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4 Tips to Create the Perfectly Imperfect E-Learning Prototype


Tue Dec 09 2014

4 Tips to Create the Perfectly Imperfect E-Learning Prototype

We recently redesigned the ATD Advanced E-Learning Instructional Design Certificate program, and I had the pleasure of facilitating the first delivery of the new program. The redesign was based on feedback from previous participants, as well as discussions with participants about this advanced e-learning design workshop. We asked them, “What next?” More often than not we heard that they wanted to jump in!

The participants we talked to wanted an opportunity to practice a real design and have meaningful discussions about their design decisions. Therefore, in addition to incorporating roundtable conversations and activities designed to uncover and tackle day-to-day challenges, share best practices, and offer guidance on emerging trends in the field, we now also have participants sketch and prototype instructional treatments for a design challenge.


As I prepared for the pilot of the new program, I was a bit concerned about whether the prototyping activity would succeed or fail on execution. In the ATD E-Learning Instructional Design Certificate and the Leaving ADDIE for SAM Mega-Workshop, we do a lot of sketch prototypes. It is the next step—arriving at a place where you are ready to take a sketch and build something—that scared me. Not so much because we were adding technology to the mix, but because the first time you prototype, it’s tough.

Here’s the thing about the world of instructional designers, we are by and large the biggest group of perfectionists and co-dependents I know. We want everything we touch to be perfect―the graphics, the content, the grammar—all worthy of the coveted A+. Instructional designers want to solve our clients’ problems, ease their pain, make things right, and feel needed and essential in coming up with the solution. I can’t describe the excitement I used to feel when presenting my design documents and storyboards: “I have the perfect remedy for all your problems Ms. Client, and doesn’t it look beautiful?”

But, when you prototype and iterate, you have to let all that go. All of those perfectionist traits that you’re probably secretly proud of, wearing your OCD badge like it’s an honor, they must be traded away in exchange for the worst thing ever—the possibility of failure!

Yes, when you prototype, leaving room for failure is a must. The purpose of a prototype is to demonstrate a possible treatment—not the perfect first step in the design process. This means it is reasonable to expect that your prototype misses the mark on some level. Trust me, I would win in any battle of crazy delusions of perfection. But if I can do it, you can do it. Here’s how I made it work for me, maybe it will work for you.

#1: The perfectly imperfect prototype is done quickly. The very best prototypes are those without any color or text. They are ready in less than an hour. There is no belaboring over the right image, and there is no rewriting the content a few times before showing anyone. Prototypes are immediate without any level of perfecting.


When a prototype is pretty and filled with words, you’ll hear statements like “That’s not our brand color. Our marketing folks can get you the hexadecimal codes.” Or, “Our sales team wears collared shirts.” Or, “When you refer to customers, you should always use title case.” Sure, all of these things are great to know, and are certainly necessary, just not yet.

Instead of getting surface-level reactions, your prototype should dig deeper. A perfectly imperfect prototype should garner a reaction from the audience on the validity of the design of an instructional interaction.

#2: The perfectly imperfect prototype is likely wrong. Yep, we should have gotten something wrong. One of the reasons Michael Allen created the Successive Approximation Model (SAM) is the benefit of prototyping to help us identify what’s wrong with our design. He asks that we challenge the design with the question: “Why shouldn’t we do this_?”_ So instead of reactions to the surface elements, we know a prototype is good when we get responses like:

  • “We wouldn’t really face a situation like that, it’s more like...”

  • “How does the learner ask for the sale?”

  • “This overcomplicates the situation, all we need them to do is...”

Now, you can begin to debate how to make it different, to iterate the original design, or scrap it all together and create a new one.

#3: The perfectly imperfect prototype is smoke and mirrors. The “functionality” is all fake. There is no complex logic in the background. You can guide the prototype functionality with arrows or test cases. Your prototype should demonstrate success and failure, which sometimes means you have two prototypes for the same interaction (successful or unsuccessful). But, it’s all fake. Avoid the temptation to randomize the interaction, only make a select few objects clickable instead of opening up everything on screen, and provide one or two paths instead of extensive branching. Offer your prototype evaluation team the ability to react to the design concept and not all the potentials.


The fact that your prototype is smoke and mirrors means that this object is not the first draft of your course. The beauty of a prototype is that it is simply an expression of an idea, a starting point for conversation, not development. You should be able to throw the prototype out if it is not effective, without any reservation or angst.

#4: The perfectly imperfect prototype is surrounded and protected by a bubble of communication. It is risky to simply send a prototype and ask for a reaction. The prototype should garner reaction from the group who helped you come up with the design, and few others. Outside the context of the design session, the evaluation of a prototype is often quite challenging. It can be done, but should be handled carefully. Communication is key to expressing the design. Sending stick figures and blah, blah, blahs to an executive stakeholder who was not part of the design meeting can be a recipe for disaster.

So, how did the participants of the ATD Advanced E-Learning Instructional Design Certificate course do on their prototypes? Well, some struggled, not wanting to abandon their overachiever title. They grabbed Google images, wrote introductory text, created scenarios, and so on. But the one I showcased, the one that got the best reaction to the design, was the one without a single color or word. When the class was able to ask the designer questions about the prototype the interaction light bulbs started to ignite. Like everything else, they learned from their own mistakes. And it was a beautiful thing!

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