High-Flying Constraints: Design Constraints For Learners

 

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We’ve talked about designing WITHIN constraints, but let’s talk about designing FOR constraints. And I’d like to start with the story behind the above picture. It’s a model plane that my 9-year-old son built. When my wife bought it for him, she thought it was going to be relatively easy to put together. Imagine her surprise when they opened up the box and found these instructions…and strips of raw of balsa wood in the box. Picture 6-10 240 Small

Tiny, almost cryptic, words written by someone who struggled with the English language. Despite the diagram, I couldn’t decipher the steps I needed to take to build the airplane. I recognized some wheels, a propeller, and a cockpit, but not much else in the box resembled a plane. My son, however, studied the instructions, cut the pieces out of balsa wood, cemented the strips together in a frame shaped like a plane and covered the frame with tissue. He used this stuff called “dope” to make the tissue stick to the frame and spritzed the tissue with water; when the water dried, it made the tissue taut and durable. Even more amazing than the fact that he waded through the sea of unclear instructions, is that the plane actually flies!

As designers of learning, clarity is on our minds a lot. Is my language clear? Do the visuals clearly support the content? Does the learner know what to do next? Is the screen cluttered? That’s why it’s important to construct constraints for the learner from the beginning.

In his blog, “Creativity: How Constraints Drive Genius“, David Stuart quotes renowned architect, Frank Gehry: “It’s better to have some problem to work on. I think we turn those constraints into action.”

Matthew May closes his blog, “How Intelligent Constraints Drive Creativity“, with this conclusion: “An intelligent constraint informs creative action by outlining the “sandbox” within which people can play and guides that action not just by pointing out what to pursue but perhaps more importantly what to ignore.” He also outlines a study on constraints you may find interesting.

When Stuart talks of constraints “driving genius” and May concludes that constraints “drive creativity”, they are really talking about critical thinking. And both lead to action. Isn’t that what we are trying to achieve through our design of learning? Performance objectives are actions the learner must be able to do to perform their job well.

Are we making it too easy for learners? What do you think? There’s something to be said for the cryptic instructions inside my son’s model airplane box. He may not end up being an aeronautical engineer, but the critical thinking involved is invaluable.

Here’s some ideas for your next project:

  • Leave some information out so the learner is confronted with what they do not know, and provide ways in which they can figure it out on their own.
  • Add a puzzle element to the learning.
  • Introduce mystery into the course.

Designing for constraints may not be natural for designers of learning, but its adoption may be the very thing our learners need to really soar.

DESIGN within constraints

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Three Design Principles

Design With the Learner In Mind  DESIGN an experience  DESIGN within constraints

If you would like to get a feel for my BIG PICTURE view of design and learning, check out these three basic design principles. Most of the topics discussed in this blog will relate to one of these three principles.

Design Within Constraints

DESIGN within constraints

This principle–designing within constraints–has two prongs. One for the designer and one for the learner. Let’s start with design.

At The Ohio State University, where I studied choreography, Vera (Vicki) Blaine, the chair of the department, taught the first class in dance composition for all incoming graduate students. It was a tough class. Vicki set such specific perameters around our movement quality and composition that, at first, it seemed unreasonable. I had to work for hours to master the kind of movement quality she was looking for. But it set the creative stage for an incredibly fulfilling education in choreography.

What does this have to do with learning? Everything actually. Vicki Blaine was teaching students how to set constraints for themselves in such a way that forced a creative response. Recently, I attended a workshop with Kevin Thorn (NuggetHead Stuidoz), an amazing artist and designer who landed in the Learning Development field (lucky for us). He gave similar advice concerning constraints. “Design something with only 3 colors. Design a course without audio.” In other words, design within constraints.

But how do you come up with constraints without them seeming contrived? You may not have to look very far to find your constraints. Client only wants you to use PowerPoint for eLearning? Stakeholders want to throw the kitchen sink in along with the rest of their content? Legal won’t budge on modifying language? Management wants to cut down on the time you have to present training? We’ll talk about that in another blog. Suffice it to say that some constraints are out of your control. But even these barriers should be viewed as constraints not hinderances to design, because constraints force a creative response. Beyond the outside constraints or setting your own restrictions on the project, how do you define the constraints from project to project? Ask yourself these questions to narrow down your constraints:

  • What design skills do I want to deepen? Story-telling, authoring tool skills, dialogue, audio editing?
  • Where am I challenged the most in the design process? Developing the script, getting to know the learners, choosing color schemes and fonts, creating visuals,?
  • How can I tailor this experience to fit the specific needs of the learners? Language level, case studies, training environment? 

Need to deepen your story-telling skills? The constraint may be to include an element of story-telling in every subtopic of learning. Challenged most by script development? The constraint may be to present a portion of the script using audio only, such as a podcast, instead of relying on your strengths in visual design to help propel the script development forward. Need to cut out legalese and make the course more readable? The constraint may be to reach a determined Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

Constraints force a creative response…for both the design process and for learning. I’ll talk more about constraints for learners in a future blog.

In the mean time, I’d like to hear how you place constraints on your design.

Design an Experience

DESIGN an experience

Now that I know who my learner is, I can begin designing with them in mind. But what am I designing? Instruction? A course? Learning? All of those things, yes, but consider this.

What is it that you want to gain when you approach learning for yourself? An exercise in reading? A knowledge check? Though it may involve reading and knowledge checks, most of us are wanting to simply learn something. So, what needs to happen for us to do that? We need to have an experience with new knowledge that enables us, propels us, convinces us, to change behavior or gain a new skill. How does that happen? Well, I’ll be expounding more upon specific methodology within this blog, but for now, let’s look at it from a bird’s eye view.

How can you approach your course design as a learning experience? Think about the following comparisons between traditional training and a learning experience.

Design Experience Traditional Training 3

There is a difference here, however slight, that shifts the designer away from the norm, or traditional, into the realm of excellent design that encompasses the learners’ senses and fully engages them with the content.

To think of training as a learning experience, consider the theatre–the process that takes place to produce a play or a musical. Or, if you are designing eLearning, a movie. Talented individuals, artists and technicians, come together for a common purpose: to give the onlooker an experience that they will feel, relate to, and possibly act upon.

You are the director, bringing together SMEs and stakeholders and studying your audience. It does not mean that you need to entertain your audience (although that certainly may be part of the design), but you do have to move them to action. That will happen profoundly when your design moves away from soley providing information and focuses on emersing the learner in an experience that they will remember…and do.

Design With the Learner In Mind

Design With the Learner In Mind

Design. Learning. It’s not easy to put these two concepts together successfully. There are stakeholders who want to see checked boxes. There is a load of sometimes dry content that needs to be included in the course. But when pen hits paper and mouse hits pad, it is learning, and the learner, we are most concerned with. Right?

“Design with the learner in mind.” This phrase is constantly playing in my head as I brainstorm, write, sketch and map out the learning experience. In my case, it is almost always an eLearning experience.

Every design choice has one goal: to enhance learning. From the level of language, to the case scenarios, to the color choices.

How well do you know your learners? What makes them tick–or click, as the case may be? The questions below (from Nancy Duarte’s “Resonate“) may help you identify just how well you know your learners.

  • What is likable about them?
  • How do they spend their free time and money?
  • How do they give and receive respect?
  • What is their tolerance level for change?
  • How far out of their comfort zone are you asking them to go?
  • What keeps them up at night? What fears are valid and which should be dispelled?
  • What will stop them from adopting or acting on your message?
  • What’s in it for them if they do act upon your message?
  • What is it like to do their job/be in their building?
  • What are their training conditions?
  • How will your message help influence their sphere of influence, such as direct reports, co-workers?

Develop a picture of your learners. Keep that picture in your head as you design. If you don’t know your learners, and you don’t have direct access to them, find someone who does and ask them to answer these questions. You will be amazed by how relevant your design becomes and by how inspired you will be when it comes time to make design choices.