Storyboarding – A Primer and Current Perspective

Those who know me would tell you that I have a disposition towards technocracy – I love to contemplate how processes can be improved and how tools to improve processes can be created and implemented. It made me popular, even a shining star, in some past career roles; it also earned me some enmity, especially when colleagues had to adopt something new as a result of my efforts.


I share this so that you can understand the common barriers to storyboarding – and also understand my own mixed feelings about this practice in the development of learning programs. I’m not the one to create work – I’m one to eliminate it, to restructure it, or to “work smarter, not harder”.

On the surface, storyboarding just seems like much ado with little return. Let me see if I can convince you (and me!) that this is not the case, and that when done with rigour, storyboarding will save a whole lot of grief.

I love the discovery part of a new learning program. Love it! My more significant contributions for most of my blended and e-learning work is in listening to the client’s needs, talking to client stakeholders, talking to the “learners”, and synthesizing insights that move the program forward. From a guided discovery process to the elaboration of key themes and “actions and behaviours that must be changed”, through the development of what I call a “Learning Map” (or course syllabus) and the creation of an editorial outline, I am in my element. It feels like brilliant play, working in Mindjet’s MindManager and Word templates to pull together something truly satisfying.

The editorial outline, I had always felt, was where the real action was. I tend to indicate information about a section or unit title, some information about the Learning Outcomes to be achieved, and what methods (e.g., video, interactives) can be brought in to course development to make it zing. I take the opportunity, at this step, to elaborate about how to evaluate change and success for the learner.

Historically, after sign-off of my Learning Map by “the client”, I would get busy building, working with SMEs. It often is PowerPoint slide-based, with intent to push to a rapid e-learning composing tool. Such tools should preferably be interactivity-based. Challenges always arise after this early content collection/action phase – because stakeholders want to review, and they just can’t break past early visuals.

And then, the (less than) fun begins. If you’ve been at this for a while, you are well aware of the misery involved with trying to collect review comments from multiple stakeholders. PowerPoint, until its cloud implementation (and not all of us are there yet!), was largely useless in managing a review process with multiple stakeholders. For built interactives, where do you store the digital media – and how do you ask stakeholders to structure their comments? What tools should be used? (These frustrations have prompted me to create a social slide review platform called Slide Swarm™ [], about which I invite your interest.)

And here’s what I’ve learned. In my rush to compose after what can best be called a “10,000 foot view of the landscape”, you open up a world of back and forth trouble. If you are composing with an off-the-shelf learning tool, maybe that’s not time=money (although I still find that it is!). But if you are doing any custom composing with a technology team, your budget will balloon, your timeline will bloat and it just won’t be rewarding for anyone.

Enter storyboarding. Storyboarding allows you, as the e-learning designer, to extrapolate from an Editorial Outline to the screen or slide or media level. It allows you to detail what will happen, step by step, to get the learner to the outcome. A storyboard portrays the interactivity on the whole, while allowing the e-learning strategist to confirm the content, titles, placement of imagery and media, degree of interactivity, and linkages across the corpus of the program. It is a screen by screen description of content + usability of the content.

I have been known to groan when reading, in client requirements, an indication that storyboarding was part of the project. In part, this groaning is because I want to rush in (and you know who they say rushes in, right?). And yet, almost every time, I gain clarity and client commitment from storyboards, and greater insight into the learners’ needs and desired experience.

There are many excuses given for not storyboarding an e-learning program. Among these are notions that it overcomplicates things for the SMEs and stakeholders, that it is a waste of precious development time, that it doesn’t actually work to resolve the back and forth that will come downstream on composing (when changes become more expensive!) and that the lack of a standard approach to storyboarding e-learning could just aggravate confused SMEs and project owners. I’ve heard some e-learning strategists indicate, dogmatically, that “it just isn’t practiced in our shop), and others indicate that they don’t have experience with it and so don’t want to appear as fools. For the elite among us, I’ve caught a whiff of the “yeah, but it’s so linear, and we want our courseware to be more organic/to better meet learner needs/etc.” sentiment. (Hey, I’m a cheerleader for the movement to eliminate the “click next” linear approach to e-learning, and will try to write something about our experience with learning diagnostics and pre-program knowledge assessment to that end. But don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!)

Regardless of your excuse, motivation is the issue. When you (and I) come to believe that we will get more benefit from storyboarding (e.g., less back and forth at composing) than the alternative, then we will embrace the practice. We will further be enabled when appropriate and easy-to-use tools are made available to do this work.

After all, it’s not difficult from a content perspective to storyboard. We are essentially laying out our screens, slides, interactives and videos – in a Word document. They reflect, typically, a 1:1 correspondence from the content perspective with the final product. We string a series of boards together to provide a preview of the finished flow. We provide space for approvals and revisions by the SMEs / project owners.

A good storyboard includes the following information per screen (or interactivity, depending on the level of detail):

  • A number in the numbering scheme for the storyboard set
  • A representation of the screen itself (sometimes a sketch)
  • On-screen text
  • Audio narrative
  • Explanation of interactives, transitions, etc
  • Branching and navigation guidance
  • Learning outcomes addressed or contributed to by the screen

Storyboarding actually can nail down the content with precision, and deliberately does so in the absence of design distractions. This can be especially important for developing quizzes/tests of application, where you want to be sure you’ve got things right and your reference to the original material is correct. (It can also help because it allows contemplated development of quiz supports/hints/tips) When using an appropriate template, the practice creates familiarity and comfort for SMEs. It clearly supports the “implementers” (designers and developers/coders). And storyboarding is a great way to portray flow – and isolate flow problems – early, rather than later, in the project.

One of the common challenges of storyboarding is version control. Storyboard authors must be fanatical about version control. These days, I find it a great convenience to share storyboards through Google Docs (or via Microsoft Word cloud app) to facilitate common access amongst what is usually a group of stakeholders all of whom want a crack at editing. You get the support of versioning in some of these platforms, which allows you to roll back should you need to do so. Some efforts towards creating an online storyboarding tool have begun – check out Storyboard That (, which while not tuned for e-learning (from my take), may be of some help in speeding up the storyboarding process.

My confession: I don’t always storyboard each learning program with which I’m involved, and I’m more “addicted” to the thrills of discovery and mind mapping. However, I have found that storyboarding, which unfolds early in the development of an e-learning program, can place development efforts on firm ground, with its emphasis on precise content confirmation and its removal of the “visual layer”. More and more, I’m finding storyboarding an essential element in e-learning program development.

About Author

todd With career stints in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors, Todd Kasenberg, Principal of Guiding Star Communications and Consulting, brings years of experience and expertise in group processes, adult learning, online learning and marketing communications to his clients. Todd first dipped his toes into the e-learning pond in 2005, and since has used some of the best available e-learning composing tools, including Raptivity, to delight a number of clients in both the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors. Todd’s work has reached and delighted thousands of online learners, in both formal and informal learning contexts. He is an often invited speaker and workshop facilitator, loves to talk apps, mobile learning, and job aids, and is a software entrepreneur.

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Why Pharmaceutical and Healthcare should NOT stick to traditional eLearning?

traditional_learningYes, you read it right. You would always find me advising this to all my healthcare and pharmaceutical customers. You might have a different argument, but read on for my viewpoint and we might reach a common ground.

Not very long back, healthcare and pharmaceutical companies used to invest heavily in classroom training to train people on various business applications like SAP, iREP Veeva systems and process automation tools like Delta V. These systems are generally developed and implemented across any company over a period of few years.

With advancement in technology and processes, companies took to traditional eLearning practices to train resources on these systems. As a part of the traditional eLearning practice at these companies, content development is generally outsourced to eLearning partners due to the volume and complexity of the content. Now, the point in consideration is that since these systems keep evolving over time, their features and training requirements are bound to change too. So, when it comes to training new hires on such systems, change seems like the only constant.  With the frequent changes, the turnaround time for content updates in that case becomes a key challenge. As a result, content becomes obsolete faster as compared to it being developed. This also impacts cost along with timelines.

In this scenario, it makes sense for every healthcare and pharmaceutical company to NOT stick to traditional eLearning anymore. It’s time to move to Adaptive eLearning Design (AED)!

AED involves courses designed in a way that content can be easily, quickly and frequently updated without impacting other related elements. The content change can then be handled even by the companies directly rather than eLearning partners. Harbinger’s AED approach has successfully designed such solutions for many healthcare and pharmaceutical companies. And the results: great ROI

The next obvious question is – what does AED do to create and maintain this constantly evolving eLearning content? For that, stay tuned for my next blog post about AED!

Designing a “Dual-Mode” Course!

When dealing with K12 providers, one of the common issues we need to address is the need to have teaching aids in the course. Most of the time, we create two versions of the course – one for the learner, without the teaching aids, and one with the aids, for the teacher. We recently completed a course for a K12 provider who needed to teach kids a chapter of history using World War II photographs as a medium.

We used a neat trick in this course that helped us to identify exactly what features needed to be stripped off for the student version of the course – We simply created a dual-mode course! All the teaching aids for the course were accessible through a button, so the student version simply had that button disabled!

We didn’t need to create the same course twice, and we could easily identify what information needed to be given as teaching aids. This also allowed the teacher to concentrate on going through the course using the teaching aids alone, while the students focused on the content that was being taught. You may ask, how can the teacher ignore the content being taught? They don’t!

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Using Course Interface as an Engagement Tool!

Course interfaces tend to become a bit monotonous these days. This has become even more common with the use of rapid interaction authoring tools, where the Graphical User Interface (GUI) is only customizable as far as their colors. The form, the shape, and method of interaction are all features that still need to be individually programmed and created from the ground up when they are needed.

We recently completed a course for a K12 provider who wanted to teach kids a chapter of history through the use of World War 2 photographs. Most of the solutions available had interfaces featuring Back and Next buttons, maybe fancy page number panels, or perhaps a spin-wheel with the various pages on them. There was nothing that could be used to blend into a story and give a more environmental connection to the content that was to be taught in the course.

Then it hit me! I remembered the old View-Masters we used to have and how we used to spend so much time as kids looking at various places or photographs through them, and thought to myself “Why can’t kids today experience the same thing?” Right there was the interface we were looking for! What better way to have attention focused on the photographs that were to be used as a medium for teaching this chapter on history? We created the course with this vision, if you’ll pardon the pun, and needless to say, the kids loved it!

We created a GUI that made it look like the learner was viewing the photographs on a View-Master, with the tip of the circular view-disk peeking out from the top. Clicking buttons on either side of the disk allowed the learner to move ahead. The content to be taught is accessed through push-buttons built onto the View-Master frame, allowing the learner to view the story behind the photograph as well as the things to be discussed regarding the photograph.

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Presenting Boring Content…

We often talk about “making” a course interactive or engaging, but how can we approach content that is not engaging in itself? “Converting” flat and uninspired page-turners into something that actually engages and retains the learner’s interest is not as easy as it seems, and we learned this the hard way. This would be best demonstrated by explaining how we worked on one of our courses.

The job seemed simple enough when it first came to us – a course explaining company policies. A drab page-turner made in Powerpoint, the content was capable of putting even the Instructional Designers to sleep! The content was vital and important information, to be sure, but if it failed to interest the teacher, how would it ever engage the learner?

The content that came already used some interactivities created in Articulate Engage, and was published using Presenter. But those interactivities were as engaging as pressing a “Next” button that appeared in different places on the screen. Let’s face it – Tabs and Process interactivities are still page-turners of sorts. Do we add more of these interactivities? Maybe turn some of the content into interactive diagrams or a “click-and-reveal”? That would only serve to reduce the number of screens in the course, not make it any more interesting than it was. The solution had to be much more radical.

We were eager to try out some branching scenarios, but the scenarios given didn’t leave room for much engagement, and neither did the final seat-time of the course permit us to use some creative stories or building up and elaborate atmosphere. Using Articulate Storyline, we managed to hit on a solution that gave a most beautifully interactive way of navigating through the course. Since we couldn’t use branching scenarios with what we were given, we decided to turn the entire course into one big scenario!

We used a scenario where it’s the learner’s first day at the company (which it very well might have been in real life), and they are being given a tour of the office. This allowed us to place each module in a separate virtual location, each one in a different “room” in the office. Just like an office, the learner is free to move between the various rooms, creating a non-linear navigation for the course.

We often use mentors or guides to better engage the learner, but with the scenario of several rooms, we managed to get closer to creating the office environment – we had no less than 5 different mentors in our course! Each mentor guided the learner through a different set of rooms, creating an effect of that person having expertise in that area, just like a real office!

The content itself was presented as a visual treat. The various “rooms” allowed to us have different backgrounds for each module, and have the content appear in styles that was similar to what you would find in that “room”. We created “click-and-reveal” interactivities on non-Engage screens, with various visual effects, giving some more interactive opportunities for the learner.

Where the original course was interactive with “sit-and-stare” Powerpoint screens in between, the new course tied them together into a beautiful bundle that was engaging and interactive even on non-Engage screens.

The crowning glory of this whole project – it was done in less than a month!

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