Monday, September 2, 2013

Making a branched simulation: eGeeking style! (Part 1)

A bunch of people have asked me lately how I go about creating branched simulations. This is partially because I won't stop yammering on about them (I may be a smidge obsessed), and partially because I actually create the things start to finish on my own, which means I have reasonably decent insight into all steps of the process.

Anyway, because of this I thought I'd outline how I personally make branched simulations for work. This is not, by any means, the only way to make a branched simulation. It's just the process that I've found works well for me. Your own milage may vary.

Step 1: Find out what on Earth this branched simulation is trying to accomplish

Before you start getting all giddy about branching and tech tools that help you do it, it's best to step back and find out what the thing you're trying to create is supposed to actually help learners do. Doing this right away keeps you from developing a branched sim that technically functions well, but doesn't actually create the kind of change that your client/SME is looking for.

As well, this step helps you determine if a branched sim is really what's right for the learner. Too often you'll have SMEs who want to jump on the branched sim bandwagon because it's new and innovative, not because it's actually the best tool for what they want to accomplish. You may be put in the rough position of having to advocate for a different approach entirely, but you can't know if you need to do this unless you ask a bunch of questions about the project intent upfront.

Step 2: Mine your SME for character and story ideas

Let's say you've done your assessment and you all agree that a branched sim is the right choice. Now what you need to do is get as many stories as you can about the issue you're designing the project for. 

For instance, I've recently been developing several branched sims that are designed to help managers practice having more productive career conversations with their employees. Here are just some of the questions I asked my SME:
  • What are the most common ways managers mess up when they're having these conversations?
  • What kind of coaching do managers need to change their behaviour?
  • What are the subtle errors managers typically make during these conversations?
  • What are the subtle errors employees typically make during these conversations?
  • What best practices do we want to model for both managers and employees?
  • What employee types do managers have a particularly hard time having successful career conversations with?
  • What are managers currently doing well already?
  • What are some real life examples of unsuccessful career conversations?
  • What are some real life examples of successful career conversations?
Does that seem like a lot of questions? Well, too bad because it's just the start. You're going to be asking a LOT more as this project goes on. This first wave is just to narrow down the core theme or themes for your sim(s).

Step 3: Write a short summary of your sim plot (1 per sim)

It really doesn't need to be any longer than this
Okay, you've gotten enough data to craft the core story for your sim. Actually, technically you've gotten enough information to do more than that, but I find that this is a good place to refine the story you've decided on and get your SME (and any other stakeholders) on board before you get into the time intensive stuff. 

At this point I'll write a very short (often just 2 or 3 paragraphs) summary of the best path of the sim. I also include a few details of how the sim can derail if the user picks some of the worst options. Then I give this to my SME to make sure it rings true to them. If you can, get them to officially sign off on the plot. You don't want to make major story revisions later on in the process (when it's MUCH harder to do) because the SME didn't 100% love the initial sim story concept, so check with them early to avoid a massive headache later.

Step 4: Write a biography/summary for every character/situation that will be in your sim

It's not pretty, but it gets the job done
In a sim you're either going to be creating one or more characters that have to act consistently or writing situations that have to play out logically throughout a large number of decisions. That's why it's good, before you write a single word of your sim script, to clearly establish who these characters are and/or how these situations function.

Because a branched sim shows so many different variants of how a situation can play out, it's easy to accidentally write your characters/situations inconsistently if you don't do this pre-planning first (in particular if you happen to be writing a sim on subtle things like soft skills). The last thing you want is for users to be confused and distracted because, for instance, your character is shy in certain branches and more pushy in others.

To keep this from happening, you need to give yourself the character/situation equivalent of a style guide. For characters, this is where you establish the core motivations, habits, and behaviours that define who your character is. For situations, this is the time to clearly establish the rules of what can and can't happen under a number of common circumstances. Once you have this settled, then it's much easier to write your sim consistently.

Going back to my example of career conversation simulations, here are a few of the details that I thought about when designing the employee characters for it:
  • What's their background at the company?
  • Do they know how they want their career to grow?
  • Do they have any expectations of how their career should progress?
  • Are these expectations realistic/advisable?
  • Are they direct or indirect communicators?
  • Are they easily influenced by what their manager says (perhaps to a fault)?
  • Is there anything the manager can do that will make them particularly upset?
  • What can the manager do to make them feel supported?
  • Are they comfortable sticking up for their own interests?
  • If their manager makes a suggestion they don't like, how do they react?
  • Are there incorrect assumptions their manager has made about them?
  • What are their bad habits?
  • What are their most positive habits?
  • What makes them stand out?
Once you've figured out these details, pull them together in a character/situation summary sheet. Refer to this document on a regular basis while writing so you can keep all your details consistent. 

I'd also recommend that you share this document with your SMEs when they review your script. This information will help them quickly understand choices you've made in the script that may, to someone less familiar with the storyline, initially seem odd, or even incorrect.

So that's the planning stages of sim creation. In the second part of this series, I'll get into the actual details of writing your sim script and developing the final product. Until then, feel free to add any questions or tips you have about branched sims in the comments section.

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