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5 Lessons for Designing Engaging e-Learning Interactions from Project Runway

By Ethan Edwards, Chief Instructional Strategist / @ethanedwards 

Edwards,_Ethan.pngEarlier this month, I had the honor of speaking at the ATD TechKnowledge Conference in Las Vegas. At the conference, I talked about sketching and prototyping as a design methodology for designing effective e-learning. I’m always on the lookout for new ways to explain or illustrate a novel approach to a familiar task. While I am firmly convinced that sketching is far and away the best method for coming up with ideas for new engaging interactions, the tradition of detailed storyboarding as the design tool of choice for instruction is so deeply entrenched in our field. Thus, I think it may be helpful to refer to something unexpected to make sense of new ideas.

First, though, I want to once again emphasize how important it is for us to embrace the DESIGN aspect of instructional design. Design is the discipline that imagines and plans elements that facilitate, elevate, and humanize our world. Architecture is different than construction. Interior design is more than utilitarian furniture. Graphic design is more than just words and colors. And fashion design is more than just provision of warmth and protection for our bodies. The DESIGN aspect of each of these disciplines focuses on how the user achieves some desired end rather than just the functional provision to achieve an end result. Instructional design needs to embrace the learners first and create an experience that creates change. Too often, design is abandoned and instructional development becomes simply the functional presentation of information.

I was thinking of this contrast as an episode of the television show Project Runway came on the air. It dawned on me how so much of the process shown and put into practice in that program perfectly illustrates some of the critical advantages that an iterative instructional design process involving sketching and prototyping introduces to e-learning design.

(Note: Excuse me if you’ve never seen Project Runway; I’ll try to explain enough so you won’t be kept in the dark.)

Each week on Project Runway, the contestants receive a design challenge. Most of the time, a specific goal is in mind: a red carpet look, a new uniform for mail carriers, a national outfit for Team USA in opening ceremonies for the Olympics, etc. You get the idea. The contestants can interview the intended wearers and other knowledgeable experts, then have a limited time to sketch, a further limited time to shop for fabrics, and then conduct a rapid design and construction session. This session involves constructing pieces, giving critiques, making modifications, and abandoning or redesigning components, resulting in a runway look that is put forth for evaluation.


I want to use this TV show to illustrate some key parallels with how to best design engaging e-learning interactions:

1. Engage the ideas of the person for whom the work is intended.

It is impossible to create a custom look without knowing details about the wearer. Similarly, you can’t create an e-learning course if you don’t know anything about the learners. Yes, you need to know a little bit about the content, but mainly you need to know what the learners need to be able to do before you can have any hope to create a focused interaction. Do this before you ever start formulating any details ideas.

 2. Sketch a few ideas—quickly! 

It isn’t unusual for a designer to say, “I don’t have any ideas.” Yet they begin sketching anyway. Waiting for an idea to appear fully formed rarely results in success. The act of forcing an idea into existence on paper encourages and inspires more ideas. In exactly the same way, instructional designers need not be hindered by waiting until everything is known and in place. Use the possibility of an empty page to focus on the learner experience. Filling in the details later is the easy part.

3. Start building mockups with throw-away material. 

Even though the designers have expensive material purchased just for the purpose of constructing the garment, they begin working with inexpensive muslin. Hanging the fabric and shaping it on a mannequin provides a way to envision the final product without investing too heavily in an idea that is still being formed. While still being far from the finished garment, the muslin mockup provides so much more information than the sketch. Similarly, when sketching or prototyping an idea for an interaction, don’t bother fine-tuning media or wording.  You can assess the viability of an idea with placeholder elements that you won’t waste if you end up throwing an idea away.  Once you’ve decided you are on a productive track, then start thinking about using the elements you’ll need in the final product.

4. Seek help from others early!  

get_advice__project_runwayThe designers’ mentor always makes an appearance rather early in the time allotted. This usually happens about the time the muslin pattern is complete or when some preliminary construction with final material has begun. The purpose of this review is not praise but a critical moment to assess the design while there is still time to make potentially major changes. It isn’t unusual for a designer to recognize a particularly egregious flaw in the design at this moment and start again almost from the beginning. The act of having another set of eyes assess the design this early is invaluable. In the same way, e-learning design sketches should be implemented quickly as rough prototypes, and other team members need to review these prototypes. Instead of muslin, instructional online prototypes involve stick figures, placeholder text, and random images that give a rough idea of what the end product might be like.

5. Apply effort to the important things.  

It is common for a designer to work a disproportionate amount of time on one element, leaving some major portion unaddressed until late in the allotted time. For example, one contestant may be working until the last hour on beading a particular bodice. Interviews reveal that the person is aware that there will only be a short time to create the skirt, but then again, the designer knows that constructing the skirt is easy. More importantly, the designer knows that it won’t matter if the skirt is magnificent if the bodice doesn’t work. Same way with prototyping. One doesn’t prototype presentation screens or spend precious creative time proofreading copy at the expense of designing the interactions. If e-learning interactions aren’t polished and motivating, it really doesn’t matter that the text is beautifully edited. Of course, there are the rare failures when time runs out and the model is walking down the runway partially clothed, but that is almost always a result of poor project management, not a fundamental problem with prototyping.

I could continue in this vein for some time, digging deeper to illustrate how immediately and impactfully we can change the nature of instructional design in e-learning if we were to more fully rejoice in the opportunities to try DESIGN learning. Sketching and prototyping are indispensible tools to use in the way we try to design instructional interactivity that really makes a difference.


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