Oor Wullie cartoon

How to make your elearning scenarios more believable with Angels and Devils

That’s my unbiased recommendation. (Mwa ha ha ha ha ha haaa!)

You’ve created an elearning scenario. You have a good choice and two not-so-good choices. You’ve designed the feedback screens to show the consequences of the decisions. But maybe you think ‘nobody’s going to choose that bad choice in the elearning – even it probably is what they would do in real life.’

How do you make the wrong choices more tempting, more attractive? One way is to use Angels and Devils.

Actual angels and devils as characters in the scenario? You’re joking!

Not exactly. When I was growing up every household I knew got the Sunday Post and everyone knew their cartoon scallywag Oor Wullie.

Oor Wullie cartoon
Oor Wullie (D C Thomson)

Often Wullie would be faced with a dilemma – do the right thing or the wrong thing.  Little mini-Oor Wullies would appear on each side of him, one with a pious expression and a halo, the other grinning in glee with horns. Wullie usually followed his advice. It made a more interesting story!

In scenario terms we mean that we use characters to voice the reasons for making decisions – both good and bad.

Why use Angels and Devils in scenarios?

When people make the wrong decisions at work, they rarely do it for the sake of mischief. They make the best decision they can for reasons that seem good and valid to them at the time. Indeed the most important information you can elicit from your subject matter expert during the analysis phase is ‘What do people get wrong?’ and ‘Why do they think that’s the thing to do?’

Let’s look for a minute at the psychology of the multiple choice question. With any selection of choices, there will be some people who immediately and confidently know the best thing to do. Our aim for those people is that they immediately get through the learning, receive confirmation and validation that they know what they’re doing, and get back out to enjoy their lives.

There will be some people who don’t have a clue what to do. We want those people either to look at the reference material we provide via an optional click, or to take pot luck, try something and see where it takes them.

But if we’ve analysed the need well, the majority of learners will be in a third category – they will be drawn to a wrong action because they think it’s right. Our job as designers is to make each wrong action as attractive as possible to those learners so that they pick it and learn from seeing the consequences of their action.

So how do we say ‘if you’re thinking xxx, choose (a)’?

  • Just show the action or speech, without the reason.
    That’s what we did in the call centre scenario where the call handler would ask the customer what kind of account they had because they thought it would save time. We didn’t show ‘because it’ll save time’ – we assumed it.
  • Include the reasoning in the multiple-choice itself.
    So in that case it could have been ‘Save time by asking the customer what kind of account they have’. This isn’t satisfactory – for one, it doesn’t work in a conversation-based scenario like the call centre or The Broken Co-worker. In most cases it would also make the choices very long.
  • Put the reasons for all choices, good and bad, into the mouths of other characters.
    This is the most dramatic – and often the easiest – way. It’s also the most realistic.

Don’t put the reasoning in the choice

I worked on a scenario on the subject of whistleblowing. An employee witnessed a manager repeatedly bullying a colleague. The action we wanted was for the employee to use the company’s whistleblowing line. One of the barriers to performance we’d identified in the analysis was the fear of putting your head above the parapet, perhaps risking your own status in the organisation. There were people who didn’t trust in the confidentiality of the whistleblowing process. If we’d stacked the reason with the choice it would have been not only cumbersome but also unattractive:

Don’t do anything because it might affect your own career if Michael found out it was you who reported him

In a course about business standards, nobody is going to pick that.

Get someone else to justify the choice

So how would someone justify to themselves not taking action? One way would be to say the time isn’t right – perhaps they are in line for a promotion, or perhaps Michael is near to retirement anyway. Another is to show some social pressure – perhaps your spouse has just been made redundant and you have to protect your own position for their sake. We built in a couple of clicks where the user could get the opinion of a spouse in that position, and a colleague – both advising caution – and a third colleague encouraging you to report. These weren’t long digressions, just 1-minute audio sequences, but they drew out and made explicit the reasons for choosing not to report. They tried to make that choice credible, realistic and, if you like, forgivable.

Use advisors as characters in your scenario

Screen shot from Connect With Haji Kamal by Cathy Moore
Screen shot from Connect With Haji Kamal by Cathy Moore

Cathy Moore’s Connect With Haji Kamal was a training module for US military on overcoming cultural difficulties in Afghanistan. You guide an inexperienced lieutenant in a first meeting with a local Pashtun leader in Helmand. There are two supporting characters, both sergeants with experience in Afghanistan. Before each decision they have a short to-and-fro debate between themselves about what you should advise the lieutenant to do.

In the first decision the lieutenant doesn’t like the Afghan drink chai. The advisors argue with each other about whether he should say he doesn’t like it, or that he’s allergic to it. Your choices are to politely decline, to say you’re allergic or to take the chai. If you take it you move on to the next decision. If you take either of the ‘decline’ options you’re given another hospitality dilemma, around accepting food, to support the learning point about the importance of accepting hospitality. In each case the two sergeants represent the rationale (gleaned from conversations with soldiers) for each chose.

Cathy describes the thinking behind it here:

The debate between two characters has its roots in classroom scenarios that we developed. During tests of those scenarios, we found that requiring participants to defend each option got them more deeply involved. The debate also simulates the kind of thinking that soldiers need to do in the field to challenge their cultural assumptions.

For this scenario, the debate also replicates real life — often a sergeant asks squad leaders for their ideas and then advises the lieutenant. To make the player think independently, we also included an undebated option.

To make sure the story and arguments were believable, we ran a classroom debate version of the scenario with a group from our target audience. We collected their arguments for each option and then wrote the script for the online version.

(Connect With Haji Kamal: http://www.worldwarfighter.com/hajikamal/activity/)

Use a debate before the choice

Each of a series of scenarios I developed for primary teachers begins with a staff-room debate. Some good and bad ideas are aired. The learner doesn’t have access to them later, at the time of making their decisions – but by that time, they may be influenced by views that chime with their own preconceptions, or by any that appeared new and refreshing.

Related posts:

This is one of the tips in the free scenario template Designing Predicaments Workbook – get it below!

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