Scope creep – How not to work with an eLearning vendor

“Sorry, that’s not part of this project. 
 We can help you if you sign this contract variation.”

If this sounds familiar, you may have experienced what we call the dreaded scope creep.

Scope creeps come in different forms and sizes. Still, they all have this in common, particularly when it occurs when you are working with an eLearning vendor: an aftertaste of sub-optimal process and possibly even deliverables, impacting your willingness to work with the said vendor again, and vice versa.

1. Scope creep by lack of planning

Scope creep happens when the initial brief is incomplete, unclear or does not include all the expected deliverables. This then forms the basis of the vendor quote (and ultimately the contract).

Especially when engaging a new vendor, make sure you include all upfront information the vendor will need to succeed:

  • project requirements including timelines
  • expectations on review cycles, branding and style guidelines
  • technical requirements and deployment environment
  • learning design requirements
  • assessment requirements
  • stakeholder environment and sign-off process, milestone payments on the successful delivery of project parts.

Providing complete documentation will help the vendor understand your specific environment. It is up to them to read, plan for compliance, and quote accordingly. A good, experienced vendor will know when and what to ask for to obtain complete information, and automatically include ‘obvious’ requirements in their scope, e.g., certain Government standards that need to be adhered to. An experienced and reputable vendor should also be aware of many of your requirements based on their years of experience even if you don’t formally identify the needs for said requirements. This type of working relationship would be more suited to being referred to as a true ‘partner’ versus a ‘vendor’.

avoiding scope creep: image shows business meeting between client and eLearning vendor who asks for signing a contract variation for a small client change

2. Lack of communication – beware of the word ‘Just’…

Competent vendors will work with you to develop a learning solution that suits your specific context and budget needs. And yet, in the middle of the learning development phase (i.e. in production), one of your key stakeholders may want to add “just a couple of branching case study streams” in a learning piece that was supposed to be short, succinct and very low budget.

A request like this can have a domino effect on the entire learning piece’s integrity, so the design phase may have to start again to integrate it well and ensure the solution is sound. The stakeholder may not be aware of the impact. Now you need to spend valuable time explaining and navigating conflicting requirements for a disjointed learning solution, with potential contract variations, and blown out timelines and costs.

  • Consult with your subject matter experts (SME) and key stakeholders before going out to market for a quote, or involve the solution designer early in the process. Ask them about their requirements and expectations of what a successful learning solution looks like to them.
  • Explain the impact of increasing content or functions, such as interactivity levels, scenarios, animations, or video, on both time and budget. Your vendor can provide various solutions and talk about the quality, cost or timeline expectations for each solution, so you can have these conversations before the work begins.

3. Lack of imagination

There are many ways to skin a cat, they say, and indeed there are many, many more ways to design learning. 

Design, in general, is one of the most challenging topics to discuss in words (try describing the hue of blue or grey in front of your window to someone right now). The same is true for the look and feel of a learning project. 

  • Please do not wait for the vendor to finish an entire learning piece to determine the funky flat illustration style they chose does not suit your law practice’s corporate, traditional style.
  • Ask your vendor to show you what styles they recommend and get a few test screens done so you can picture it better via an early prototype.
  • Get sign-off on the preferred style by other stakeholders that may need to be involved, e.g. marketing/internal communications, to make sure your overall branding is on-point throughout your organisation.
  • A vendor you can trust will genuinely advocate for a great solution and not just ‘take orders’.

4. Inattention to detail and testing

Generally speaking, a well-rounded and ‘engaging’ eLearning project consists of roughly 30% instructional design/pedagogical scripting (engagement of the mind), 30% goes towards creative visual design and on-point artwork elements (engagement by the eye), and 30% function development and media production (engagement by the ear and screen). Noting, roughly 10% goes into project management.

All parts are equally important to get right, 100% of the time, as they build on each other. The treacherous belief that “We signed off on that script so the copy in the learning screens should be correct” has tripped over many a deadline. 

  • Ensure your vendor has robust QA processes in place. You should expect to receive error-free, complete proofs for your review. Still, human error is real, so it is the instructional designers’ responsibility to check every proof in detail for its correctness and completeness before you can be signing it off to go to the next phase.
  • Test and ensure the solution works in your technical environment and according to all specifications (e.g. WCAG accessibility, various browsers and SCORM compatibility just to name a few). If your vendor says, ‘it works fine in our test environment’, ask them for validation in the form of a test certificate, and still test it yourself given you’re ultimately responsible for final sign-off. An easy way to do that is to upload the SCORM package to a free SCORM platform.
  • Sometimes, a learning piece takes two weeks to make it through all the internal technical mills and get uploaded to your LMS. That’s a long wait to see if all works correctly. If you work with a vendor you have built a trusted relationship with, you can share access to your LMS and they can do the testing directly in your environment for you.

5. Scope creep as vendor business model

Our least favourite scope creeps happened to some of our clients in previous vendor relationships they’ve had. These are veritable scope traps, set by vendors on purpose. Some vendors will win projects by underquoting and try to make their margins back by forcing contract variations at any opportunity (including project administration fees each time) for every single client request of alteration, no matter how small. That is undoubtedly not a sustainable way to work with clients long-term, yet they exist from what we hear.

Here is how you can protect yourself:

  • Set boundaries and list upfront what will warrant a contract variation and what will not, agree on this with the vendor and make sure the contract reflects this agreement.
  • A well-established learning provider will be interested in building a longer-term business partnership (as opposed to selling to you), so may more likely be willing to help you with small change requests, even after the project has been signed-off and deployed. Over time, give and take will even things out, and often it is better to get the project out the door than to squabble about minutiae. 

We hope this article will help you avoid some of the pitfalls we have seen over the past 10 years. If you’d like to explore what it is like to work with learning experts that are interested in building long, trusted working relationships with their clients, that’s us!

Contact our Managing Director Rodney Beach if you are interested to learn more.

Making eLearning accessible—with technology and pedagogy

Let’s talk about making eLearning accessible to everyone. Thankfully, it is a request we often receive or an action we routinely recommend when it is not. Sometimes such a request comes without the necessary appreciation of what making eLearning accessible means for learning design, or the project itself.

Before beginning any custom eLearning project, eLearning designers need to clarify with you what level of accessibility you require for the intended learning cohort. The answer will have a significant impact on the nature of what content we can develop, will influence the interaction types to be used, and may even determine the choice of an authoring tool for content development.

illustration shows eLearning designer thinking about accessibility

Generally speaking, the higher the level of accessibility you aim to achieve, the more considerate we need to be about the interactive functionalities, i.e. what we will be able to use in your custom eLearning piece.

Audience, content, and context matter for accessibility

In determining the ‘right’ level of accessibility, the critical factors to consider are:

  • Your learner audience
  • Specific project requirements, and 
  • Your overall organisational compliance context. 

This exercise requires you, and later the learning designer, to put themselves in someone else’s shoes and to evaluate the learning piece from different ability angles. Rod, Liberate’s Managing Director, recalls an example when we were engaged in creating a suite of custom eLearning modules to help medical diagnoses, which required learners to identify the severity of different types of wounds, such as pressure ulcers: 

“I was in the process of writing the alt tags (which are the narrated words associated with an image that is read by a screen reader), and I realised that the audience needs to have relatively sharp eyesight in order to visually identify the wound, infections, colouring and inflammation of the skin, degree of healing and more. It made me wonder—does this course need to cater for accessibility using screen readers given the audience obviously needs to be sighted?”

Can you use Web Accessibility design techniques?

“Do you use web accessibility techniques?” is another question we often get asked, understandably, as the web accessibility guidelines underpin eLearning accessibility.

In reality, designing for web accessibility is different from designing for eLearning accessibility because the purpose/user experience of a website is to make information as accessible as possible for every user. In contrast, for a learner, it is not just a matter of making the information accessible; it’s crucial to provide the ‘learning experience’ as an equally meaningful endeavour for all learners. Therefore, we cannot just rely on technology, or on ticking WCAG guideline checklists alone to achieve this.

Designing for an ‘equal learning experience’ often needs to go beyond the notion of allowing learners to access the same piece of learning via an assistive technology or through a different mode.

The role of the eLearning designer

Our eLearning designers will always be upfront with our clients about what can and what cannot be done for certain levels of accessibility. If we get asked: “Let’s attach a transcript, so the video is accessible now”, well, that’s not good enough in many instances. Take, for example, a branching scenario with different decision-making points for the learner. That kind of learning experience cannot be replicated in a long-form transcript for the learner to read through, for the experience isn’t an equal learning experience

Take another example, where you present a complex pie chart or diagram and expect someone to learn by having a screen reader read the chart or diagram from the top left to bottom right. Can you imagine how difficult it would be to identify the relation between the X and Y axis while listening to it in a linear order? A case like this would not be a meaningful learning experience

For the reasons above, in navigating accessibility considerations, competent eLearning designers will work with you and rely on their vast experience in finding the sweet spot between 

  • using technical solutions (e.g. short/long descriptive alternatives, colour contrasting, keyboard tabbing, among others), and 
  • applying sound pedagogy practices (e.g. creation of learning activities that are equally meaningful and engaging for all users). 
illustration shows balance between accessibility and equal experience

Authoring tools can help achieve your eLearning design goals

With the common adoption of authoring tools in the eLearning profession, eLearning designers may need to work with a range of authoring and testing tools that give the best flexibility when it comes to accessibility. It is good to be aware that some eLearning development platforms are more ‘technically’ suited to achieving higher WCAG levels than others. For example, our sister company offers the ability to accommodate for WCAG2.1 AA accessibility. Do you know what is possible with your in-house systems?

Understand how to test for accessibility

Many organisations request for their eLearning designers and developers to meet WCAG accessibility guidelines; however, it is essential that you know how to test your eLearning for its effectiveness. How can you determine whether accessibility is not only functionally achieved, but that the learning experience is equal, and the accessible alternatives are meaningful? It is critical that you are aware and well-informed so that you are signing off on quality learning solutions that provide everyone with a valuable learning experiences.

Would you like to learn more?

Would you like to explore more ways to make your learning accessible? Call the Liberate team and let’s start the conversation: Call Rod on 0413 982 712 or connect with him on LinkedIn.

Top tips for eLearning instructional design (2020)

Our instructional design team recently put their heads together to reflect on what has worked well over the years when it comes to designing great digital learning content for our client partners, so today, we want to share our top 5 tips for eLearning instructional design with you.

Considering a diverse learner demographic, and often geographically dispersed workforce, we reflected upon our instructional design approach for our digital learning content, and boiled it down to what we believe to be the top 5 tips (not an exclusive list).

Top tips for eLearning instructional design

1. The power of stories

Storytelling is a powerful way to engage the learner and make the content more authentic, sticky and meaningful. Learners may find it hard to remember a string of important, but seemingly disconnected facts, but if you include the same facts or policy in a relevant story with a peppering of empathy, we find it will stick more easily. 

Storytelling is important for top tips for eLearning instructional design

Do: Include a relatable narrative throughout the learning.

Don’t: Get too carried away with an over detailed backstory as a way to connect with the learner.

2. Know your learner

The better you understand, and more importantly, empathise with the learner, the more likely you will hit the right notes when designing their learning experiences. Put yourself in the learners’ shoes, and always consider their context and experience when designing the learning. For example, consider how a shift-working nurse or a retail assistant with sporadic access to a computer (and likely frequent interruptions) could influence the learning experience in a blended or online session.

Do: Ensure your stories and learning experiences directly relate with the learner cohort and think about ways to support their unique or personalised learning situation.

Don’t: Make wrong assumptions about your learners’ demographics or use terms and descriptions that limit the audience’s relevance.

3. Keep it simple and less is more

On-screen texts in eLearning can be tiring if used too much. Remember, a picture can tell a thousand words and timed learning sequences or animations can encapsulate a complex process or concept in simple and easily digestible learning chunks.  

Keep it simple is one of our top tips for eLearning instructional design

Do: Break things up into chunks and use visuals wherever you can – it’s about the right learning at the right time. 

Don’t: Avoid cramming too much information into a program, course, or a given page/screen and avoid paraphrasing policy (training isn’t designed to replace policy).

4. Start with the end in mind

Take the time to complete a thorough analysis upfront – of the learner, organisation and learning objectives/outcomes. Clearly define the outcomes and use them to identify content to include/exclude. In preparation for a Learning Record Store (or big data platform), consider how you would meaningfully measure the outcomes and individual/business success. 

Do: Have a clear vision of what learning success looks like in terms of measurable behaviour changes by the learner, and design from there.

Don’t: Take the easy path and simply create content based on what is handed to you from the stakeholder – as an instructional designer/L&D advisor, you need to advocate for meaningful learning solutions.

5. Make it relevant AND entertaining

Learning experiences should be enjoyable and intrinsically motivating, so the content itself is not considered boring or a corporate obligation. As an instructional designer/L&D advisor, it is our job to design for both engagement of the mind (not just an interaction) and context-relevant information entertainment (that is still meaningful and educational). This does not mean placing non-topic related mini-games into a course to wake people up; what we mean is creating learning content and workplace relevant challenges that stretch the learners’ mind in an entertaining way, immersing them in the learning experience. 

Do: Design learning pieces that make learners go “Wow, I’m really glad I learnt that!”

Don’t: Trivialise the content using gimmicks or create games that don’t bear direct relevance to the learning.

Want to learn more about Liberate Learning?

Read about how we started and what we are passionate about here.