Monday, May 17, 2010

A Manager's 5 commandments to e-Learning Visual Designers

Who takes design decisions in e-Learning project ? If you think it is project team or designers, then it is not quite close. The design decisions in projects are taken by customers by checking out options and personal preferences. And here is the source of issue.
  1. Has your designer ever sold the design or just presented design options ?
  2. Has the articulation of designs gone beyond brand guidelines and features?
  3. Are the designs submitted with enough proof that alternate options were considered and this is the best solution?
  4. Is there a promise from designer to describe the limits of reusability, scalability and durability ?
To become an indispensable visual designer in e-Learning projects, here are the five commandments from me, as a project manager.
1. Create Wireframes and Doodle sequences, period: No design or idea can come without a scribble. Skipping this step is foolish. Missing the step is to start ticking a bomb in the project. Blaming on time pressure is escapist tendency. You are bound to lose productivity, if you do not wire frame your work. Your work load is going to bomb on you that you will spend late nights in office.

Not sequencing the screens is a novice attempt at design.  Non understanding of the design complexity will persist throughout the project, if wireframing is not done.

Doodle every screen, every asset. All it takes is a pencil and a one-side used paper. Then start sourcing them.

2. Decide and configure design decisions consistently: Gone are days, when you want to document and keep a print copy or archive of the decisions. All design decisions can now be coded to become live samples that can be distributed freely. Learn JSFL, MXP if you are using Flash or their equivalents in other tools. They would allow you to maintain the consistency you need, implement the design decisions in every asset. They allow you to implement all decisions by clicking a button. Further, you should endevour to use one single file for every decision. Colors must be in CSS, buttons and assets must be in shared library, User Interface must be a single file in a single location, each flash template must be in single file, single location. This allows for easy changes to decision and localize the impact.

Manage your design is by making it configurable. Learn XML and its usage. Configure all parameters of your design to make it suitable to changing circumstances. Explain the XML structure to your clients. This would help appreciate the design better.

Remember, design is about consistency, extension of users adopted style for colors, navigation, understanding of web functionalities. So being creative to make every screen unique goes against the grain of good User Experience and design. All time surprises, tire the users completely.

Further note that having a same file with similar functionality in multiple folders is no longer required. The advancements in technology have ensured this. So start learning and become an impactful well articulative designer.

3. Feedback, Ask for Users: Can bet for sure, that no designer ever would have gone to solicit feedback from users out of the way. User feedback and experience are a lip service to the job at hand and is committed with great alacrity. Always, designers speak of user experience, but it is their experience, not that of users. So please go into field and move away from computer screens and AC cabins to solicit feedback.  I would alert customers to really seek proof and testimonials whenever an agency speaks about their role in soliciting user feedback out of their way.  Role playing a user is not deciding user experience. Users determining them selves is user experience.

Ask sample audience to test your design. Doing it at wireframe stage is desired. But a finished design needs user testing to pass them onto production.

4. Do you carry a checklist: Always, I get a grin and a sarcastic smile when I mention this point. Even interviewers are surprised when I answer them that Design is about adhering to a checklist. If you do not know the requirements, you cannot design. Your design in thin air is not a business need. Designer exist to make things better for users. Users should consume the design every time with a smile, with ease, with familiarity.

If you do not own a checklist, you are not a strong designer. Your checklist is what gives your design a strong footing. It is the checklist of requirements and heuristics that makes a design deliver a good impact and great first impression. If not, you are just a resource trying to impress with goofy colors and big mouth fads. Understand that your checklist is your style.

5. Move over Design, Understand Semantics: Semantics is real design. Semantics is meaning in context. Semantics is giving ideas to users on using the system better. It should be thought provoking. If you design for semantics, all your design elements get cohesive and are powerful enough to perform the tasks better. If you design loosely coupled elements, then semantics are not adhered to. Non-semantic design makes the design useless to the users.

So get to understand and design for semantics.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Understanding Value and Delivering Meaning: Be a Butterfly

When do you become a good strategist or executioner ?

I always have this habit of taking analogy of caterpillar to butterfly transformation in context of people transformation.
Somehow it serves to drive the message home every time. The analogy is as follows:

  1. Takes small steps and are not quick and efficient.
  2. Do not have good vision. (from Wikipedia)
  3. Are small and get a easy camouflage . Hence symbolize mediocracy and blend with conformity.
  4. Are nimble and can be tossed around. Hence they take no stance of their own.
  5. Body is narrow and can be likened to the area of understanding (or sphere of influence). No good to do a job better.
  6. Caterpillars are voracious feeders and many of them are considered pests in agriculture (from Wikipedia). Would you be one for your company?
Be a butterfly.

Which one would you like to visit: A garden of caterpillars or active multi colored butterflies in a blooming flower garden?

  1. A butterfly bubbles with enthusiasm: It means they can be great team motivators.
  2. A butterfly orients with the movement of sun. They are great to be team players.
  3. A butterfly expands and flaps its wings to move: It means they expand the horizon of thinking and work.
  4. A butterfly carries the nectar with it for long distances: It means they stay till last mile, good troubleshooters and a great collaborator.
  5. A butterfly spreads happiness: At end of delivery and execution, it is the lingering feeling of a job well done and meaningful that stays with you. Thus deliver meaning than just the output.
  6. Butterflies pollinate. They share. They take the best across to create a new better breed of people.

Who are you - Caterpillar or Butterfly ? Who would you want in team: Caterpillars or Butterflies ? Who would be the right choice to lead you: Caterpillar or Butterfly?

Be a butterfly is my opinion. Yours too, I guess.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Responses are Rewards: email is a synchronous communication medium

When my career started, I was to work first and respond to mail late in the day. The reasoning was that it is easy for managers to forward a mail, while I have to work on my deliverables and report them back with details in my response. May be, it is also due to the fact that I have grown throughout using snail mail habit of finding focused time and getting consumed in writing a good letter addressing all points. The habit continues to this day. I have enough criticism to not respond fast and first. Until the system changed me...

After reflection, I realized that what the other party needs at physiological level in Maslow terms is a response. Proceeding directly to address their security needs of analyzing and fulfilling their queries lose their value. And they lose value fast with progress of time from the moment the email arrives at your mail box. Commitment, then is felt missing by the originator and there isnt a clue whether the request is being handled on a priority level.

Thus, I realize that responses, are about, commitments. When your kids ask you to fulfill their wishes, we do respond. Either it is an instant gratification or we chose to defer to get our wishes answered first. But the satisfaction in the response is what makes kids get to their business with fervour and enthusiasm. Even statements saying "Acknowledged. I will give a detailed response by _______ hours" is good enough to enhance value and show commitment in business circles.

email is considered by many as an alternative to telephone. This is the fact. All other communication channels including chats are alternate mediums.
It is easy to differentiate and argue about asynchronous vs synchronous medium. But they are theoretical debates that business people do not wish to enter. The job is to
  1. have information and then
  2. deliver results and then
  3. Convey the results.
If you notice the sequence, then we know that responses are for self empowerment. Would you want to face a meeting without getting empowered to know the facts ? Innately, we land up in gibberish phrase play like "We are working on it. Am sure we could get this out in the time." What work, what time ? If I am probed, I am bound to give away my apprehensions. Luckily business people do not discomfort others as every one of us have been in that boat many times.

Lastly, responses are a social reward mechanism. In a society we like being the cynosure for a recent action, not for what we did say in child-hood, or say winning an order or a game in past year. Responses are rewarding when they are received within a short span of time. Don't we feel elated when a reader responds with their comments for our blog posts, happy when your tweet is RTed, Glad to see your friends giving thumbs up/poked in FB, Happy and smiling when you receive a note from your network about the change in your LinkedIn profile or leaving a scrap in orkut immediately which itself I saw in current younger generation using it as a chat tool - so instantaneous and fast.

In short, responses are the rewards. Work, then is an essential criteria to fulfill the demands to retain the happiness. The true happiness is when you respond as early and soon as possible.

I own a smart phone now. Partial reason is to keep up with the communication speed of my stakeholders. It is an expensive gift to myself that I cannot afford to indulge in. But, I believe that it has made me a better professional and hence considering it an investment is a better self consolation technique. :)

email in corporate world, is the synchronous communication tool. All are available ubiquitously throughout the day in computers or smart phones.
Doesn't this then warrant me to unlearn my education to adapt to the current circumstances ?
There is an old adage that rings true now: "Say what you do and Do what you say." I would add a third line "...and say you did it".

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Tuesday, May 4, 2010

A Manager's 5 commandments to Instruction Designers

1.  Instructional Integrity: What I, as a manager, expect from an ID, is one and only this. "Instructional Integrity". Foraying in other areas is OK. But to a manager the main stream value of ID is to judge and justify the instructional integrity on the project.

Instructional integrity to a non-instruction design manager should answer the following key questions.
  • Are the instructions based on a learners model?: Don't mistake it to the theories, please. What this means is for example, a techie is going to find the instruction:"Please note that OOP stands for Object Oriented Programming. Let us explain the terms one by one" very weak instruction model.What a techie would rather find a sound instruction is "OOP is Object Oriented Programming. Objects have properties and can perform certain functions...."
  • Is there a theme that is followed?: Themes are necessary to identify situations and the written style to those situations. For example, when you have to put code block for explanation, what is the theme that you are going to follow. May follow a courier font and in a different background. The code blocks in explanatory sentences are italicized. These consistencies need to be decided upfront by ID on project.
  • Is there a precedence of instruction types? All courses and IDs know that we start with Objective screen and end with a summary screen. But further down the instructions, are there precedences followed: Continuing our fictional techie course, precedence of instruction types might be to :
  • Give a case
  • Show solution splits
  • Write code for each solution (may be function by function)
  • Explain the code and the exclusions that would be expanded as a homework.
Instruction Integrity, sadly is given a back seat and is mostly left to the acumen and individual intelligence than make it into a system experience. A good design document detailing the instruction treatment and the writing styles will go a long way in ensuring the value of Instruction Designers for a long time on project.

What many courses lack, is not good instructions. They are abundant and every ID want to vouch for it.
But it is the consistency of
  • Instructional Ownership: All instruction should belong to a single family (example: refer to messages from Hootsuite or Google and compare it to Windows errors). The first parties are best examples of instructional ownership.
  • Verification of instructions: Instructions for learning has to be predictive than predictable.Predictive because learner knows where to reach when they have a decision to know what they want to read at that time. Predictive because the style of writing by any number of people will more or less result in same impact. Predictability, on other hand, kills learning spirit. I have always cursed courses, that every time start with "In this module you will learn the following points..." That is predictability.
In predictivity, I will reach for the content and know when/where to consume it. In predictability, I will skip the content.

2. Causal Loops and Analysis: Might sound strange. Yes, reading Peter Senge "The Fifth Discipline" would help understand this section. It is the unspoken expectation from managers that IDs know to create mental causal loops and analysis. They realize the problems of an early decision only during production stage. The volumes are never managed or estimated upfront. So Instruction Designers while working on their deliverables, must develop causal loops and analysis skills to determine if any of their decisions are going to choke the team down stream.

Often the customer centered design decisions choke the rhythm and flow of an otherwise easier project. Be it a simple addition of knowledge checks or showcasing the content in a new interactive format or an addition of simulation module are all valid customer centric brownies. But in a project, deciding on them after committing to a budget and scope is a strict no-no. Haven't any of them posed problems for your teams in your projects ?

Since the first output is to come from ID, understand the budgetary figure and sticking to the limits is the first command. Lots of creative ideas and learner understanding that go tangent to proposed expectations is not what customers pay for. They want instructional courses for propagating a message downstream. Help acheive this simple goal. If it doesn't make sense, try making sense for yourself as to what can be achieved by all parties in that given time and budget. Evolve a consensus, take it to customer for a confirmation and then Implement it with full concurrence.

It is often a habit to always curse the presales team to have made commitments that either are non-implementable or during start of project dont make sense. The easy route of doing is scrapping them and explaining a better way to customers.

Control the drift would be my second command to instruction designers, if the causal analysis is never done.

3. Stick to Basics: For a non-instructional design project manager, ID role is to
  • Focus on Message: There is no better person to write good instructions. English writing is not instructional writing. But prove it with tangibles. "You dont understand" as you are not from the field is a common refrain. True, but isnt the onus to explain in simple english the paramount value of any role/function. Imagine an architect saying, you dont understand. Just do what I say. Would you pay them for their efforts ?
  • Spread the message in such a way that it is appealing: Customers demand instructions and courses to be understandable and meaningful. But they miss the point here. We miss explaining them better that understanding and meanings are derived by users themselves. What would make them do so, is only if they find the material appealing.To make an appeal is not same as sprucing it up with graphics. To make them appealing is to write instructions that relates to their lingo. For a techie, it is results that matter. Giving away code snippets that give an output make the book appealing. A lengthy 2 page code book that a techie types in or performs 100 step experiment, only to get errors, is not an appealing situation.  The learning is more in unwinding the errors than in seeking the meaning of the materials read so far.
The crux of job of an Instruction Designer is to make text information appealing and impactful. When they get mixed with Visuals and auditory support, it should be a great cocktail party.
4. Become Dispensable: The more you try to become one, the stronger the link. Trying to position SME vs ID debate is a lose-all proposition. Yes, SME's can do all of above. Similarly, trying to argue that writing good English cannot write good instruction, is illegible argument. Yes, if I know good english, I can write good instructions. But for either of them to do so, IDs must give them the relevant tools and training as outlined in #1 above.

Try occupying a higher pedestal in an argument. One, you don't have to argue. Second, you get to win by giving away the fight.

5. Focus to improvise: This is not to change the course of project. Improvisation is progressive elimination of gaps and adaptation of writing styles to solve understanding problems. There is no one good or correct way of instruction or teaching. If so, improvise constantly to keep options ready. Each of them must be adaptable in same situation with some changes. Be an asset to managers and customer and lay options in front of them. Let them pick the style. That is the key for sign offs. 

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Social Media Adoption: A Red Hat expose

Does anybody hate social media ? My wife could be one. But wait, not quite. She hates the time off from her that I devote to Social mediums not the medium itself. She needs my time at the mutually decided moment.

Anyone else hates social media ? Managers could. But do they hate the media or do they hate the fact that using the media, is an option to reveal more than necessary and grow more outside the organization ? I may be the boss in the system, but the people actually know my reportee. How does that make you feel ? Me proud. Some jittery. We are working on a project putting in crazy hours. You publish it in social media. What happens to my reputation. Me hard work, some not to be treated as a sweat shop. They then fear and hate the occasional rogueness in using the system. But dear managers - can you ever prevent it ?

Anybody wants to be away from social buzz at all ? May be the non-IT staff and factory floor working personnal. Hey wait! Don't they have unions, formation day, cultural weeks to socialize among themselves.

Anyone thinks social media is for crazy ? Yes, many. This stems from the lack of immediate value and gratification. This is the fact that we have been coached for generations. Do things that are meaningful (read "money making"). In schools, we take exams 4 times a year for the gratification of teachers. In offices, we take appraisals every year and listen to gossips for seeking the missing value in ourselves. We at these times, act dumb to not know ourselves and listen in and act according to bosses wishes.

So what "crazy labellers" stay away from social media is the ignorance that there is Maslow level above physiological/security needs (where money plays the biggest part to get them). When you move higher you realize
  1. appreciations,
  2. follows,
  4. leads,
  5. references,
  6. linkages (to people) 
is what makes you a better professional. Again, when you reach higher, it is
  1. not the projects execution,
  2. the bottomline generation,
  3. the topline creation,
  4. the number of reportees you have
that would give you the kick. They help you climb and drop off after you reach a certain level. What matters at highest level is the quality of people who you are associated with.  Ever wondered why we call people having club memberships "elite". Wouldn't you feel ecstatic when you get one? Well, you have a chance. The chance is to be in internet social medium, create the elite club you desire with your league. The beauty is you can be present in multiple leagues at same time.

Hmm, have I covered all. May be that leaves with traditional media. The command and control structure that characterizes the traditional media, will find social media a disruption. The consumers suddenly question everything that is written. They start seeking resources and sources that counter the main stream articles.  And the result - Chaos in determining loyalty. This hits the foundation on which traditional media is built. Most of us subscribe to one newspaper and that gives the power to media to shape opinions in a way that their bosses and writers want. No doubt that traditional media has/is glorious in whipping revolutions in past.

But giving that mantle to social media and letting go part of the authority is a painful act. This to my mind is the only group that fears the medium itself as the opponent to its existence. What would happen if a news paper brings out the content from various RSS feeds on variety of topics as its business model?

Social being is a fundamental urge of humans. Getting a like minded group is a constant search for every living animal on the planet. Social media allows you to choose, select, approve and then be inside the medium. Let us not forget that mixers, conferences, associations, clubs are all part of social media eco system. Add to these are internet shops of Facebook, Orkut, Wave, Wiki, Blogs,Twitter, Ryze and other similar associations that allow you to group for your various thinking points.

The profit from above sequences is that social medium is where everyone wants to be in in their own right. It is the contexts that raises questions, creates differences and demotes the preference for social media. If you notice there is no indifference to social media. There are strong opinions on either sides.

In fact, a "red hat, touch the heart" statement for social media can never be negative.

Enough to make you love Social media ? Leave in your comments.

What Kids Teach...

Dedicated to my sweet Mom on her birthday 2-May.

Sleep with innocence
Play for joy is essence

Time for them is a substance
That they can feel without a suspense.

Sweat for right reasons
Avoid treason

Loud, shout and cheer at every occasion
Their movements are always a sensation.

Their giggles
Their waggles

The waves
The shine

Their whines
Their yearns
Their needs

All are rarity in time.

They live the moment
And in a instant
Sleep with innocence.

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