Writing Scripts or Storyboards for eLearning Content without Losing your Mind

(Beating the Fixated ID Syndrome)

Whether you are an instructional designer, eLearning programmer, or a graphic designer; you have seen and “experienced” storyboards. The quotes are deliberate, as this article devotes itself to the lofty objective of enhancing the quality of experience that we have with the development of storyboards. This article isn’t about is the quality of instructional design within the storyboard, but about that around it.

Are you flummoxed?

If you are, you may be suffering the fixated Instructional Designer syndrome, something that almost every elearning instructional designer suffers from!

The Fixated Instructional Designer Syndrome - Symptoms

  • A fixation on the end user or the ultimate audience
  • Red swollen eyes, occasional slurring of words due to fatigue
  • 60- to 72-hour workweeks
  • Hallucinations (you see yourself amidst fire-breathing graphic designers and programmers, who circle you menacingly.)

You can recognize the symptoms. Can’t you? The FID Syndrome affects us all in different measures. While a handful of us are intuitively vaccinated against it, others don’t even know that they are affected.

So What is the Fixated ID Syndrome?

Let me try to unravel the shroud of mystery around the Fixated ID syndrome by telling you that it’s nothing but a sort of tunnel vision that allows us to see only our end-user as the audience for a storyboard. It is the tendency to forget that though the end-user or the learner is our audience for the final course, we also address others through the storyboard. These others are those who along with the instructional designer develop a course. They are the graphic designers, the programmers, the editors, and even the ID reviewers.

Some how we always end up concentrating all our instructional design efforts towards the end user, paying little attention to the internal audience. Of the many reasons that I am tempted to ascribe it to, the one that I feel contributes most strongly towards inducing this tunnel vision, is the fact that we work under tremendous pressure of deadlines.

While we work on our storyboard in the Project Pressure-cooker, we tend to save time by cutting down on our communication with our co-creators. We suddenly begin to imagine them as omniscient, perfect beings that would be able to peek into our minds and find out how we imagined a particular animation or interaction. On the other hand, some of us decide to don the mantle of omniscience ourselves, and cross the domain expertise border. Both these approaches are destructive for an instructional designer's peace of mind..

Storyboards - A Couple of Non-Examples

Let me share a couple of experiences before we move on:

A storyboard that I reviewed once (a decade ago perhaps, yet I remember, so you can imagine the impact it must’ve had one me) had a smart format that had a lot of space for visual description. I am automatically drawn towards storyboards that foretell the possibility of interesting visuals and the format of this storyboard promised me a long interesting review; so I settled down and began. Can you imagine my feelings when I saw that almost all frames had been treated with the same word-pinching, sentence crunching, time saving format painter – “Create appropriate graphics” and “Create appropriate animation”? The information on interactions was limited to useless and instructionally inept instructions such as “Create a drag and drop exercise.”

Another more recent experience had me looking a storyboard that overflowed with “instructions” to the graphic designer about colors and sizes of the fonts to be used, detailed description of photographs “shot” in 1930s(!), and the detailed description of two huge character animations. All these instructions had nothing to do with the content. The content dealt with documentation procedures! The only reason why an instructional designer would try to harass the graphic designer with such detailed graphic description only for “gaining the learner’s attention” could be due to some personal animosity.

These examples depict the two opposite ends of the instructional designer’s involvement in the storyboard. In the first example, the instructional designer was in a hurry, and he didn’t want to spend time explaining the animations! In the second example, the instructional designer was trying to be exceedingly thorough, without realizing the fact that he was encroaching into the domain of his peer. He was so immersed in detailing his thoughts that he forgot to check the instructional relevance of his visualization. In both these examples, the instructional designers did not understand their interim audience.

In the first case, the instructional designer assumed that visualizing graphics, animations, and interactions formed part of the graphic designer’s or the programmer’s job. In the second case, the instructional designer did not trust the graphic designer’s creativity at all; he, among other things, also managed to insult the graphic designer! In both cases, the instructional designer failed to analyze his interim audience, namely the graphic designer and the programmer.

I know from experience that most of the storyboards that are developed in the industry are devoid of any note or remark for the reviewer. While I hope that those who have taken the IDCD Course (or Wavelength's IDCWC course in the past,) always attempt to add something that could help the ID reviewer understand their instructional rationale, usually the ID reviewer is treated as an alien who is not at all useful unless he cleans, completes, and packages the storyboard without giving any adverse remark. Interim audience…? No Sir! An ID reviewer is more of an Interim hurdle! If she is a reviewer, why does she need a note?

If your question is – “so how does it matter?” you are new to the eLearning industry. Those who’ve been here will tell you that your failure to understand and address your interim audience most certainly results into more discussions, meetings, heartburns, crib-sessions, and sometimes, client calls and project fires!

Well! So far…not so good! We’ve talked about the bad practices...unless we talk about good practices, what use is this article?

How to Treat the Fixated Instructional Designer Syndrome?

Let’s get down to work and figure out what we should do to win the love and friendship of our peers and enable them to create courses that look great, that not just interest but also amaze the client, and impart the learning effectively to the end user or learner.

  1. Find out more about your interim audience. Just the way you analyze your end user, also analyze your interim audience. Check out their attitudes, preferences, thought processes, and their requirements from a storyboard. Find out how programmers, graphic designers, and reviewers are different from you.
  2. Customize your comments/notes to the graphic designers and programmers to suit their specific requirements. One of the graphic designers working on your project could be more comfortable with vernacular tongue; have you ever given it a thought! A short custom-made vernacular-in-English description could be of immense help. Of course, you may want to first find out if your storyboard has a client review scheduled!
  3. Check your boundaries. What ever you do, don’t encroach. You may consider yourself an authority on Photoshop or Flash; restrain yourself to your key-domain, which is instructional design. This line-of-control cannot be breached. If at all you feel that there is an instructional significance of using a red font instead of blue, make a suggestion. If you have a brilliant idea for the color theme of your course, “suggest” it, do not “specify” it. If you think that a particular interaction should be created exactly as you’ve specified, let the programmer know why. He might have an equally good reason of not wanting to code it the way you specified (his template library, which could help him reduce his coding effort.)
  4. Always write “notes” and not “instructions” for your peers. The moment you change “instruction” to “note” your tone will automatically change. The face that they will see reflected in your notes will be that of a friend, and not of a remote robotic entity called the instructional designer.
  5. Make suggestions; ask for opinions; and give references to make conversation. We are all humans and we like to enjoy our work. Even when our end user expects formal British English, our interim audience stays sweetly Indian. We follow traditions, we respect age and experience, we make our guests comfortable. Our interim audience can be thought of as guests in our storyboard; let’s make them comfortable.

I am sure you know it all. It is just that life moves too fast and we seldom find time to sit back and look at how we write what we write. If we pull the brakes on the vicious cycle that keeps spinning at a breakneck speed, we will realize that sometimes, somehow, we don’t write what we plan to; sometimes we don’t write all that we want to; and sometimes, we write more than we need to. At such times, it’s good to remind ourselves of the fact that the Fixated ID Syndrome is fatal if not diagnosed and treated in its early stages.

When we write we should get into the shoes of each one of our interim audiences and review our storyboards to see whether they make sense, whether our language is too blunt, or too sharp, and finally whether we are encroaching into what rightfully is their domain.

This will not just bring down the time that we spend in clarification meetings; it will also make us happier, less afraid of receiving phone calls and emails from our graphic designer and programmer friends (after all, if we make friends with them there will not be any need of fear!) It will also reduce rework and errors considerably. In fact, it’s easier to lose instructional myopia and experience the advantages of writing for the interim audience, than to list them!

So, throw away your blinkers that make you neglect your interim audience look at nothing but the end-audience, and review your storyboard from a fresh viewpoint. The Fixated ID syndrome is curable, if diagnosed early and treated correctly!

- Author: Shafali R. Anand


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