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So you want to design a branching scenario?

Storyboard used for Virtual Team Virtuoso













Image source


A wee while ago Xin and I decided that we’d like to design a training course to sell on Open Sesame.  Similar to selling something on itunes, it was a bit of a stab in the dark. There was no specific client or deadline.


Like many of you, we followed well known creators in this field (Cathy Moore , Tom Kuhlman and Connie Malamed  to mention a few). All of whom offered excellent advice. All of which we largely ignored – often to our detriment – once we started the project.


This is the story of how we created a brilliant, but extremely complex, branching scenario as our very first project for Naturalelearning Limited, the end result and some useful tips we learned along the way. 

I’ve included some of the free tools we used along the way. Save yourself a gazillion hours of browsing and jump straight to them.

Let’s start with a sneak preview. The end result was a 90 minute training package about leading virtual teams. The story is set in the future and takes place over a three month period. By the end of it, learners should have acquired some project management skills particularly suited to virtual teams. It took us a combined 300 hours to build from beginning to end. The final package can be viewed here:


We didn’t mean for it to become so complex. However, this was a performance based course intended, as Tom Kuhlman puts it, to: teach principles that guide decisions, like much of the soft skills training…branched  scenarios come in handy when you have  nuanced situations and are trying to help people think through them and make appropriate decisions”.

And as Cathy Moore explains: “In a branching scenario, decisions made in early scenes affect later scenes.”














Image source

And therein lies the rub. Let’s say Lucy has to decide how to deal with a member on her virtual team who is not responding to emails or other messages. How should Lucy respond? Choose A, B or C and get feedback. Here are some resources to help you. Depending on your choice and its consequence, you will go down a particular pathway or you may become stuck and forced to loop back. 


The effect is cumulative. The designer needs to remember decisions that Lucy made earlier in the story. Even if your training package draws on established company policies and procedures, there is still likely to be numerous possible correct responses. Pretty soon you end up with a branching scenario that is almost as infinite as the synapses on a neuron.  Add to this decisions that need to be made around authoring software, copyright, multimedia and the basic structure and it can quickly become complex and onerous if you’re not careful.

Here is our story and the lessons learned along the way.


Give yourself a deadline and a budget, even if it’s just made up

We were initially pretty open ended about this and since it was done outside of normal hours on our own time we let our creative heads take over our business heads. All well and good but by the time we were finished we realised we’d probably have to sell hundreds of packages to make the time spent on it worth our while.  Just as well it was really a ‘test the market’ type of product which we also used to help us establish our own routines for working together on similar projects. 

Do a little research (or work with a SME) and then use a flowchart to create your scenario

Working out the scenario and all the possible consequences was the most difficult part for us. We developed the context, our characters and a rough story line first. We tried numerous ways and tools for mapping this out. We needed to produce a flowchart but many of the free tools just didn’t have all the features we needed. An added difficulty was that one of us was a dedicated Mac user, the other a PC user. In the end we discovered that Microsoft Visio worked the best for us. We organised our key messages around an acronym: TRUST. Each letter stood for a key learning point. This proved to be a useful tool for structuring the content.  


To offer some flexibility, learners were given three different pathways through the story at the very beginning: easy, medium or hard. The easy pathway would provide hints before a question was answered and feedback afterwards. The medium pathway provided feedback only. The hard pathway provided no guidance although students could access the resources we developed in any pathway. A virtual tutor called Vicki provided the hints and advice. Vicki was one of four free character cut outs that we found here:

Choose your authoring software wisely

Suffice to say that Captivate (which we used) is a very powerful tool which you should consider using for a complex scenario. If you’re thinking more along the lines of what Cathy Moore calls a ‘mini scenario’ where, you make your decision, see the realistic consequence, and figure out if you made a good choice before moving to a different scene representing a different situation, then consider using something like Articulate or iSpring Pro instead. At the time we used Captivate 5.5 and Articulate Storyline had not yet come onto the scene. If it had, we may well have used that instead. Captivate files are big, very big.  However, Captivate does have the advantage of freeing you from the Power Point yoke, if you want to do something quite different. 

Create a template and a storyboard

We didn’t do this but take my advice and finalise the template first. And by template I mean the background and icon placements in your authoring software. If you’re not using the standard templates provided you need to think carefully about colour schemes, font size etc. It seems unimportant in the beginning but setting it up properly at this stage will save you from tedious rework in individual slides at a later stage. For those of you that are looking for templates, you’ll find a useful collection here:

There is no shortage of storyboard styles out there. In the end, we found that the format you see in the attached file at the top of this blog (Storyboard used for Virtual Team Virtuoso) worked best for us.I worked initially in a Word document and provided the content and instructions for video and audio to Xin who then entered it into Captivate. I’ve attached a copy of our the storyboard we created to this blog. We’ve filled in part of it as an exemplar. We had between 3-5 situations for each of the three Virtual Team project phases. Each situation offered the learner three different responses to a particular challenge. Each response outcome had specific feedback attached to it. If you do the maths, that’s at least thirty different outcomes we had to design.

Once Xin had placed everything roughly in Captivate, I went in and edited in there, using the notes function to ask for big changes I couldn’t manage myself. We worked with our strengths. Xin was quick and capable when it came to working in Captivate, I had more experience with the scenario design.

We both find advice and tips from Connie Malamed’s website (see really useful.


Be aware of the limitations of technology used during development

We began by using this software for voice recording: which sounded really great but took a lot of time to record and place at the appropriate position in Captivate. If you changed your mind about the wording, then unlike Captivate built-in text to audio funtion, you couldn’t just change the words and re-generate the audio voice. You had to redo the recording and import back into Captivate. Combine this with our perfectionist streak and the end result was that it took us quite a lot of time to adjust the voice. 

In the end, we did a little recording (for example, when our character David spoke as Captivate doesn’t have an automated voice with a Chinese accent) but for the most part we simply used what was available in Captivate. This does have the tendency to sound slightly robotic unfortunately. One of our characters was French but we had to go with a bland English accent for her because neither of us have any French friends and we really struggled to find any digital voices with a French accent.

Embedding video in Captivate is another challenge. Not all video formats work well in Captivate 5.5  when they are viewed in different browsers and platforms. This is where owning a Mac and PC between us was an advantage.  We tested our package on Google Chrome, Internet Explore, Safari, and Firefox. We found the format that worked best across all browsers was either MOV or M4V files. Stick to these file types if you can. 


Be aware of copyright

Thank G-d for Creative Commons and the public domain. We found our images, icons and audio clips at these different locations:

Wikimedia commons


It was impossible to embed a link to every graphic on every slide so we created an attribution list at the end. After a bit of research, I found that the most appropriate way would be to lay it all out in a table under the following columns: thumbnail, title, creator, url to image/sound, any relevant copyright notices, licence info. 

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Comment by Hazel Owen on July 26, 2013 at 8:54

@N002 (Nicoletta) - I've just worked all the way through the branching scenario you recommended...I'd seen it before, but not worked all the way though (and Sam didn't quit by the end of the day...hurrah! ;-p). My only 'complaint' is that it was way too distracting...I got totally immersed by the story, it made me think through my responses, and I found the feedback at the end really useful for re-framing a couple of the questions where I might have answered differently. Good one :-)

Comment by n002 on July 25, 2013 at 15:59

Thanks so much for sharing this. I found it very useful, honest and entertaining! You've provided some really solid and pragmatic advice for collaborating on branching scenarios. I've been on the look out for interesting branching scenarios. They do take some planning, consideration and work to get going, but I find they offer so much to the learning experience, and when done well are immersive, well-contextualised and memorable. This is one of my favourites at the moment

Comment by Pascale Hyboud-Peron on July 12, 2013 at 22:51

Thank you Xin for detailing the evaluation process, it sounds really good with the "just in time" feedback and you will have built it in your scenario, correct? Fancy you mention badges as it was close to my mind!  I am currently developing "a bit of an obsession" getting my head around the open badge infrastructure: as a consequence I am starting to see them being relevant here there and everywhere :-) I would like to see them evolve to become a little less "issuer" centric and conversations in Europe seem to be leaning this way . Your blog post has opened a "new world" of elearning for me, that I will look into more details. Thank you.

Comment by Xin Lee on July 12, 2013 at 22:36

@Hazel, off the top of my head I think that it would probably take about 200 hours  or less if we did it again as we spent a lot of time in what I call the FTO stage. FTO being "figuring things out". We used Team Lab as a project management tool for ourselves. They have a very good time tracking tool in there so we could be quite accurate about the time. Team Lab used to be free but has just moved to a pay model. Still, at $75US per year we think it's worth it. Have no idea why we didn't think of social media for the accents. The answer was staring us in the face! 

@Pascale. Hello! I was at the Mahara Moodle conference in Canberra recently and listened to your presentation there. We will certainly call on you if ever need to bring Dominique Mathy back to life :-) With regards to what the learner receives in way of feedback, that's all automated when they give a particular response. The way Open works is that institutions purchase the packages from them (they take a commission) and then, if I remember correctly, they can launch it from within their own LMS but Open Sesame hosts it. So it's up to the organisation using the package to decide if they want to grant any credentials. Captivate is SCORM compliant so if an organisation used it in the Moodle LMS, for example, the Grade Book should be able to pick up correct answers and scores. I suppose in the future it may be possible to set up some sort of Mozilla Badge system for it.  

Comment by Pascale Hyboud-Peron on July 12, 2013 at 21:06

This is a great story of collaboration and partnerships, thank you. The title, "branching scenario" read as intriguing as it is new to me. I went over to read about your course, and in addition to your description here, it appears to me to have some elements of gaming weaved into it. You have open my eyes to a world of online learning I did not know about. I would be curious to know what the "learner" obtains in way of feedback/feedforward/ credentials upon completing the course. And if ever you needed English with a French accent, I can produce a fairly authentic one on an MP3 for you :-)

Comment by Hazel Owen on July 12, 2013 at 19:36

Thank you so much for sharing your advice and the wisdom gleaned from the many hours spent creating your branching scenario. Not only did I really enjoy reading your article (you are refreshingly open and honest about the hiccups along the way), but the practical advice you have provided is priceless. I am going to spend some time exploring the links and resources you have suggested, and will re-visit Visio, which I must admit, I had 'written off' previously.

Using the same focus -project management for a virtual team - how long do you think it would take you to develop a branching scenario now? (I know this is a bit of a 'how long is a piece of string question' ;-p)

And, a quick suggestion...have you thought of using social media to source someone with a specific accent (for example, I have several friends with wonderful French and German accents, who I suspect would have been happy to have made a brief audio recording)?

Thanks again for sharing :-)

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