Feedback all work together to engage the learner, I’m going to focus on how to make powerful design decisions regarding context. Context can be deceptively simple. Because it is a word used with such frequency in everyday conversation, I see many designers too easily dismissing this critical design element. Designing the context includes defining an appropriate environment to create in the learner’s mind, choosing a visual style to represent that environment, selecting the instructional tone or mood for the piece, and devising a narrative thread that will capture and hold the learner’s attention. The choices in each of these areas that create context—environment, visual style, tone, and narrative thread—need to be made thoughtfully. Too often these choices are left to chance, whim, or habit, resulting in designs that are disconnected from the content and the user. This session will empower instructional designers to make informed decisions. If you don’t get context right, it’s very hard for the rest of CCAF and true instructional interactivity to fall into place.

That sounds good, but won’t I still have trouble doing this on my own?


People who attend are going to get access to the brand new CCAF Context Design Road Map for e-Learning. It’s a very concrete guide to questions you should ask during analysis and suggests specific directions to focus your thinking when designing context. Instructional design is not a cookbook step-by-step process so this road map won’t provide every last detail—you’ll still have to apply your creativity and intelligence to work out the detailsbut I think you’ll find this road map to give you an enormous boost in making design choices that will make the rest of your work significantly easier. I’m hoping it is the sort of thing designers can begin to expand upon on their own as they explore specific challenges in their training needs.

It sounds complicated. Should I be worried?

Not at all. We’ve laid this road map out in a graphic format you’ll be able to follow quite easily. And in the webinar I’ll be able to share some of the underlying theories that back up the road map as well as walk through several examples showing how it led us directly to the kind of award-winning designs that we have become well-known for. We regularly show our finished work, but I’ll be revealing the analysis and design thinking that is behind the polish.

Unlocking the Power of Context in e-Learning Design

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Mindful e-Learning Design


by Ann Iverson, instructional designer


“When the mind is trained to be fully attentive, even in the midst of chaos, we have the space to make more wise and conscious choices.”

-Janice Marturano 

It was in the year 2000 when I reached a point in my career and personal life that I needed an intervention. I was stressed out, distracted and running in circles. Managing a business and two small children, I felt like a plate spinner at the circus. I did a fine job of managing multiple priorities, but life became overwhelming. I functioned continually in a reactive mode, paying only partial attention to clients, friends, and family. After a lengthy stint at the circus, I decided to visit my physician who, I thought, would prescribe a magic pill that could help me be the superwoman I needed to live an extraordinary life. Much to my displeasure, she responded to my plea with a prescription for a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class―eight weeks of learning how to pause and be present with everything around me. What? I felt cheated! Little did I know in that first session how much MBSR would transform me, my life, and my relationships.

Mindfule LearningDesign

Mindfulness has become more mainstream since then. People bring mindfulness to their everyday experiences, reporting significant improvements in innovation, awareness, communication, and even their eating habits. Scientific research now shows that mindfulness enhances mental health and improves performance in many fields of endeavor.

I recently read Finding the Space to Lead by Janice Marturano. As a vice president at General Mills, Janice discovered that mindfulness training taught her to find mental and emotional space in her life. She founded the Institute for Mindful Leadership in 2010, and now trains business leaders and employees from around the world. Janice states, “Mindfulness is a methodology that trains a capacity of your mind that generally receives little or no training.” She believes mindfulness training can strengthen four leadership fundamentals – focus, clarity, creativity, and compassion.

I believe these four fundamentals are also essential to the practice of e-learning design. For example, at Allen Interactions, we kick off our projects with a Savvy Start gathering, where our team meets with stakeholders to capture information that is essential to making good design decisions. Let’s take a look at how the four fundamentals can be applied at the Savvy Start:


At the Savvy Start, instructional designers gather information through an in-depth discussion that involves asking the right questions and listening with intention to stakeholder responses. This exchange usually means many moments of ambiguity, of not knowing the “answer” for a while. Mindfulness can help instructional designers remain focused in that space, helping them see clearly and respond to new ideas that surface without judgment or conditioned reactions.


During the Savvy Start, instructional designers review key background information and generate initial e-learning design ideas with stakeholders. During this process, it’s tempting to make assumptions about what the client needs or the types of interactions that best suit the project. Mindfulness helps instructional designers pause to become aware if they’re creating a bias for action, leading stakeholders down a path rather than walking beside them. 


The Savvy Start is all about creativity, which often means applying proven methods in new and unique ways. Have you ever noticed that sometimes the most creative ideas appear when you step away from a task? It’s about creating space to let your mind come up with an innovative solution. Since you can’t step away from the Savvy Start, mindfulness can help find space in the constant stream of thoughts and ideas.


The goal of the Savvy Start is to create an e-learning solution that promotes real performance change. Inspiring that change requires compassion because any type of change can cause anxiety and fear in learners. We naturally want to stay with what we know, even when it doesn’t work that well. Learners may feel invalidated with new performance expectations—that everything they’ve been doing before is wrong. Instructional designers can step in the learners’ shoes, connecting to their experience in a compassionate way, asking, “Is this a course I would like to experience?” and “How would I feel if I was taking this course?”

Mindfulness won’t remove the circus from your life, but it may help you find more balance as you walk the tightrope.

Analysis Kit Subscribe to the e-Learning Leadership Blog

Learning Solutions Today, e-Learning Q&A Webinar Tomorrow!


Angel & Richard at Learning Solutions Conference 2014We’ve been roaming around Learning Solutions and I finally got Richard to sit down long enough to snap a quick pic. Now we are working on the answers to your questions. There are some tough ones submitted already. If you have a question you want answered or are just curious to hear what others are asking, join us tomorrow on our webinar.

Get Your e-Learning Design Questions Answered

Date: Thursday, March 20th
Time: 1:00 – 1:45 pm Central
Can't attend? Register anyway. We'll send you the recording after the event.

Do you have some burning questions about a stumbling block you hit on recent e-learning design project? Are you curious or possibly confused about some of the latest learning trends such as game mechanics and how to harness them for your initiatives? Have you heard about, or are beginning to use SAM as your development process and need some guidance? Look no further!

In this 45-minute complimentary webinar, Angel Green, senior instructional strategist, Allen Interactions and Richard Sites, vice president - training and marketing, Allen Interactions, will answer previously submitted questions as well as live questions to help provide attendees real answers to the real challenges we all face in designing and delivering effective learning solutions.

Angel Green - senior instructional strategist


Angel Green
senior instructional strategist
Follow Angel on Twitter ▶ 


Richard Sites, vice president - training and marketing


Richard Sites
vice president - training and marketing & co-author of Leaving ADDIE for SAM
Follow Richard on Twitter ▶ 


Ask Angel & Richard Subscribe to the e-Learning Leadership Blog

3 Steps to Get MORE out of Subject Matter Expert (SME) Interviews


by instructional designer and writer

Nicole Mellas | Instructional Designer & WriterSo, you’ve identified your performance objective. You’ve designed a great interaction that is performance-based, scenario-driven, and learner-centric. You are well on your way to approval of the look and feel of your learner interface. (I know, I know...all of that is easier said than done. But thankfully you can look here, here, and here for some great tips on how to turn dreams of effective and engaging e-learning design into reality!)

Now, it’s time to put “fingers to keyboard” and write some content for the interaction (otherwise known as scripts or content grids). There’s only one problem: how do you get the type of information you need to transform subject matter expertise (which tends to be content-focused) into engaging, learner-focused scenarios?

Step One: Outline the Scenarios

In order to design your interaction, you’ve probably already asked questions like:

  • “What does success look like?”
  • “What conditions make success possible?”
  • “What conditions make success difficult?” (If you haven’t, now would be a good time.)

Equipped with these answers, you now need to dig a little deeper and outline your scenarios.

One suggestion I find valuable is to ask your SME for anecdotes. People LOVE to tell stories; it’s human nature. For your own sanity, though, I recommend putting a time limit on the storytelling. An open-ended request for something like this could easily get out of hand and eat up more time than you have. Say something like, “For the next ten minutes, I’d love to hear about some of your experiences.” Then, focus the conversation on specific stories from which you can glean content, “Can you share with me the most difficult customer interaction you’ve ever had? Can you help me understand why it was so challenging?” Or, “Tell me about a time when everything went according to plan. What do you believe you did to help make that happen?”

Use the stories generated as a starting point for your training scenarios. Use caution, though, because there may be an anecdote from the discussion that is so specific that it isn’t valuable as a training example. You can ask the group to help you identify the stories that are outliers.

Once you have identified the stories broad enough for use as training, look for commonalities. Bullet the key elements, putting like elements into groups. It helps to create the same number of groups as your total number of scenarios for the interaction. 

Next, give each grouping a heading. The heading titles will vary based on the type of training you are creating.  For a sales training containing three customer scenarios, the headings might be “The Ideal Customer Conversation”, “The ‘I’m-just-looking’ Customer Conversation” and “The Upsell-opportunity Customer Conversation”.

Now, you have some working scenario titles, along with the key elements of each of those scenarios bulleted out, all based on actual SME experiences. Talk about a great foundation for scripting!


Step Two: Create your Characters

Full disclosure: I am a theatre geek. “Getting into character” is something I do (as a performer) or help others do (as a director). It’s also something I find valuable as an instructional designer and writer. Why? Because spending some time thinking about a character keeps me (and everyone in the room) focused, first and foremost, on the story.

Stories drive the scenarios. The nuts and bolts information is important (of course), but you need a solid vehicle to deliver that information to your learner. The story is that vehicle. The story drives the lesson home, it gets the learner engaged, provides the motivation to change, and makes your training memorable.

If learners don’t engage with your training, remember what they learned, and use what they learned to do their job better, then what’s the point of creating the training? (Plus, there’s the added bonus that getting into character is fun! If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably familiar with the tagline “No Boring e-Learning.” Well, guess what? Creating e-learning doesn’t have to be boring, either!)

The types of characters you create will vary again, based on the nature of your training.  You may create customers for your learners to interact with, or maybe other employees, or patients, or all depends on what your scenario is meant to teach. All compelling scenario-based interactions have one thing in common, however: realistic, interesting characters.

To help create your cast of characters, start by generating a list of character-types your learners are likely to encounter on the job. Again, a time limit on this type of brainstorming is helpful as it creates a feeling in the room that theatre director Anne Bogart calls “Exquisite Pressure”. As we creative designer-types know, creativity abounds within constraints! So, in three minutes, have the group brainstorm as many character types as possible. Record them someplace where everyone can see. Your list might look like, “Bob the ‘I’m-too-busy-to-talk’ caller”, or “Susie the ‘I-already-researched-this’ patient”. Don’t spend time wordsmithing. Just record a character sketch in the broadest terms. You’ll narrow it down to specifics later.

Now here is the fun part! When your three-minute brainstorming session is up, pick any character to start. Give life to this character. Who is this person? Start by asking a few crazy questions, which may have very little relevance to the training. “What did Bob have for breakfast? Does he have any kids? When was his last vacation? What’s his favorite song?” Answering questions like these helps SMEs escape from their typical content focus. It gives everyone in the room permission to think creatively, to use their imagination, to play. Also, these questions condition your group to think about the story first. Then, when you transition to asking character-related questions about scenarios, your SMEs’ answers will continue to focus on the story and the character.

Think back to our example scenario titles above. Let’s say as a group you decide to place “Bob the ‘I’m-too-busy-to-talk’ caller” in “The Upsell-opportunity Customer Conversation”.  Guide your SMEs to help you build the story. Ask questions like:

  • What is Bob likely to do or say in a situation like this?
  • What would your learner need to do in order to successfully upsell a caller like Bob?
  • What are some mistakes your learner might make that would frustrate Bob?

All of the sudden, you’re generating ideas for correct paths and distractors for your scenario, and it’s all completely scenario-driven and learner-centric.

Step Three: Provide the information

Invariably, no matter how scenario-focused you keep your questions, SMEs will continue to bring up valuable tidbits of information that begin with phrases like:

  • “But learners need to know this…” or 
  • “This is important to know because…” or 
  • “In the ILT, we made sure to tell everyone…” 
All of this stuff is great. Take notes on it, or ask permission to record the conversation so you can use it as a reference later.

But, incorporating this SME input by adding a bunch of information presentation before the scenario is a quick way to kill learner motivation. Instead, let the learners engage with the characters and the scenarios you’ve created. When they make a mistake, they’ll be looking for information on how to avoid that same mistake in the future. (People don’t like to fail if they can help it—that’s human nature.)  Use the information the SMEs are anxious to provide as feedback. Yes, I said feedback.

I’m going to repeat this because it’s so powerful: When learners make a mistake, they look for information on how to avoid making that mistake in the future. So, by all means, deliver that information to them! The SMEs have already given it to you, and now the coaching feedback can provide it to the learners. And, since it will come at a time when the learner wants to read it (because it is immediately relevant), that precious subject matter expertise is far more likely to be retained, allowing your learner to do the right thing at the right time out there in the real world. And isn’t that what it’s all about?

What about you?

That’s my two cents on how to productively involve SMEs in scenario creation. Of course, I know my way isn’t the only way, and a strategy like this won’t always fly with a more traditional group. What strategies have you employed to create scenarios or content grids with SMEs? I’d love to read about it in the Comments section!

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