Instructional Design Lessons from the designers of Stephen Hawking’s text input system

A recent article in Wired magazine told the story of the team of Intel engineers who developed ALS-Inflicted physicist Stephen Hawkings current speech input system. I highly recommend. The story at the link below.

As an Instructional Designer, I loved this article, because it talks about the iterative design and development process of a sophisticated support tool. It has so many great lessons about engineering and design, about needs analysis, about iterative design, interface design, and about prototyping and testing. These lessons apply to design in general as well to the specific case of Instructional Design.

Let’s take a closer look at a few of these lessons.

The power of good tools

It shows the power of well-crafted support tools as a solution to performance challenges. Educational Technology students will remember that one of the core messages from Human Performance Technology is that our real business is not so much teaching in itself, but in improving human performance, improving the ability of people to reach their goals for various efforts. Sometimes training is the route to this improvement, but sometimes better tools are the answer. A well crafted support tool fits us like a glove. It becomes like an extension of us and extends our abilities.

Change can be jarring

It illustrates the challenge of insituting change in human-machine systems, particularly with older users. On paper a new tool may be much more efficient. And maybe it would be, with a blank slate. But users bring their attachments to long standing learned patterns of doing things. There is an inertia here. Learning a new way of doing something can involve unlearning the old way. It highlights one of the challenging contraints in design, keeping of continuity with what came before to avoid overhwhelming the user. The tool is supposed to make life easier; be cautious of how big an up-front hill you put between the user and the point where the user starts to see the benefit.

Know your users

It illustrates the importance of taking time to understand your user, where their challenges are, and how to solve those problems. A bit earlier I mentioned the power of tools that are crafted to the user. But to design such tools, you really need to take the time to know the needs of the user.

Iterative design and rapid prototyping

It illustrates the benefit of an iterative design process designing. building, and testing multiple prototypes. While in the textbooks, Instructional Design is presented as iterative, in practice, a lot of training organizations see it as linear. You analyze, then you make the whole design, and then you build it, and implement it. But so often you don’t really understand the needs of the user until you get into building something and let the user try it. And often, even though the user signs off  on a design, they don’t really understand what it means either until they see it live. That’s why an iterative design with rapid prototyping can be so helpful. More back and forth in the design and development phases can save a lot of headaches later. Build something preliminary, test it with the user, then make corrections. Figure out something is not working in the prototype stage, not after investing hundreds of hours into development.


Finally, it highlights the importance of good communication with the client regularly about design vision, plans. Of listening carefully about what worked and what didn’t in the most recent prototype. Of hearing what they are saying and what is unsaid, between the lines.

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