Chopeta C. Lyons
Avoiding Shovelware

Perhaps you’ve been given the commandment “Thou shalt put all your training on the Web.” but you’ve read the articles that say most employees are reluctant to begin training that they consider “boring text onscreen.” One article reports that the retention of material read from a screen is 30 percent less than from the printed page. Maybe you have seen the clincher – less than 20 percent of learners who begin Web-based training (WBT) courses finish them. How do you avoid the shovelware approach to WBT that reaps such results?

The Importance of Instructional Design

Start by recognizing the complexity of developing effective WBT. Figure 1 illustrates the many disciplines required to create quality online training. The key is instructional design. Without it, a standup class is often just a brain dump to a group of nodding heads. That drone-on standup class is the precursor to manuals dumped to the Web. Both are developed without recognition of the importance of task analysis, careful arrangement of material, attention to cognitive load, or engaging exercises built on the learner’s real-world tasks.

Figure 1 Areas of expertise required for designing different training media
        Figure 1: Areas of expertise required for designing different training media

Print Design is Not Just for Paper

However, even WBT that is blessed with sound instructional design may still suffer from poor “print” design. Granted, onscreen delivery is different from print. For example, sans serif text is easier to read onscreen than serif text (which is still the best for the body of printed materials). But skilled print designers know how design affects readability, legibility and to which areas readers will pay the most attention.

Even if you have never designed a WBT course, you’ve probably encountered an instructional manual that suffered from poor print design and was an impediment rather than an aid to learning. The print industry had specialized in legibility and readability, font selection, graphic placement, use of white space, use of text as a graphic element, and the use of color and its interpretations by various cultures. So make sure your WBT development team has someone who knows the elements of good print design and how they translate to the computer display.

Web-Based Training is Software

It’s also troubling that many “Web-page as training” producers don’t recognize that WBT is software. WBT can be buggy if not coded and tagged correctly; it is dependent on data transfer rates, input and output, and, in fact, all the software issues its older cousin, CBT, had to face. Maybe you wonder why the graphic artist you hired for your WBT project doesn’t seem to “get it” when it comes to designing the online look and feel. It could be the artist is just that, an artist, one who specializes in creating pictures or illustrations, but not a professional who designs usable software interfaces. Your project can benefit from someone who has expertise in CBT development – someone who can address the challenges of response time for learner feedback, stress testing for maximum simultaneous access, technical requirements of volume (space on the host), display resolution, color depth, RAM, and usability.

Good Multimedia Borrows Skills from Broadcasting

Each technology wave introduces issues from new disciples. Multimedia capabilities open the door to audio, animation, and video. Ever suffer through a multimedia course with sleep-inducing audio or poorly scripted video? Training designers can’t just hire voice talent to read text written for the “page.” Designers need expertise in writing for voice-overs, expertise that is usually seen in the broadcast field- television, radio, and movies. If video is part of your WBT, your team needs to consider camera angle, talent, sampling rate for audio, and blue screen compositing techniques, and these are only the tip of the iceberg.

The lessons of these disciplines- print, software, broadcast- need to be tempered with expertise in Web technologies. If your interface designer is experienced in developing graphic interfaces for training delivered via CD-ROM, that’s a start. Also needed is knowledge of browser versions and their capabilities, user expectations for response time based on cognitive task, bandwidth and pipeline requirements, as well as display of text and graphics, including text as an image.

The WBT Team Needs Diverse Skills

Clearly, there’s more to effective WBT design than, “Just wrap some HTML around our documents.” Figure 2 lists the tasks involved in creating a WBT course. Use it, along with Figure 1, to assess your team’s strengths and weaknesses and get help where you need it.

Figure 2 Roles and responsibilities of team members during phases of the project
Figure 2: Roles and responsibilities of team members during phases of this project

For example, is your department skilled at developing instructor- led training and manuals, but uninitiated in any online delivery? Seek help from those experienced with software- CBT and Web technologies. Don’t forget to include an interface designer, not just a graphics designer, on your team.

Perhaps you are a software guru who’s been asked to create a training application. Target advice from training specialists, information display consultants, as well as media experts and Web technologists.

We have all taken CBT that was too buggy to be useable, suffered through instructional guides that hadn’t a clue about formatting, or gotten bored with gratuitous multimedia with no interaction and no evidence of instructional design. Unless we are ready to allow WBT to become “dumpware,” “shovelware,” or just plain “uselessware,” we need to pay attention to all the elements required to make the media live up to its potential, so that it truly can be effective “anytime, anywhere” training.

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Originally published Imprints © 2010 Chopeta Lyons

» Ten Tips for Talking to Artists -- How to communicate your graphic ideas 2/8/06
» Crossing Over and Evaluating Training -- How to evaluate training materials 9/0/99
» Picture Perfect: Selecting Graphics for Instruction -- What makes a graphic effective? 2/16/09
» Avoiding Shovelware
- How to escape the wall of words syndrome 2001
» Good Screen Design Basics - Arranging screen elements to maximize learning 1994