4 Steps to Creating ELearning Storyboards: Step-by-step guide to effective storyboarding!

ELearning storyboardingConsider this situation: You hire an architect to build you your dream house. After discussing the broad strokes of your vision for the home, he/she shows up onsite the next day and starts building! I’m pretty sure you (the paying client) won’t be impressed at all! You were likely looking for a blueprint or some type of vision document before shovels hit the ground.

It’s the same with instructional design (ID) projects. You need to provide clients with a vision artifact first, before commencing detailed course design and development. And that document is typically the Storyboard. 

Storyboarding 101

In his book “The eLearning Designer’s Handbook”, noted eLearning designer Tim Slade, describes Storyboards as “…a document that outlines the learning content, slide-by-slide or screen-by-screen.” According to Slade, Storyboards are great for:

  • enabling SMEs and stakeholders to preview the content and flow of a course
  • providing opportunities for early inputs for design changes

The earlier in the design/development process that requirement reviews occur, and nailed down (signed-off), the less stressful the entire process is for all stakeholders, especially for ID professionals. As such, the Storyboard has an important place in the course design and development process. So, what should it contain, and how does one go about producing a Storyboard?

4-Step Process – From Big Picture to Minutia

1. Organize your thoughts at a very high-level first, before creating your Storyboard. Use a whiteboard and sticky notes to map out, for instance, what major subject or modules you’ll cover – e.g. “Module I – Introduction to Safety Policies”, “Module II – Know Your Safety Equipment” etc.

TIP#1: Use a unique numbering system (1.0, 1.1, 1.2, 2.0, etc.) to identify each block (sticky note) on the Storyboard.

2. Next, for each high-level thought, use sticky notes to define sub-topics that you plan to cover – e.g. “Chapter 1.1 – Fire Policy”, “Chapter 1.2 – Medical Emergency Policy” etc.

TIP#2: Depending on the complexity of your course, you may wish to drill-down three or four levels before your story is ready for the next steps – filling in the details

3. Next, insert sticky notes below each sub-topic, highlighting the screens/slides that will cover the details for each sub-topic: e.g. “Screen 1.1.1 – Fire Drill Frequency”, “Screen 1.1.2 – Fire Safety Officer Roles” etc.

4. It’s now time to use your Storyboard map to identify the resources required to support each screen/slide. Where required, annotate blocks on the board (using sticky notes of a different color) with descriptive notes explaining:

  • Supplementary resources required for each component of the story – e.g.: “MS Word doc: ‘How to use Fire Extinguishers.docx’”, “Screen layout: ‘Login 1.1.JPG’”, “Audio file: ‘Testing Extinguishers.WAV’”
  • Where the course uses voice-over content, provide notes about the character or context, as well as references to the script: e.g.: “Fire Officer completes ‘Script1.1.TXT’ before transitioning to next screen”
  • References to assignments, tests or assessments used at that level in the course
  • External links to supplement core learning, e.g.: “Kidde Fire Safety Laws: https://www.kidde.com/home-safety/en/us/fire-safety/fire-safety-laws/”, or “YouTube Fire Extinguisher Instructions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=epGGwjjoISM
  • Instructions that may be helpful for designers or developers – e.g.: “Do not enable ‘Next’ button until learner scrolls to the end of ‘Login 1.1.JPG’”

This 4-step Storyboarding process is iterative. Once you’ve finished an initial pass at building the story, take a step back to review it. Ideally, involve other members of your team (or even a friend or colleague) to walk through what you’ve created. Often, this “conference room” walkthrough may result in rearranging parts of the Story to make it flow better.  You may end up adding more Stickies, or removing others.

This type of Storyboard is great for a Big Picture review. Obviously, at this point in course development, you don’t have all the details – e.g. individual exercises and assessments, grading criteria – worked out. However, the Storyboard is useful to articulate major components, like Course Objectives, Learning Outcomes, and high-level Lesson Plans.

With this level of detail, most stakeholders will get the broad strokes of what the course is about, and the intended flow of topics. By the end of this exercise, and upon receiving stakeholder approval, you’ll also be ready to move the course from the Storyboard and into the design desk/drawing board.

Supporting Tools and Templates

While the above 4-step process gives you an idea of how to drive Storyboarding, most formal stakeholder reviews may call for additional materials. There are a host of supplemental tools and templates that you can then leverage to formalize your Whiteboard/Sticky-Note Storyboard into a Stakeholder Review document.

For instance, you can capture the ideas narrated by your Whiteboard/Sticky-Note Storyboard, and expand on them using downloadable PowerPoint or MS Word Storyboard templates.

TIP#3: Using Word/PPT templates gives you the opportunity to work on the same Storyboard as a team. Remember to turn on comments when working in a group setting

Alternatively, you may use online apps and tools to capture the thoughts and ideas espoused in your Whiteboard/Sticky-Note Storyboard. Some great resources for individual course designers to consider include:

The advantage of using online apps and tools is that they offer the ability of bringing your story to life through real-time animation and transition effects.

TIP#4: Corporate IDs might find higher-end tools, such as Articulate Storyline, more appropriate for creating Storyboards for review with corporate clients

Beyond Course Visions

When properly maintained, and accurately updated, Storyboards play a role beyond simply being a course vision and design approval document. Because of how it lays out the sequence of events for a course, it can serve as an invaluable guide when troubleshooting course design and development issues.

Instructional designers (and developers) may also find Storyboards an important ally when planning future updates and upgrades to course content. They also facilitate and expedite the joint development of courses in a multi-discipline environment.

TIP#5: If you have a particularly large development team, or if you frequently use external freelancers to design and build courses you might find using Templates a great way to communicate with the team. Forward segments of the template (e.g. Chapter 1 through 4) to specific team members to work on. Or simply share specific parts of the Template (e.g.: Screens or Audio Scripts) with specialist resources – like Graphic Designers or Voice-Over artists – while working with other team members on other aspects of the course

And finally, new team members joining the ID team may find reviewing Storyboards a more useful way to get up-to-speed on a project, compared to sifting through reams of manuals and design documentation.

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