I used to enjoy attending professional conferences: the inside scoop, the buzz of product announcements, tips and tricks, and the general enthusiasm of the crowd. It was hard not to get caught up in the excitement of it all. I couldn’t wait to get back home and try out all the new things I’d picked up.
But back in the office, I began to wonder how much of the conference really applied to my work. While I found great benefit in hearing somebody’s experience (positive or negative) in tackling a problem or learning the best techniques for doing something, the other information was more of a distraction.
Technology enthusiasts by nature tend to gravitate toward the cutting edge. We get excited about the latest product, language, platform, or standard that is going to make life oh-so-much better. There are many times, however, when the “tried and true” approach is a better path for our customers.
In my work at the Church supporting online learning tools and systems, I’ve found that it helps to keep a level head. New learning theories and industry observations spring up all the time. Everybody seems to know what learners “need” these days. But what are my learners really like and what do they really need?
Is it fair to compare Church employees with IBM, GE, University of Oklahoma, or any other group of employees? What about other learners who seek training from the Church, like family history consultants and missionaries, priesthood leaders, clerks, and so on? How are they different than Church employees?
Often, when I’m consulting with designers in various Church departments about which standards to use for e-learning development, they are surprised to hear that I am happy in many cases publishing e-learning courses using the AICC standard. “What?! Use a standard that was first introduced 20 years ago and hasn’t had even minor modifications in the last 5 years?”
Well, why not? I use FTP and HTTP and HTML on a daily basis. All of these standards have been around for decades. Perhaps they have gained wide adoption because they matured and went years at a time between some revisions. SCORM 1.2 and AICC CMI are widely supported by e-learning authoring tools and systems for that reason. When e-learning developers ask if they should use the latest e-learning standard to develop their next course, my first question is always, “What is it that you want to do in that standard that you can’t do in an older, more reliable standard?”
It is important to keep an eye on industry trends and even influence good standards and practices when we can. At the end of the day, though, I work for my customers, not the standards organizations and tool vendors. Most learners will not have a clue what standard or programming language I am using to deliver my materials, but they do know the difference between an exciting, predictable, and reliable experience and one that is frustrating, confusing, or intimidating.
The best customer experiences happen when things just plain work under a wide variety of conditions. This isn’t to suggest that we abolish system requirements and try to make things work in every scenario; quite the opposite. Support problems are more common when developers don’t know their target audience or don’t consult the system requirements before making plans to create something.
Content and Web developers should take a good, hard look at how to keep the minimum system requirements as low as possible, and then stick to them. This doesn’t have to be a tough exercise, but it does require deliberate action. For example, before I throw a simple PDF document out on the Web, I might ask myself questions such as these:
- For which version of Adobe Reader (or a third-party PDF reader) did I publish this document?
- Would it work as well if it were opened in Acrobat 5?
- Am I using functions in this version of PDF that will not work in a previous version?
- Am I okay with requiring my customers to download a 35-MB reader to view this document?
- What if they don’t have broadband network access?
- What if the latest player cannot be installed on a three-year old computer?
- Am I limiting my audience to those who have the latest computers with the latest patches and software and a great network connection?
While it is unrealistic to think that things will work perfectly for everyone, we can try to gauge our level of inclusiveness and how well we soften the blow of things not working by asking questions like these:
- What percentage of my audience am I excluding by my current system requirements expectations?
- How have I set clear requirements so people are less likely to fail and have a poor experience?
- Have I considered progressive enhancement of my materials instead of just graceful degradation to allow those who aren’t running current computers to get the basic message from the materials?
Mark Nelson is an application systems engineer for the Church.