Wednesday, May 29, 2013

The Iterative Nature of Design

One of the common problems I often see among new instructional designers is a desire to create "perfect" instruction fast. This is a problem because it ignores a vital truth about good instructional design (and likely good design in general). This truth is:

So, what do I mean by iterative? I mean that instructional design should be done in iterations, which Wikipedia describes in this manner:
Iteration means the act of repeating a process with the aim of approaching a desired goal, target or result. Each repetition of the process is also called an "iteration," and the results of one iteration are used as the starting point for the next iteration.
Novice Instructional Designers
A new instructional designer often:
  • Stresses about getting it "right"
  • Spends a huge amount of time in the design and planning phase
  • Spends a lot of time on details, creating ultra-intricate storyboards
  • Worries that they will be critiqued
 These stresses and worries usually result in "paralysis analysis" and render the new designer unable to move forward with their design.

Experienced Instructional Designers
In contrast, experienced instructional designers have a focus on creating and developing their materials. An experienced designer very often:
  • Focuses on creativity and creation, realizing that design tasks have many "right" answers
  • Spends adequate time in design, but does not linger in the design phase
  • Develops materials rapidly, knowing that they will soon review, correct, and revise their work in the next iteration
  • Actively seeks out critique from their peers and coworkers and implements that feedback to drastically improve the quality of their work
Again, this creation should never be expected to be perfect from the beginning; rather, it is shaped, revised, improved and refined through iteration. Below is an image of how one might visualize the iterative process of design. Each colored box represents the activity of the designer, and each arrow shows the flow from one activity to another.

Iterative Design and Development Process

 This image demonstrates the iterative nature of design. The designer (A) drafts the instructional materials. The designer then (B) performs some form of formative evaluation.This formative evaluation is often a simple self-evaluation, and the designer may draft, evaluate, and redraft the materials many times before having someone else review the materials, and those others might include peers, target learners, a client, and other stakeholders. Only after several iterations does the experience designer (C) produce or implement the instructional materials.

A Simple Example
As a simple example, I am writing this blog post knowing that the first draft will not be perfect - in fact, it will probably be kind of lame. But that is okay, because it is only the first iteration. Since writing that first draft, I have returned and revised the text, created the image, and discussed the concept with my brother (who is also an instructional designer). Hopefully through these iterations the materials will be much stronger than the first draft.

Iteration in All Phases
In this post, I have focused on using the iterative process in the development phase of instructional design. However, this process can (and should) be used in every phase of instruction. Whenever something is being created or developed (e.g. an analysis plan, a design plan, an evaluation plan), it should be developed iteratively with a focus on creating and improving. This helps avoid the dreaded "analysis paralysis" and enables the individual to move forward with confidence.

Your Feedback
To designers: what do you think? Does this reflect your beliefs about and experiences with design? Do you use the iterative process in your work? Do your iterations follow the same pattern as I describe here? I welcome your feedback and critique (and I will use it to revise the next iteration of this post!)

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