Storyboards are a series of pictures and words that define what the user of an online training product will see, hear and do on every screen. Typically, the storyboard provides direction to the team responsible for producing the content, developing the media and programming the interactions. A completed storyboard also gives the client an opportunity to review and approve the content prior to beginning media production and programming (more costly elements in the e-learning process). Storyboards are as important to the success of an online training project as an architectural plan is to the success of the construction of a high-rise building.
What Do I Need to Know Before I Begin to Storyboard?
Even though the storyboard phase is in itself a planning phase, there is some “pre-planning” work that should be done before you start. Before designing a building plan, you would have to know about the location, the purpose for the building, the zoning restrictions you should consider, etc. With storyboards, as with building design and construction, you have to pre-plan and “do your homework” before storyboarding in order to avoid rework later.
First, you have to have a sound instructionally designed course, with a logical course outline and accurate learning objectives that will allow you to improve performance or achieve the desired behavior. The old adage “garbage in, garbage out” is a great metaphor to illustrate the importance of ensuring that your course is instructionally sound.
You should also do some research about your audience and create a detailed audience profile. Some of the elements you should identify are the audience age, cultural uniqueness, experience with technology and computers, availability for training and a description of the student’s learning environment. Making assumptions about your audience can result in the failure of a project, regardless of the quality of instruction.
Because the storyboard dictates what is happening on the screen, you should know how the screen is going to be laid out or the elements in the interface design. The interface will determine the areas that you will need to include on your storyboard template. The storyboard template can be a document created using a word processor or even a presentation tool, like Microsoft PowerPoint, whichever you are more comfortable using. Your template should also include an area for directions to the developer.
If the end user will be taking this e-course online via the company intranet using a browser, there may be bandwidth concerns with the company network or performance issues with older browsers that might dictate the media used in the course. A detailed description of the delivery platform requirements is good to know in the storyboard phase to avoid creating (in words) a product that could never be viewed on the end user’s machine. Photo and video files, for example, are typically very file-weight “heavy” for students using a company intranet, where vector graphics and animations can just as effectively illustrate the instruction with a better online performance.
The considerations listed are typically true for most e-learning projects, to some extent, and this list is not all-inclusive. If you work in an environment where the client, audience profile and delivery platform are always different, taking time to gain a thorough understanding of these elements is particularly important.
How Can I Begin to Think Like a ‘Storyboarder’?
While storyboarding your course, you must take on the role of many people:
- Student: What will I see and hear? What will I be able to do? How will you know if I understand?
- Instructor: How can I explain this to you? What will I show you? How will I know if you’ve “got it”?
- Producer: How should this be programmed so that the student understands and won’t get lost? Is timing an issue? What should the narrator read?
- Artist: How should this be drawn and animated to illustrate and support the learning?
- Narrator: How is this word/acronym pronounced? What should be emphasized in this text? Which text should be read?
This “dimensional” thought process takes practice to develop. In fact, storyboard development may be difficult at first for linear thinkers. As you gain experience thinking dimensionally and using your storyboard template, this process will become more natural (and people around you won’t be inclined to put you in a padded cell whenever you are storyboarding).
Where Do I Begin?
Assuming that you have done your pre-planning homework, have a storyboard template that meets your needs and you have gathered enough content to start writing, where do you begin?
To help you think dimensionally and interactively, you can “act out” and put on paper all the actions and options that will be available on every screen. Begin by writing what the student will see in the first frame, then the second, etc. If you have writer’s block, ask yourself, “If someone were sitting across the table from me, how would I teach this? What would I say, show, draw, etc.?” Also, ensure that you are writing to the level appropriate for your audience and that you use language, examples and terminology that are acceptable. For example, with global audiences where English is a second language, using simple vocabulary and short sentences free of slang will often help to facilitate understanding. One final note, typically a conversational tone is appropriate. Remember, e-learning is a one-on-one delivery medium, and the tone of the narration or text can be key to engaging the learner.
Try to keep the information on one screen “chunked” so that there is one thought, theory or concept on a page. Again, the character count (how many words, characters and spaces) in your interface text window will play a part in how you organize your content as well. Knowing the capacity of your interface will alleviate re-work later. In addition, use transitions so that the information flows from frame to frame. It is helpful to begin each storyboard with an “introduction“ and end with a “summary“ of the lesson to get the student ready to learn and to let them know when they are finished. If you decide to do this, be consistent from lesson to lesson.
The description of the media (graphics, animations and interactions) can be done during or after the text or “story” is written, whichever works best for you. The description of media should be very detailed so that it is clear to the artist/developer. Even if you will be producing the media yourself, it is easy to forget what was intended during this “creative” process. Record resources and page numbers so that they are easily found later. Include elements of timing where appropriate, but be careful not to overdue this. A good graphic designer and programmer will take care of timing issues once audio is added. On an instructional note, make sure that the described media enhances the content for the page. You do not want to send mixed messages by including content visually that is not discussed in the text (narration).
And finally, you may find it useful to use the storyboard as a communication tool with your subject-matter experts (SMEs). Questions to SMEs or reviewers can be recorded in the storyboard, but should be clearly indicated (for example, using bold text, underlining, callouts, etc.). This is often a very efficient way to record comments or questions when the appropriate person cannot be contacted immediately through phone or e-mail.
I’m a One-Man/Woman Show…Do I Need to Do This?
Would you build your house without putting anything on paper first? Do you think you could do it without having to tear something apart after it has been built? Do you think this is a cost-effective way to build it? Not only is a storyboard a good “blueprint” for you to use, but it is also a great opportunity for you to get approval and buy-in from the client before you begin costly production and development—especially important if you are a one-person development team.
Now Go Forth and Storyboard…
Storyboarding should be considered the first production step and should be completed and approved before any media development or production takes place. The completed storyboard is the blueprint for creating all graphics and media that make up every screen. The complexity and content or elements of the storyboard will vary depending on the sophistication of the program, your budget, etc. However, it is recommended that as much detail as possible be included on the storyboard so that less is up to the interpretation of the people producing the various pieces of the program. In addition, if used as a review milestone with your client, the detail contained within the storyboard can help the client to visualize and clarify any preconceived notions or assumptions of the content or program functionality, before extensive time and money is spent in media development and production.
Kathy Crenshaw is the senior instructional designer for Phoenix, Ariz.-based TraCorp Inc. Kathy has a M.Ed. in learning and instructional technology, along with 15 years of experience in the field. To receive a free copy of the storyboard template, visit www.tracorp.com and complete the “Request Information” form.
10 Tips to Help You Begin Storyboarding
- Begin by writing what the student will see in the first frame, then the second, etc. Ask yourself, “If someone were sitting across the table from me, how would I teach this? What would I say, show, draw, etc.?”
- Write at the appropriate level for your audience. Extra care should be taken when writing for global audiences (use simple vocabulary and short sentences).
- Try to keep the information on one screen “chunked” so that there is one thought, one theory or one concept on a page.
- To prevent re-work, make sure you know the approximate character count in your text window, if applicable (in the interface) so that you keep your content description within the allowed limit.
- Use transitions so that the information flows from frame to frame.
- It is helpful to begin each storyboard with an “introduction” and end with a “summary” of the lesson. If you do this, be consistent from lesson to lesson.
- The description of media should be very detailed so that it is clear to the artist/developer.
- Record resources and page numbers so that they are easily found later. Include elements of timing where appropriate.
- Make sure that the described media enhances the content for the page.
- Questions to subject-matter experts (SMEs) can be recorded in the storyboard, but should be clearly indicated (for example, using bold text, underlining, callouts, etc.).