“Where is your plan, man?” 

When you build a house, you think about how the space is going to be used and consider the preferred material type, size, and layout. It all goes into a plan! It’s the same when you create a successful learning experience; you need to plan before you build. 

A storyboard is the instructional designer’s tool for planning, just like the architect’s plan delivers the vision before a single brick is laid in a house build.  

What a storyboard looks like varies from project to project. For example, a brief table or a series of notes might be enough to deliver enough for the project. However, sometimes you need a more detailed document to show what the learner will experience on each screen. A storyboard, in whatever format, helps to manage expectations, outlines the agreed objectives, and shows how you intend to get there. 

It’s surprising, then, that storyboarding is often skipped. The reasons for this vary: some say they are time consuming and costly; others think it is so easy to use the current eLearning authoring tools that they can jump straight into development. Both are common myths! 

A good learning experience is a result of good instructional design, and the best designers know how to plan.  

Those who race ahead without storyboarding place a greater emphasis on eye-catching visual design than on effective learning experience design. 

Here are the top three reasons storyboarding matters to us at Like-Minded. We always create a storyboard, albeit at different, project-specific levels of detail and complexity. 

1. It’s easier to change a document than make changes at the build and graphics stage. 

A storyboard is your client’s first review of how you have translated their subject matter. They are entitled to make changes, and you should expect and welcome their input. Unless you are also an expert in their subject, there are likely to be elements they need to revise. 

The client will find it easier to make content changes in a Word document than in something that is already built. In a draft build, they may be tempted to ‘fine tune,’ even though a more substantial rearrangement is what is best for the content. If the first time they review their content is when the first draft has been built in the authoring tool, they may be distracted by what they see and may not focus on the technical accuracy of the content and how well it meets the objectives. 

Don’t forget that you might need to support your client to understand your storyboard, but if you keep it simple, they will be able to visualise what you plan to build. You may even choose to build a few screens to show them what it will look like.  

2. It’s a checkpoint that makes sure that you’re on the right track. 

A detailed storyboard may be needed for larger projects to show the client that you understand the level, tone, and language required for the audience. Your client usually knows these best and, as an instructional designer, you’re often not the subject matter expert. Take all the help you can get! A storyboard provides a checkpoint to make sure you are on the right track. 

If you get it wrong and build the course without checking with the experts, you may find yourself doing rework that eats into the budget and causes project overrun. A storyboard approval step–before you start the build–makes it easier to be objective when you need to manage scope creep later. 

A storyboard also helps the learning designer keep true to the objectives. How often has a subject matter expert asked you to add in a bit more… and a bit more… until the course expands from 20 minutes to 60 minutes? We aim to please our clients, but we have an obligation to help manage volume and make the learning real and relevant. A storyboard makes this an objective exercise, rather than a subjective one, which in turn can reduce tension. 

3. You can confirm that you are delivering a balanced experience before you build it. 

When you’ve written the learning experience from end to end as a storyboard, you can step back and check that what you have created is balanced. This means there is a good mix of activities across the whole module and within topics (if it’s broken down as such). You wouldn’t usually have one text-heavy module and one with all videos (unless there were a course-specific reason to do so). 

You can also check that the storyboard has a good activity flow, delivers to different adult learning preferences, and is an appropriate length. These are all much more difficult to change once you have started to build the module.  

Ask yourself–and your client– if it is a varied and engaging learning experience. Have you structured it to maintain interest throughout? You don’t want to have to think about how to rework a course that, in testing, shows that people drop off early because of poor design. 

Put in the time where it’s needed – it’s not wasted time! 

We know it takes time to write a quality storyboard, but we also know it doesn’t necessarily add hours to the project. More often, hours are saved by reducing the rework later, during the more costly graphics design and build stages. More importantly, a good plan increases the chance of the learning you create being effective and eliciting real behavioural change. 

Planning gives you a better product in less time. 

You certainly don’t have to start every project with a storyboard, and there are other solutions to the five points I mentioned, but if you can be efficient, specific, and thorough in your storyboard, your planning will pay off.