When signs get personal

What do you think of signs like this? Do you find them cute and amusing, or do you find them annoying? Above all, do you find them effective for what they’re trying to do?

I must admit I rather like this sign, which I spotted on the luggage trolleys at Milton Keynes railway station. In one sense, the sign is redundant: if you’re looking for a luggage trolley, you don’t need a sign to tell you that you’ve found one. But I think the purpose of the sign is other than that. For one thing, it prompts someone with luggage to think of using a trolley, even if they weren’t looking for one. (We’ve all seen people struggling with wheelie suitcases who should really be using a trolley, for the benefit of other passengers if not themselves.) More important than that, though, the real purpose of the sign I think is to give a voice and identity to the station and the railway company: what discourse analysts call “subject positioning” [1]. The words on the sign are the sort of thing which might be said by someone who was considerate and helpful and attentive to your needs. The implication is that the station staff and the railway company collectively have the kind of personality which means they talk to you like that: polite, kind and helpful in a personal way. Contrast that with the sort of sign which you’re more likely to see on a luggage trolley:

Warning: trolleys MUST be returned to a designated point. Penalty for abandoned trolleys £500.

What kind of person says that? Someone who is bureaucratic and officious, and that’s the kind of personality such a sign attributes to an organisation which puts it up.

Such personal-sounding offers of help need to be carefully judged, of course. Those of my generation who used Microsoft Word 97 will remember the Office Assistant, which by default took the form of a cheery, cheeky animated paper clip, popping up unbidden at the least appropriate moments. I’m afraid the paper clip’s conversations with me generally did not go well.

Office Assistant: It looks like you’re writing a letter. Would you like help?
Me: No! Sod off!

I think the reason the Office Assistant’s appearance was so annoying is that it was intrusive: it actually interrupted what you were doing (such as writing a letter) and demanded that you respond to it before you could continue. Although the notice on the trolley hails you as a carrier of luggage – subject positioning again – this is not annoying in the same way; if you’re not part of the target audience, you simply disregard the hail and walk on, though perhaps with a pleasant lingering appreciation for the fact that HAD you needed help with your luggage it would have been available.

The relevance of this for education, specifically for learning materials, is that often you want to address the learner personally and directly. This is an illusion of course, just as a TV presenter talking to you directly is an illusion because what they’re actually talking to is a television camera. [2] Nevertheless, when it’s done right, it feels natural and unremarkable, even though the writer or presenter cannot see you and knows nothing about you and what you are thinking and feeling; you only notice it when it goes wrong and the illusion is broken.

The reason authors of learning materials, like TV presenters, try to address the members of their audience individually and directly, is that it sets up a personal relationship and introduces emotional warmth into the communication. The standard for learning materials is to use the second person (“you”) and contractions (“as you’ve seen”), resembling spoken language more than written language. A common stylistic model is what Derek Rowntree many years ago called “a tutorial in print” [3]: you talk to the learner as though they were there with you, and invite responses from them. (“What would you do next in this situation?” “What do you make of this argument?”) This kind of writing has been fundamental to the learning materials of The Open University, both printed and online, since its inception in the 1970s.

This too can go wrong, of course. As with the Microsoft Office Assistant, eagerness to help can come across as patronising, if the reader or learner is fully capable of managing by themselves; there’s an OU legend of the course materials which at one point suggested to the learner that they should take a coffee break if it was all getting too much. But there are many OU students who are grateful for a supportive tone; I remember one telling me how she’d been finding a particular section of her course hard going when she was delighted to read the materials’ reassurance that this topic was difficult and probably wouldn’t make sense until later. The perfect anticipation of what she was thinking and feeling not only encouraged her but reinforced her relationship with the course, communicating to her that the personality behind it was concerned for her and her success.

The OU was set up to bring higher education to people who had missed out on it earlier in life. Such people, frequently with a poor educational background, could not be expected to be familiar with formal study and the experience of a new subject being initially difficult but becoming easier with practice. They would therefore very likely be in need of assurance that the experience of difficulty is not a reason for thinking yourself incapable or for giving up. Postgraduate students, at the OU and elsewhere, can be expected to be better able to manage their own study, and can be safely left to self-regulate and negotiate normal difficulties for themselves, to say nothing of deciding when to have their own coffee breaks.

But I would argue that, even for experienced and sophisticated learners, learning materials should still embody that personal relationship implied by direct address. It’s what distinguishes education or training from an information dump. The illusion of the materials being a personal tutor – an illusion in which the learner acquiesces, just as we acquiesce in the illusion that a TV or radio presenter is talking to us – allows learning materials to do two very important things. The first is to support motivation – the great challenge in all distance learning – by giving comfort and encouragement. The second is to support self-management, by modelling how to mentally step back from the subject, the information, to reflect on the learner’s experience of its study; by internalising this supervisory voice, the learner eventually becomes better able to evaluate and regulate their learning for themselves.

The temptation when writing learning materials is to be factual and presentational. Getting personal, addressing the reader directly – and thinking about how they would like to be addressed – is something to which writers need to give deliberate attention .


[1] See for example Davies, B. and Harré, R. (1990), ‘Positioning: the discursive production of selves’, Journal of the Theory of Social Behaviour, vol 20, pp. 43-65.

[2] This point was powerfully illustrated by one of Michael Wesch’s anthropology students in the early years of YouTubeing, when she held up a mirror to her webcam to show us what she was actually talking to (in other words, not us) while making her video. (Wesch included the short video clip in his talk An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube, timecode 21:38 to 22:03.)

[3] Rowntree, D. (1994), Preparing Materials for Open, Distance and Flexible Learning: An Action Guide for Teachers and Trainers, London, Kogan Page, p. 14. Lockwood, F. (1992), Activities in Self-Instructional Texts, London, Kogan Page, p. 25. See also my blog post ‘Alternatives to telling: what are we forgetting when we put education online?

7 questions about branching scenarios

While writing a branching scenario about absence management as a proof-of-concept for simulating difficult conversations, I found that I needed to answer some basic questions.

1. What is a branching scenario?

A branching scenario is a story, but one which is presented to you step by step, and in which what happens next is dependent on the choices you make – like the old “chose-you-own-adventure” gamebooks, only digital. (Related concepts: interactive fiction, hypertext fiction, adventure games.)

2. What use is a branching scenario?

In education or training, a branching scenario can enable learners to practice or test their skills. The scenario will be based on a workplace situation, like a case study but with the addition of interactivity: learners are required to go through the steps and make the decisions themselves. In this sense, a branching scenario is comparable to virtual reality, which may be useful in training where the situations are physical and the skills required are visual; but in human situations where the skills required are communicative, a text-based branching scenario will usually be more appropriate, as well as considerably cheaper to produce.

3. How can people learn from a branching scenario?

The big advantage of a branching scenario is that learners are engaged right away. A realistic practical situation, of a kind that learners might actually have to deal with, presents them with a challenge they can’t ignore. Furthermore, unlike a case study or set of process instructions, in which it’s too easy to think that the learning points are obvious, learners are forced to remember or work out what to do at each step. The relevance and the difficulty of the challenge are evident.

At its heart, a branching scenario enables learning by doing, by providing a simulated environment in which learners can practice and make errors safely. A scenario can also include feedback for the learners’ choices, ideally built into the narrative, to complete the learning cycle.

4. How do you prevent the tree becoming massive?

Say you provide three choices at the first decision point, and each of those branches leads to another three choices and so on. After three decision points there will be 27 branches, after four decision points there will be 81, and after five decision points there will be 243! How can you possibly write so many storylines?

The answer is, of course, that you don’t. You don’t need to cover every possible choice which a learner might make, just those mistakes which a learner is most likely to make in a real situation. (The need to simulate errors follows directly from active learning theory, but it nevertheless needs emphasising because of subject-matter experts usual tendency to focus solely on the correct course of action. See my blog post “What should a simulation simulate?”)

In my absence management scenario, the main mistakes which I wanted to include were: failing to prepare properly for a return-to-work interview with Pam, a frequently-absent member of staff; not holding the interview in a private meeting room; and challenging Pam on the genuineness of her sickness when there’s no conclusive evidence of her malingering.

5. How do you prevent the choices being obvious?

The problem here is the same as with multiple-choice questions: since the correct choice has to be in plain view, learners don’t need to think of it for themselves, so doesn’t this remove the challenge if all they need to do is recognise it?

The answer is that you can make the target choices less obvious by careful wording, so that recognising them as correct requires understanding of the situation and thinking through the implications of the choice. For example, in my absence management scenario, the choice which I gave learners was not between “Go to a meeting room” and “Don’t go to a meeting room” but between the dialogue lines “Come and sit down for a chat” and “We need to have a proper talk”. Because I’ve already established that you’re in an open plan office, the first option should be easily recognised as inappropriate if you’re thinking properly about the difficult conversation you’re about to have with Pam, yet the second option isn’t shouting its correctness.

It’s worth bearing in mind that there are many narrative games (see for example Life is Strange 2, Heaven’s Vault, Tacoma, Tales from the Borderlands) which are successful in creating both challenge and surprise, despite being effectively based around multiple choice options. And since our aim is education and training, even an obviously wrong choice may prompt thought and hence learning. In my absence management scenario, for example, learners are repeatedly presented with the option of bottling out of doing a return-to-work interview with Pam. (The team is under pressure, deadlines are looming, and the temptation to focus on tasks at hand is strong.) This is fairly obviously incorrect, and yet its inclusion serves to make the point that determination and a conscious decision may be necessary to carry through with a difficult conversation they would rather not have.

6. Can’t learners just try every choice until they get it right?

The whole point of a branching scenario for education or training is that learners should be learning to think differently and better, so if they’re making choices at random or systematically working their way through the choices then something is wrong with the design.

There are several ways of encouraging learners to think about their choices. The most important is to embed feedback into the scenario as far as possible, so that they can quickly get a feeling for whether a past choice was good, bad or neutral. For example, in my absence management scenario, if you remain in the open plan office and start to ask Pam about her illness and whether she has any problems with work colleagues, then the text will tell you that you wish you’d gone to a meeting room and Pam will cut the interview short. (The excellent Cathy Moore has a blog post about the importance of feedback being embedded, rather than delivered by the Voice of God.)

Another trick, which can be used to force learners to prioritise, is to impose a limit on the number of alternative choices which can be pursued. For example, in my absence management scenario, the preparation choices before the return-to-work interview are: ask a colleague for advice, look at HR guidance, check Pam’s absence record, look for her self-certification forms, or do nothing – but there’s an artificial time limit which means you can only do one of these things. (Spoiler: all are informative, but you can’t achieve the best possible ending without checking Pam’s absence record and printing it out, which enables you to confront her with just how often she’s been off sick.)

A third technique, which as well as being realistic makes systematic exploration of choices more difficult, is to have the availability of certain choices dependent on other choices made earlier. In a healthcare scenario where you’re interviewing a patient, for example, certain dialogue choices would only appear if you’ve previously read the case notes and talked to other professionals so that you know to ask about those topics.

7. How does a branching scenario end?

Many narrative games now include a number of distinct endings, and in imitation of this I planned my absence management scenario to have five: you fail to deal with Pam’s absenteeism problem, you attempt to hold a return-to-work interview but get nowhere with it, you accuse Pam of faking illness whereupon she gets angry and makes a complaint of bullying, you get her to agree to obtain doctor’s certificates for any future sickness absence, and – the best ending – you confront her with her absence record and get her commitment to improve.

If you expect or want learners to replay a scenario, then they should be enabled and motivated to do so. In my absence management scenario, I did this by finishing it with feedback on the main choices taken and suggesting that a good ending was possible. I also put in two restart links: one to restart from the beginning of the scenario and one to restart from the beginning of the conversation with Pam.

I wrote the absence management scenario as a demonstration piece, a proof-of-concept, and it’s confirmed for me that branching scenarios of this kind have great potential for education and training in communications and people-management skills. They’re not a substitute for didactic presentation or for formal assessment, but because of their potential to engage learners and to encourage them to think differently and better about practical human problems, I believe they should be part of the genre library of all producers of training materials.