Monday, June 21, 2010

Bandwidth issues - why they're a problem

As ever, a brilliant article on website usability from Nielsen that has ramifications for elearning.

In the post simply entitled Website Response Times Jakob Nielsen points out that although increased bandwidth has largely eliminated the old drag of image sizes, responses times should still be given thought in the design of websites in the era of ubiquitous broadband.

The article cites common problems as being "complex data processing", eg lots of server-side activity, be it script or database activity, and slow "widgets" or too many of them.

With LMSs, especially those adopting more "web 2.0" features, the temptation to load up on widgets to provide the rich opportunities for social interaction that learners may be looking for is a risk. Especially if the server setup it is delivered from is less than optimal. Of course, the far greater hazard from the point of view of elearning is poorly produced Flash content. In a post from last year, Gavin Hess muses on the fact that many "rapid" tools actually save time only for the producer - the product they produce not always being the fastest.

Still, what is the impact of a delay? Nielsen summarises the impact of increasingly longer delays:
  • 0.1 seconds gives the feeling of instantaneous response — that is, the outcome feels like it was caused by the user, not the computer.
  • 1 second keeps the user's flow of thought seamless. Users can sense a delay, and thus know the computer is generating the outcome, but they still feel in control of the overall experience and that they're moving freely rather than waiting on the computer.
  • 10 seconds keeps the user's attention. From 1–10 seconds, users definitely feel at the mercy of the computer and wish it was faster, but they can handle it. After 10 seconds, they start thinking about other things, making it harder to get their brains back on track once the computer finally does respond.
 What will happen if this covenant is broken? Well, Nielsen is worried about lost sales and conversions. From an elearning point of view we can assume lost attention will result in poorer retention, less chance of completion (if that's an important statistic for you) and a generally less positive reception to your courses.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

How much "design" for the instructional designer?

When it comes to the instructional design in the context of traditional elearning development, how much of the concept design should the ID be suggesting, or to put it another way, how much of the visual design should be left entirely to the graphic designers and developers?

As an instructional designer I often have thoughts on how to present the information I am trying to arrange and I usually try to communicate these by means of rough sketches and crude diagrams - either as pen sketches captured on my phone camera or as crude diagrams cobbled in PowerPoint if I want to play around with layouts. My reason for doing so is that, as the old saying goes, a picture tells a thousand words, and frankly I can't be fagged writing out an idea when I can far more easily summarise the suggestion in a couple of lines. I'm always as pains to make clear that these are ideas to try to get across a concept.

However, sometimes the results from these suggestions are returned to me in far too literal interpretations of my diagram. If this was a one off, then I'd write it off as an individual response, but it's happened with a couple of designers. So what am I doing wrong?

Do designers and developers prefer to work from the raw data, so I give them the content and outcome and say "do your best", or do I have to give more detailed ideas about how to get a fancier finish? Does my attempt to be helpful in providing ideas actually have the counter-productive result of hemming in the thought processes of the developers? How do I encourage designers/developers to pick up the phone/fire up Skype and just run an idea past me before they commit it to the screen? Should I accept that there is something intrinsically wrong in my development approach or write it off as desperately bad luck that I encounter the same problem with different developers? Am I actually just expecting too much to get a whole course back without any significant problems at all?

I'd dearly love to know what other people do to manage this.