Monthly Archives: February 2017

Branched Scenarios with Twine

Twine is a open-source tool that allows you to tell stories and present scenarios in which the reader takes an active role in determining the outcome.  These types of non-linear narratives have certainly existed before (remember “Choose Your Own Adventure”?).  While the narrative can still be complicated to write well, the affordances of the digital environment and hypertext make this kind of storytelling much easier.

I stumbled across Twine a few years ago, but didn’t have the time back then to play around with it.  I came back to it recently as I was doing some reading about branched scenarios.  Scenarios can be great for students who are learning to work with new knowledge. By working through made-up, but realistic scenarios first, students can make errors and self-correct, all without having to worry (yet) about real-world consequences.  Since learners are practicing in a virtual space, they are free to experiment and try things out. And because the consequences of their choices are temporary and reversible, students may in fact be more willing to engage  with the material than if they didn’t get the scenario practice.

“Choosing a General Topic” Scenario

Having taught basic library research methods to new researchers (high school/early college students), I decided to create a scenario for students that would help take them through one of the more difficult steps in a research project: choosing a general topic.   Students stumble in this first step for a variety of reasons, but a big one is just that finding a research topic is a very “wide task” (Don Norman‘s terminology, meaning “lots of possible choices”). And students know that this task is just the gateway to a series of “wide” research tasks, each one of which requires significant decision making. Being able to handle so many choices at each step of the research process is a hallmark of an expert researcher. New researchers, however, are likely to get overwhelmed and become uncertain about exactly where to start. When overwhelmed, students tend to procrastinate. When procrastination happens at the beginning stage of a research project students get in trouble.  By waiting to make decisions about topic focus students reduce the amount of time they have for the other stages of research.

To play the scenario, click here:

Badass Research: Choosing a General Topic

By creating a branched scenario I wanted to give students a chance to explore different possible paths to a good, general research topic. I also wanted to show them how some paths are more efficient and effective than others.  The branched scenario could be used as a kind of application exercise. For example, the student could first read about finding and fact tools in a guidebook like Mary W. George’s The Elements of Library Research: What Every Student Needs to Know. They then could work through the scenario to explore the kinds of research help those tools provide. I conceived of the scenario, however, as an exercise students could complete before even discussing differences between reference tools or the steps of a research project.  By using the scenario to get some exposure to how the tools can be used and what searching for a topic can look like, students may have an easier time later when they are asked to explain how different kinds of reference tools are connected to the research process.

Using Twine to Create Branched Scenarios

On the whole, I found Twine fairly straightforward to use. The user interface is kept pretty simple, and there are only a few things you can do in the main story editor: create a new passage, edit an existing passage, test a passage (to see if it displays they way you want),  and play the scenario.  Individual passages within the story are created with a click of a button. Once you get the hang of it, you can create choices within a single passage that then automatically link to new, discrete passages (this is the branching part).  In the story editor, curved arrows indicate the direction of the linking.  Another good thing about Twine is that it is free.  You can download a version of it to your desktop, or work with it online.


The difficulty with Twine comes when you want to do something more than create a simple branched narrative.  There are three built-in style sets, but if you want to choose different fonts and colors, you will need to know some CSS.  Similarly, if you want add variables or special data  you will need to know some basic markup language. Since I have very little experience with these, I chose not to make my first Twine project too complicated.  However, I did manage to learn how to make a numbered list!  The current version of Twine also isn’t easily set up for embedding multimedia.  Hopefully that will come along in a later version.

The other difficulty I came across had less to do with the software and more to do with writing a non-linear narrative.  The more branches I added to the scenario, the harder it became to keep the different lines of the story straight.  I wished there were some way of highlighting (or color-coding) different lines in the story, so that I could follow the progression more closely.  Without this, however, I’ll need to come up with a better solution for keeping track of how passages are connected.   I read somewhere that it’s best to start with your scenario endings, limiting them to three or four.  I tried to do that, but it still seemed to get a bit convoluted in the middle. If anyone has suggestions for keeping track of the narrative lines, please leave me a comment!



Book Review: The Psychology of Everyday Things

Even though I’ve dabbled in educational technology and pedagogy in the past, I decided that if I’m going to focus on this seriously I’d better up my game. I’m currently looking into formal instructional design certificates, but in the meantime I thought I’d read independently, take a free online course or two, and do some informational interviews.

I’m starting out with independent reading. I recently googled books about instructional design, elearning and project management that instructional designers and technologists have recommended.  From these, I then compiled my own list in Goodreads. I plan to add to it as I go along and to report on some of my thoughts and impressions in this blog.

Book Summary

design-of-everyday-thingsThe only book on my list currently available from my local public library is The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman (rev. ed. New York: Basic Books, 2013). While the book doesn’t speak to instructional design per se, its insights into how we use objects certainly has had carryover when designing computer-based objects. In creating its user interface, Apple seems to have applied many of the suggestions on usability and functionality discussed in the original 1988 edition (the version that I read). So I was not at all surprised to learn that the author, Don Norman, served as a Vice President of the Advanced Technology Group at Apple from 1995-1997.

Norman’s main thrust in the book is to apply what he has learned from cognitive science and psychology to come up with a better understanding of design and of what makes an object function well. He presents a list of several main principles of good design: visibility, having a good conceptual model, mapping and feedback. In Norman’s view, well-designed objects provide visible clues to how they should be used (he later includes aural clues in his definition of “visible”). A door with a visible indicator, such as a flat, rectangular plate, is an example of good design because you can intuit both that it should be pushed (not pulled) and where it should be pushed. Badly designed doors leave you wondering what it is you are supposed to do when you see a door (push? Pull? Left side? Right side?).

Providing an accurate conceptual model of the object is also a principle of good design. When the conceptual model is in alignment with the way in which the object actually works, the user can easily predict what effect his action on the object will have or identify where an interaction with the object went wrong. If something doesn’t work as expected and you have the wrong conceptual model, you might not correctly deduce where the problem lies and then become frustrated, thinking it’s you that’s the problem and not the design.

Correctly mapping an object’s controls to the object’s movements is also important. For instance, knobs on a stove should correspond accurately to the stove elements they control. If the knobs on a stove are not clearly mapped to the elements (as illustrated in the image below), then the user has no clear idea which knob corresponds to which element.


Example of bad design: User is unclear which knob goes with which stove element

Norman’s point is that in good design there is not confusion about how the controls and movements are related—users intuitively know because the spatial arrangement of the knobs reflects that of the stove elements (“natural mappings”).


Example of good design: Spatial arrangement of knobs corresponds to the arrangement of the elements

Feedback is also essential. The user should have immediate access to information that lets her know the results of her actions. Without accurate feedback the user is likely to attribute the results of the action to something other than the real cause.

Another major thesis of the book is that there is “knowledge in the head” (memory) and “knowledge in the world” (text, symbols and other mnemonic clues) and that understanding when and how we use each knowledge set can help us better design for functionality. Norman asserts that good design lessens the mental effort a person must expend to use an object correctly by simplifying what “knowledge in the head” a person should remember. By using constraints that reduce alternatives and by incorporating explanation into the design (thereby taking some “knowledge in the head” and making it part of the environment), the designer can help a person use an object quickly, effectively and with the least amount of mental taxation.

My take

I appreciated Norman’s understanding of how the use of memory is central to how we interact with the physical world. Even while we can use this knowledge to optimize design, it started me thinking about the role of the designer in constructing a user’s experience.   One thing that is out of the scope of Norman’s book that designers need to consider is how they use their design knowledge and to what end.   The assumption in Norman’s book is that designing for usability and functionality is the desired end for everyday objects. Even if we accept this premise for many objects (e.g. teapots, television sets, telephones), it quickly becomes problematic without a clearer understanding of what “everyday objects” means and what kinds of objects it includes. In the case of instructional design and computer-based learning objects, there may be different design goals in operation simultaneously. In an online course, education is the primary goal so we may want the LMS navigational tools to be as clear and straightforward as possible. This helps the student focus attention on achieving learning objectives. But there may be learning objects within the online course for which an “easy experience” is not the goal—quite the opposite. For example, maybe one learning objective asks students to design a computer game and the student is asked to use software like MIT’s Scratch. In these cases, we actually don’t want to fully limit the user’s options or provide full explanation, we want the user to assume the role of the designer in creating his own knowledge. Mental effort is desired.

I also see a problem here when these design principles are applied to objects that may be seen as “everyday,” but whose use has much broader social implications. In Norman’s analog world of 20th century telephones, we weren’t able to see the person with whom we were communicating and thus we couldn’t see behaviors that could facilitate communication, such as gestures. In this case, the constraint is absolute and it also only impacted individual, person-to-person communications.  With digital technologies, however, much more is possible in design in terms of what individual and social behaviors a technology can constrain or afford. For instance, the incorporation of emoticons to facilitate emotional expression in Facebook was a choice.  If the goal is to facilitate communication, this decision can be a good one in many instances. Emoticons can help the user represent his own emotional state or interpret that of a friend more accurately than relying on text alone.  However, decisions have consequences. You can “like” or use an emoticon to respond to a post in a second. In order to respond in a more thoughtful, deliberate manner, however, you must expend additional energy to actually compose a written response. In this case, the platform is made to favor automatic emotional reaction (easy) over reasoned thought (more difficult).  On top of that, your “like” of your friend’s post can be seen by all of his friends too, and someone who may not have sufficient context for understanding your reaction may choose to respond.  While such affordances can facilitate individual communication, they may actually create miscommunication at the social level.

It is important to note, however, that users do have agency in their use of the technology. It is possible that someone external to the technology could “hack” it and impose an additional constraint that would afford a different kind of behavior, such as a teacher who monitors a student’s posts and requires thoughtful, written reflections for a grade in a class.  Individuals also have certain controls within technologies like Facebook over how their posts appear and to whom. However, it is important to understand the default state of the technology because, for better or worse, that is what will be most usable to the greatest number of people.

There are certainly advantages to promoting ease of use for both the user and technology companies.  Greater usability ensures that the platform is widely accessible, which in turn can make it more financially successful. However, these choices can also have downsides. These downsides may often go unrecognized in an era where technology on its own is seen as playing a salvific role in society. The main concern, as I see it, is making sure technology and instructional designers are aware of the assumptions about optimal use on which a particular technology is based.  So, while I value the design principles Norman puts forth in this book, before technology creators take usability as their main design goal they need to reflect on the larger forces driving that goal, the many implications their design choices might have and start asking if there aren’t other possible design goals with greater social value.