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5 Lessons for Designing Engaging E-Learning Interactions . . . From Project Runway


Tue Feb 23 2016

5 Lessons for Designing Engaging E-Learning Interactions . . . From Project Runway

Last month, I had the honor of speaking at the 2016 ATD TechKnowledge Conference in Las Vegas. I discussed sketching and prototyping as a design methodology for designing effective e-learning.

I’m always on the lookout for new ways to explain or illustrate a novel approach to a familiar task. 


Although I am firmly convinced that sketching is far and away the best method for coming up with ideas for new engaging interactions, the tradition of detailed storyboarding as the design “tool of choice” for instruction is so deeply entrenched in our field. Consequently, I think it may be helpful to refer to something unexpected to make sense of new ideas. 

Importance of Design 

First, I want to emphasize how important it is for us to embrace the DESIGN aspect of instructional design. Design is the discipline that imagines and plans elements that facilitate, elevate, and humanize our world. Architecture is different than construction. Interior design is more than utilitarian furniture. Graphic design is more than just words and colors. Fashion design is more than just provision of warmth and protection for our bodies. The design aspect of each of these disciplines focuses on HOW the user achieves some desired end—rather than just the functional provision to achieve an end result. 

Similarly, instructional design needs to embrace the learners first, and then create an experience that creates change. Too often, though, design is abandoned and instructional development becomes simply the functional presentation of information. 

Case in Point 

I was thinking of this contrast during an episode of Project Runway. It dawned on me that the processes shown and practiced in that program perfectly illustrate the critical advantages that an iterative instructional design process—involving sketching and prototyping—could introduce to e-learning design. 

(Note: If you’ve never seen Project Runway, I’ll try to explain enough so you won’t be kept in the dark.) 


Each week on Project Runway, the contestants receive a design challenge. Most of the time, a specific goal is in mind: a red carpet look, a new uniform for mail carriers, a national outfit for Team USA in opening ceremonies for the Olympics, and so on. You get the idea. 

First, the contestants interview the intended wearers and other knowledgeable experts. Then, they have a limited time to sketch ideas, and a further limited time to shop for fabrics. Finally, they conduct a rapid design and construction session. This session involves constructing pieces, giving critiques, making modifications, and abandoning or redesigning components—all resulting in a runway look that is put forth for evaluation. 

Key Takeaways 

It’s easy to use this show to illustrate some key factors for how best to design engaging e-learning interactions. 

1. Engage ideas from the intended learners. It is impossible to create a custom look without knowing details about the wearer. Similarly, you can’t create an e-learning course if you don’t know anything about the learners. Yes, you need to know a little bit about the content, but mainly you need to know what the learners need to be able to do before you can have any hope to create a focused interaction. You must conduct this step before you ever start formulating any details ideas. 

2. Sketch a few ideas—quickly! It isn’t unusual for a designer on Project Runway to say, “I don’t have any ideas.” Yet, they begin sketching anyway. Waiting for an idea to appear fully formed rarely results in success. The act of forcing an idea into existence on paper encourages and inspires more ideas. In exactly the same way, instructional designers need not be hindered by waiting until everything is known and in place. Use the possibility of an empty page to focus on the learner experience. Filling in the details later is the easy part. 


3. Start building mockups with throw-away material. Even though the designers purchase expensive material to construct the final garment, they begin working with inexpensive muslin. Hanging the fabric and shaping it on a mannequin lets them envision the final product without investing too heavily in an idea that is still being formed. While still far from being the runway garment, the muslin mockup provides vital information, building on ideas from the initial sketch. 

Similarly, when you are sketching or prototyping a potential e-learning interaction, don’t bother fine-tuning the media or wording. You can assess the viability of an idea with placeholder elements that you won’t waste if you decide to move in another direction. Once you’ve decided whether you are on a productive track, then you can start to think about using the actual elements you’ll need in the final learning solution. 

4. Seek help from others early. The designers’ mentor always makes an appearance rather early during the time allotted. This typically occurs about the time the muslin pattern is complete or when some preliminary construction with final material has begun. The purpose of this review is not praise but a critical moment to assess the design while there is still time to make potentially major changes. It isn’t unusual for a designer to recognize a particularly egregious flaw in the design at this moment and start again almost from the beginning. 

The act of having another set of eyes review the design this early is invaluable. In the same way, e-learning design sketches should be implemented quickly as rough prototypes, and other team members need to review these prototypes. Instead of muslin, instructional online prototypes can use stick figures, placeholder text, and random images that give a rough idea of the end product. 

5. Apply effort to the important things. It is common for a designer to work a disproportionate amount of time on one element, leaving some major portion unaddressed until late. For example, one contestant may be working until the last hour on beading a particular bodice. Interviews reveal that the person is aware that there will only be a short time to create the skirt, but then again, the designer knows that constructing the skirt is easy. More importantly, the designer knows that it won’t matter if the skirt is magnificent if the bodice doesn’t work. 

It’s the same way with developing e-learning prototypes. You shouldn’t prototype presentation screens or spend precious creative time proofreading copy at the expense of designing the interactions. If e-learning interactions aren’t polished and motivating, it really doesn’t matter that the text is beautifully edited. Of course, there are the rare failures when time runs out and the model is walking down the runway partially clothed, but that is almost always a result of poor project management, not a fundamental problem with prototyping. 

I could continue in this vein for some time, digging deeper to illustrate how immediately—and with impact—we can change the nature of instructional design in e-learning if we were to more fully rejoice in the opportunities of DESIGN learning. Bottom line: sketching and prototyping are indispensable tools we should use when trying to design instructional interactivity that really makes a difference. 

Editor’s Note: This article is reposted from Allen Interaction’s E-Learning Leadership Blog__.

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