Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Let designers do the design

Something that always astounds me is in the world of elearning and learning technologies is the level of amateur work that can be found.  One of the big causes for this is a reluctance to use experts or professionals and, perhaps even more disturbing, paying a professional and then ignoring their work and doing it yourself.  I can understand that those new to the world of elearning may be shocked by the costs involved and choose to try it alone or using internal resources.  But there's projects and there's projects.  If I want to put up a new fence I may feel it's worth me having a go (someone just alerted the local council by now) rather than paying someone else to do it, but if I want to put a second floor on the house or build an extension it's a step too far for me so I need to get a professional in.  Same is true of learning technologies and in one area particularly; design.  And if I'm getting someone in, surely it makes sense that I listen to them?
So I'm building an extension (note to the council: I'm not, this is hypothetical I promise) you could think the first stage is to leap in and draw up the plans, but you'd be missing an important first step - working out what you want.  Before you formalise the solution you need to look at what your needs are and what limitations you have.  It's no good me designing my three story extension if the land has conditions which prevent it from being used or my building is too close to the boundary line and of course is the extension fit for the purpose I presumably had?  Before you draw up your plan you must have some sort of need - doesn't this sound a bit like the approach to instructional design?  Pretty soon I would realise that I'm out of my depth and I'd bring in a professional to at least have the opening discussions with, let them know what I need and want.  After that information gathering and needs analysis they can then start to draft something up for me.

...and here's where the problems start.

"No, that's not what I'm after".  When you get a design it may not be exactly what you were expecting and one thing we have to realise is 'that's okay'.  If we want a design to reflect exactly how it looked in our heads, then you're probably right in thinking you don't need an expert to design it.  The problem is that unless you're a professional or remarkably have natural skill in this area you limit the final solution.  In fact you'll probably find that if you start with the solution in mind that the analysis was a waste of time too. 

For me a regular example of this is in theming an LMS.  We start out by talking to a client about what they want to use their learning environment for, what type of content, user experience etc etc.  We take into account their marketing designs, colour schemes, fonts, imagery etc etc.  The best kind of customers then step out the way and let us come up with some designs for them which should then open up a discussion so that we can narrow down and then they can choose and we build.  Easy as.  When it goes wrong it's often because they already have firmly decided what they want without taking into account how the systems work or the end user experience.  Don't get me wrong - if you're after a portal that needs to closely replicate your other systems then we realise that we're working a very limited design and the process should be fairly straight forward.  The hardest people to deal with though are the ones who don't know what they want - they just know they don't want whatever you can come up with! 

My advice here for my would-be extension or LMS design would be to approach with an open mind.  I hand over all the details and then let the designer come up with some ideas.  Again, it doesn't have to be what I would design (what would be the point?) or even something that would knock my socks off, but I should be able to 'get it'.  The next part of the design process is to look at the options and narrow down the design.  Don't go back to the start unless the designer really hasn't got it at all.  From now on it should be a simple iterative process to end up with your final design (and do try to limit the iterations and reduce your preconceptions wherever possible).  Voila house plans done!  Over to the builder but that's another story for another day. 

I mentioned earlier instructional design too.  Good instructional designers are worth their weight in gold and they are similar to good graphic designers in that they work best when you talk them through what your needs are and prevent them the information they need.  They should then work on some form of plan or storyboard for you.  It doesn't have to be exactly what you would have done (what would be the point?) or even something that would knock your socks off, but you should be able to 'get it'.  The next part of the learning design process is to look at the options and narrow down the design.  Don't go back to the start unless the instructional designer really hasn't got it at all.  From now on it should be a simple iterative process to end up with your final design (limiting iterations again).  Voila learning plans done!  Yes building is another story!

Graphical design can be something of a dark art - but a great designer really will come out with something that makes you go 'wow' every so often.  Same too with a piece of elearning - occasionally I see a piece and have that same reaction.  Whilst you're not going to get that every time with a designer approach you almost never see that kind of reaction to amateur DIY projects.

The key thing here is that if you're going to engage a professional for design purposes then you need to be receptive to their ideas and be prepared to change your mind.  If not, then do it yourself, but the 'wow' reaction isn't likely - at least not in the way you were hoping.