When I returned from two-week vacation, I had an email from my manager in my Outlook Inbox. She was assigning me to a new course. This course was in the pre-development phases with a project team of Subject Matter Experts (who also happened to be Instructors) assigned to the course.
I was also told that they were pretty far into the Design phase, because they had an outline and were starting to figure out their content.
MEET THE TEAM
The course team has three instructors on it. One is a seasoned instructor that I have worked directly with for over two years on various projects. She is fairly good at wrangling content and wrapping her head around the underlying content story.
Second, we have a new member to the training team, but has experience with the content. She has very little information in structuring content from a training delivery perspective. She joined our team from the Client Support group.
Last, on our team there is a new member that has only a few months with our company and training group. We are glad to have her because she provides a new perspective to the content. However, she is a classroom trainer, not an eLearning content designer. So, there is a slight challenge there and some mentoring is still occurring.
OUR FIRST MEETING
We met to talk about this project and get the pulse of the project. What I learned was there were challenges with the actual Subject Matter Experts and we already had a good amount of content. We also had an outline one of the team members had put together. However, this outline was not based on any kind of workflow or task analysis. It was based on the content already in hand.
This team needed a kickoff meeting.
THE PROBLEM WITH TECHNICAL CONTENT
I have seen tons of content over my two decades of working in various product training groups. I have seen the same problems over and over again.
The number one problem I see is that Subject Matter Experts don’t typically think in a workflow-driven manner. They typically come from the Client Support group, Development group, or the Quality/Testing group within an organization.
The challenge this creates is they know the content really well. But, they think of it as component parts, not whole tasks or processes. They want to give you information that starts with the first menu item and work their way down to the last menu item. They want to talk about the various fields of data you need to enter and make sure you know to press the Submit button, and so forth. They are also very knowledgeable about specific “edge case” situations, because they need to be.
It is VERY easy for a course creator to see this content and hear this presentation of that information and decide that it is logical to present it as the components of information they are provided. That’s how the rest of the world sees this information…right? NOPE.
Average customers or software users don’t use software in that manner. They are typically trying to accomplish some sort of task or just do their job.
THE KICKOFF MEETING
I am a huge advocate of the whiteboard. If I am involved with a meeting, everyone is probably placing bets as to how fast I will start drawing diagrams and such on the board. This time, it was before the meeting started.
My intention was to get the team to identify the enabling objectives and the necessary pre-requisite knowledge for these objectives. The underlying goal was to identify how the components were connected and uncover the workflows within the content.
I began with a basic question…
“What is the Overarching Goal of this Course?” This was easy and they knew the answer
Next, I broke this goal into its basic subtasks. I repeated the word “task” because I wanted to get answers that related to “What do you want them to DO?”. This moved them away from menu structure thinking.
This is where most of the IDs and content creators I have worked with seem to stop.
I dug further and asked about the specific tasks learners needed to be able to do to accomplish these subtasks. Then, I asked the question of each task that nobody in the room expected…
“What prior knowledge do I need to have or know to accomplish this task?”
As simple as this question is, it opened the discussion. As we went through each enabling objective, it became clear that this content was not in a vacuum and some of the content relied on other pieces to make them work.
JOB AID OR COURSE STRUCTURE MECHANISM?
With information in hand, I started asking about the content order and looking for places we can offer a job aid.
We had a spreadsheet the team thought might me a checklist. As such, we originally wanted to gear the content around the spreadsheet/checklist. However, we identified it as a reference guide for the learner to know about certain groups of data. This knowledge totally changed the focus of the course. Rather than using this spreadsheet as a navigational guide, it became an item we just needed the learner to read and leverage.
LAST TWO QUESTIONS FOR THE TEAM
We were able to bring in a Subject Matter Expert that was familiar with the content. During our interview, I asked a pointed question.
“What Could Possibly Go Wrong? What are the top 5 things you see in the field?”
This SME rattled off some responses to my request pretty quickly. So, I dug in a little further…
“What are the ramifications of these screw ups and how can they avoid them?”
This question got us to the good stuff we tend to miss in our courses. We talk a lot about “How to Do” something. But, we typically miss the wisdom of what happens if the learner makes a mistake and how to troubleshoot. It also helps them understand why we offer certain “best practices”.
WHAT I SHOULD HAVE ASKED
With all the information needing to be restructured and new insights we identified, I failed to ask another important question.
“What are two or three really cool features that are part of this topic that make you really excited?”
This question draws out some of the unique parts of the topic we might not typically get from the SME. Also, as we are developing the content, it is nice to have a few high points we can be excited about sharing with our learners. Too many times, it is simply dry, technical content that doesn’t generate any real emotion beyond “They need to know how to perform this task.”
Many times, our learners are not particularly excited about learning a new software system. Being able to show off some of its cool features in a new light is a nice bonus.
WHAT WAS THE END RESULT?
We have a Training team meeting every Friday. At the meeting following this kickoff meeting, all those involved were very happy to have had an Instructional Designer (ME!) involved and helping them think through the content. They said it presented them with a different perspective of how to look at this content. They also said the content made more sense and they now felt comfortable moving forward developing the material.
BE AN INFORMATION DESIGNER
Part of the role you should consider as an ID or eLearning Developer is selling your worth as an Information Designer. This is the largest challenge I see in organizations that have a lot of people in technical roles. They see a lot of individual “trees” because that’s how the products are built. They don’t see their products as “forests” or a system of functions that allow end users to perform full workflows that allow them to do their jobs. That’s what they do in the real world.