Branching Scenarios: What You Need To Know

What You Need To Know About Using Branching Scenarios In eLearning 

When I created our software for building branching scenarios, I assumed that everybody knew what scenarios were and how scenarios could improve your eLearning. I quickly came to realize that a lot of people had never used or even seen a branching scenario. Instead, they keep producing standard linear eLearning courses that do not engage learners. So I wanted to help you get started with branching scenarios by answering some frequently asked questions.

What Is A Branching Scenario?

Branching scenario is an interactive form of learning. It challenges the learner, requires them to make a decision, and then presents the consequences. Each consequence produces new challenges and more choices. As the learner makes decisions, the story unfolds in unpredictable ways, thereby making such learning interaction engaging and fun.

branching scenario adventure

Branching scenarios are similar to the Choose Your Own Adventure books. Only instead of saving a princess from a castle, eLearning scenario narratives are built around dealing with angry customers, negotiating with suppliers, managing employees and other business-related challenges.

Here are a few examples of branching scenarios:

Learning about Marketing
Learning about Cyber-Security
Military-style scenario about Cultural Differences

How Is A Branching Scenario Different From A Quiz?

I know, quizzes also pose challenges and ask for input. The difference is that quizzes are linear. The next question is always the same regardless of what the learner answered before. In a scenario, every response determines what’s next. Scenarios aren’t linear and therefore they are unpredictable and engaging. It means they are fun to play and re-play.

Quizzes often focus on checking learner knowledge whereas scenarios are all about presenting realistic situations and asking for practical choices. Scenarios don’t care what the acronym for that fancy cross-selling technique is, they check whether the learner can actually sell a product to a virtual customer in a realistic setting.

Another significant difference is that quizzes provide straight-on feedback. You got this wrong, you got that right. By comparison, scenarios present consequences of learner decisions and allow learner to understand whether this particular outcome is good or bad, and whether it could be improved in another attempt at playing through the branching scenario. As far as pros and cons go, this is one of the strongest sides of using branching scenarios in eLearning.

Finally, nobody likes quizzes while almost everyone loves scenarios.

Why Should I Use Branching Scenarios In eLearning Courses?

Branching scenarios enable learners to put their theoretical knowledge into a practical perspective. How many times have you been in a situation where a manual or instruction makes perfect sense… until you have to actually do it for real? Trying and failing in a scenario quickly highlights skill and knowledge gaps and improves learning outcomes.

creating branching scenario

What Are The Disadvantages Of Branching Scenarios?

Like all great eLearning, scenarios can challenge you with regards to 3 factors:

  • Time.
  • Complexity.
  • Cost.

I’ll briefly explain each of the caveats (and how to deal with them) below.

1. Time.

As with all new things, expect your first scenarios to take longer to build than you hoped. Authoring a branching script is harder than writing a linear course page by page and it also demands more creativity. Communicating with Subject Matter Experts can be difficult especially if they have never worked with a scenario before.

Building the final product using conventional authoring tools will present challenges of its own. Regardless of whether you use PowerPoint, Articulate Storyline, Adobe Captivate or any other tool, you will still need to create a lot of pages, buttons, actions, layers, etc. It is easy to lose track of which slide leads where and spend a lot of time untangling your branching. Play-testing and quality assurance will also take extra time since you need to play through your scenario multiple times to make sure every branch works.

Best way to avoid spending excessive time? Plan for more time! Seriously, make sure everyone understands that you are building something new and exciting, and that you want to make it right so you need adequate time frame.

scenario building tools

Using specialized scenario-building tools like BranchTrack also eliminates the most time-consuming part of the job, i.e. building all the slides. You only need to focus on writing your story, not on placing images on slides or copying and pasting texts.

2. Complexity.

Scenarios are complex by nature. If they were simple and linear, we wouldn’t call them scenarios, we’d just call them boring. My biggest challenge with my first scenario was that it was growing exponentially. As I created more branches, I had to create more choices. Each choice lead to more branches and I was quickly losing control of what is going on (and running out of whiteboard space).

The best advice for avoiding an overgrown branching scenario is to start at the end. First, define the outcomes of your scenario. In an customer service training scenario, outcomes could be these:

  • “A happy customer purchases a new product” (100 points).
  • “A moderately satisfied customer leaves the store” (50 points).
  • “A dissatisfied customer complains to the manager” (0 points).

Then work your way up from these outcomes and create a high-level outline of the scenario. What decisions lead to a customer being angry? How did we come into this situation? Where did all of this start? This approach guarantees that your scenario will be manageable and does not result in having twenty different endings that you have to write out.

Of course, having a good way to visualize your scenario is very useful, too. It can range from whiteboards to post-it notes to Excel flowcharts to specialized branching scenario software. The important thing is ease of use, ability to modify it on the fly and collaboration with colleagues and Subject Matter Experts.

e-learning vendors

(Illustration: An eLearning vendor learns that you want to build a scenario)

3. Cost.

Branching scenarios are often the favorite kind of project for eLearning vendors and developers because the time and complexity involved guarantee handsome project budgets. Alas for this same reason many companies do not use branching scenarios in their training and settle for standard linear eLearning courses that are less effective and less engaging.

In my experience -and I have worked on the eLearning vendor side for quite a while-, the cost comes from 3 main factors:

a) Time requirements. 

Without tools that are specifically designed for creating branching scenarios, eLearning developers spend more time than they should and must bill their customers extra.

b) Complexity.

Without effective ways to communicate and review their projects, the project stakeholders spend extra time on communication and dealing with errors that result from poor communication. Developers, Subject Matter Experts, internal or external customers spend time writing emails, pasting screenshots, counting slides, reviewing charts, and doing other tasks that can easily be avoided with tools that are designed for branching scenarios.

c) Premium.

Scenarios are considered the “extra” type of eLearning that deserves to be priced at a premium. I consider this unfair and made it my mission to make sure any company anywhere in the world can build and deliver branching scenarios quickly, easily and at minimal cost.

How Much Does A Branching Scenario Cost?

Let’s use the model from the previous section to estimate how much it would cost to build a branching scenario. Coming up with an idea, authoring a draft outline and then scripting the actual flow chart for a branching scenario could require give or take 30 hours from all parties involved. Developing the graphics and building all slides, interactions and links between them would probably take another 30 hours. Quality assurance, play-testing, gathering feedback, implementing change requests and other post-production task would probably require another 20 hours. Of course, these are ballpark figures and a scenario could be much more complex and take much more time but it would be really difficult to build it faster than that unless you are working off a previous project, templates or using a very simple branching structure.

So we are looking at 80 hours of costs for a branching scenario if we are building the scenario in-house. If you are working with an outside contractor, they will probably quote for at least 120 hours. I will leave it up to you to multiply this for the eLearning rate of your choosing but if you are paying under $50 per hour, you are probably not getting the quality you need.

With the right tools, this amount could easily reduced by a factor of two or even three. The scenario authoring would require about the same time, say, 20 hours, and development would be gone, and post-production would go down to 10 hours. This amounts to about 30 hours instead of 80 for a single scenario.

To Sum Up

I hope that the pros and cons of using scenarios in eLearning are clearer now.

Pros:

  • Better training results because learners are more engaged.
  • Better on-the-job performance because scenarios put theory into perspective.
  • Lower learning curve because scenarios provide ready-to-use behavior patterns.

Cons:

  • Authoring, developing, and play-testing a scenario-based training module will definitely take more time.
  • Costs, which are related to the time, will consequently be higher.
  • Using the wrong tools (or rather the tools geared towards classic linear course production) will increase both the time, the cost and the overall complexity of production.
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