A debate broke out amongst some colleagues the other day about the desirable level of polish in our elearning. One colleague was adamant that we were undermining our position by using low quality production. There was a lot of agreement. I had a slightly different view. Even after finding out he was talking more about external-facing content than internal, I still have some differences. After weighing in, I thought it required a longer response, and of course it has to go here.
So, the main complaint was that so much elearning looks dated and incomplete. And I agree! And others chimed in that this doesn’t have to be, while all agreed that it doesn’t need to approach game quality in effect. Then, in my mind, the question switches to “what is good enough?” And I think we do need an answer to that. And, it turns out, to also answer “and what does it take?”
What is good enough?
So, my first concern is the quality of the design. My mantra on design states that it has to be right first. Then you can implement it. If it isn’t right from the get-go, it doesn’t matter how you implement it. And the conversation took some time to sort this out. But let’s assume that the design’s right. Then, how much production values do you need?
The original complaint was that we’re looking slack by comparison. When you look at what’s being done in other, related, fields, our production values look last decade, if not last century! And I couldn’t agree more. But does that matter? And that’s where we start getting into nuances. My bottom line question is: “what’s the business case?”
So, I suggest that the investment in production values is based upon how important the ‘experience’ is. If it’s internal, and it’s a critical skill, the production values should be only enough to ensure that learners can identify the situation and perform appropriately (or get feedback). It needs a minimum level of professionalism, and that’s it. If you’re selling it to high-end customers and want to charge a premium price, you’ll need much more, of course.
The issue was that we’re losing credibility if we don’t approach a minimal level of competency. There were many arguments about the locus: fear of going out of bounds, managers oppression, low level tools, lack of skills, and more. And these all have validity. We should stipulate a minimal level. Perhaps the serious eLearning Design Manifesto? :) We can do better.
What does it take?
This was the other issue. It was pointed out that design teams in other disciplines work in layers: from concept to realization. Jesse James Garrett has a lovely diagram that represents this for information architecture. And others pointed out that there are multiple skills involved, from dialog writing, through media production and interface design (they’re conceptually separate), and the quality of the programming and more. The more you need polish, the more you need to invest in the appropriate skill sets. This again is a matter of marshaling the appropriate resources against the business case.
I think one of the issues is that we overuse courses when other solutions are more effective and efficient. Thus, we don’t have and properly allocate the resources to do the job right when it does positively absolutely has to be in the head. Thus, we do have a lot of boring, information dump courses. And we could be doing more with engaging practice, and less content presentation. That’s a design issue to begin, and then a presentation one.
Ultimately, I agree that bad elearning undermines our credibility. I do think, however, that we don’t need unnecessary polish. Gilded bad design is still bad design. But then we should align our investment with the professional reception we need. And if we have trouble doing that, we need to rethink our approaches. The right level of investment for the context is the right response; we need the right live of polish. But the assessment the context is complex. We shouldn’t treat is simplistically, but instead systemically. If we get that right, we have a chance to impress folks with our astute sense of doing the right thing with the right resources. Less than that is a path to irrelevancy, and doing more is a path to redundancy. Where do you want to go?
Chris Dant says
I entirely agree that we need sufficient polish to establish or maintain credibility and no more, because over-investing in production starves other aspects development. I find it useful to refer to John Keller’s ARCS Model with regards to motivation to learn to put the discussion around investment in production values on an informed continuum between too low and too high. Chris Dant
Kevin M. says
Being a high “S” on the DiSC profile, I’m a perfectionist. I want every jot and tittle correct before I release a course. However, about 10 years ago a colleague saw me straining over some minutia. He said, “You know, you don’t have to make every course an A+ course before it goes out the door! It can be a B+ or an A- course and you can clean up the details later.”
This actually helped me not to worry about too much of the minutia since one can ALWAYS find something wrong. What I don’t like is courses that go out with typos, broken links, and so forth. THOSE I think reflect on the institution more than a design format that can be corrected later.
I’ve calmed down my inner online class OCD and we have actually improved! Thanks for highlighting this issue! I love the Jesse James Garrett diagram. I think it can easily be adapted for instructional designers!
Christy Tucker says
Cathy Moore has a post from a few years ago about the cost of eye candy.
There is a balance of how much you put into the visual design (and especially if you’re doing something flashier), versus how much you put into the design.
You talked about the different skills for this, and I think it’s easier to get to that polished look if you have a team working together. That’s not the reality for a lot of folks though. I’ve been a one-person shop for much of my career, and I know many others are in the same situation. We have so many different skills to learn. Frankly, visual design isn’t something I focused on too much early in my career when I was learning about designing better experiences–and I don’t think my priorities were wrong.
I am grateful for Connie Malamed’s Visual Design Solutions book that finally made the principles make sense for me. I’ll never have award-winning visual design, but at least I now have a better idea how to design visuals for the purposes I’m trying to accomplish.
That maybe is the key: thinking about how to use visual communication to support your purposes. Poorly chosen clip art or cluttered design does distract from your purpose. Whether “dated” design distracts from your purpose is a harder argument to make. I lean towards agreeing with you that we could get into “unnecessary” polish, especially if we’re focusing too much on visuals without a solid foundation of design below.
Thanks for the feedback. Yes, Connie and Cathy add great insights, Christy. And Kevin, appreciate the self-reflection. I talk about ‘business significance’ instead of ‘statistical significance’. While we want the best, we have to make priority judgments.