Lecture (defn.): Something that can make you feel numb on one end and dumb on the other
Most of us look back fondly at our college and university days. Think about yours for the moment. What good memories come to mind?
If your experience is anything like mine, then I can guarantee one thing you're not visualising right now: a lecture. There is growing evidence that lectures are a poor way to transfer skills and knowledge from the brain of an expert to the hands of a novice. The chances are that you did most of your best learning when you were actively engaged in project work, discussion or private reading. If you can recall any of your lectures, these were probably the lectures that were dramatic or unusual in some way: lectures that were more learner-friendly than traditional face-to-face instruction.
This isn't just a problem for universities. At Userfocus, we run dozens of short courses on usability. These vary from half-a-day to two days. If delegates leave our training courses unable to put what we've taught them into practice, they won't come back.
So if lecturing isn't the answer, what is?
A little less conversation and a little more action
Nowadays, any trainer worth his or her salt uses "Accelerated Learning" (AL) techniques. Unlike a traditional lecture, a training course that uses AL techniques will begin with a short activity that connects learners to the training material, to the trainer and to the other delegates. Concepts are split into short lecture segments of 10-15 mins with short review activities after each segment. Delegates get the opportunity to review the information and practice their new skills in pairs or small groups. Finally, the trainer encourages the delegates to describe how they will apply the skills they have learnt. These training methods increase interest, motivation, learning and retention. (This is also the reason why we don't offer distance learning courses. We haven't yet managed to work out how to build this kind of interactivity into podcasts and videos).
One misconception is that AL is all about playing games (reinforced by the fact that one of the more famous books in the area is called Games Trainers Play). This has now got a bit clichéd, and was famously satirised in the episode of "The Office" when an outside facilitator visited Wernham Hogg to educate the Slough branch about customer care. (David Brent railroads the seminar, ending up singing "Freelove Freeway"). Although AL incorporates instructional games, it's important that the games are directly relevant to the training goals, and not just about filling time.
To give you an example of the way this works in practice, here's a specific activity that we use on one of our training courses to help people learn about usability heuristics. Feel free to adapt this game for your own training, or use it with your user experience team during your next team meeting. We based it on the framegame "Thirty-Five" by Sivasailam Thiagarajan.
What is Guideline Gallop?
Guideline Gallop is a way for delegates to both generate and evaluate usability guidelines. Each delegate creates a usability guideline on an index card (delegates can invent their own usability guidelines). They then move around the room, swapping their card with other delegates. After several swaps, the trainer blows a whistle and delegates award points to the guidelines on their cards. Delegates swap cards again and the process continues until each guideline has been evaluated five times.
What does Guideline Gallop achieve?
The game creates a lot of energy and activity in the training room, which in turn creates a good atmosphere for learning to take place. The game also gives delegates the opportunity to get to know each other. By evaluating several guidelines, delegates learn what makes a good and bad usability guideline.
Prior to the seminar, purchase a stack of 3 x 5 index cards (you'll need one card per delegate). Delegates will also need a pen and pencil and you will need a timer and a whistle.
The room needs to be large enough to accommodate movement with enough space for people to move between tables, chairs and walls as they exchange cards.
The group size can be small (from 6 delegates) or large (to over 40 delegates). If you have fewer than 6 participants, see the "Variations" section at the end.
Guideline Gallop Instructions
- Show delegates a slide with a typical usability guideline. For example, you might have one of Nielsen's: "Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors: Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution."
- Give each delegate an index card and ask delegates to create a new guideline for making an interface usable. Tailor the question to the domain of interest: for example, "What makes a great call to action?" or "What makes an iPhone App engaging?" Tell delegates that other members of the class will evaluate their guideline, so they should write legibly. Allow 5 minutes for this activity.
- Ask delegates to get out of their chairs. Tell them to move around the room, holding their card written side down, swapping their card with other delegate's cards. Tell participants not to read the guideline but to continue swapping cards. After several exchanges have taken place (about 30 seconds), blow the whistle and ask participants to pair up with someone nearby.
- Tell each pair of delegates to work together and review the usability guidelines on their two cards. If delegates find they have ended up with their own guideline, instruct them to remain objective and behave as if they are seeing it for the first time. Tell delegates to allocate seven points between these two guidelines to reflect their relative usefulness. For example, they could award 4 points to one guideline and 3 to another, or 5 and 2, or 6 and 1, or 7 and 0. When ready, ask delegates to write the score points on the back of each card. Allow 2 minutes for this activity.
- Tell participants to move around and continue to swap cards. After a few exchanges, blow the whistle and repeat the scoring process. Repeat the process of swapping and scoring until each guideline has been evaluated five times.
- After the final round, instruct delegates to return to their seat and total the points on the card that they are holding.
- Use the points tally to identify the best guidelines.
Debrief — Making the activity more than a game
The discussion is where most of the learning takes place in this activity. Prepare a few discussion points in advance, or try out these suggestions.
- What makes a good guideline? Encourage delegates to identify what was "best" about the winning guidelines: for example the best usability guidelines are usually based on research and the guidelines are clear, concise, relevant and actionable.
- How can we balance the need to make a guideline precise with the desire to have a guideline that applies to a broad range of situations and interfaces?
- How can we judge the relative importance of guidelines? This is a good place to discuss the "relative importance" and "strength of evidence" measures in usability.gov's "Research-Based Web Design & Usability Guidelines".
- How do expert guidelines compare? Show Nielsen's 10 Usability Heuristics and ask delegates to compare them with their own guidelines.
- What are the limitations of guidelines as a usability evaluation technique?
Tips and variations
- Instead of asking participants to write their guidelines, give each person an index card with a prepared usability guideline (e.g. a Nielsen heuristic, a Shneiderman "golden rule" or a dialogue principles from ISO 9241-110).
- If you have a small group (say two), mix each participant’s response with four other prepared cards and give the set of five cards to another participant. Now ask each participant to compare each card in her set to every other card and distribute 7 points as in the original game.
- Bowman, S. L. (2005). The Ten-Minute Trainer: 129 Ways to Teach It Quick and Make It Stick!
- A concise introduction to accelerated learning, which includes a number of examples.
- Meier, D. (2000). The Accelerated Learning Handbook: A Creative Guide to Designing and Delivering Faster, More Effective Training Programs.
- The bible of accelerated learning. This book contains case studies showing how companies use these techniques in their trainng programs.
- Sivasailam ‘Thiagi' Thiagarajan (2003) Design Your Own Games and Activities: Thiagi’s Templates for Performance Improvement.
- This book contains lots of 'roll your own' templates for training activities that you can adapt for your own purposes.
About the author
Dr. David Travis (@userfocus on Twitter) holds a BSc and a PhD in Psychology and he is a Chartered Psychologist. He has worked in the fields of human factors, usability and user experience since 1989 and has published two books on usability. David helps both large firms and start ups connect with their customers and bring business ideas to market. If you like his articles, you'll love his online user experience training course.
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