The Thinking Behind a Branching Scenario

A common question we get about authoring tools is whether or not a given tool can do branching scenarios. The fact is, branching scenarios can be extremely easy to assemble. The functional requirements can be very simple—you just need to go to one page with the click of one button and another page with the click of another button. You can even do it in PowerPoint with action buttons.

Just because they are easy to assemble doesn’t mean they are easy to create. The real work in the branching scenario is the thinking—the logic behind the choices and the feedback. If you can get the thinking right, then the assembly part is a piece of cake. That’s why my branching scenarios always start on paper—or a whiteboard, a flip chart, my sliding glass doors…

In all branching scenarios, the student gets different feedback (usually on different pages) based on the answer they chose. But there are two ways to structure it from there. Before you get very far in the planning process, you need to decide if the next question is the same, regardless of the student’s answer.

For example, if you are doing a scenario about how to deal with an angry customer, your student can either say the right thing or the wrong thing. As a result, the customer is either happier or madder. At this point, it doesn’t make sense for both “paths” to join back up with the same next question. That’s because the customer from the “good answer” path and the customer from the “bad answer” path will be behaving and responding differently. Therefore, each path really needs a different follow-up question.

In contrast, if you were doing a scenario on study skills, your student can make the right or wrong choice about whether to study for a test or get started early on a project. Each choice has consequences (the feedback), but the teacher is likely to do the same thing the next day regardless of the student’s previous choice. In this case, both “paths” would join back up and ask the same next question.

Here’s how you might map out these two different options. (G stands for the good choice and B stands for the bad choice.)

Customer service scenario


Study skills scenario

One way to figure this out is to envision the person splitting into two (like Gwenyth Paltrow in “Sliding Doors”). If there were two customer services reps, each one picking a different path, they would be dealing with two very different customers and would therefore continue with the conversation differently. (The good response continues to question 2, but the bad choice continues to question 3.) However, if there were two different students making a choice about homework one night, they would both be sitting in the same class the next day being faced with the same new situation—albeit with one having a higher GPA! (Both paths get the same question 2.)

The other early decision you’ll need to make is whether or not it is an exploratory activity or a graded activity.

An exploratory activity is designed to let (even encourage) the student to make the wrong choices, just to see what can happen. The big “a-ha” for your students might be when they see what could happen when they pick all the wrong answers, knowing full well that those are the wrong answers. If you are designing the scenario this way, you can use more humor and exaggeration in both the question options and the feedback. Plus, you’ll probably want to include a “Return” button that lets the student go back to the previous question and select another option.

In a graded activity where you are trying to assess performance rather than teach, you want your choices to be more realistic than exaggerated, and you probably don’t want them to go back and change their answers.

Starting off with a flow chart on paper helps you get the logic figured out. Then when it comes time to build the interaction, I again start with the logic. I build all the pages, buttons, and structure just using the Q1-B/Q2-G terminology from the flow chart. Once I get that working the way I want, then I worry about adding the text, images, etc.

Here’s what I would start with in a Lectora course.

Click to view image larger.

If you happen to be going to the Lectora User’s Conference in May in Chicago, be sure to come to my session on how to create rollovers, pop-ups, and branching scenarios. In the meantime, here’s a sample of an angry customer simulation and the flow chart I used to build it. Chapter 2 is live, and it is an example of an exploratory activity with different questions based on the response. This is the very first course I ever created in Lectora way back in 2005, which I think is proof that if you can get the thinking right, building it isn’t very hard.

Diane Elkins
Diane Elkins leads Artisan E-Learning, a custom eLearning development company specializing in the use of rapid- development tools. Diane has been in the eLearning industry since 2001, speaks regularly at national conferences about eLearning, and is co-author of the popular E-Learning Uncovered book series.

One Response to “The Thinking Behind a Branching Scenario

  • Thanks for this – very well done and really helpful especially the flowchart.

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