Good design is like a debate in which the designer “converses” with the thing they are designing. They try out ideas, see what works, shift positions and try new things, often in a fluid, messy, semi-conscious way. As it is this conversation that creates the value, any “efficient” processes that minimises conversation removes value.
Rather like film writers and playwrights, learning designers face the problem that what they’re designing is primarily an experience, not a tangible product. Apart from in their imagination, they can’t see what it is that they’re designing, nor can they sample the experience that will result.
So it can be difficult to engage in the kind of exploratory “discussion” that good designing usually requires.
Effective design is not a linear process. It involves trying things out, seeing what works, making alterations and moving on. In order to do this, the designer needs feedback about what they’re designing. They need information so they can assess what’s working and what isn’t; on whether they’re heading in the right direction.
This process of progressive experimentation – of "dialogue" with the design – is valuable because it simultaneously resolves some issues and reveals new ones. It explores the different aspects of the problem. It’s the reason that professional designers in many fields are taught to sketch, to play with and elaborate their ideas as part of their training.
In some forms of design, such as graphics, getting feedback from the design is not a problem. The graphic designer produces rough sketches that evolve through trial and error, into something like a final design. When they make changes to their sketches they can, of course, see the effects of their changes.
But in designing experiences, such as films, plays, games or learning experiences, getting feedback can be a problem, as the thing that is being designed cannot be seen. It’s intangible until it’s “performed”. And learning designers have problems that other experience designers don’t have:
- Unlike films and plays, many learning experiences have interactive components at various levels: interactions with other people; interactions with the materials or the “real world”; interactions that result in new routes or directions being taken.
- Unlike most games, learning experiences have learning goals, so must be built on models methods that are known to support learning.
A particular trap that learning designers may fall into is to mistake the tangible aspects of what they do as more important than the intangibles. For example, rather than trying to create an experience that results in the learner changing in some way, they focus on content or media. They engage in a “conversation” at the wrong level.
For the learning designer to engage in a dialogue with their design, they must represent the experience they are designing, using visuals, prototypes, flow charts or any tool that gives them feedback on what they designing – and from different perspectives. The designer should:
- Use design tools and processes that provide rich and immediate feedback to the designer on the nature of the experience that their learners will have. Writing a text script, then passing it to a developer, can minimise the amount of feedback the designer receives, and cuts down on their ability to explore. Most important of all, it won’t allow the designer to spark off ideas about what they’re doing. Indeed, text-based tools in general can be ineffective at conveying some of the important qualities of a learning experience: its overall flow, its mood, or its pace.
- Base each aspect of the learning experience around mental or physical activities that are known to encourage learning. Always ask “what is it about the experience that I am providing to the learner that will support them to change in some way?”
- Use mood boards and visuals to represent the character, feel and emotional tone of the experience.
- Use flow charts to represent the learner’s journey through the experience being designed. These should convey the learner’s perspective, not a functional or logical one. They should represent what the learner will see, hear, feel and do at each point.
- Use a pace chart to represent the changing qualities of the experience for the learner.