E-Learning, Gamification, Instructional Design
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Do We Need Instructional Text in Games?

I got involved in a discussion with a fan of this blog and a member of the Articulate Community this week Tristan Hunt. Tristan is creating a learning game and here is the brief and problem he needed answering:

I am in the process of building my first learning game. It puts the learner in the position of being the CEO of a water supply company and will teach them about water supply options and balancing different demands.  I have loosely based the mechanics on the play spent online game http://playspent.org/html/  I am struggling with is how to go about providing navigation instructions. My SME wants me introduce everything to the learner up front but I am not sure this is the best approach, especially as there is a strong possibility the learner won’t make it to the end of the game and will start again or will want to play again to see if they can do better. Play spent provides no instructions and seems to work really well, however this game does have more functionality and things going on.  The target audience will be school children approx 12-13 years old and the majority will be using tablets so hover over is not an option. 

This really got me thinking about user instruction in the current environment of E-Learning. When designing with gamification I like to strip back on instructional commands as much as possible. If you’ve seen my previous post on Shovel Knight I speak about games that don’t use any user instruction and the power that they have. Nintendo are arguably the masters of the ‘no tutorial’ game with classics like Super Mario focusing on design rather than text instructions to provide the key mechanics to the player. Instead of dissecting Super Mario in detail I’m going to let a YouTube video do this for me. Extra Credits go into detail on Super Mario 1-1 (the first level) to highlight some of the key design thoughts behind the introduction: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZH2wGpEZVgE So Mario focuses on design rather than text to deliver its instructions, can we follow a similar approach in E-Learning especially given Tristan’s aforementioned scenario. First let’s consider the audience, in Tristan’s case they are 12-13 year olds and from a user interface perspective the majority will use tablets. Well:

Tablet computers have replaced the TV in the bedroom as the must-have gadget for children, with over one-third of those aged from five to 15 owning their own tablet, says Ofcom. Studies from the UK’s media and telecoms regulator discovered that the proportion of children having their own tablet, instead of using a parent’s device, has increased from 19% in 2013 to 34% in 2014. Over six in ten children use a tablet at home, up 50% on 2013, while the number of children with TV sets in their bedrooms has decreased by a third in five years.

So given that a potential 50% of these learners will know how to use a tablet do we need to provide as much detail in our instructional text? I always say that we should design for the dominant audience and in this case it would seem as though the tablet savvy learner is the target. I’m sure Tristan won’t mind but to look at his point further I’ll use an image of one of the screens in question – cevtjfsi_screenshot (1) When we are designing modern pieces of E-Learning, in my opinion, we need to think more like Nintendo. If the learner cannot figure out the correct way to proceed, ensure that the area they are interacting with cannot be broken by their attempts to follow the right path. So with Tristan’s example I see absolutely no need for instructional text instead the use of clear icons and symbols demonstrate how the user should interact. Adding basic instruction detracts away from design aesthetics and ‘dumbs’ down the experience. Tristan has already done a great job of clearly illustrating where the user should press and the navigation looks clean and easy to understand. Dealing with the SMEs I speak to a lot of SMEs and have done throughout my time in Instructional Design. There is one overriding feeling that comes across and that is negativity to the learner. I have spoken to countless SMEs who tell me that their learners cannot send emails, struggle to log in to systems, can’t find the print option etc etc. I actually think that this is a complete myth that is perpetuated by a limited sample size of office ‘horror’ stories that do the rounds. I think learners deserve far more credit than SMEs and reviewers of content give them. My Grandma knows what selfies, Facetime, Skype and unfortunately twerking are, which is more than the workforce of a lot of major companies (apparently). She didn’t have any of that knowledge 5 years ago and didn’t receive any training but now she is a competent tablet user, Skyping her Grandchildren and watching Fail videos on YouTube. What I’m trying to say is that the world has moved on a lot in the past 10 years and even more so in the past 3 – 5 years. So much so I think the work landscape looks incredibly different and learner skillsets are above the levels we expect. When we adopt gamification theories in our development we need to carefully consider whether or not instructions are truly going to aid the user experience. The vast majority of apps contain no instructions due to the expectation that the user has some knowledge of basic control functions. I agree with this approach because I don’t believe it’s as important to the experience as it was 36 months ago. Whenever an SME challenges me on not including enough instruction for the user they always usually follow that up with a story about how Janice couldn’t even put her PowerPoint presentation into play mode. Don’t be put off by SMEs believing that staff can’t operate basic software as in my experience that is absolutely not true. Bad examples always stick in the mind but the hundreds of people using their computers/tablets everyday without a hitch of course go unnoticed. As a lot of gamification uses scenarios to engage with the learner or set the scene, it’s important not to distract away from this experience you’re creating by slapping a large “SELECT CONTINUE TO PROCEED” line on the page. It breaks the flow of the content and provides a constant reminder to the learner that they are inside a course not re-enacting a real world event. There has been so much change in the tech world in 3 – 5 years and I don’t think learners are given enough credit for what they can do. Don’t let your SME tell you that everyone needs capitalised instructions telling him or her how to press a button in your course. When you design think about Nintendo, think Mario, think how you can place clever clues in your work that instruct the user without using text. If you are just starting out in gamification and think this may be a little too much for you think about better ways of displaying your instructional text. I did a post on What We Can Learn From the Legend of Zelda that illustrates some fantastic ways to display user instructions in a simple but meaningful way that helps get around large on screen commands. This post all comes down to Tristan’s original dilemma – challenge your SME on the true learner potential that is in the business, largely they will not have the answer to this. We have a chance in E-Learning development through using gamification principles to change the foundations that were originally set, look more at your design rather than quick fixes for inputting instructional text. Is the layout simple to understand? What you can do:

  •  Have you used common symbols that clearly indicate the purpose of a button or feature?
  • Have you just got one option on screen, if so why does this require any instructional text at all?
  • Does your course still function as intended if the user clicks on other areas before clicking on the ‘correct’ spot?
  • Support the learner through subtle, hidden messages.

If you’re not as comfortable:

  • Think about ways to include instructional text without making it obvious, let another character in the module tell you the information.
  • Put the information on signs, posters or leaflets in the background of your course.
  • Always think one-step ahead, can you provide some information on the current screen that will assist a learner later on?
  • Can you give the learner prompts rather than on screen text using timing should they take longer than it naturally would to proceed?

Don’t be lazy in your work, take this opportunity to change the way we deliver E-Learning through your Instructional Design and don’t fall into the out-dated trap of placing instructional commands on every page. Ban the use of a ‘Next’ button in your next development project and work harder to provide alternate navigation, your course, engagement and satisfaction will all increase dramatically as a result. It’s my birthday this weekend (now I’m not asking for cards/presents, but they are welcome) so I may not get around to a post for till next week, so have a great end to the week and I’ll see you all then!


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