Working Mistakes Into your Design

Last week we explored the value of mistake-driven e-learning. If you can hone in on the mistakes, misperceptions and performance gaps that are causing 80% of the issues for your target audience, you’ve got the fodder for creating e-learning that adds real value. E-learning can do this by creating safe environments in which your learners can make mistakes, and providing the coaching and support to the reduce risk that they’re repeated on the job.

How to work mistakes into your e-learning design?

1. Lead with the killer mistakes

Some mistakes make such an impact on business performance that it’s worth highlighting them upfront to the learner. For example: “Did you know that 40% of our customers go elsewhere for services they would happily buy from us if they knew we offered them?” This kind of revelation is powerful enough to include right at the start of an e-learning module, as part of an attention-grabbing opening statement. When you hear stats like this as part of your research with subject matter experts, think opening salvo in your mistake-driven e-learning.

2. Create mistakes that anyone could – and would – make

The most common way to fold mistakes into your e-learning is in case studies and scenarios. In later insights we’ll discuss the mechanics of each. A key aspect is to create plausible alternatives when you set up questions in both.

We’ve all seen e-learning questions with one obvious right answer and three implausible distractor options. You know the sort: “A customer wants to know what makes product X different.” Do you a) answer them very effectively giving an excellent description of product X, or b) talk about only the technical aspects of product X, or c) tell them why all your competitors are rubbish...”. Questions like these don’t really check on the likelihood of a mistake being made in real life. The incorrect options are just not plausible. You need to make sure in your questions that each option is a choice that a right-minded person might actually consider. This means you must be clear about the rationale for each choice you put forward.

So for example,

A project is running behind schedule and the client wants to know how you plan to get back on track:

  • Propose a scope reduction (rationale: this will make the deadline more achievable, but with less scope).
  • Ask for more resources (rationale: we can get there, but at more cost).
  • Ask for a project extension (rationale: cost and scope don’t change, but date does).

Here there’s no obvious correct answer, and the potential for interesting and plausible mistakes is greater. You’d need to think about the situation, weigh up the options, then commit to a choice, and see how it plays out – pretty close to what you’d do in real life.

3. Play it out

If a mistake happens in the woods and nobody suffers a consequence, does it make a sound? Mistakes matter because they have consequences. So when you’re scripting them, make sure that the feedback you provide either shows the likely result (e.g., text, audio, video of the customer going ballistic at the idea of an extension to the date because that’s the one thing they can’t control), or, if you can’t do that, use a coach or tutorial explanation to explain the potential impact of the choice. You know you’ve come up with good mistakes if you can honestly say, ‘While that might be the right thing to do in some circumstances, it isn’t here, because…’. That’s the acid test of whether the mistake is plausible.

Next week: Writing feedback that’s actually helpful.

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