Review: Articulate Storyline

I was prepared to hate Storyline. My first exposure to a course assembled with this tool had come a week earlier. The author of the materials was unusually sensitive to aesthetic details, right down to RGB codes. The bullets in his slides were square, which fits the corporate style guide, and colorful, which does not. But, hey, the colors were from the corporate palette, and there is nothing wrong with having a little individual style, right?

So when I was QAing the course, I filed a bug report for my programmer about the black round bullets that had superseded the colorful square ones the author wanted.

Turns out Storyline can only handle round black bullets.

I’m only an occasional e-learning programmer, but when a perfect storm of resource shortages and deadlines hit, I threw my name in the ring to help out my team, which meant learning Storyline. Limited control over the formatting of bullets was not the end of the world, but what other unexpected, inconvenient limitations would I encounter? Usually, in my experience, stuff like this is the tip of the iceberg.

Turns out, though, I liked it a lot.

Never one for manuals or tutorials, I dove in with a completed slide deck and a bunch of wav files and started building. The course was straightforward in architecture, basically a linear presentation with narration and periodic comprehension questions. (The designer of the course did a nice job – tightly written, nice pace, high quality questions. Computer-based training doesn’t need to be exotic in design to be elegant.)

The design of Storyline is provocative in a couple of ways. One was Articulate’s decision to create the tool as completely stand alone rather than as a PowerPoint plug-in. The downside of this is once you import your deck into Storyline, the deck is no longer hot copy. I imagine this will be a problem in a year, when developers start handing us revised decks. But whatever; that’s a year away. More importantly, this approach accomplishes two things. One, the functionality of the tool is no longer beholden to whatever can be accomplished inside of PowerPoint. That’s huge. The other effect is that it sends the message that Storyline doesn’t want to be a tool for generating linear page turners.

Curiously, this nonlinear sensibility is somewhat undermined by the second provocative design decision, which was slavish imitation of the PowerPoint interface. I’m sure this is intentional to ease the transition for those coming from a PowerPoint background. No complaints here; for the most part controls were laid out logically and were easy to find.

What impressed me most about Storyline, though, was its ability to handle relatively complex interactions. While the overall architecture of the course I was programming was straightforward enough, some of the requested interactions were exotic. For instance, to make a point the author wanted learners to be able to identify a range of numbers that they were 80% confident contained a particular value.

Complexinteraction

I was able to accomplish this in Storyline with little fuss, and no scripting at all. When learners are finished inputting their answers into the tool, it displays appropriate symbols indicating success or failure. I’ll admit experiencing a tiny little frisson when I put Storyline into preview mode and the interaction just worked. It definitely suggests some fun possibilities.

The impetus for us transitioning to Storyline was to be ready for the day our learners have mobile access to our learning management system. But for the moment, lacking that access and with IE8 as the corporate standard, we are still publishing to Flash rather than HTML5. Other than the bullet debacle, my only other lingering complaint with Storyline after programming one course is that the text rendering below a certain size is terrible. Maybe this is a Flash limitation and isn’t Storyline at all, but my understanding is that Flash can handle subpixel rendering of text, so I’m not sure what’s going on here.

I came away impressed. I programmed my course using the 30 day trial (yay for free, uncrippled 30 day trials), but we’ve begun transitioning my team over to make it our primary e-learning authoring tool.

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