I’ve been developing eLearning for 15 years, focusing primarily on the development side of things. You know, taking storyboards and other assets from clients, so that I could build courses to their specs. Or as a mate eloquently put it:
“Working downstream of a sewage processing plant.”
I’ve touched more eLearning projects than I can count. The other week, I worked on over a dozen projects. This isn’t a flex, if I wanted to flex, I’d show you my gold teeth. It’s just what's up.
Guess what all these courses have in common?
They are all shit.
You know what I’m talking about.
To set the mood for this article, let’s start with this speech from the movie, Network:
I’m not here to talk about inflation or crime in the street (I wish I was smart enough to solve those problems). I'm here to talk about stuff we can control. The tools we use. The choices we make. The work that we do. The impact that we have.
But first, we've got to get mad.
If you are wondering why there is so much shit eLearning out there, start by looking at the tools that we use and the kind of work they promote. We are being held back by the compromised visions of yesterday's eLearning tools.
The focus is on the wrong thing. It’s all messed up. And we celebrate this crap? eLearning is broken and it's our fault.
I build eLearning courses for other people
I pay others to build eLearning
Every week, I see examples that are so bad, that my heart goes out to those who are being misled. We have aspiring instructional designers building rubbish in Storyline rather than learning what an instructional designer should be doing.
There are many more important things you should be practising.
Developing a resource shouldn’t be arduous. Involving a team of people, layers of management, and months of work - only to build something that barely ticks the box, let alone has an impact.
Here’s a snippet of a conversation that I saw recently:
I’m not doubting these estimates. These are professionals doing their best work. And some of them I know have years of carefully collected data, from their own projects, that they base these estimates on.
I get what’s involved. More than you know. I have a spot behind the couch where I curl up in a foetal position whenever this appears:
It’s not good enough.
The amount of money that is being spent on shit eLearning courses is astronomical. I've worked with dozens of companies that are spending hundreds of thousands a year on Storyline courses, some, into the millions! For this shit?
"I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!"
Do you have a smartphone? And do you use it for everything? Now tell me... are you building courses that work well on mobile? Have you even tried your courses on your phone? Go on... I'll wait. If you are lucky and don’t have one handy, you can find a heap here.
To be clear, I’m not picking on the people who made this stuff. Many of them are friends of mine, or at least they used to be.
You see, I was an Articulate “Hero” for many years. Championing their software and dedicating untold hours to supporting their customers via their forums.
As you can imagine, Articulate really appreciated my help. They sent me a cup:
It is a nice cup. Sufficient capacity. Good handle.
And it’s aged better than Storyline has over the years.
When I started building eLearning, responsive design was a major focus in the web development space. Back then, it was mobile subdomains and resolution-dependent stylesheets… but at least they were trying! I remember chatting with my boss about how we needed to make sure our training worked on mobile devices.
That was over a decade ago. Little has changed.
I fear for all of the transitioning teachers who are coming into this field, believing that they need an Articulate subscription “to grow and evolve“ as an ID.
You don't. It’ll hold you back. It'll make you lazy.
I can hear it now. But but but… “everyone is using it”.
Maybe. But should they be?
If you want to grow, let that subscription expire. If Articulate wants you to renew it, get them to submit a feature request. You can treat it with the same lack of respect they've shown our feature requests in the past.
It’s time to move on.
We don’t need more smart people building dumb stuff.
If you’ve been following me for a while, you know that I joke about buttons and certificates, but I’m 100% serious here.
Turn off your (32-bit Windows) computer.
Zoom into your bosses' or clients' offices and scream:
"I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”.
It’s not just time to change, the time to change was a decade ago.
We are stuck. Churning out 20-minute Storyline courses like it matters.
The simplest of tasks are painful.
How can we focus on the meaningful, when we are stuck in Storyline hell?
Another full week is scheduled. Building more Storyline courses. 40 hours of clicking, dragging, cursing and crying. And the output? More shit.
I’m not going to document Storyline's bugs, usability issues, and questionable marketing claims here. No one cares. If been pointing these out for years and little has changed. As far as I’m concerned, Storyline is dead.
Despite what your expensive subscription implies.
So what do we do instead?
We have to find better ways to work.
I’m sick of spending most of my time wrestling with software, hoping it will comply.
I want to use a tool that is designed and developed by a company that respects its users. It doesn’t just need to be “user friendly”, it needs to feel like a ray of fucking sunshine at the end of a long winter.
It’s time to thaw out, shake off the lethargy and remember why we are here.
I just looked over the last dozen courses I’ve authored. They all use the same core features and interaction types, just designed in a different way.
Note that I said a “different” way and not “better”.
I know you think you want the flexibility that comes with tools like Storyline and Captivate, where you can build “anything”. But it’s a nasty trap that leads to hundreds and hundreds of hours of development, building monstrosities that shouldn’t exist.
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.
A special message to those of you who love “pushing the boundaries” of Storyline by making “real games”:
We don’t need another shit eLearning game.
If you want to make learning games, learn Unity, and GiT GuD.
Everyone will love you.
Accessibility shouldn’t be an afterthought. It shouldn’t be tacked on later and forced into confusing and complex workflows. It shouldn’t take hours to implement and require extensive testing at every step due to badly designed software that invites errors.
As much as possible, authoring tools should make accessibility easy to implement. It should be handled responsibly, consistently and (where possible) automatically.
For an example of what I mean, have a look at the incredible work being done over at Headless UI. Here’s a sample of their accessibility notes for a dropdown menu component:
This is the kind of stuff we need in our eLearning tools. We need accessibility to be managed properly, for every feature, without exception. And it needs to be clearly documented, with at least this level of detail.
In this case, it is clear exactly how accessibility works with this component. It’ll work like this every time. The component is tested and updated regularly by a dedicated team of people who live and breathe this stuff. So you don't need to stress the details.
Look at the above screenshot again. Can you build a dropdown that behaves like that in Storyline or Captivate? If you think you could, how long would it take to develop? How would you feel if your client wanted to add some new menu items, no dramas, right? Or would it be a total nightmare? I see companies burn through tens of thousands a month in wasted development efforts because they insist on using tools that should have died alongside Flash.
Now, I'll be the first to admit, that I don't always create stuff that is 100% accessible. Even in this article, you'll find issues. For example, I didn't type out the full alt text for the screenshot of the Headless UI component above. I know I should. I know it matters. But my hands are more like claws at the moment and I'm trying to stay in the flow while I finish this article. Crappy excuse. I'm sorry.
Also, the theme I'm using for this site has some issues as well. For example, the search button doesn't have any discernible text and there isn't sufficient contrast for some text (e.g. caption of the image above).
I expect better. From myself. From you. And I definitely expect better from that billion-dollar company that has you thinking your shit smells like roses. But Articulate doesn’t even attempt to make its stuff accessible. For example, here is a sample course published recently by Articulate. They are so proud of it that it's going to be the subject of a webinar, where they’ll teach you how to make this rubbish.
When it comes to accessibility, Articulate can't even get the basics right.
There was a bug reintroduced three months ago that means Storyline courses that use layers won't pass accessibility testing. Instead of fixing this bug, or even explaining what's going on, Articulate just pretends it's not an issue.
"I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”.
So, I’m looking for a tool that does accessibility right. Where possible, it should automatically apply best practices. And where human interpretation and intervention are required, the tool should facilitate smart choices.
And stating the obvious here, but using the tool shouldn't cause you pain.
I can’t believe we are still having this conversation in 2022.
We need to stop using tools that create fixed-dimension slide-based courses. It simply doesn’t work. I shouldn’t have to turn my phone to landscape or have my browser window resized to accommodate your poorly authored content.
I know that might seem petty. I mean, how hard is it to rotate your device?
You'd be surprised. I cried the other night as I couldn't hold my fork long enough to eat my dinner. And again the next morning when I couldn't put my pants on. I'm a 40-something-year-old man and I cannot rotate my device.
If you are responsible for the creation of eLearning (whether via internal talent or external contractors), it’s time for you demand better for your learners and making the most of your budget.
Even when I’m at my desk, it’s not good enough. I just opened a Storyline course (that cost the client ~$50,000) via their LMS and this is how it looked:
Yep, the yellow bit is where the course content goes.
And that’s shit.
It’s what you get with an outdated tool. Articulate’s default project size is 720px by 540px, which I believe is the optimum size for a Tamagotchi.
It’s common for a Storyline or Captivate build to take a week or more. I’ve worked on plenty of projects that have taken over a month. There was nothing fancy about these courses, development timelines like that are simply the cost of admission when using tools that suck.
But it doesn’t need to be like this. With a modern toolkit and a willingness to change our approach - a comparable course should only take days to build.
And, it’ll even work on your phone. No rotation required.
If you’re an eLearning developer or Instructional Designer who works primarily in Storyline or Captivate, you might want to look up for a moment. Consider the apps and websites you use frequently. Compare them to the courses you are building.
We can do a lot better, but we have to be willing to change.
A while back, I picked up a real nice 4k monitor. It's amazing.
Of course, Storyline can't handle it.
Have a read of this thread and tell me that Storyline isn't dead:
What does Articulate have to say? Well, in 2020 they advised:
This feature hasn't made it to the top of our roadmap, but we have a report of folks who have requested it, and I can add you to that.
Isn't that helpful! They've got users crying out for help and they are making a list?
Maybe they could try responding to their customers valid concerns?
Alex posted this a year ago:
Can we at least get a reason this is not on the roadmap? For software at this price point, for a discipline that is so heavily visual, the inability to develop for high pixel densities, or to display retina quality images in courses is baffling. Designing in Storyline (and Captivate for that matter) is extremely inefficient and frustrating. I can't get anything to look good on devices with modern, high pixel density screens. That's many of the smartphones out there today and more and more desktop monitors.
No response from Articulate. They don't care. They aren't listening.
Apple makes really good computers. For many reasons, they are favoured by professionals in creative industries. Articulate, despite the extra $1.5b they raised last year, isn't interested in making a native version of Storyline:
I’m sorry, there isn’t a native Mac version of Storyline on our roadmap. The vast majority of our customers use Windows and web-based authoring tools that don’t depend on a particular operating system. And we’re focused on developing features that have the widest impact.
It makes sense. They should focus on the stuff that has the widest impact.
I guess what they are really saying here is:
Storyline is dead. We can't even get it working right on Windows, what makes you think we could build a Mac version? Look, don't get me wrong, we'll milk this for as long as we can, but Storyline is dead.
That may seem harsh, but Storyline is still a 32-bit application!
Have a read of these threads and look at how hard Articulate is working to make sure their customers are being heard:
As a point of reference, Adobe applications such as Photoshop and Illustrator moved their core codes to 64-bit in 2008.
I just want to highlight a few comments from Rob, who noted 2 years ago:
I have raised these issues directly with Articulate's CTO, who I met a couple of years back at a roadshow, and was told that a 64-bit version was some way down the list of priorities.
He then commented a year later:
I'm sorry, but I don't have the time to nanny an application that can't keep up with basic workflows. When the application stutters and wobbles at the simplest tasks, that then destroys any form of accuracy when moving, resizing or placing objects, it drives you to resort to dumbing down the experience you are looking to create for the end user, simply to ensure you can get projects finished on time for end users. It is stifling creativity rather than setting it free.
Speaking solely from my team's experience, we are increasingly disillusioned with the Storyline application to the point where we have begun investigating the painful solution of transitioning to other tools, simply because they perform as expected. This would involve huge costs and ramp up time, but we're not able to see any other alternative.
I've even reached out to Tom and Articulate's CTO, neither of whom have even had the decency to respond, even if it were to fob me off with another excuse.
We recognize the desire for a 64-bit version and will continue to advocate on your behalf as we evaluate this feature.
Why does 64-bit matter? Bill invests in a very expensive computer in order to get the best performance possible, only to discover it couldn't publish his Storyline courses any faster than his 7-year-old computer. To which Joseph responded:
Congratulations! You dropped some serious coin on a Formula 1 racer with a race-winning pit crew to back it up. Too bad the track is a deeply-rutted, single-lane, weed-choked, gravel and dirt road, 3+ years later. And the crew in charge of building the road still hasn't figured out which end of the shovel to pick up.
So what is on Articulate's roadmap for Storyline?
Right now the features in development for Storyline are renumbering scenes, printing slides and a full-screen toggle trigger. It's a joke. We should have been able to reorder scenes from the beginning. The fact that it has taken a decade to resolve this obvious issue is hilarious.
What about those Mac users? Well, they're still installing Parallels, so they can install Windows, so they can get some of that 32-bit weed-choked gravel Storyline grit in their teeth.
Are you using an M1 or M2 Mac? You'll be pleased to know that Storyline works* "well", with one caveat: "creating a new trigger can take up to 30 seconds".
* with Parallels Desktop 16.5 and Windows 10 on ARM Insider Preview, which you can access by signing up for the Windows Insider Program. Of course, prerelease versions of Windows are in active development and may not have the latest security enhancements. According to Articulate's support article on the topic, anyway. Something to ponder while waiting for your new triggers to be created. Or, rather than trusting Articulate, you could do your own research and find that Microsoft no longer provides support for Windows 10 ARM. And as a result, Windows 10 is no longer supported in Parallels Desktop on Mac computers with Apple M Chip.
I like things dark. My operating systems (both desktop and mobile) are set to dark mode 100% of the time. Yet this isn't even an option with most authoring tools.
It’s easy to check what people prefer:
const prefersDarkMode = window.matchMedia("(prefers-color-scheme:dark)").matches;
And yes, I know this website doesn't have a dark mode.
Our tools need to use a central style sheet (or an abstraction) so that we can have consistency in our designs without the pain. Currently, if you’d like to use rounded corners in Storyline, you’ll need to manually drag the corner of each shape to get the desired radius. Then, if you resize that shape, the radius will change and you’ll have to eyeball it again!
"I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”.
Imagine if there was a central option for things like this? You adjust it once and know that they will all be perfect. But but but… oh I can hear it now… “what if I want to change the radius on one object to be different from all the others?”
Tools shouldn’t encourage you to make dumb mistakes.
And they shouldn't actively work against you. With Rise, people have been waiting for FOUR YEARS to change the colour of bullet points. And yes, they are still waiting. In Storyline, all of your hyperlinks must look the same.
These kinds of limitations shouldn't exist. Maybe when planning and developing features it'd be a good idea to consider how they would be used.
Now, code. Let's start with the simple stuff. Let us add our own CSS and JS to a project before publishing. You know, like add it once, and it'll always be included with the published output.
The same applies to the REALLY obvious stuff. You know, the stuff that should have just been built right in the first place. For example, in Storyline, if you link to a PDF on your hard drive, all it does is note the name and location of that file. So if you move or rename that PDF, or publish the .story file from a different computer (a common thing in agencies and teams), the PDF won't be published and you'll have a broken link in your course.
Is this a new bug? Nah, it's been around forever. Articulate just doesn't care enough to fix it. You've likely got courses on your LMS right now that have missing PDFs due to this nonsense.
They could warn you about this when publishing, but where's the fun in that! It's much better to put heaps of bugs in your software. It keeps people engaged.
There should be clear documentation that outlines all of the class names and IDs used by each component. Just let us mess with the CSS without having to do the whole DevTools dance to get the info we need.
Write it up. And keep these consistent across releases where possible. If they need to change, communicate this in a considerate way, as many of your customers rely on external contractors to code this stuff and don't necessarily have the ability to move quickly.
We need API’s. And no, not just xAPI, but tool-specific ones. We should be able to trigger actions elsewhere based on what’s happening in a course. This is such a no-brainer, I can’t believe this isn't offered everywhere. Go and have a look at Zapier and see how many of the tools you are using are already available there.
How could this be used? In almost any way you can imagine. For example, if someone struggled with the info on an important assessment, you could automatically add them to an email list so they receive follow-up material over the next week. At the same time, their direct manager could be identified and a meeting scheduled to discuss the knowledge gap.
When our courses can communicate with the other systems that we use, we will be able to do a lot more than upload a course to the LMS.
Enough with the cumbersome, expensive, LMS’s.
Sure, for some companies, an LMS makes sense. No doubt about it. For many though, it means unnecessary complexity, cost, and administrative obligations.
With sensible hosting options and APIs, we can simplify this mess.
It’s hilarious to me that most companies use an LMS that cannot communicate with (or be queried by) any of their other tools. And what’s even funnier, is that their LMS can’t even capture the data they want to collect from their courses!
"I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”.
Our courses shouldn’t exist in isolation. A single entry in an LMS, ready to drop off the radar, with whatever useful information it contained trapped in that completion record.
It should be shared, remixed, referred to, discussed, challenged and bettered. But how can this happen if we don’t have an easy way to share and refer back to content? Can you send me a link to page four of your course? Or to a particular heading? This shouldn’t be hard. If I want to jump back to that diagram in your course, why can’t I just add a bookmark? You know, using my browser?
Or maybe I’d like to take some of the info from the course with me when I’m done? Highlight a few paragraphs. Jot down a few notes. Save that diagram for later. This stuff shouldn’t be hard.
The demand for features like this is huge. A solid part of my business is making dynamic PDFs that work with my client's courses. You know, so people can take the stuff they write in a course with them when they are done. I had a client recently tell me that “you truly made our courses a differentiator in the sales training field” because I made a few PDFs for them. But it's not about the PDFs. It's about listening to what people need.
But companies like Articulate aren’t listening. Stuff that should be simple isn't even possible. And even if you do everything according to the instructions on the tin, random stuff just won’t work. Why? There’s no love. Updates are churned out without being properly designed or tested. Most Storyline developers I know wait weeks to install updates, for good reason.
Here's a recent example. Some functionality in Storyline is broken after an update. Articulate staff confirm that they were able to reproduce the issue on the 14th of June. Weeks later, nothing is fixed, nothing is communicated, and customers are getting annoyed by the bullshit responses from the staff that always seem to shift the burden back to the customer.
It took me 20 seconds to confirm this was an issue. But it's not just a software bug. This is so much bigger than that. If you made the mistake of installing this Storyline update while working on a project, then you might have found yourself in a world of pain. You know the story. It's as old as Storyline. You do your job properly, in the same way you've done a million times before. By the time you notice things aren't working right, it's too late. You've gotta jump in and edit every state of every button. Then, you've gotta circle back and do it again for the alt text, which also didn't update correctly, as you've been messing with states.
Imagine if Articulate talked about bugs like this? You know, actively told their customers about it so they can hold off updating? That way, rather than having to stay back late to fix buttons, people could be home with their families. This is not a one-off. This stuff happens with nearly every update. And you wonder what's wrong with my hands?
We are wasting our lives. We are wasting our client's money. And we are insulting those people who have to sit through these courses, just hoping, for a moment, that they might be able to learn something.
How many of you are excited about the new trend. It's so cool. You get a 360-degree image. Then you add some click'n reveals. It's awesome. It totally doesn't matter that the image has nothing to do with the content. People will be so engaged that everyone will have 20 husbands and wives!
Is this why we are here? To build this shit? Obviously, I don’t have all the answers, but I know we gotta change.
To do that, I need your help. Yes, you gotta scream:
"I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!”.
And then we gotta follow through.
Do you build eLearning?
Are you an eLearning developer, instructional designer or someone who spends most of their time developing eLearning?
I want to hear about the challenges you are facing. What makes you laugh? What makes you cry? What makes you rage against the dying of the light? What changes could be made to the tools that’d make your life easier? What do your development timelines look like for a simple course? How are you feeling? Got any niggly pains? If you could change one thing about your job... what would it be?
I’m not trying to sell you anything. I don't champion any particular tool. And I'm not paid by anybody to share my thoughts. I want to understand you. What you need. What causes you frustration? What slows you down? What excites you? What inspires you?
The easiest way to talk to me is via the Let's Talk page:
We'll skip the formalities. No meeting invites, email addresses, agendas, time zone confusion, action items or hair brushing allowed.
Or, if you'd rather write to me, you can reach me via email here.
After we talk, I’ll be taking your needs, dreams, hopes and fears with me as I evaluate some of the modern tools in the eLearning space. I won't be reviewing them, but rather stress testing them against your needs.
I'll publish my thoughts here and will be following up with the relevant companies so they can continue to improve their tools, where needed.
If there are any tools in particular that you’d like me to review, please let me know.
Do you pay for others to build your eLearning courses?
How's it working out for you?
Are you happy with how your budget is used? What are the development timelines like? Are you proud of the finished product? Do you even look at them? Is the QA process robust? Are the courses error-free? Mobile-friendly? Accessible? Or do you get a whole lot of excuses that start with "In Storyline..."? What about making changes? Is it easy to update stuff later? Or is it a whole to-do?
I've seen what you are paying. Well, not you specifically, that'd be weird. But over the past 15 years, I've worked with a lot of companies that are bleeding money when it comes to this stuff.
There are better ways to achieve your goals than throwing more money at shitty Storyline courses.
You know that.
I know that.
After we speak, I'll be taking your thoughts with me as I stress-test some of the modern tools in the eLearning space. I want to find out what the deal is. Can they do the stuff you need? Without the pain? How much can you save?
There is a way out of this Storyline Hell, we just need to find the right path.
Part of this is about appropriate tool selection, but there is much more to it. Teams everywhere are wasting massive amounts of time on stuff that doesn't matter. The wrong people are making the decisions. Broken courses are the norm, always focused on the new, with no time to maintain the old.
I've got a lot more to say...
But that's enough for today. I appreciate you taking the time the read this and I hope that you get a chance to scream: "I'M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I'M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!” sometime soon.
I'm listening. And I'm not the only one.
Where do you want to be in 2032? If you aren't careful, you'll still be waiting for Articulate to catch up on those feature requests. Or, you could focus on what’s under your control. You'll be amazed at how easy it is to achieve the stuff you're working towards when you are unhampered by the tools of yesterday.