Narration: A fine line between purposeful and Microsoft Clippy 2.0


Narration can be frustrating when used incorrectly. Raf tells us why you should think before using it.

In 1997 Microsoft introduced ‘Clippy’ the digital assistant to their Office suite to provide tips and help people perform tasks. Clippy was designed with the intention to an innovative assistant that was able to intuitively identify what the user was trying to achieve, and guide them through that task providing a stress-free and enjoyable experience.

Unfortunately, what we ended up with was an annoying and condescending little jerk.

‘NO CLIPPY! I am not trying to write a letter!’

Microsoft had fallen into the trap of using the wrong tool for the job.

Clippy was a bandaid fix to the issue of the Microsoft Office products being too complicated to use for a lot of people. Clippy was ‘retired’ after only six odd years of service and instead, the focus shifted to making the product easier to use.

Even if your intentions are to create a better experience for a user, if you use the wrong tool and don’t do the job right, you’ll potentially be creating another Clippy. This of course absolutely applies to the eLearning space.

One of the fantastic things about eLearning is that we are able to use any and all digital media types when designing an effective and purposeful solution. From video to interactivity, narration, downloadable resources and podcasts, these are all digital tools we can use to build engagement in a module and ultimately deliver an effective learning experience.

However, just like with all projects, from building that DIY garden shed to creating an awesome eLearning solution, you need to use the right tool for the job. You wouldn’t use a hammer to undo a bolt (unless you’re Jeremy Clarkson) in the same way you shouldn’t use the wrong digital tool to create engagement.

Narration is probably the most commonly misused tool we have, second only to interactivity. It’s often used as a band-aid fix, leaving the deeper problem unresolved.

There is one example of narration being misused that sticks in my mind. A client was looking to have a module that was created by another provider, updated by putting narration on every screen. As part of this, they also wanted to make learner listened to all the narration before they were able to continue to the next screen.

They were looking for narration to fix two fundamental issues.

  1. The current course was too long and text heavy
  2. The audience was not engaged with the course and not reading the current material.

Let’s take a moment of the real impacts of introducing narration in an effort to resolve those issues.

Firstly, tackling the problem of a module being too long and text heavy by making all of that same material narration will ultimately lead to a longer module.

It takes someone longer to say something than it does to read something. Depending on where you look and what you read, the average speaking speed for a professional is around the 160 words per minute mark, while the average reading speed is around the 200 words per minute. Obviously, there are additional factors that impact these figures, such as the difference between reading on paper vs screen and the topic of the conversation.This means that if we start with a course that takes about 30 minutes to read, it will take about 37.5 minutes to listen to it.

Hmmm, that’s not the desired effect, is it?

The other thing to keep in mind is that a module being ‘text heavy’ should not be looked at as a visual issue, but rather a volume and structure issue related to the content.

If you convert the text material straight to narration, the course is still text-heavy. It’s just now the learner is also being talked at. This is also a nice segue into my next point.

You can’t force a learner to learn. This was actually one of the topics we touched on in a previous blog on ‘5 Assumption That You Shouldn’t Make About eLearning’.

The idea of introducing narration into a module and forcing the learner to listen doesn’t actually guarantee that the audience learns. All it guarantees is that it will take them longer to complete the course. We can’t force learners to learn, we can only motivate them to learn.

I don’t know about you, but being talked at for 30 to 37 minutes isn’t going to motivate me to learn. It will, however, motivate me to listen to some music and periodically check in on the course to see if the narration is finished and I can click next yet.

The hidden cost of this approach is it will impact learners that may have been self-motivated to learn to begin with, as we will be taking away their control to be self-paced in their learning experience.

To put yourself in the shoes of those learners; imagine you’re reading a book, but at the same time you are being forced to the audiobook and can’t flick to the next page until the audiobook reaches that point. It would be highly intrusive, disruptive and frustrating. All of a sudden you’ve gone from ‘50 Shades of Grey’ to ‘50 shades of out the window and I’ll watch TV instead’.

Purposeful use of narration in eLearning can be a hugely effective way of creating engagement and value to an eLearning solution, but only if it’s used on its merits rather than trying to fix a deeper issue. Used incorrectly it can end up delivering a worse experience for the learners and cause them to disengage with the eLearning solution.

It’s an easy trap to fall into, using the wrong tool to try and fix an issue.

Even Microsoft fell into this trap when many, many years ago. So when you are thinking about using narration in your eLearning, ask yourself this: are you looking to use it for the benefits it will bring or are you creating another Clippy?