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Better Design Doesn't Take Longer!

By Clark Quinn / May 2010

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At the most recent Learning Solutions conference, I encountered a belief that I do not subscribe to:

Better design takes too long.

This, if true, would be a significant barrier to more quality, and an explanation for the undesirable amount of bad e-learning out there. However, I don't buy it; I think good design does not take longer (with a caveat).

What do I mean by better design? Admittedly most e-learning (frankly, most training, education, etc.) is poorly designed: it is overly focused on knowledge instead of skills; it is insufficiently aware of cognitive components like mental models, contextualized practice, challenge, and more; and it does not recognize the benefits of engaging the heart as well as the mind. In short, most e-learning is ineffective and boring. Yet we do have principles for designing more engaging and effective learning. The question is whether, inherently, executing against those principles is a more resource-intensive task.

When developing content, for example a storyboard, you have to develop several components: You need an introduction or opening, you need your concept presentation, you need to show an example or two, you need some practice, and you need a closing. These elements exist in good content or bad. So, in theory, we are developing the same quantity of content regardless of the quality. (In fact, I argue we should be developing less!)

Yet, somehow, if the quantity developed is no different, the process must take longer. Either we have extended the pre-writing effort (e.g., analysis), or we are spending more time on the writing, even though our pre-writing effort should be the same.

It is true that if an existing client hands you course objectives, which you accept without question, you will spend less time and effort on design, but the odds of you producing any worthwhile content are zero, with a rounding error.

The objectives provided by most, including subject matter experts, are likely to be flawed. For one, clients often decide the problem is a performance one, yet there may be other factors as well. Second, they are likely to attribute the problem to a lack of knowledge instead of skill. This does not mean that doing it right takes longer; no matter what sort of e-learning you plan to produce, you should do the proper objective gathering. In other words, you should spend that time doing the right thing by the learner. This is not better design—this is just good practice.

So we are left with the idea that if better design takes longer, writing must take even more time. However, let us look at the components of learning and compare the traditional approach with a more enlightened design, and the attendant difference in content quantity:

Component Traditional Improved Difference
Introduction Present what they are going to hear, and establish the objectives Present why this is important, and what they will be able to do None
Concept Provide a textual overview of the idea with some stock photos and maybe some gratuitous, interactive-knowledge exposition activities Present the underlying model, with a diagram None
Example Provide an example or two of this in practice, with lots of description Present a worked example or two with not only the steps, but the underlying rationale A bit more writing for the new approach
Practice Provide a collection of simple knowledge test questions Provide a few scenarios applying the knowledge to problem Less writing in the new approach
Summary Tell them what you told them, and point them to further directions Acknowledge their effort, and reinforce what they can do now None

Overall, we are not seeing a significant difference in the writing exercise. So what is driving this perception of more work? I think there is one major factor.

No change in approach comes without overhead. In this case, it will take longer initially. There will be a transition period when the new design approach will take more effort, using checklists and maybe even some coaching. There will be an initial investigation of a better approach, maybe even a workshop, to help the design team understand the new way to learn. Ultimately, there will be intermediate work product that gets reviewed and refined in a shared way. This transition will take time. We need to develop a new way to think about design.

Eventually this process will become natural. When it does, my claim is that the creation of better learning will end up taking as much time as it did before. The reward for that initial turbulence in learning design, will be learning that is more effective in creating behavior change and more engaging for the learners. That is a short-term investment for long-term benefits, the type of strategic investment organizations are supposed to take.

Better design taking longer should be an acceptable tradeoff, but the reality is that you do not have to make that tradeoff for more than a finite period of time. So, I put it to you:

Better design takes no more time* and yields better outcomes
(*after an initial transition period).

What are you waiting for?


  • Mon, 04 Oct 2010
    Post by Ryan Tracey

    Behaviorism? Isn't that, like, so old? :oP

    Thank you Julie for re-deploying some classical knowledge and making it relevant in the modern world.

    I'm glad to see not everyone throws the baby out with the bath water!

  • Thu, 30 Sep 2010
    Post by Dr. Guy Bruce

    I was so pleased to read this article on how to design more efficient learning programs. The author clearly makes the point that internet technology, while offering the opportunity for more efficient learning,requires a "Technology of Teaching" (the product of a scientific and engineering approach to human behavior)for that opportunity to be realized!

  • Wed, 29 Sep 2010
    Post by Jason West

    Thanks for this article. I think you are spot on about instructional procedures online lagging behind the technology. Key to making the tools we have work for us more efficently, for example in my field which is improving English skills, is to create processes that mimic and support the natural learning processes of the brain.

    Our recent case studies, published in entirety on our free podcast, show that focused and comprehensible conversation between a learner and an expert (native or fluent speaker) can recreate the natural learning behavior of an infant and its mother (motherese). The difference is that the second language learner usually has a large amount of latent (inactive or non speech-forming) linguistic knowledge of the target language as a result of previous years of conventional study or exposure (as well as some acquired psychological pathologies about speaking in public or to a native or fluent speaker). This makes periods of structured and supportive one to one conversation with fluent and native speakers highly effective learning experiences.

    Our results (achieved with some PDF lesson plans, MP3s, Facebook (to meet friendly English speakers online) and Skype to talk to them and record your conversations for re-listening) are stunning and have drawn a comment on our podcast from Professor Stephen Krashen who called them 'Remarkable' and 'a major contribution to what we know works'.

    Our offer of help was randomly selected (she applied to a forum post)by an adult Chinese English learner but to get our assitance she had to agree to do what we asked her to do and agree to having it all recorded.

    The student, 27, had been stuying English formally for 16 years but still spoke like a beginner (clip 1.). After 18 hours of using our materials (13-15 hours) and 3-4 hours of online speaking practice based upon those materials she sounded completely different and could converse comfortably at what most English teachers would call 'intermediate' level (clip 2.).

    The process, i.e. the behaviour of the learner is crucial and that can be guided by materials that work with widely and freely available technologies.

    If anyone is interested to learn more you should look for us online as English Out There. I will be happy to answer questions.

    So behavioural processes and instant adaptation to the comprehension level of the student seem to be crucial.

  • Wed, 02 Jun 2010
    Post by Clark Quinn

    Anna, you point out a couple of the barriers people encounter: time pressures, mistaken beliefs about what adds value. Yet people who take time for reflection are more productive than those who don't, and content wiithout meaningful practice is worthless. We just have to keep fighting the good fight! Thanks for the feedback.

  • Tue, 01 Jun 2010
    Post by Anna Sabramowicz

    Hello Dr. Quinn! I agree with the fact that we can go minimalist and meaningful and it would get us a lot farther than we are with a lot of courses today. It is difficult to change your habits and when under pressure most of us fall into the trap of doing what we are comfortable with, even though in the back of our minds we know it is poor design. The worst part is that you almost never have time to innovate and create those new checklists, you are just keeping your head above the water with the workload. I think a lot of clients these days still feel their courses need a lot of "pulp" to be meaningful and are totally uneducated about the immense benefits of practice and feedback. The funny thing is that you don't have to be so creative anymore, there are a lot of people out there that have figured it out, have designed some fantastic activities and are sharing them. You, as a designer, instructional or otherwise, just have to provide the opportunity for those pieces to have a chance to "live" in your course. Thank you for the great read and the breakdown... that plain table you created is proof that simple visualization is key to helping learners digest information.

    Take care, Anna

  • Thu, 13 May 2010
    Post by Clark Quinn

    Thanks for the feedback. I'm not talking about designing more at the expense of development. And I *am* saying that the creativity doesn't take more time after it becomes habit. I believe (and my personal experience has been) that once you get your mind around the content (which you have to do in either case), the practice of thinking towards meaningful application and model-based exposition, etc ends up being no more time or work than thinking about rote recitation and knowledge presentation, etc.

    I would agree that the nuances between well-designed and typical elearning are subtle: you have the same elements, it's just how they're put together, and the client may not know or care (I recall a situation where the client's boss complained until I walked him through the underlying rationale, and then he was singing the hallelujah chorus).

    Visual design is a part of it, but to me it's more core about designing the cognitive and emotional experience. I still think that, with practice, that becomes as easy as regular design, but there is that initial investment. I posit that if you incorporate minimalism, engagement, meaningful practice, and model-based thinking, you have a chance to take no more time to design and develop really effective learning.

  • Wed, 12 May 2010
    Post by Kevin

    I agree with both of you on different levels. Referring to the same Learning Solutions conference, I attended a session by Ellen Wagner and Cammy Bean about the ID process. They presented a concept of the big "D" and the little "d" (not sure if this is a new concept though as I had not heard of it before then). The big "D" refers to the Instructional Design in your improved process of less writing. However, the little "d" requires creativity in the presentation of the big "D" - of for lack of a better phrase: Visual Communication.

    As Simon points out, there is no argument that we 'want' to design better. Better quality; less risk. In your table where you show Practice, the Traditional method is to provide a collection of simple knowledge questions. In the Improved method you suggest providing a few scenarios applying the knowledge to a problem. Less writing, and perhaps less development time, but it does take more creativity. A rare skill in my opinion. Again to Simon's point, clients don't much care about the overall experience as they do the 'deadline.'

    We need to change that! I'm a design guy and whether its instructional or visual, I think a big gap in this area starts at the academic level where ID grad students are being taught everything there is to know about "Instructional" design but zero in "Visual" design. If we can get ID's to think more creatively about instruction, perhaps that creativity will carry over to the visual presentation and how to communicate with less words altogether.

    Good read, Clark!

  • Tue, 11 May 2010
    Post by Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen

    As far as I can read this basically boil down to what I would label pre-production (that is well-known in most games development although also often suffering cuts), namely to prepare your project. I think it is fairly obvious that this will lead to better quality. However, I think the article misses the problem in reality - we all want to 'design' more. However, usually we are faced with tight deadlines, clients in a hurry and a desire to 'show' something.

    Also, I think that the problem with 'designing' more is that it requires a lot of skill from the developer if you are not to be sucked into the abyss. You can spend endless amounts of time. Especially with clients with little experience and high expectations.

    I think basically 'designing' more will improve quality and reduce risk, but extend deadlines. This will cost at a limited extra development cost. I also think that sometimes clients may not appreciate that they get better quality and lower risk but merely 'focus' on the deadlines being pushed.