instructional design, learning technology

Design a “Choose Your Own Adventure” Tutorial WITHOUT Getting Yourself or Your Learners Lost

So you want to build a “choose your own adventure” eLearning tutorial?

“Branching scenario” tutorials follow a choose-your-own-adventure style of learner engagement, giving learners options and requiring them to make a decision.

Each decision takes the story down a different path, branching again and again until they reach a conclusion. Learners are in the driver’s seat the whole way.

Example flowchart for a branching scenario. Start at left, make decisions leading to different paths, with six possible endings.

As anyone who’s ever read a Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) book or played a CYOA game can attest, these can be a ton of fun.

However, if you’ve ever tried to design one – or been unfortunate enough to find yourself participating in one that’s poorly designed – you know that there’s a lot that can go wrong in the execution of a CYOA scenario.

Fortunately, you can increase your branching scenario’s success by incorporating the following steps into your development and design phases.

Step 1. Start with your end goals in mind.

Flow chart with only start and ends marked. Endings are bad, mostly bad, half-bad half-good, mostly good, or good.

What do you want each scenario’s endings to be? Determine your endings first, then work backwards as to how your learners might get there. This will keep the size of your scenario from spiraling out of control.

One way to do this is by considering how you can match your endings to your scenario’s Learning Objective(s).

For example, a learning objective of “Identify and put on proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)” might lead to an ending where the learner forgets to put on their PPE and gets injured as a result.

Step 2. Visualize your scenario with a flowchart.

Hand-drawn visualization of scenario as a basic flowchart.

Draw the paths that your learner can take through each branch of the scenario. The sooner you draw a visual representation of your branching scenario, the better you will be able to identify its strengths, weaknesses, and overall flow.

This doesn’t need to be pretty. Something as simple as pencil-and-paper, a whiteboard, or Post It notes will do just fine.

Be sure that whatever method you choose to create your visual representation is easy to alter, add to, or change. This will give you the ability to adapt your flowchart to new ideas and feedback as you go… without wasting time.

Step 3. Design with your target audience in mind.

Flowchart with two stick-figure learners superimposed on top.

Yes, this is something you should be doing for any training you design, but believe me – it’s especially important when you’re designing a branching scenario!

Think about your design from your learner’s point of view. If you were one of your learners, what would you want from this scenario? What features would you find helpful? What might be distracting, annoying, or frustrating?

One point to consider is your learner’s motivations. Are they likely to select paths based on their personal interests and growth, instead of just what’s easiest? If they’re more likely to just go for the path of least resistance, your design would have to account for that.

Another point to consider: their frustration threshold. Your learner should find the scenario challenging… up to a point. If the scenario becomes too complex or introduces too many new concepts, learners are quick to feel overwhelmed, confused, and frustrated. This may explain why poorly designed branching scenarios are notorious for learners quitting halfway through.

You can avoid the frustration pitfall by:

  • Balancing the amount of new information given in the scenario with the learner’s existing knowledge. Feeling competent every once in a while can boost engagement and head off feelings of overwhelm and frustration.
  • Providing feedback explaining what they did right and what they did wrong (and why it was wrong). This can be immediately after a decision or as a retrospective at the end of a branch.
  • Allow learners to replay the scenario. Incorporate a replay button into your core navigation options.
  • Consider offering hints that learners can ask for at particularly challenging decision points.

Step 4. Help your learner navigate and know where they are.

I know that getting lost is something I personally find stressful as a learner when going through scenario-based training. “What am I doing? If I did something wrong, how do I go back? If I want to try again, how can I do that? Help!”

Building in consistent navigation like a “Continue”, or a “Start over” or “Return home” button can go a long way toward fixing this.

You can also provide orientation through design choices like:

  • Color coding (e.g. each topic gets its own color scheme)
  • Marking paths that have already been taken, such as greying out visited items or putting a check mark next to them. Note that this only applies if your scenario incorporates a loop or hub feature.
  • Incorporating a navigation menu bar on the side or bottom of the screen.

5. Prototype your scenario to get essential feedback.

Flowchart with stick-figure learners and a speech bubble. Various parts of the flowchart are marked up with question marks, cross-outs, new arrows, smiley faces, and frowny faces.

Build a trial version then test it on a bunch of people. Ask for feedback about what worked, where they felt lost, and what they might change.

Admittedly, this is something that is useful for any training, BUT it’s even more important for branching scenarios because there can be such a big difference between a course that flows well and a course that is confusing and disorienting – and many times the fix is surprisingly simple!

Best of luck and have fun!

Want to learn more about branching scenarios? Check out these resources:

Alessi, S. M., & Trollip, S. P. (2001). Multimedia for learning: Methods and development. 3rd ed. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Snegirev, S. (2016). Branching scenarios: What you need to know. eLearning Industry.

Thomas, K. (2004). Designing scenarios. [White paper].

Thomas, K. (2004). Learning sequences. [White paper].

Thomas, K. (2004). Navigational models. [White paper].

Interested in what branching scenarios can look like? Here are some excellent examples:

Cathy Moore’s Connect with Haji Kamal training

Elucidat’s Branching eLearning Examples

SmartBuilder’s list of eLearning Examples

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