As a learning professional who strictly develops courses for adults, I often overlook how simple it is to apply everyday instructional design practices to projects for young learners. But when my seven-year-old son, Donovan, took the initiative to create his own math logic puzzle in PowerPoint, I jumped at the chance to use a real-life scenario to show him what I do for a living, build something fun and engaging for young learners, and, ultimately, help him package his creativity into something accessible to the masses.

Although this impromptu project was meant to be an intimate learning experience for him, one thing I was surprised to learn was that no matter the age or the expertise of your subject matter experts (SMEs), the process for developing high-quality learning products that meet their requirements is the same, including the compromises we sometimes have to make when working with people unfamiliar with what we do and how we do it. Here, I share that experience and the lessons learned along the way.

The self-proclaimed math whiz

Before I point out the similarities between working with someone so young and working with adult SMEs, let me take a moment to describe my son to you. In some ways, Donovan is a typical seven-year-old boy: He’s obsessed with all things video games, thinks superheroes are the coolest, and only eats chicken nuggets. In other ways, he is unique. For example, he enjoys learning. But let me put some context around what that actually means. When I picked him up on the last day of school before winter break, I asked him if he had fun with all the parties and candy and games and such. I was caught off guard by his response: “No. I wish we had math.”

Math is by far his favorite subject. Donovan—a self-proclaimed math whiz—loves to solve problems in his head, and the more challenging, the better. This has led to an interest in solving logic problems. So, when he came home one Friday with a logic puzzle from school, he immediately went to work on it even though it was not an assignment and doing so reduced his video game playing time.  

I didn’t realize until the next day that his interest would create the perfect opportunity for me to share with him my love of instructional design and the process for making eLearning courses.

Storyboarding in PowerPoint

We just bought our first home (snaps to us!), and as a means to occupy my time and assuage my perfectionist tendencies, I created scaled floorplans in PowerPoint to have a little fun playing with layout and color combos. When I showed him what I was working on, Donovan was less interested in what I created and more interested in how I created it: asking questions about the basic components I used to make the sectional, detailing the steps he would use to recreate the objects, wondering what program I used and whether Dad had it on his computer. PowerPoint is not a typical program young persons gravitate toward, but Donovan was immediately drawn to it.

With a few pointers on inserting shapes, text boxes, and resizing objects, he was on a mission to create his own logic puzzle. From scratch. In a program he’s never used before. (Figure 1)

Figure 1: The PowerPoint wireframe for the logic puzzle

Leaving the file in edit mode, I dragged and dropped the Xs and Os to various spots in the chart while I determined which name belonged to which animal. Then it hit me: This was the perfect storyboard! He even completed his puzzle with a feedback slide that provided the correct answers.

After solving the puzzle, I pointed to key elements that function similarly in the program I used for work—Articulate Storyline 2. And when he realized I could turn his puzzle into something that many people could access and solve, he was hooked.

The project: Donovan’s Logic Puzzle

I am an avid ADDIE follower, but I have few occasions where I can progress through a project and adhere to the five phases in their purest forms, mainly because most clients have their preferred method of development. Since my son drafted the storyboard, this project skipped the analysis phase and jumped straight to the design phase. Going back to analyze the source material and get a sense of the full design requirements as they pertained to Storyline 2 was met with some resistance—something I’m accustomed to receiving from adult SMEs.

I found myself having a similar conversation with Donovan, explaining the importance of taking the time up front to truly understand his vision to make sure I can replicate it in my program. Donovan, like most clients, didn’t fully grasp the intricacies behind changing states on objects, applying triggers, adding slide layers, creating variables, and the like. He simply wanted me to look at his storyboard and make it work.

He also didn’t see a need to change the aesthetic of the logic puzzle from the typical paper-and-pencil format of black and white. Because he was able to produce it so easily in PowerPoint, it wasn’t necessary in his mind to add color, interest, or anything visually engaging to hold the learner’s attention. Knowing how important this step is to the overall user experience, I offered several options for compromise: colored background with white lines and text, icons for the animals, white background with colored lines and text, etc. Despite my many attempts, we left the issue open until he could look at my proof of concept before making his final judgement.

The requirements

After our session, we agreed that the following list rounded out his essential requirements to make his logic puzzle, with a few key items of my own added in:

  • Arrange all slide elements in the same location as in the storyboard
  • Drag and drop Xs and Os just like in the PowerPoint edit mode
  • Add an instructions slide
  • No player controls
  • Customized feedback slides
  • Indicate correct and incorrect answers
  • Can’t move on until correctly solving the puzzle

The process

The instructions slide seemed to be the best starting point because it incorporated several of the items from the requirements list. Since this puzzle is targeted to a younger audience, for the proof of concept I thought it would be more appealing to tie in a classroom feel. The slide background looks like the average blackboard, making it easier for white text and brighter colors to pop. Furthermore, I decided to beef up the instructions by not only telling learners what to do, but also requiring them to try for themselves before moving on. (Figure 2)

Figure 2: The proposal for the instructions slide

States and triggers

Constant feedback is a must, and this logic puzzle utilizes multiple states to cue learners when their interactions are complete. The normal state on the Xs and Os is purple; however, when either one is dropped on a drop target in the chart, it changes states to “placed,” which is orange. When an O is dropped on one of the correct answer drop targets, it changes to a “correct” status but maintains the orange color so the learner won’t know whether or not the answer is correct until the submit button is clicked. (Figure 3)

Figure 3: Image states

The state of the Os triggers either the “Incorrect” feedback slide layer or the “Correct” feedback slide layer when the submit button is clicked. If incorrect, the color of the Os changes to red and a retry button pops up, which closes the layer and allows the learner to try again. (Figure 4) To reset the colors of the Xs and Os, learners simply drag each one outside of the chart on any side. This drags them over transparent rectangles, changing their states back to normal. If correct, the Os change to green and another button pops up, allowing them to move on. (Figure 5)

Figure 4: The “Incorrect” feedback slide

Figure 5: The “Correct” feedback slide

Proof of concept review

When I was confident all potential kinks had been worked out, I presented to Donovan the proof of concept build of the instructions page. Now that he could see how impactful the colors were and the benefit of creating a theme within the project, he fully supported my decisions on the look and feel for his puzzle. He even loved the idea of having learners experience what happens before they are required to solve the puzzle.

Then he asked me what I find many adult SMEs ask at this point in the process: “Where is the rest?” Although many clients nod in understanding when explaining the design phase and the idea of building a small sample of the desired outcome to get approval before spending hours developing the entire course, they tend to expect a fully fleshed out and functioning product complete with sound, voice-over, and the like. I reminded him, as I’ve done in other settings, that his input was necessary prior to creating the rest of the puzzle to make sure what was done on a small scale met his expectations. With his approval, I could move forward and complete development.

He understood, and I got busy with the meat of the puzzle.

Development and redesign

Two things occurred to me while creating this puzzle: First, we needed to rethink the size of the animals, and second, this short project will have more triggers in it than most of the courses I produce.

Regarding the size of the animals in the puzzle, some cats are bigger than some dogs. Also, parrots are larger than cats when considering their wingspan. So, if we wanted to have an absolute correct answer for each option, we needed to select animals in our puzzle that absolutely followed a particular size order. Therefore, we changed the size order to elephant, horse, dog, and hamster. And for added difficulty, Donovan wanted to mix up the size order in the chart.

Figure 6: The revised puzzle chart

Applying the triggers from the instructions slide to the actual puzzle itself resulted in over 50 triggers on that slide alone. To reiterate the earlier point of why a proof of concept was necessary, I showed Donovan the trigger panel and explained a few of the commands. He understood right away that working through all of those triggers just to make a change would be incredibly difficult and time consuming.

While he was there, he tested the puzzle and gave me two thumbs up for the functionality and the design, even though he thought having background music was a little much. All that was left was an intro slide and an exit slide. Using his likeness from a previous project, I had the perfect character to introduce his puzzle. (Figure 7)

Figure 7: The introductory slide

The result

Maybe I had the wrong expectations when starting this process. I thought Donovan would follow along and be more of a spectator instead of an opinionated participant. Looking back, however, it makes perfect sense why he would react similarly to any adult SME I’ve worked with: He was treated as the knowledge expert, and I made sure my interactions respected his point of view even when we didn’t see eye-to-eye. I can’t tell you when I last completed a math logic puzzle, so I was completely reliant on his experience, much like any other adult SME who has expertise in a field I have limited knowledge of. It was a special moment where I got to share something I love with someone I love, and I couldn’t be happier with the result.

Now that you know the story behind Donovan’s Logic Puzzle, go ahead and give it a try! Click this link to launch the puzzle, and leave a comment to let us know what you think: