Road Map for Educational Multimedia Design
A Content Developer’s Approach
Ellen Dornan, University of New Mexico


I came into the field of Instructional Technology through the field of public lands interpretation. Interpretation is an informal educational method used to communicate the meaning and value of resources, and is used widely in museums, zoos, and parks. Interpretation is terrifically effective in a short time period, and results in affective, behavioral, and cognitive outcomes ranging from decades-long retention (Barrie, 2001) to societal impacts, such as participation in advocacy groups or shifts in basic societal values (Beck and Cable, 2002).

In practice, interpretation skillfully blends the environmental experience of a museum or park visit with high-quality communication provided at teachable moments, such as when a visitor is feeling awe of the surroundings or interest in the artifacts. My burning question is whether this technique still works if you take away the environmental and human elements, as with computer-based interpretation?

The answer is a definite yes, although computer literacy certainly impacts the ability of a user to learn and enjoy computer-based media (Goldman and Schaller, 2004; Chadwick, 1998), and remains a serious obstacle when designing for older audiences. In discovering how to translate the interpretive model to a digital realm, I developed this approach to instructional design for multimedia.  I have interspersed the fifteen guiding principles of interpretation throughout the text, to clarify the goals of each section of the design process.

Fun and Games with Interpretation

Interpretation theory and multimedia theory intersect in the realm of computer games and simulations. The goals of the game designer and interpreter are similar: to provide a fun, voluntary, leisure experience with affective and cognitive outcomes. Both fields rely on an experiential component (an immersive world, natural wonder, or designed space), on curiosity and challenge, and involving the visitor or player in a flow state, as described by Csikszentmihialyi (1990). Both games and interpretation can be enjoyed alone or in a group, as a quick, one-time visit or as a repeat visitor with increased depth of experience each time. Both experiences often inspire visitors or players to reflect on their experience, participate in meta-level organizations, and seek similar experiences (Prensky, 2001; Gee, 2003).

Games and simulations are a seductive solution, but astronomical development expenses combined with negative associations about games among traditional educators discourages widespread adaptation and development. This model offers a middle path—combining interpretive principles and game design principles with an instructional design process—in order to maximize motivation, engagement, and retention of the computer-based instruction.

A Content-driven Design Model

Principles of Interpretation
Interpreters can promote optimal experiences through intentional and thoughtful program and facility design.(Beck and Cable).
Technology can reveal the world in exciting new ways. However, incorporating this technology into the interpretive program must be done with foresight and care. (Beck and Cable).

Visitors to educational websites generally have the same profile (expectations, goals, interests) as visitors to parks and museums (Chadwick, 1998). Yet as a recent National Park Service study illustrates (Forlst, Littlejohn, Baxter, Machlis, Gramann, 2003), visitor satisfaction with the online experience is generally lower than satisfaction with other interpretive materials (visitor center exhibits, wayside exhibits, brochures) Federal web standards (McClure, Eppes, Sprehe, and Eschenfelder, 2000) reveal the problem: design guidelines are geared toward technical specifications for visual design and programming rather than towards structuring content appropriately to make the best use of the medium.

Nearly all existing design models and standards for new media focus on visual design or technical considerations, to the exclusion of content. Educators and interpreters don’t always understand the nature of non-linear, interactive media, and design multimedia according to the standards they do understand, such as printed text or video. On the other end, designers and programmers become frustrated with subject matter experts and instructional designers by the lack of a common language, clear direction, or well-planned information structures. This results in poorly-presented material, and more multimedia that fails to live up to expectations.

This model takes a learner-centered approach, based on a fusion of the ADDIE model (with consideration for the iterative nature of media development) with the principles of interpretation and game design. Although some considerations are platform-specific, it is intended to be adaptable for any kind of platform and any kind of circumstance. Since programming and visual design concerns are considered exhaustively elsewhere, and also change according to the needs of the project, I gloss over the execution of those tasks, except to note where content evaluation is necessary.

An instructional media designer should be able to use this process as a roadmap or checklist to produce a design document which the designer(s) and programmer(s) can use as a blueprint to actually develop the assets and algorithms, and implement the program. There is no optimal medium for communicating the design document, and possible document formats include concept maps, Power Point, pen and ink diagrams/sketches, or a Flash (.fla file) outline.

Design Road Map


Principles of Interpretation
Any interpretation that does not somehow relate what is being displayed or described to something within the personality or experience of the visitor will be sterile. 
Interpretation addressed to children (say, up to the age of twelve) should not be a dilution of the presentation to adults, but should follow a fundamentally different approach.  To be at its best it will require a separate program.

Creating an effective educational program requires defining who the learner is, why the learner should learn this material at this time in this way, and what combination of physical environment and computer hardware you expect the learner to have. Will this be a kiosk for tourists at the airport? Will it be repurposed GameBoys handed out to zoo visitors? Will this be a CD-ROM sold commercially? Will it be a website that could attract unexpected visitors?

* Who do you expect to use this program? Who else might use this program?
* Will this program be for adults or children? What ages? English-speaking or multinational? What basic education level is assumed?  What computer skill level? What is the target developmental level?
* Will people use the program in groups or alone?
* If your audience includes students, consider how could an instructor or a parent could support use. Can the program be completed during a classroom period or played as homework? Can it be played collaboratively or in groups?
* Use market studies, research,  and appropriate developmental theories to hone in on how the different target audiences like to learn. Existing research shows that adults enjoy simulations and interactive references, while children enjoy role-play and creative play (Schaller and Allison-Bunnell 2002).
* What kind of control does this audience need?
* Remember that this should be a fun leisure activity. What does your audience consider challenging, provocative, rewarding, exciting? What fantasy elements are most appropriate?

* Who needs it? Is the client the same as the user? If not, how does the client know the user needs the program?
* What problem does this solve?
* Is multimedia the best answer? Among other things, multimedia is good for encouraging exploration of complex topics, making the abstract immediate, and encouraging humans to reflect and communicate in new ways.
* Is there funding to do it right? Can it attract sponsorship?

Delivery Environment
* Will people use this program in public or at home? Will the delivery device be portable or fixed? Will users be networked?
* Will it be used in a public space where audio might be disturbing for other people around the user?
* What is the platform? If online, what is hosting requirement, domain name, server platform, browser standards? If physical, what are manufacturing requirements? Is there an existing manufacturer with system specifications?
* How will users find it? If this is going to be something other than a physical exhibit, then marketing to the target audience, particularly to educators, should be considered. With internet-based programs, this will require site-wide design and code considerations to improve search engine indexing.
* If online, does the site require high bandwidth and current computers? Should a lower-bandwidth version be developed simultaneously?

Content Design

Principles of Interpretation
Information, as such, is not Interpretation.  Interpretation is revelation based upon information.  But they are entirely different things.  However, all interpretation includes information. 
The purpose of interpretation goes beyond providing information to reveal deeper meaning and truth. (Cable and Beck)
Interpretation should aim to present a whole rather than a part, and must address itself to the whole man rather than any phase. (Tilden).

The easiest and least-effective way to translate information into multimedia is to present a huge amount of information, organized more or less into a handful categories (in a recent online posting, game designer Chris Crawford described this as the “humongous heap… design”). In terms of education, this is akin to a 4-hour lecture. It will do the trick, but only for those students who really want to learn.  Just as a good teacher will break up a lecture with group or individual activities, so a good new media program will incorporate lots of interaction and other motivational techniques into the program.

To begin designing the content, consider the following:
* What is the goal of the program? What is the interpretive topic (specific content domain) and the interpretive theme (one-sentence statements about the topic)?
* How does this theme translate into the program’s key element, variable, or central metaphor? For instance, if the theme deals with the factors affecting climate change trends, then key variables of the program could be temperature, greenhouse gas emissions, and remedial solutions.  The central metaphor should marry what the user does with the interpretive theme. In the climate change example, the user could be a mad scientist experimenting on a biosphere, a gardener in a greenhouse, or a cosmic being with superpowers to fiddle a planet’s systems (like SimEarth).
* How does the novice user learn to handle the program? How does the initiate learn the grammar of the domain, including the meaning of symbols and unfamiliar terms? Does the learner have to change modes (stop play, navigate to a different section) to learn how the program works?
* What does the user do? These doing verbs must translate into the algorithms for the structure of the program. If the user does something to something (clicks on a button), the properties and characteristics of that object should must be specified. If the verb is open-ended (keyword search, upload, creative play), can the user cause a logical error?

Principles of Interpretation
The purpose of the interpretive story is to inspire and to provoke people to broaden their horizons.
(Cable and Beck)
Every place has a history. Interpreters can bring the past alive to make the present more enjoyable and the future more meaningful. (Cable and Beck)

Narrative is essential for a user to build meaningful connections, the basis of learning (Astleitner and Wiesner, 2004). Difficult or abstract concepts can be tied to concrete experience through the use of narrative. The use of narrative can engage a user’s emotions, and facilitate questioning, reflection, and retention (Beck and Cable, 2002).

Consider the use of narrative techniques in the following ways:
* Narrative is crucial for relating the history or background of a subject. If explicit narrative does not fit with your format (i.e. if the program is too non-linear),  then consider how your central metaphor contains an embedded narrative (see the climate change example above).
* How does the program create emotional connections? Consider use of dramatic effects, character interactions and character arcs, plot twists, music, visual representations.
* Consider how the content will provoke curiosity- examples are: a mystery, dilemma, or puzzle, uncertain outcome, user control over interactions, an interesting and believable environment or game world.
* Things to make it challenging- speed, catastrophic outcome (usually death), increasing difficulty or complexity. The latter option is best for an educational situation, because educators are adept at designing a scaffolding system where the learner builds a skill set in a safe environment, applies the skills in a critical situation, reflects on the experience, then transfers the skill set to an unfamiliar situation.
* How can an instructor or interpreter incorporate this material into their classroom activities? What documentation should be available, and how should it be distributed?
* How does the material establish social presence?  Examples are visual representations of humans or animals, natural language dialogue or audio, humor, a narrative involving non-player characters (NPCs), or a networked human community.
* What kind of user/NPC interactions are there? Does the user have an emotional arc? Do the NPCs? An emotional arc is when a person faces some obstacle and changes as a result (Freeman, 2004).
* Objects (what the user does things to) can be rich with embedded symbolism. Ideally, the symbolism should either advance the user’s goals in some way, offer a piece of a conceptual puzzle, or contain a mini-narrative (Freeman, 2004). Examples of this are button animations, splash introductions, objects collected during game play, exhibit items, popup windows, backgrounds.

Interactive Design

Principles of Interpretation
The chief aim of Interpretation is not instruction, but provocation.
Interpretive writing should address what readers would like to know, with the authority of wisdom and its accompanying humility and care. (Cable and Beck)

In lieu of a personal connection, a learner must rely on the computer (that is, the multimedia designer) to recognize teachable moments, to offer sorted, relevant information, to provide feedback, and to adapt to the user’s needs. All of this falls under the heading of interactivity. Game designer Chris Crawford elegantly defines interactivity as a cyclical process with two actors who take turns speaking, listening, and thinking (Crawford, 2002).

*In general, and for each interaction, consider how the user speaks to the computer (input)? How does the computer listen to the user, think (process, calculate), then reply (output) to the human?
* What kind of shortcuts are available for the expert user?
* Can the user save or upload information to the program?
* Is there a meta-structure that allows users to share experiences or information?
* Can a user get human feedback when necessary?
* Can the information be updated to reflect current conditions?
* Humans enjoy talking, not listening, so minimize the computer’s speech (visual and text output) and maximize the thinking and listening (processing and input mechanisms). (Crawford, 2002).
* Allow user to control important decisions as much as possible, and offer immediate feedback based on the user’s choices. What output there is should be a direct response to user input. Use amplification of effect, so any change the user makes is immediately visible/tangible (Crawford, 2002).
* Specify the navigational hierarchy. Diagram non-linear paths through the content. If the user only sees part of the program, what will he or she learn?
* How does the computer evaluate the user’s learning (game score, publicly posted information, downloads)? How can the user make use of that information?
* What is the game time/ real time relationship? How long should it take the user to complete the program? Is the user ever forced to wait for feedback? How does the user know that he or she should wait?

Visual Design


* How does the visual design reinforce the message of the content, support interactivity, and facilitate simple cognitive identification (color coding,, consistent use of symbols, menus, graphics).
* What media must be originated or collected? What permissions are required?
* How should the media be managed (permissions, captions, thumbnail views, etc)?
* Do the visual metaphors support the game? Are they factually accurate? Do they need to be?

Formative Evaluation
Principles of Interpretation
Passion is the essential ingredient for powerful and effective interpretation—passion for the resource and for those people who come to be inspired by it.

An informal evaluation should answer the following:

* Does this program make me feel excited? Do I think it is fun? Do others?
* Does this design meet the client’s goals?
* Will the user really experience what I want her or him to experience? If it is used in a way that I do not expect, will it still function?
* Is the application logically complete, or if the environment is networked, will the user know when he or she leaves?

Share the findings with the client and the rest of the development team. Do they agree with the findings? If these answers are not answered satisfactorily, then don’t be afraid to return to the design process or abandon the project altogether.

Development and Implementation

Principles of Interpretation
Interpreters must concern themselves with the quantity and quality (selection and accuracy) of information presented.
(Cable and Beck)

Art, audio, video, and text all count towards the content in a multimedia program, and should be considered, collected, and managed as a whole.

* Collect and catalog or originate vector art, raster art, audio, video, and other assets. Process art for the desired format.
* Research subject matter.
* Develop text for introduction, narrative, instructions, buttons, objects, labels, dialogue, titles, privacy and security disclaimers, titles, menu sections and subsections.
* Make a mockup of each screen, and detail what the user sees or does at each step.

Production and Programming

Principles of Interpretation
Interpretation is an art, which combines many arts, whether the materials presented are scientific, historical, or architectural.  Any art is in some degree teachable.
Before applying the arts in interpretation, the interpreter must be familiar with basic communication techniques. (Cable and Beck)

This stage should be completed by the graphic designer(s), animator(s), programmer(s), with support as needed from the instructional designer.

Formative Evaluation

This is the beta test, when you have a functioning and complete product. Pass project on to client for review. Recruit at least 6 beta-testers(although more is better), and evaluate their user experiences. Synthesize reviews to make recommendations for improvement, and considerations as to implementation.

Take the reviews seriously. If your beta testers overlook something obvious,  don’t follow instructions, or skip reading all the text, then they have done a valuable job for you, since most of your users will do the same thing. If they did all these things and still had a satisfactory experience, then you’re set.

Revision and Debugging

* Test the product on various platforms, operating systems, and software/ user preference configurations.
* Consult as needed during the revision and debugging cycle.

Repeat the last three steps of this process as necessary.


Principles of Interpretation
The overall interpretive program must be capable of attracting support—financial, volunteer, political, administrative—whatever support is needed for the program  to flourish.
(Beck and Cable).

Summative evaluation should answer key questions about the benefits and drawbacks of the program from the user’s point of view, a total budget for the project, and the expected benefits for the client.


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ITFORUM PAPER #80- Road Map for Educational Multimedia Design: A Content Developerís Approach, Ellen Dornan, University of New Mexico. Posted on ITFORUM on September30, 2004. The author retains all copyrights of this work. Used on ITFORUM by permission of the author. Visit the ITFORUM WWW Home Page at