Elizabeth Boling teaches graduate students
in Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University.
Her area of expertise is visual design and the development/ production
of instructional materials. From 1988-92 she worked at Apple
Computer, managing several dozen graphic designers and animators
in what was then the companys User Education group; from
1983-88 she held a similar job at educational publisher Bibliogem,
where she managed artists and programmers as well.
Ignitions Amy Satran spent several years as an instructional
designer in a different part of Apples User Education group,
and secretly envied all the fun Bolings group seemed to
be having. They spoke about the topics covered here in August
Elizabeth: One of the things Ive learned is that
we cant just teach a bunch of models. Models have their
uses, but they tend to make people think that the development
process is somehow linear -- until theyve tried it.
A big part of our instructional approach is what we call project-based
learning. We assign students to teams -- deliberately diverse
teams -- and have them work through four actual projects from
start to finish, doing all the work themselves along the way.
They start with very small projects, where they have to produce
maybe an hours worth of instruction. They experience the
process as total chaos. And most of them find this really disturbing.
Part of our job is to help them understand that some of the chaos
is because theyre new, but some is because thats
just the way it is.
A very important thing we do is incorporate reflection into these
projects. We have all the students go back and think about what
happened and why -- this was realistic, that was a mistake. This
is a critical part of their learning because these projects can
be such a double-edged sword -- people can arrive just as easily
at a misconception as they can at an insight. After theyve
gone through this reflection exercise on four projects, we hope
they can start to see some patterns emerging.
The trick is to coach them at the moment of need, not to lecture
them in advance. In that sense, the entire process is much more
like managing people in a business setting than like teaching
them in an academic setting.
AS: Heres another balancing act question: How do
you teach students to be creative and visionary, and at the same
time to work successfully as part of a team?
EB: This is a tremendous challenge, and one of the biggest
hurdles for every student in our program. It took me awhile to
realize that part of the problem is language. Designer
(in the sense were talking about here) does not mean artist
-- though lots of people want to think it does. In our culture,
artist translates into self-expression
-- but the job of a designer is not to express him or herself,
its to solve a problem. The interesting challenges of design
are in the great-solutions aspect, the puzzle-solving aspect,
the service aspect of helping the users of the product. A big
part of teaching designers is helping them rethink their notion
of what it means to be creative, and guiding them so they can
identify their own sources of satisfaction in the design process.
I should say right now that it doesnt always work. We get
a few lone wolves who reject this way of thinking, resist team
projects from day one, and then go out on their own to consult.
In their heads theyve got a model of how the instructional
design process should work in a perfect world. They end up sneering
at people who dont use their methods, and fighting every
step of the way, and the whole problem stems from the basic misconception
that theres only one right way to do what they do.
But with the students who are willing to stretch themselves,
this is another coaching opportunity. About a quarter of our
students already have professional experience in the working
world. Interestingly, no matter where they come from, they dont
seem to have had a lot of successful team experiences. So we
have to create an environment in which they can start to have
these experiences and learn from them. Frankly, our success with
this is limited by the habits of a lifetime -- educational systems
both in the U.S. and elsewhere pay more attention to teamwork
than they used to, but still not enough.
Heres what happens: Our program is very competitive and
selective, so our students are excellent, and theyre used
to high achievement. The minute we put them in situations where
their performance is linked to that of someone else, the disorientation
and anxiety are extreme. Their own personal work strategies have
always paid off well in the past, and naturally theyre
very reluctant to give these up, or to try something new, but
they have no choice. Weve given them lots of autonomy,
but in what they perceive as a very burdensome form, and they
are really confused. A lot of them are terribly unhappy. It takes
a long time for some of them to sort this out.
But this is inevitable. None of us are born knowing how to separate
our feelings about teams from our feelings about people -- this
has to be taught. Many people simply dont like or trust
their teammates. They are convinced that no one else is pulling
their weight, takes the project seriously, has the skills or
knowledge to do the job right.
Our job is to make it clear that design is a multifaceted, interdependent
activity, and that teamwork is not optional, but its not
necessarily painful either. The first step is to set up the expectation
that your teammates are neither obstacles nor competitors, but
collaborators. Your job is to help them by teaching them what
you know, and learning in turn whatever they have to teach you.
People need to learn how to talk to each other in teams -- its
not the same way you talk to people when youre all out
for a pizza. You need to learn when and how to stall, to push,
to facilitiate, to divert.
AS: How do you teach your students to build quality into
what they do? How do you teach them to deal with the realities
of time and money without compromising whats important?
EB: First, we have to disabuse people of the idea that
time + money = quality. If we only had more time and more
money, it would have been better. Sorry, thats not
the way it works. We have to look instead at how to do the best
possible job with whatever resources are available to create
quality sufficient unto the day. It wont be
perfect, ever, so the trick is to learn how good is good enough.
On the teaching side, we deal with this knowing what to
do when question constantly in the process of project-based
learning and reflection. Heres something that happens all
the time: late in every project, people tend to be disappointed
in the results of their work, which they blame on every imaginable
thing -- the outdated software, the shortage of hardware, the
tight schedule, their incompetent teammates, whatever. We debunk
all this and go back to look at the quality of the decision-making
from the beginning. We look at the whole chain of decisions and
their consequences -- did you ignore this testing data? spend
too much time on this minor component of the product? wait too
long to start audio production? -- and help them see that this
outcome was not the only one, and could have been better, all
other things being equal.
Often, even when students understand that there can be more than
one solution, they want to labor endlessly over the solution
theyve settled on. We have to remind them that this IS
a solution, not a masterpiece, not a stand-in for the creative
expression of their personalities. The solution needs to work
for the audience, not for the students personally.
The difficulty here is that people -- not just students -- tend
to assume that if perfection isnt attainable, well then
quality must not matter at all.
AS: Is this why there is so much bad interactive product
design, and so much tolerance of it?
EB: Well, theres badness that results from excess
as well as badness that results from deficiency. In the world
of educational products, people discovered very quickly that
more glitz didnt mean more learning. If products looked
too slick, people assumed they were shallow, or that money was
spent on the wrong things. But at the other end of the spectrum,
instructional design has suffered for years from extreme visual
deprivation, really ugly stuff. Simple visual solutions can be
very effective, but creating simple yet effective
anything is always harder than it looks, and very few people
are good at it.
This goes all the way back to our educational system (again).
When we look at a seven-year-old who cant read, we panic.
But when we look at a seven-year-old who has zero artistic sensibility,
we not only dont care, we dont even recognize the
problem. Without basic visual literacy, people have lost something
that could have been a key component of their lifelong problem-solving
arsenal. They cant visualize things and it doesnt
even occur to them to try.
The received wisdom is that we design things for three reasons:
This is fine as far as it goes, but it isnt enough. In
a professional sense, in an interactive product design environment,
we design because its a huge part of solving the problem
were here to deal with in the first place. Ive heard
someone say, It never occurred to me that the way it LOOKS
would be information.
||It makes the material
look more organized.|
|| It enhances the
viewers enjoyment or engagement.|
|| It makes the
work look more professional.|
Well, the way it looks IS information.
AS: What should this mean to, say, a manager in a big
corporation who is trying to develop an interactive training
product that needs to go up on the corporate intranet in six
EB: It means, think about balance. When all your plans
are just verbal and analytical, and the visual manifestation
doesnt matter, whether you recognize it or not you have
a visual literacy problem. And your project is going to be hindered
Cross-disciplinary impoverishment is the real issue here. All
expertise -- including that of your designers, visual thinkers,
production people -- needs to be focused on the product from
the very beginning. Everyone has to be invited to help solve
the problem together, early, not just brought in at the supposedly
In the corporate world this kind of cross-disciplinary teamwork
is an incredible rarity, partly because not enough people have
seen it work so they can understand the value of implementing
it. In big organizations, people have a responsibility to make
everything as efficient as they can, which usually
means codify this process and do it just the way we did
it last time and dont apply resources to a
problem until theyre obviously needed.
But if youre doing something new, when is the need obvious?
Usually after its too late.
Every corporation needs innovation and new solutions. Part of
the cost of coming up with a new solution is that you work in
this different way. People need to express what theyre
doing both verbally and visually. Once people see a solution
visualized, they realize that its not what they thought,
or they can see ways to improve it, or they realize that they
dont like it. Making something visible is one of the best
ways to control the outcome. Youve externalized a representation
that everyone can operate on. You can iron out the differences
in what people might have been assuming.
AS: Think for a minute about the hardest design project
you ever worked on. What made it so hard?
EB: Well. OK, two things: ignorance and inflexibility.
Ignorance is when the client or team doesnt understand
something incredibly basic, like the medium or the market theyre
designing for, or the roles and responsibilities of the other
people on the team.
Inflexibility is when people are too attached to one approach
and arent able to alter it or try another one. Or they
arent able to recognize the value of someone elses
expertise. Or they insist on the value of their own expertise
but wont share it in a useful way.
AS: Youve taught a lot of students and managed a
lot of employees. If you went back into the business world today
to run an interactive design group, what kinds of people would
you want to hire?
EB: Im wary of people whose skills are too general,
because often theyre not really useful anywhere. But if
someone is deeply skilled in more than just one area, to me that
indicates flexibility, receptiveness to expanding their view
and their role. These people tend to be better problem-solvers
and all-around resources than those who are devoted single-mindedly
to one specialty. But some of the latter can be valuable too,
in smaller numbers, for really focused tasks.
Id want to work with people who have lots of strategies
they can employ to solve problems. People who can make up a new
method or learn a new tool if they need to. Id also want
realists. And people who arent easily discouraged. People
who dont see an obstacle as a reason to stop working. Everyone
can learn these behaviors if they dont come naturally,
but theyre vital.
The best people Ive ever had in my groups are the natural
educators. Their tendency is to recognize knowledge and
skill deficiencies in the team and react to them by sharing their
expertise with peers, managers, and teammates. These people have
all had the confidence that sharing what they know doesnt
somehow put them at a disadvantage. Theyve all had respect
for other people and a good ability to size them up and present
new information in ways that will be not only palatable but interesting,
and convincing. Theyve all been willing to admit ignorance
in the areas where theyre NOT experts, and get educated
themselves. Theyve all recognized each others strengths
and turned them into the kind of quality we were talking about
earlier. These are the kinds of people I like to think Im
teaching now. Time will tell.
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