What color is this paper? …You’re right!
What’s your favorite color? …That’s my favorite color, too!
Do you like your LMS? …I like mine, too!
What did you eat for lunch? …That sounds yummy!
Does your interactive lesson plan look something like this? A lot of open-ended questions, or questions where the learner progresses, regardless of their response or its validity?
In other words, does it feel a lot like “Dora the Explorer”?
Yikes! You don’t want your content to look like it was written for a 4-year-old, but when you’re designing interactive content, it can feel like you’re asking questions in a void.
Interactive learning systems
So how can you make your content believably interactive, not dumbed-down, and actually engaging for your learners? These five tips might get you started down the right path.
1. Rhetorical questions are not interactive
The most Dora-esque element of faux-interactive design is the rhetorical question. It doesn’t have an answer. It was never meant to have an answer, at least not one that the learner is actually capable of providing.
More than that, aren’t pointless questions really annoying?
Don’t they seem to lower the quality of your writing?
Don’t you wish I’d stop now?
Luckily, rhetorical questions aren’t the most common problem with interactive learning content, but they certainly are the worst when they do come up. You’ll find them most commonly in videos, which teaches us as designers a valuable lesson about when interactivity is appropriate, and when it isn’t: Videos should be stand-alone content; they aren’t quizzes.
Keep your videos as short, contained units. They may use second person and seem to address the learner directly, but they should serve to inform or confirm, never question. In other words: Avoid questions that your viewer cannot meaningfully answer.
Another good way to be sure to avoid these pointless queries is by raising the stakes on the questions you do pose in your learning content. Give your learners the ability to be wrong instead of railroading them to the right answer all the time—I’ll get more into this in point No. 4.
2. Production quality matters
So, you can avoid the unanswerable questions. But can you avoid the second fastest way to make your lessons feel like a kids show?
Shows targeted at children can have a low-budget feel, which is not what you want to see in a corporate training video at a serious business.
A lapse in quality can make a dud out of otherwise carefully designed course content. Check out every element of your content individually, and get a pair of fresh eyes (and ears) on it as often as possible.
Run through this checklist of potential problem areas:
- Check your audio quality. It should be clear, not choppy or full of static.
- Don’t let the audio sound breaks be jarring or harsh. A fade-out and fade-in (default on most video editing software) will help your audio sound smooth.
- Make sure the images and video you’re using are clear and that they communicate what you are intending them to convey.
- Keep video content two minutes in length, or shorter.
If you decide to use animation, consider the quality and style of that animation very carefully. Use animation because it actually suits—or even enhances—your content, not because it just happens to be cheaper than stock photos or hiring models.
Animation is where I’ve personally seen a lot of otherwise solid content get weird, quickly (see below). Make sure that the art style and quality is consistent and doesn’t come from way out of left field. If you would find it strange to sit down and watch without any context, or if you think a friend outside the office would laugh at it if you showed it to them, then choose a different medium.
Can animate and should animate are very different things.
3. Solid tools are as important as solid content
Speaking of quality, the tools you use play a large part in determining the quality of your lessons. Everything from your learning management software to the image packs you use either help improve or detract from your content’s quality.
If you’re scavenging materials from whatever your predecessor left on the office’s design computer, or you’re wasting time scouring the internet for free stock images that are something other than women laughing alone with salad, you need to upgrade.
Using good tools and getting outside of your course authoring comfort zone might be the extra kick your content needs.
- Have you considered making a meme to engage younger learners? (Hello, interns!)
- What about using Pinterest to scour the web for infographics?
- Are you using a template to make your lessons faster and easier to produce?
- What about course authoring software?
After all, Dora would never leave home without her trusty backpack. Never skimp on the tools you need to get the job done right.
4. Interactive lessons are like maps
Dora’s map leads from Point A to Point B, with very little in the way of deviation.
Sure you might pass through some challenges in the way, but you’ve got one place you’re going and there’s only one way to get there. Real maps aren’t like that. Real maps show you an area and while you might want to end in a particular place, the map offers a ton of different ways to get there. Real maps don’t force you onto a single path, they give you a world of options.
This is something I had to learn how to do when I started playing Dungeons and Dragons. (Stay with me.)
Initially, I wrote my quests like complete stories. Sure, my players had some freedom, they could say what they wanted, and they might have better or worse luck at times, but at the end of the day it was my story, it was going to end in my way and I didn’t see a problem with that.
I quickly learned why this didn’t work. I could see my players realizing how little their carefully planned actions and conversations seemed to impact the world around their characters. I saw their frustration grow—they were upset because their choices didn’t matter. I was holding their hands through the adventure, refusing to let them learn or grow as characters or players. I wasn’t really treating them like adults.
If you treat your learners like kids, holding their hands and guiding them through five versions of the same exact “correct” choice, they won’t learn much, and they’ll quickly figure out what you’re up to.
Worse than infantilizing your learners, by using this type of “false-branch design,” you’re not teaching your learners a lesson, you’re teaching them a pattern. Humans pick up on patterns extremely quickly, and they’ll figure out the pattern that gets them through your lesson the fastest without focusing on the true lesson in your content.
Learn from my mistakes: Let your learners be wrong. Let them fail, learn why they failed, go back, and then realize the achievement of getting it right next time. Design branching scenarios that actually branch!
5. Learning scenarios must be based in reality
If you’ve seen even a vague pop-culture mention of Dora The Explorer, you know about her arch-nemesis, Swiper the fox. Swiper is a thief and wants to steal anything he can get his hands on.
There’s only one way to stop him! Loudly and clearly say, “Swiper, no swiping!” That would totally work on a real thief! Every single time! Thieves are helpless in the face of public acknowledgement and mild ridicule!
Something I’ve always loathed in interactive content is the tendency to fabricate situations that most learners are unlikely to ever experience. For example, a safety issue that, while dramatic, is highly unusual in a given field. Or a harassment training that gives a cardboard, unrealistic example that is irrelevant when encountering the real thing.
Whatever the scenario, present familiar situations with solutions that will truly help your learners.
Run every scenario you write through your personal reality check. Ask yourself:
- Can you see this situation really happening? Has it really happened?
- Would people behave in real life as you’ve written them in the scenario?
- Have you given your learners solid takeaways that they can apply to actual issues they might come across?
- Does this feel like a lesson that will stick in learners’ minds?
- Does this lesson feel actionable?
After all, these courses are designed to teach people. If your learners don’t walk away having truly absorbed information that will be of use to them out in the big, wide real world, then you didn’t do your job. Don’t leave your learners rolling their eyes about the improbability of your scenario.
How do you design interactive learning?
How are you feeling there, Dora? Hopefully your content is better and more interactive than ever, and isn’t feeling too stale or written for children.
If you learned something helpful or have wisdom of your own to share, drop me a line in the comments below. If you liked this article and want to see more, subscribe to my email list for a fresh article on training tech, news, and tips every week.
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