Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Virtual worlds 2.0: don't call it a comeback

It's not just my gut that's been telling me that virtual worlds are emerging from the Trough of Disillusionment and moving into the Slope of Enlightenment on Gartner's Hype Cycle.

On the corporate front, I've just finished up Phase 1 of a consulting engagement focused on developing an organizational adoption plan for a large, global company that is utilizing a virtual world platform as an emerging tool for delivering immersive learning and fostering collaboration and idea sharing among employees spread around the world. It is extremely encouraging to see companies moving out of the "technology implementation" stage and into the "organizational implementation" stage; this signifies a movement of virtual worlds out of the IT departments and into human resources, training, and other departments focused on internal communication. Organizations who have been thinking about or starting to implement virtual worlds have spent a lot of time focused on getting the technology to work and integrate with their existing corporate systems for the past two years; we're moving out of that focus now and into questions of how virtual worlds can best be leveraged. That's an exciting trend for those of us who've been focused on immersive design and how virtual worlds can support different communication and collaboration dynamics.

Another sign that virtual worlds are headed for mainstream adoption are emerging best practice examples of their use for training and learning. Just today, Proton Media announced a partnership with PPD to develop a Virtual Clinical Trial training solution. I've been working with clients recently on virtual preceptorships, virtual apprenticeships, and developing virtual sales territories. There are more and more conversations emerging of using these "mirror worlds" for realistic practice and this trend will continue.

Aaron Silvers blogged this week about his experience at GameTech 2011 where there was more talk about virtual worlds than games. In February, Aaron and I had talked about the current state of virtual worlds  at TechKnowledge 2011 (where I had presented two sessions on virtual worlds for learning). I had been arguing that they were re-emerging from a lag in interest and I think his observations on GameTech confirm that in the government, virtual worlds are certainly garnering renewed attention as a learning tool.

Earlier this week I did a quick search for "virtual worlds" on my blog and found that in the last three years, I've written 32 blog posts related to virtual world topics. I was pretty surprised. Although I've spent a lot of time thinking and speaking about immersive learning design since starting this blog, I don't think I realized how much I'd actually written down. In December 2009, I wrote a post titled "Virtual World 2.0...a few humble predictions" where I made some assumptions about the emerging characteristics of virtual worlds that would lead them to mainstream adoption. I did pretty good on my prediction scorecard:

  • Browser-based: almost all virtual worlds are moving in this direction, with minimal plug-ins and more consistent web navigational standards
  • Less user-generated content: the most successful serious virtual worlds have provided packaged experiences (eg. Protosphere, VenueGen, web.alive, VastPark)
  • Open source: OpenSim continues to strengthen and expand its reach
  • Integration with other tools (mobile, augmented reality, existing workplace systems like Sharepoint): this has happened on many levels and in different ways across platforms, but the system integration features may be the key to pushing virtual worlds to mainstream adoption
  • More seamless user-experience and navigation: point-and-click navigation is practically standard in the most popular serious virtual worlds. Oh, and have you seen Kinect?
Virtual worlds have been moving through a natural evolution and are beginning to emerge as a valuable tool in corporate and government learning, communication, and collaboration. Our thinking now needs to evolve as well; its no longer a question of if, but when. For organizations who understand this, the real question is, "how can you prepare to successfully adopt and integrate immersive and experiential learning?" 

Monday, March 28, 2011

Learning, and the opportunity and risk of living publicly

We are in the age of living publicly.

Social media has enabled us to broadcast and publish our work, our thoughts, our pictures, and our "updates" not just to people we know, but to the entire world. This brings with it an enormous opportunity and also tremendous risk, sometimes at the same time.

Take, for example, Rebecca Black.

If you haven't yet seen the Friday video by Rebecca Black, or heard all of the news stories about her and the video, take a minute and watch it now.

Its not a good song or video (although I would bet you money you'll find yourself singing the catchy hook later today) fact, its pretty awful. BUT SHE'S 13. I never fancied myself a musician, but I did think I was a pretty fantastic writer when I was a teenager. When I look back on what I wrote? Wow, I was terrible. I'm thankful that all of my writing was confined to spiral notebooks and the broadest audience was my friends and family who encouraged me to keep writing, but never gave me false praise or soul-crushing criticism. I was allowed to practice and improve, and in some cases, realize that I wasn't all that good and I didn't have the passion to work harder to become good.

That's the beauty of learning. To really learn something, to become an expert, you have to practice. You have to have a safe place to try and experiment and fail and improve and stick with it and, eventually, get better. Becoming really good at something requires dedication and practice. Sure, some people start out with natural abilities or inclinations that might make learning something easier. But there are very few things that you can't learn and be really good at if you keep practicing.

Rebecca Black may have never become a great singer, songwriter, or musician. Maybe she would have (maybe she still will). But what impact has the public lambasting of her video had on her learning, her motivation, and her development?

Criticism is hard to hear. None of us really like to hear that we're bad at something...we thrive in environments where we get positive reinforcement. On the other hand, constructive feedback is necessary if we want to get better at something.

We live in an age that allows us to get instant, unfiltered feedback on anything that we do. It may be a realistic environment, but it can be hostile and often not constructive. Now, more than ever, we need the ability to practice, to find opportunities for constructive criticism in safe environments, and to refine and hone our skills before we put ourselves out in the public eye.

In learning terms, this means that coaching, mentoring, and communities of practice will play increasingly critical roles in our development. It means that immersive and experiential learning environments will become those safe havens where we can practice safely before we're ready for prime time. It means that we all need to develop the ability to manage our public versus private identities in ways that we haven't had to even think about in the past.

I hope Rebecca Black has a long, happy, and successful life in whatever she decides to pursue. At 13, she has learned, and illustrated to many, the power of social media. But with great power comes great responsibility...and we all need to be taking (and teaching) responsibility to ensure that the opportunities afforded by social media outweigh the risks. 

Monday, March 21, 2011

Why more women aren't using Quora

I'm about to make some broad, sweeping generalizations about behavior based on gender. Yes, I know that opens up a whole debate where people will point to specific examples that run counter to my argument, and yes, they exist, and no, I'm not saying that ALL women behave one way or that ALL men behave another. But there are some culturally defined and perhaps genetically determined differences in how the genders interact (lots and lots of books written about this...) and this post is focused on addressing how those differences affect design, specifically community and user interaction design in social media.

I read a story this morning that came through my Twitter stream: Is Quora a Sausage Fest? 

And it immediately clarified for me why I don't like Quora. Quora is actually designed for men.

Let's take a step back. Lots of business and political arenas were designed by men, for men...they focus on the ways that men interact with each other. Sorry, guys, but a lot of what you do is just professional chest-puffing, testosterone-rich, back-slapping pissing matches. Sure, it may look more civilized in some contexts, but I'd argue that on any given day, C-Span taps into the political version of a Gladiator ring with a bunch of guys trying to out-argue each other over issues that neither party is going to budge on.

Why aren't women's professional sports more popular? Why are first person shooter video game players predominantly male? Why aren't there more women politicians or CEOs?

When you design systems based on the way men interact and communicate, men will be more interested in participating in them and will be more successful in them.

So let's look at Quora...

Although some people might call it a social media tool, there's not a lot social about it. If you don't know what Quora is...the simplest explanation is that its a forum where people can post questions and people can post responses. That seems gender-neutral enough, right?

Except, its really not. Quora has one formula to participate: question and answer. If we think about this as a community where everyone has the opportunity to become an "expert" then all of a sudden, the dynamic becomes "who can post the best/smartest/most relevant answer." In essence, Quora becomes one big competition to be the most prolific, the most engaged, the most answering other people's questions "the best."

This isn't a format that lends itself to conversation or discussion. This is a format that is a bunch of people getting up on their pulpits and preaching. This is Senators presenting on the Senate floor, gladiators in the ring fighting for their lives, people climbing over each other to get themselves up the corporate ladder. This is a format designed for men.

If you look at the most successful social media tools, Twitter and Facebook, there's one overarching feature that makes them just as appealing to women as they are to men. Its the opportunity for people to engage and interact in different ways. These tools allow for people to create their own experiences. They allow flexibility in participation. They create lots of different opportunities for people to define their own "success" or value in using the tools. With Twitter and Facebook, what you get out of it is what you put create your own experience.

Quora, on the other hand, is a defined experience and type of interaction. There are values already built into the design and dictated by the interaction style. And the interaction style is very masculine.

I talk a lot in my presentations on designing experiences to account for gender differences. There are some general guiding principles in immersive design you need to pay attention to: how you orient new users to the environment, how you reward behaviors, how well defined success is, etc. These gender differences impact how people perceive these environments, all the way from "is it useful?" to "is it fun?" and its important to understand how people engage with each other to design for different types of engagement.

Women are more communal, collaborative, and like to talk things out. Men are more decisive, exploratory, and willing to take risks (trial and error). I could tap into all the research that shows how our language, behaviors, and decision-making differs along gender lines, and how that contributes not only to how we are perceived and valued in professional settings, but also how that reflects how we think about ourselves as women and men. There are powerful cultural forces that have gotten us to where we are today; many of those cultural beliefs are what perpetuate gender stereotypes and inequalities. The fact remains...there are differences between women and men. That's a good thing, when those differences are acknowledged and accounted for.

So back to Quora. Its designed to post up a question and open it up to answers. This isn't a format like "Ask the Expert" where credibility and respect have already been established as part of the interaction design. This is a free-for-all of throwing yourself out there and making yourself an authority. If you look at just the basic differences between women and men, it makes sense why more men are engaged in this format. You're rewarded for having the most decisive language, strongest opinions, and taking a risk by throwing your opinion out there. Most women take one look at that and think "not interested." Then I'm guessing they go ask their question on Twitter or Facebook.

Asking questions and seeking answers are human characteristics that have nothing to do with gender. How we ask questions, who we seek out for answers, and they types of answers we value can be extremely gender specific. As we continue to explore social media tools as opportunities to engage people in new ways, we need to make sure we are aware of the differences if we want design to engage BOTH genders in the conversations. Perhaps before designing a tool that's whole purpose is to provide opportunities for questions and answers and then wondering why women aren't participating, it would be important to look at how women are already asking and answering questions and building those types of interactions into your design.

Unless you want, in the immortal words of Flight of the Conchords, "Too Many Dicks on the Dancefloor":

Too many men
Too many boys
Too many misters
Not enough sisters
Too much time on too many hands
Not enough ladies, too many mans

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

It's all about change (and resilience): The Change Game

Three years ago when Tandem Learning started this entrepreneurial journey, we fancied ourselves a services company. Over time, though, as we saw the intersections between the work that we do and the business challenges our clients are facing, it became clear that there were some solutions that could help a variety of organizations.

Take change management, for example.

What started out as a custom project for a client who wanted to help their employees be more resilient in the face of big organizational changes led to our partnering with Linda Hoopes of Resilience Alliance and using her book, Managing Change with Personal Resilience, as the basis what has become Tandem Learning's first product, The Change Game. 

We're really excited about The Change Game.

On an individual level, this game helps people identify how they react to changes in their own lives and through reflection and recognition, provides them with strategies to help them break the destructive patterns of resistance to change. 

On an organizational level, The Change Game provides companies with a new tool in their change management toolbox...addressing employee resistance, providing a common organizational language to identifying patterns and instances of resistance to change, and providing managers and organizational leaders responsible for implementing changes specific data around which to provide coaching to employees. 

If you'd like to learn more or to see it, send me a message and I'll be happy to show you around. If you'll be at Learning Solutions 2011, come find me for an in-person tour.

Monday, March 14, 2011

QR codes: practical design considerations

There has been so much written and talked about lately regarding QR codes, but most of what I've read has focused on the basics of what they are, trends in their use, or their pros and cons. For anyone who is interested in QR codes, I've collected a few links and references that should help you get a crash course on what QR codes are, and catch you up on the basic opinions being bandied about on their usage (or not):

My LinkedIn QR Code
Where I'd like to focus my energy are on the actual design considerations for whether or not QR codes will help you solve a problem...or if they are an "ooooh shiny" technology innovation.

Let's start with what QR codes do: they are images that you can scan from a QR reader on your phone that launch a webpage that either provides you with information or prompts you to do something. For example, someone could use a QR code on their business card to launch their LinkedIn profile where  you could choose to add them as a contact. Cool, right?

But lets look at the bigger picture. Are the use of QR codes good design?

Audience analysis: you need to have a smartphone for QR codes to be useful. There is all sorts of data available on demographics of who owns smartphones, but let's make some sweeping generalizations that less represented populations of smartphone owners are the young, the old, people with low incomes, and several minority populations. Of those people using smartphones, your audience is further narrowed by those who would actually download a QR code reader app, or have purchased a phone with one already built in. And then finally, your audience would need to know what QR codes are and see the need for using them.

The audience analysis portion of QR codes is important, because many of the potential uses (that are NOT product marketing) I see for QR codes are actually most beneficial to the young, the old, and underserved populations.

Needs analysis: So, in what situations do we need to automatically launch a website?

Yeah, um...not many.

I like the LinkedIn example I mentioned above, because I think it would be more convenient to share contact info digitally than through paper business cards. I also like some healthcare related examples, like having a QR code on prescription bottles that provides all the prescribing information. It would be helpful for food labeling to start including QR codes for nutritional information. I'd love if things that required instructions (IKEA furniture, programming a universal remote, changing the fluids on my car) could launch from my phone whenever I needed them. A lot of this is "just in time" type of information and instruction that would be really beneficial to have at the ready and using a QR code to launch that type of content could be extremely useful. In essence, I'm thinking of QR codes as "job aid launchers" and I think looking at them in that capacity could be a viable and appropriate use.

I also see the opportunity to use QR codes for game design, specifically in the design of alternate reality games (ARGs) and scavenger hunt games. Again, though, the audience analysis is key...people can't play the game if they don't have the technology they need to play.

Unfortunately, what I've been seeing is mostly QR codes being used as promotional content launch points. There's two reasons why I don't think this makes sense...

1. when you scan a QR code and it launches a website, especially for promotion, the likelihood that you are in a position to actually review the content on the website is pretty small. Let's say I'm at a conference...let's say SXSW. And there are QR codes everywhere. Am I going to be walking around with my phone, scanning QR codes and standing there reading about your site? Is that information being saved anywhere for me to review later?(answer = probably not) Wouldn't my time be better spent actually talking to people and looking at the technology? And if I'm passing out QR codes, why not just pass out marketing materials that have the website address on it so that I can take it with me and review it on my computer instead of my phone?

And 2. most QR codes aren't reinforcing your brand. I've seen some customized QR codes, but for the most part, QR codes are black and white 8-bit looking boxes that do nothing to promote your brand or your messaging. If anything, they strip the messaging away, or add an additional step for your potential customers to learn more about you. Why make your customers work harder to learn about what you can do for them?

From a designer's perspective, you want to minimize the work you make people do to get to the content that is most important to them. When you're thinking about QR codes, think about your audience, think about what you're trying to accomplish, think about the actual logistics of how they are used,  and then ask yourself...are QR codes the best solution for the need I'm trying to address or the problem I'm trying to solve?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Augmented Reality Games, Alternate Reality Games, and the Future of Learning

Watch live video from RELATE Live! on

Thank you to Rick Zanotti and Terrence Wing for inviting me to speak today on #elearnchat. You can check out the video here...including our "prep" session at the beginning!