Monday, December 24, 2012

Express Your Ideas with "Simple Diagrams"

If you need a low-cost, easy-to-learn tool for drawing diagrams, I can recommend Simple Diagrams  by Daniel McQuillen.

Simple Diagrams is a small-footprint Adobe Air application. It downloads and installs quickly and presents an intuitive, very clean interface to the first-time user. If you're already familiar with standard drawing toolbars such as those in Word or PowerPoint, you'll very quickly be clicking and dragging your way to your first picture.

I found the line tool is particularly handy. Instead of having to fuss with bezier curves (which I always find confusing), you just drag a central ball handle to change the curve of a line.

To combine objects that you've added, simply click and drag to select them, as you do in PowerPoint. Once objects are grouped, it is a little tricky to move them. Don't click on the handles of grouped objects, this will stretch or rotate the group. Instead, click on any vector line within the group and drag to move the whole group. 

The default background is a blackboard, but you can easily change it at any time by dragging a different background from the library panel on the right. Curioulsy, a simple white background does not seem to be an option. There is a whiteboard, but it includes some slight, simulated smudges as you might find on a real whiteboard that hasn't been washed. Not helpful. If you are wanting to provide presentation-quality diagrams, a simple white background should be a no-brainer.

For icons to jazz up your pictures, Simple Diagrams comes with a library of symbols, and there are additional premium libraries available at modest cost.

You can add annotations with a plain text tool, or you can insert them in notecard or sticky note objects. You can also import your own pictures by pulling in an annotation object and clicking an add image link. 

For help learning Simple Diagrams, there are a few video tutorials available on the site from e-learning guru Tom Kuhlmann (of The Rapid E-Learning Blog).  More tutorials are planned and would be a welcome addition. 

Overall, Simple Diagrams is a great little tool for visually communicating your ideas. Here's a little plot I produced to show how it compares to some other prominent tools. As you can see, combining low cost and low learning curve with a high degree of diagramming horsepower, Simple Diagrams is a winner.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Graphics Delighters in Captivate 6

I'm honored to present Guest Blogger Shelia L. Mosley's article (and video!) on graphics tools in Captivate 6. Sheila is an experienced instructional designer and Captivate pro. Her LinkedIn profile describes her as a "well versed strategist with a wicked positive attitude and an uncanny ability to think/resolve on the fly." I can vouch for all of that and more.

Five Graphics Delighters in Captivate 6

1. Themes
2. Actors
3. Interactions
4. Smart Art
5. HD Video Capture

Trying to choose just a few improvements in Captivate from version 5.5 to 6 can be daunting. So because I had the pleasure of sitting in on Jack’s breakout session at ASTD’s ACE 2012 where he shared several pieces of evidence that support graphics over text in learning, I decided to limit my discussion to the best graphics improvements. I’ve also included a short video showcasing these pictures, since seeing is not only believing, but learning as well!


The first of these new inclusions are Themes. Similar to PowerPoint, Captivate 6 now has pre-loaded project themes, which include everything: backgrounds, fonts, and a true smorgasbord of placeholder slides. For me, the real power in the Themes feature is that I can create and save my own. At my company, we already have a brand standard for our eLearning. So while the preloaded themes are nice, it’s critical that I be able to make my own themes within Captivate. After watching a three minute video on Adobe TV, I created my first theme within minutes. Although I’m used to starting projects with a blank slide, I must admit the placeholders have been super convenient for embedding video clips quickly.


Since I touched on branding, the next logical (and perhaps the most popular) new feature to discuss is the Actors. There are a total of ten actors and one caricature. Most are donned in business attire, though there are a couple decked out in casual and medical gear as well. There are between forty and fifty poses for each character. It’s great having the same character in so many poses because during long voiceovers you can transition images, changing the actor’s stance while they speak to the audience.

Using actors brings life, personalization, and most importantly, consistency to your project. Another reason I really like the actors is for scenario-based training. The images portray many aspects of emotion, making it easy to develop dramatic scenes in which the customer or employee is upset, angry, confused, suspicious, or happy depending on which path the user ventures down. Lastly, you can easily load your existing images into Captivate 6, sort them however you choose, and create a custom category within the menu for them.


Now that I’ve gone over some of the outer shell stuff, let’s talk about content-specific features! There are three that have most impressed me. My absolute favorites are the new Interactions. Think of a circle process diagram, pyramid matrix, glossary, or timeline, just to name a few. These interactions are widgets that you customize to suit your project. You can change the title bar, add levels, the colors and fonts are customizable, and in some of the interactions, when you click on a piece of the diagram or matrix, you have the option to add a small image and/or an audio clip.

To be fair, I’m still trying to finagle adding audio to an interaction. At this point, I’m not sure if it’s me or if it’s a bug. Hopefully, it’s me. It’s much easier to show off one of these, so be sure to check out the short video I put together.

Smart Art

Yet another cool feature in Captivate 6 is the addition of Smart Art. Truthfully, I was not initially impressed. I didn’t use much Smart Art in PowerPoint, so when I first saw it in Captivate, I dismissed it as clutter. My mistake! Captivate Smart Art really is smart! Its properties allow you to activate it as a button, which means you can then execute simple or advanced actions with it. Genius! Besides that, from a development perspective, I no longer need to create a text box to layer over every shape or image that I need to label. I just click F2 and start typing. For me, this is solely a matter of convenience and time saving. Also, some of the shapes are more relevant to computer-based training, which is nice. But hey, don’t take my word for it! I’ve included a few examples in the video just for you.

HD Video Capture

The last new feature I wanted to mention is recording an HD video demo. Let’s say you want to send someone a short demonstration on how to hit the Reply button in a mass email versus Reply All. Instead of recording a simulation demo, which is click by click and builds out a novel of slides, you can record a real-time HD video of it! Then, you can choose to embed the video to one slide or parse it out over several slides. The video I’ve attached uses this feature and I think you’ll be pretty impressed with the overall quality.

Check it out and feel free to share your thoughts below. Many thanks to Jack for allowing me to pop by and share my experiences with you! Happy learning!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Google and "the Sword of Data" - Analytics Taken too Far?

Hey, I love analytics. Two of my clients produce analytics software. Their products provide tremendous value to their customers in terms of insight and decision support.

Plus, their technology is slick as a trick and cool as ice.

So don't get me wrong.

But when I read an article in the current issue of ASTD's Learning and Development, I had to wonder about taking analytics too far. The article, by Ellen Wagner, is about learning analytics, but it references a 2009 blog post by Douglas Bowman former graphic design leader at Google as to why he left that company.

Bowman says in part:

Yes, it’s true that a team at Google couldn’t decide between two blues, so they’re testing 41 shades between each blue to see which one performs better. I had a recent debate over whether a border should be 3, 4 or 5 pixels wide, and was asked to prove my case.

Bowman concludes by saying he would not miss operating "under the sword of data."


Like I said, I love analytics. And far be it from me to suggest Google may be wrong about anything. They seem to be a fairly successful little company.

But Sheesh, if your team can't decide on whether a line should be three or four pixels wide, has the reliance on data maybe gone a little too far? Even with the smartest analytcis tools, who has time to test every detail? (Other than Google apparently.)

At some level of granularity, don't you have to just trust people to make decisions?

I don't know, I'm asking.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Need to get your head around a problem? Try plotting it!

Seeing the problem

If your organization is “moving at the speed of thought,” (as it seems many are these days) it can be really challenging to make plans, devise strategies. solve problems. Really, it can be hard to even figure out where the plans and strategies need to take you or what all the factors of the problems are.

How often do you hear, “I need some time to get my head around that,” or the like?

What we need is to see where we are and where we want to go. We need to visualize.

That’s where I find Dan Roam’s work so helpful. You’ve probably heard of Roam’s books, including Back of the Napkin and (my favorite) Unfolding the Napkin. In them, Roam presents a methodology for brainstorming and solving business problems by drawing simple pictures.

An example big problem

I recently had an opportunity to put some of Roam’s methods to the test. One of my clients, a growing software and services company, is transforming their customer training. They’ve outgrown the current model of purely instructor-led classes and need to move to a university-model, featuring e-learning, virtual ILT, social learning and other options.

As you can imagine, this presents lots of questions. Where do we use e-learning vs. ILT? How detailed should the curriculum be? Will we need customized training and coaching offerings? Where do the product help and user guides fit in? What about social learning? How do we deliver it all? What will it cost?

That’s a lot to get our heads around.

Finding the coordinates

To help my client see all of these factors so they could begin to make decisions, I decided to use Roam’s methods. One of the brightest points I recalled from his books is that, when you are faced with a problem with lots of factors like this, it helps to figure out the coordinate system. In other words, what are the critical dimensions? Use these as the axes of a plot.

This process can take some trial and error, as you play around with different factors to see if they “map well.”

In this case, I settled on two as the most important dimensions for my client’s customer training:

First, What are the instructional methods? I call these learning enablers. I listed them as
  • Explain concepts
  • Demonstrate tasks
  • Guided practice
  • Individual coaching
These enablers became the y axis on my plot. I realized they should be cumulative. A learning offering (such as a course or e-learning module) might explain only, or explain plus show, or include these plus practice. As such, they created zones on the plot, and the y axis could be described as “learning enablers” with a scale from simplest (explain only) to strongest (all methods including coaching).

(Please click the plot images to see them clearly.)

With the y axis in place, I thought about the other important factors for the x axis. After some trial and error, I settled on the degree of customer time and commitment to achieve learning goals.

Given the delivery options we were considering, this translated into a second set of zones based on how far removed the learning opportunities would be from a user working with the software:

  • Level 1, would be the product user assistance, actually embedded in the user interface
  • Level 2 might be a customer portal or LMS, one or two clicks removed, where videos and other e-learning could be hosted.
 After mapping out these levels, I realized they also aligned with the company’s cost to provide the learning and might also factor in to the prices charged to the customers. So I labeled the x axis as “customer cost and time commitment,” with a scale of low to high.

Completing the plot

Now that I had the coordinates, it was a simple matter to plot all of the different learning products we had been discussing.

For example, the product help system was the simplest and least robust solution, offering only the Explain enabler. It was also the easiest to get to and lowest cost, being embedded in the software.

Other options, such as self-paced learning guides and e-learning modules, offered more learning enablers, and required more investment of effort (and potentially money).

When I had added all these offerings, I saw that what I had was a complete, proposed learning roadmap for the company. I added the title “Learning Roadmap” and I was done.

A tool for problem solving

Notice I said proposed roadmap. This plot did not solve all the issues. It was never meant to. Rather, its purpose was to clearly visualize all of the issues, so stakeholders could understand, discuss and resolve them.

For that purpose, it was quite successful.

I definitely recommend you pick up Dan Roam’s books, especially Unfolding the Napkin.

And the next time you have a problem that’s hard to “get your head around,” try plotting it out.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Training2012 Conference - My Capsule Review

I attended Training2012 this past week in Atlanta and got my brain filled up. Here’s my impressionistic review:
  • The next frontier of e-learning may be “Computer as Tutor.” Learned from the keynote by Omar Watsow   For example, see Codeacademy.

  • Training is selling change. The selling, motivating aspect must be included in the design. Learned from Carolyn S. Balling in Making Training Stick.

  • Excellent session by Ray Jimmenez  on e-learning for technical training. Provide the most important 20% of the content in e-learning modules that are quick to navigate, and the rest as reference material (“Give them a PDF.”) To find that key 20%, look at user application points: what is key to performance? What must they learn to do readily vs. what can they look up when they need it?

  • Training is helping people to reach their potential, to become their best. Leaned from Vicki Halsey in Brilliance by Design.

  • Mobile is getting there, but it is more about electronic support and refresher training than about delivering courseware.

  • The buzzword of the week was…Gamification.

  • Great job by Greg Owen-Boger of Turpin Communications, teaching us how to move from handheld, shaky camera video to professional looking talking-head productions.

  • At Duke University they have a monkey walking on a treadmill with his brain impulses monitored. The brain signals are sent over the Internet to Japan where they drive a monkey robot to walk. The impulses reach the robot in Japan faster than they reach the leg muscles of the monkey on the treadmill. What does this have to do with training? No idea, but it sure is interesting.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

E-Learning - Snagged on the Saw Tooth

At this week’s meeting of the Atlanta chapter of ISPI, students from the University of Georgia demonstrated various tools relevant to e-learning. While introducing the session, Gregory Clinton (one of their professors in the Department of Educational. Psychology & Instructional Technology) showed a sawtooth diagram that elegantly summarized the history of e-learning authoring tools:

Clinton reviewed the early days of e-learning, when Authorware emerged as the tool of choice. It got more and more capable and powerful, then suddenly: disruption. The Internet bloomed and abruptly e-learning had to go online. Delivering applications within web browsers over slow connections radically changed the authoring tool landscape and limited the capabilities of what authors could build.

Over the next 15 years of course the situation gradually improved: wider bandwidth, more capable browsers, plenty of interactivity. The new king of e-learning was Flash. The SWF format enjoyed almost universal support and was the output type for all the leading tools.

But now we are in the midst of another dip, and e-learning creators are again snagged on the tooth of the saw. Flash for all its enormous virtues was never efficient on mobile devices, and two weeks ago, Adobe gave up trying to make it work.

On hearing the news, I visited the Flash and Captivate sites and looked into the patchwork solutions Adobe has been working on to export from these authoring tools to HTML5. Judging by the community reactions, the results have been underwhelming, to say the least. Meantime, Articulate seemed to be in denial; their site having no mention whatsoever of plans for exporting to anything but SWF.

Of course, we are early in the process. Eventually, the tool makers will catch up and robust interactive e-learning will get easier and easier to produce on IOS and the other mobile platforms. Things will be great again...For a while...Until we hit the next tooth of the saw.

What do you think? What tools and methods will emerge to deliver robust e-learning on mobile devices?

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Top 3 things I learned at ASTD ICE 2011

This week I attended the ASTD International Conference & Expo in Orlando. My first ICE, and I experienced many great sessions and product demos. Here’s what’s stuck at top of my mind:

1. Daniel Bilton and Cary Harr from Booz Allen Hamilton compared and contrasted research on the effectiveness of e-learning techniques to a survey of opinions by practitioners. The research—on topics such as voice-over narration vs. text display, and visual vs. non-visual presentation of concepts—often contradicted the survey results. My main takeaways are that the research findings are often contradictory, and diving deeper into the studies suggests that the effectiveness of techniques may vary greatly by audience and the type of subject matter being taught. In other words, beware of blanket statements.

The opinion survey is still open and you can complete it here:

2. The Herrmann Brain-Dominance Instrument® presented by Ann Herrmann-Nehdi. While Ruth Clark’s latest book  debunks the concept of visual vs. auditory learning styles, Herrmann International has built a holistic system of learning styles based on neurological research. I don’t know enough to judge the validity of all the research, but I did find the system comprehensive and compelling. More importantly, it is designed to be useful to practitioners.

Copyright 2011 Herrmann International

The system postulates four learning "brain types," and shows mixtures of the types aligned to different occupations. It also provides learning strategies that work and don’t work well for each quadrant. Excellent material and a great presentation.

3, ZebraZapps from Allen Interactions. I heard about this tool after last year’s ICE conference, but had not yet seen it in action. It is a cloud-based, point-and-click application for designing and developing interactive Flash modules. Flash developers know that you can do just about anything in Flash, IF you can write ActionScript. The point of ZebraZapps is to make ActionScript interactivity functions available in a WYSIWIG interface. Extremely powerful and fun. And maybe a game changer for advanced e-learning authoring. I can’t wait to get my hands on the tool start playing.