Edouard Rotondo, President of Studio 7 Communications, came to meet the students of the TEN-7006 Instructional and Training Systems Design course to answer their questions and talk about the job of instructional designer in an agency and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on his company and his team.
Do you have any tips and tricks for becoming a better instructional designer?
A first piece of advice: in an agency, you have the opportunity to carry out a lot of projects (20, 30 projects per year, at different stages), to visit clients and see their activities in action. These are opportunities not to be missed, they allow us to meet our clients and understand them better.
Then, to be a better designer in my opinion, you have to be ambitious towards your own profession: wanting to be able to answer questions, to question your knowledge and keep it up to date with constant advances. Clients are not experts in training and they rely on us. One way to do this is to keep reading, networking, sharing your interests, speaking up, putting yourself forward and taking up space. This forces us to see our mistakes and validates our knowledge. As an employer, over the last 20 years I have hired dozens of designers, but few have really stood out for conversations that are both practical and intellectually higher, where ideas and theory can be discussed. That’s what makes you a recognized instructional designer.
A final piece of advice is not to hesitate to call on specialists to play their part in the project: even if you get by with certain software for example, the design will never be more beautiful than when done by a designer, even if you want to save money. The client sees a lot of what is in front, more than the pedagogical work behind sometimes. You have to see this expense as a way to secure a future project with that same client.
If you had to go back, what would you do differently?
First of all, I would talk to experts at the very beginning of my career to better understand what is going to be my relationship with the client, my worth in the marketplace, and to value myself in that sense. This would allow me to better analyze who I am and where I want to take my business.
Also, I would set limits more quickly with clients: not being ready to do everything for them, because it has a negative effect on us. These sacrifices that we make, the client will assume that we are ready to make them at all times and this jeopardizes the relationship with him. Moreover, positioning ourselves on our value leads us to better identify the market in which we want to work.
What do you think about using the ePortfolio? Is it a must for you when recruiting?
I find that they give a more concrete idea of the projects carried out by each person. Eportfolios make it possible to show the added value of candidates when I’m hiring, especially when the CVs are pretty much the same since the candidates are freshly out of school. Personally, I still have one and even if I don’t need it as much now, I still keep it up to date. I also like to look at other people’s portfolios.
It may seem difficult for an agency that is just starting out and wants to build up a clientele to go against a client’s wishes when the solutions to be proposed are different from what the client has expressed. How can this be done?
It may happen that the client begins the process with an idea of the type of training he wants or the characteristics he would like to see in it. Some other times, the client has no idea how to go about it or how to meet his or her needs; they need to be listened to and reassured. So the very first thing is to listen. It is only after meeting with the team, the managers, and conducting a performance analysis that we can better understand the need and formulate solutions that respond to it; then tactfully question the client’s choices by explaining what would be more relevant in the context. We won’t tell the client that he doesn’t need this or that, but we will suggest solutions based on our analysis. For example, one or two years ago, I was approached by the Ordre des pharmaciens du Québec who wanted to understand why pharmacists did not prescribe despite a new law authorizing them to do so, and to train them accordingly. Our analysis showed that they didn’t need training on the new law, they were simply afraid to prescribe. We were then reactive in finding an alternative to training.
How do we make the client understand that the involvement of the subject matter expert is necessary throughout the project, even if it has a cost?
In my agency, a subject matter expert (SME) usually doesn’t need to give more than about ten hours of his or her time. Ideas are put on the table very early in the project, and his or her role is then more punctual for certain deliverables, a module completion for example. We have a very rigorous production schedule that reserves the expert’s time in advance when we know it will be necessary. If the expert has to take a lot more time, it’s because he may not be ready himself, because the ideas are not formulated well enough to move forward. As far as the client is concerned, he is mainly involved in the management of the project, so five to six hours maximum in general. In the end, this represents relatively few hours, especially since we are able to provide a schedule for the client to prepare for each step. Finally, a tip: we always have a “cut-off” date after which no more raw content can be added, so that we don’t have to modify our productions. Otherwise, the project and the budget are modified to bring the team back to the previous stage.
You use the AGILE method to optimize the work, validation and adjustment times with experts. Sometimes it can be difficult for the experts and the customer to get a visual idea of the product from a scenario. Do you have a solution in between a scenario and a concrete example, which would require risky efforts and costs before validation?
I can tell you about several technical documents that we use at each step.
First of all, the learning strategies document represents the training’s structure, that is to say its main lines with the content theme for each module and sections, the objectives, and the pedagogical and/or technical treatments for each. This allows the client to validate the overall structure and see if there is anything missing in the content.
Next, the actual design document contains on each page: the slide title, audio script, interactivity, visual treatments and expected duration. This document is complementary to another one called the design document, which contains further details and notes for the production team. This document is sent to the client at several stages for validation as work progresses.
Simultaneously, a narration document is created, which contains the complete audio scripts and storyboard. The latter is sent to the client in a very simple visual form: the goal is to give him an idea of what a screen will look like.
You seem to have a very structured and detailed methodology. Doesn’t it create a risk of redundancy as one project follows another?
On the contrary, it’s an essential part of our quality control, to which we refer at several stages of a project. For example, even before going into production, we perform quality control on the storyboard and script. The production team does its work and verifications internally, and then sends it back to the designers to revalidate texts, functionalities, etc. There are therefore several quality controls before submitting to the client for pilot testing. We use the most relevant pieces of this methodology for each project, so it’s different every time. We also have tools in place to stimulate creation, which continually refine this methodology.
Of course, we don’t follow this methodology to the letter, we remain agile. It’s also used for training new employees, it gives them a work structure.
How has the pandemic affected Studio 7’s business?
First of all, 2019 was a record year for us. When the pandemic hit, we lost about 50% of our projected income in the space of two months. However, the year before that had been so good that we were able to operate at a loss for the necessary time, and then things started to turn around. Our clients have adapted, and so have we. We have offered three new courses (online facilitation, transforming classroom content to online, and instructional design), which helped recover the losses. Then in september 2020, things took off again and everything is fine now.
What impact has the crisis had on the business life, and the team?
In terms of employment, we have kept everyone. Those who left did so voluntarily, because they wanted a change in their work environment (life in an agency is not for everyone, the pace is pretty fast).
Of course, we took up teleworking. As for everybody the beginnings were unnatural, but we managed to reorganize ourselves to work remotely. We have a thirty-minute Zoom meeting every day to review all the projects, then four or five meetings every week to brainstorm and make decisions. We’ve recreated spaces to socialize, for example, by leaving a Zoom room open after 4:00 p.m. so that employees can come and talk. It is interesting to note that some people who were previously more shy in the face-to-face setting socialize very well at a distance and are now very comfortable.
Overall, I must admit that working online is almost easier: less natural, of course, but the technologies are very efficient and allow us to do more in a day without overloading ourselves. Professional relationships are easily bonded as people get used to this new way of working.