If you're a designer of any sort of software, whether elearning content, web applications, mobile apps, or even OS-specific applications, this review is for you.
It can be really hard to help your clients understand what they're going to get. So, quite often, even at the pre-sales stage, software designers build mock-up designs. This approach can be fraught with problems - especially if you haven't yet got a good feel for what the client's real needs are.
Particularly problematic is the expectation that these mock-ups raise. As designers we want to show off all the glitzy features that are possible. If we do it too well, this then becomes the end product, with very little room to manoeuvre.
Elearning designers are particularly at risk, with their "rapid-development" tools. Unless you've got a very good relationship with the client, that allows an agile development approach, then you'll probably be trapped into a waterfall design methodology. But, if you've given your client a view of the finished-product up-front, then you won't be able to respond to what you later discover about the client's requirements.
This is where Balsamiq Mockups comes in.
It's an inexpensive software tool that allows you to create page/application designs quickly, with end results that look like hand-drawn screen diagrams, like the one below.
Screens can be linked together, so you can easily demonstrate user workflows, and even create interactive PDFs.
There are third-party tools that enable you to create real code from the mockups (although I've not tested any of these!)
Virtually any interface element can be quickly and easily built from the pre-built element library, but there's also a community-generated set of UI components.
I've tried Axure, which is a similar tool, but far more expensive and complex. Axure is in the next league up, and designed for helping project teams build major applications. For a small team, or an individual designer, in most cases it's probably a bit over-kill.
Balsamiq is invaluable for showing clients what is possible, but without the impression that they're seeing a finished product.
There is just a couple of things I hope the team at Balsamiq implement at some point:
- Managing large projects can become awkward, as the only way to navigate between pages is through the tabs at the bottom of the screen. This quickly become overcrowded. I believe this is on the roadmap, but then large projects might be better managed with Axure and other, similarly-priced products.
At the moment, if you need to change a menu item that appears on every page of an application, you have to manually change it in each Balsamiq page. There needs to be some way of templating common UI elements so that you only need to change them once for the whole project. Again, it looks like Balsamiq are working on this. I'm looking forward to seeing it soon!
[EDIT: @Balsamiq has informed me that the new "symbols" feature allows just this functionality!]
So, overall, a great little tool. If you've ever needed to build a quick website or application layout and not wanted to worry about code or colours, then I'd highly recommend Balsamiq Mockups.
For those viewing this in an RSS reader, there's a video below that shows some of the key features. And, if Balsamiq want to sponsor me for the Big Issue Bike Ride that would be very gratefully received (although this post was written without any expectation of sponsorship, and I'd have said the same things anyway!)
I had the privilege recently of making a podcast with the team from Xyleme Voices.
From the podcast blurb:
Mark ... makes the case that companies are spending thousands of dollars on creating training content but they are locking it away in their Learning Management System (LMS). In today’s podcast Mark will be discussing how to get more from your LMS.
In the corporate learning context, Mark argues that learners cannot quickly get the information they need because the content they require is sitting inside the company’s LMS without the ability to search for it. Mark explains how the problem lies not with the system itself, but with how it is used in conjunction with other systems and he offers his advice on how corporations can best address this issue in the workplace.
Nothing new from what I've been saying for a while, but the podcast seems to capture things quite succinctly.
You can listen to the podcast using the player above, or go to the Xyleme Voice page where you can subscribe to the podcast RSS feed.
I had the privilege of running another "Being Creative in a Digital World" online workshop this morning.
The conversation ranged widely - with only four people it meant there was a fair bit of scope for discussion.
We discussed how, when working in the social media space, having an authentic voice is absolutely critical. I recommended reading the Cluetrain Manifesto (free download), as it really opens up how organisations should connect with their markets.
We considered how to get the best out of tools like Twitter, Yammer and Socialcast. As I wrote in my Best Practice Guide to Yammer:
You walk into a conference room. It's your first time at this particular conference and there's no welcome pack. You can see quite a few people standing around drinking coffee and eating small pastries. But no-one's talking to each other.
You have three options:
- Turn around and walk out.
- Find someone you know and begin a conversation about one of the conference themes.
- Introduce yourself to someone you don't know and look for areas of common interest
Social media tools can sometimes feel like that conference room. For many people it's a strange new environment. There are no clear rules on how to behave or what to do. We know the value of networking, but doing that online can be daunting at times.
We also looked at how RSS feeds can make it a lot easier to keep up to date, maintain your connections with your information sources, to filter out what you don't need to see and to share what you've learnt. (See Harold Jarche's guide to Personal Knowledge Management). The key thing is to find your trusted sources, and the best way to do that is through personal recommendation, but also to seek out those sources who do not necessarily agree with your own point of view.
We then went on to think about how the tools at our disposal encourage creativity across organisational and even national boundaries. The first couple of minutes of Chris Anderson's talk at TED really highlights this in the context of dance - through Youtube kids are sharing moves and building on what they're learning.
We looked at tools that are making it easier to share content:
- Content sharing tools like Slideshare, Vimeo (where quality seems to be more the norm than Youtube), Flickr (for images)
- Mind-mapping/brainstorming tools like Mindmeister, Personal Brain, CmapTools, Bubbl.us and Text2MindMap
- Knowledge aggregation tools like Google Reader, Netvibes, Addictomatic
- Productivity tools like Doodle (for meeting scheduling) and YouSendIt (for moving large files around), Google Analytics (for seeing how people are using your stuff)
We made the point that free tools might not necessarily be appropriate for large-scale use. You need to understand the business model as well as the risks of putting your data on servers you know nothing about.
Finally, one of the delegates highlighted an example of a truly collaborative and creative project, the Johnny Cash Project
As with all these sorts of workshops there's no real end result, other than an increased awareness of what is possible. It's then up to the individuals to then go work out what will work for them, in their context.
If you weren't aware of this already, later this year I shall be doing a 230 mile bike ride from London to Paris in aid of the Big Issue Foundation (an established UK-based organisation that helps homeless people to get back on their feet).
If you are a company in the learning technology / training / education field, I will happily put your logo and a link on my blog sidebar in return for a donation (£100 is suggested, but I'll accept less!) - Please see the small print though.
If you donate more than £100, I'll write an independent review.
If you are an individual and wish to donate, please let me know how I can help you in return.
This blog (according to my software's hit counter) gets about 800 direct browser hits per day. Although that has gone up to 5000 when a post gets picked up by the L&D community.
I will reserve the right to choose whether or not an advert or review is appropriate. Basically, I'll include anyone if your product is legal, honest and decent, and you're selling to any of the following sectors:
- Adult learning
- Workplace learning
- Organisational development
- Internal communication
If you're not sure whether you fit the readership of this blog, then contact me first.
Reviews will be independent and honest. They may contain criticisms and ideas for improvement. You will have the opportunity to respond before the review is published.
Reviews that are written as part of this scheme will include the Big Issue Bike Ride logo.
Adverts placed on this site do not indicate that the owner of this site is recommending the products.
I will take none of the monies raised - although, it must be said, that some of it is paying the costs of putting on the Bike Ride.
About the Big Issue Foundation
The Big Issue Foundation is dedicated to the well being of Big Issue Vendors, working with over 2900 individuals across the UK. Their skilled staff work one to one with vendors, tackling issues ranging from health and accommodation through to money management and aspirations.
The Big Issue Foundation is about taking control, moving forward, gaining independence and rebuilding lives. They exist to enable vendors to continue on their journey away from homelessness.
Did you know that life expectancy on the streets is only 46 years old?
You can help support me, and The Big Issue Foundation, by making a secure online donation using your credit card at my fundraising page.
There's a lot of thought flying around the web at the moment about the concept of "flipping the classroom" - using the internet to provide pre-classroom lectures and the classroom to embed that knowledge through exercises, coaching and discussion.
Key posts include:
Maryna Badenhorst - To flip or not to flip (an excellent analysis)
This is a model that's been working reasonably well in workplace training for a number of years now. It does rely on there being some sort of motivating influence to do the pre-work though. Generally, given the choice, most people will just rely on being able to bluff their way through the classroom session.
As I said, on Maryna's post, the key thing is “appropriate use” of the resources at our disposal. It’s about enabling flexibility of choice for the teacher and for the learner.
We need to balance financial cost with the effective and efficient use of time, and with the underlying motivational level of our students/trainees.
We need to consider whether 1:1 coaching would work best for a particular student/context, or whether a small group discussion, or even a 1:many lecture.
The problem with much of our educational/training infrastructure is that it’s built on a highly inflexible classroom-based model of teaching. The investment has already been made in those buildings and the administration processes that surround them.
To become more flexible, some of these ways of working will need to be torn down before they can be rebuilt.
I can imagine a training or educational organisation that is based around a problem-based curriculum, which uses small Action Learning Sets, coaching, online lectures, searchable resource libraries, inspirational speakers (like TED talks), informal conversations and a whole host of other types of interactions in different sized groups. It would be complex. Sometimes it would appear chaotic. It would certainly be an interesting one to manage. But it would relate far more to the real world than our closed classrooms with a trainer/teacher and delegates/students.
The model of learning and development provision, up till now, has generally been a "Push" approach. Learners get told by the managers, or compliance, or whoever, that they should do a particular course (whether face-to-face or elearning).
As we move towards more of a "Pull" approach, with learners taking far more responsibility for their own learning, our training departments will find that they are in stiff competition with many other (often far easier to access) sources of learning.
For example, why would I choose to go on a Management Development course, when I can, for free, get access to an excellent set of management development resources, as well as an active community of practice? (ie. Manager Tools)
Why would I buy a course in HTML or CSS, or virtually any web programming language, when I've got free access to well-designed tutorials and resources? (ie. W3Schools)
Our L&D departments need to learn that they're now in the marketing game. They're not just selling to managers. They've got to sell to the learners themselves. This is especially true if your learners hold the L&D budget and can spend it as they like...
The Learning Management System has (or should have) a key role to play in marketing your training interventions.(I don't like to use the word "courses" and L&D is so much wider than just the course.)
Just think about the information contained within its walls:
- the content you're making available
- learner roles
- learner team relationships
- what learners are searching for
- what learners have bought or used
- when they did their purchasing / using
At least, the LMS should be collecting this data... Facebook's market value of $33bn is only that high because of the information it holds about its users. Why? Because it's highly valued by advertisers.
If our LMS's were doing their job properly, we'd see them looking less like process-driven, data entry systems and more like Amazon. In the image in this post (click on it for a larger version), I've highlighted some of the key things that Amazon does that could easily be transferred to an L&D scenario:
- Global search - available from the home page onwards
- Ubiquitous catalogue - with all products classified as learners would understand
- Products able to appear in multiple categories
- Promoted products appearing prominently
- Links to products that learners have looked at but not yet bought
- Links to products that the learners have expressed a greater interest in but not yet bought
- Links to products that are related to ones the learner has looked at
There's more that's hidden inside the system:
- Recommendations based on previous purchases
- Learners able to sort and filter search results by best-selling, ratings, price
- In our case, perhaps the ability to filter based on location, length, pre-requisites, level, qualification, whether online or face-to-face
I've been talking to a lot of learning technology vendors over the past few years, and I'm amazed how few seem to have understood the extent to which the learner is now in control, not just of their learning, but of the money that's being spent on it.
If they don't make their systems as easy to use as Amazon, Ebay, Youtube or even Wordpress - putting the user at the centre of the experience and building an effective marketing platform - then they will paint themselves into a corner that consists exclusively of "Push" training where budgets are held centrally.
I'm sure that's not a realistic way of doing business in the future?
I have a dream (from 2005!)
Why search is critical (2011)
Having a good search engine is a key component to any content-rich learning strategy.
It's important for your learners, as searching is the main place people start these days when they want to find out something. Providing a page that pulls together results from inside your documents, from your course descriptions, and from content/posts provided by other people is by far the best way to get people to use your materials.
It's important for your content providers, as, with judicious placement of "important" items near the top of the list, you can encourage your learners to make more use of the centrally-provided content.
It's also important for the "business", as, by analysing what people are searching for, you've then got the equivalent of a training needs analysis (as discovered by Google [watch from about 13:32 in the video] ) . This assumes you've got a reasonably-sized sample. If you have, then this is by far a simpler process than doing a full TNA.
“If your only tool is a hammer, then every problem starts to look like a nail.” Maslow
L&D Departments need a toolkit that can support a wider range of learning activities than most L&D departments are currently concerned with.
Some of these tools may not be owned by L&D, but by internal comms, or even IT. But L&D will need to be aware of them, and have access to them.
It might be possible to work on a small-pieces, loosely-joined approach, like that advocated by David Weinberger. That's a great approach for maximum flexibility and speed to change. But it doesn't make the best use of the masses of data that will accumulate in these systems, unless, like the consumer-focussed platforms (Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Ebay etc) you provide well-documented APIs to allow communication between the tools.
That data could then be mined to enable organisations to target support more effectively (the Facebook approach). If you knew what people were searching about and discussing, you could understand what the training needs were in your organisation.
It could also be exposed to users to enable them to make more informed choices (the Amazon approach). By collecting data about collective behaviour, you can make recommendations to individuals.
To achieve this, perhaps IMS Global needs to start looking at wider scenarios than just formal training/learning, and begin to develop a set of simple APIs that vendors can sign up to for data transmission via web-services?
That's a big ask. I know how long it takes to get agreement on anything like this...
Of course, an alternative would be for the major players in the LMS and social learning market to get together and agree (and publish!) APIs that anyone can then adopt.
That feels more feasible...
Often, when we think about the idea of introducing ICT into the classroom (whether in schools or in the workplace), we are simply thinking about ways to change what is happening inside the classroom.
In these cases the role of the teacher or tutor tends to remain the same as pre-ICT days, as does the way teaching is managed and administered. Good teachers, who were already engaging their students with challenging activities, will continue to do so. Poor teachers, who bore their students rigid with lectures and "read-these-pages-in-the-text-book" activities will also carry on as before - except they'll now perhaps direct students to web-based resources.
Those organisations that have really grasped the potential of ICT are using it to support systemic changes in the way they work.
- A secondary school in Coventry that rewrote teachers' contracts to allow them to work from home via video and text conferencing
- A primary school in Bolton that was fed up with having to close the school on snow days and started using simple blogs for online lessons, now builds blogging into the heart of what they do - with great success
- Companies are changing from knowledge-hoarding to knowledge-sharing cultures simply by allowing employees to use corporate micro-blogging sites
- Companies are making far more use of online meeting software and telephone conferences in order to save on travelling time and the cost of meeting rooms
- Tamil Children are shown to be able to teach themselves English and molecular with no input from a teacher (Limits to self-organising systems of learning - the Kalikuppam experiment - Sugata Mitra) Athens password required - unfortunately!
In the education and training world, these examples seem to be fairly rare though.
Let's think what could happen if we really used ICT to its full potential:
- Teachers & tutors would expect students to submit their work and receive feedback electronically. (Now that's easy - I really don't understand why we don't do it already?)
- We would only use physical classrooms/meeting rooms when we absolutely have to - when it's the only way to achieve something. Getting everyone together in the same room is using valuable resources both in terms of space and also people's time. Much of the time there is no point other than "it's what we've always done".
- We would share expertise across schools. But that would need all state-sector teachers to be paid centrally with no competition between schools. Perhaps that's a change too far? But why?
- We would be able to cope with children entering school when they are ready for it, and moving at the right pace for them - and not have to follow our current "sausage machine" processes that are simply designed to support administration and management rather than learning
- We would assess people when they are ready to be assessed, not at some arbitrary point in the year
- Teachers & tutors would be expected to engage in, and contribute to, professional development networks
These are just a few ideas. What do you think would happen to your training or education organisation if we really allowed ICT to be used to its full potential?