How to Get Started Writing a Branching Scenario for Learning

Once you have decided on a branching scenario approach, how do you get started? This is my process for working with SMEs to prepare.

A colleague asked me, “Once you and your client have agreed on a branching scenario approach, how do you get started writing it? How do you get from the broad concept of training on X topic to actually creating the scenario?”

The short answer is to “begin with the end in mind.” In this post, I’ll walk you through my process for analysis and preparation before writing a scenario.

Get started writing branching scenarios

Begin with the end in mind

At the end of the training, what do you want people to do differently? It’s important to ask what you want learners to DO, not what you want them to KNOW. Cathy Moore has been beating this drum for years. If we’re aiming for behavior change, then we need to focus on what behaviors we want. It’s not enough to simply increase awareness.

Get specific with behaviors

Julie Dirksen describes this as the “photo test.” If you took a photo or video of the desired behavior, what would it look like? For example, a client might ask you for training on “quality customer service” or “better communication between nurses and patients.” As part of your analysis, ask what that really means. It’s not enough to just get a list of principles or broad best practices. You need specifics and examples.

“Quality customer service” might mean cashiers asking customers if they found everything they were looking for and calling for someone to get it if they missed something. That’s a specific behavior we can observe and assess.

“Better communication between nurses and patients” might mean asking open-ended questions to learn what concerns are most important to the patient. That’s another behavior we can observe.

Identify common mistakes

Ask your SMEs questions about mistakes. In a branching scenario, it’s not enough to know what the right behavior looks like. You need to know the wrong behavior you need to change too.

What are the common mistakes people make?

Where do people get stuck in this process?

If you have access to learners or people who have recently learned the skill, ask them too. They may have more insight than the SMEs.

The mistakes you identify become the distractors in the questions for your branching scenario. The mistakes and places people get stuck help you determine where to put decision points.

If certain parts of the process are fairly clear and unproblematic, you can make those sections of the scenario passive review. That way, you can focus on what you really need to meet your objectives in the scenario.

Identify consequences of mistakes

For each mistake you identify, find out the consequences. Ask your SMEs and sources this question.

What are the consequences if people make this mistake?

The consequences of those mistakes become the feedback in your scenario. Asking a patient a closed question rather than an open-ended one results in a one-word answer. Forgetting to ask customers if they found everything results in lost sales and less satisfied customers.

Keep probing for specific behaviors

Sometimes SMEs have a hard time switching from talking about abstract principles to describing behaviors. If they answer your questions about mistakes and consequences with broad answers, keep probing for specific examples and behaviors. You may have to ask these questions several different ways to get what you need.

  • Tell me more about that mistake. What do you think is going through people’s heads when they do that?
  • What does it look like when they make this mistake?
  • In practice, what does that consequence look like?
  • Can you give me an example?
  • Tell me about a time when you saw this happen in a real situation.
  • What happened next?
  • Where do people get confused? What do they do when they’re confused?

Sequence decision points

Once you have a list of mistakes, you can list and sequence the decision points. Often, you’ll be following a specific process where it’s clear what needs to happen at each step. In those cases, you outline the process and note where you’ll insert decision points that give learners a chance to make the mistakes you identified.

If you aren’t following an established process, think about a logical flow of events. Sometimes a particular mistake obviously happens at the beginning or end of a process. Look for the set points of the process and flow the rest of the steps around that.

Rough flowchart

At this stage, I only do a very rough flowchart or outline. I find the flow is sometimes easier to determine by simply sitting down and writing it rather than planning out every branch in advance. However, if you’re just getting started with branching scenarios, you might benefit from planning out in more detail. In the planning process, I often only do the sequence for the main correct path; I fill in the branches later as the scenario develops.

Draft the scenario

Once I have a rough flowchart and I know my primary decision points, I start drafting the scenario in Twine. I check my draft against my list of behaviors from the beginning of the analysis. Did I include all the critical decisions and behaviors? Did I include all the common mistakes?

Your process?

What is your process for preparing before creating a branching scenario? Let me know in the comments.

More on branching scenarios

Read more about the process of creating this scenario, starting from the very beginning of planning.

French adaptation

Marine Mas adapted content from this post and What to Write First in Branching Scenarios in her Les scénarios à embranchements.

Originally published 4/21/2017. Last updated 8/13/2020.

21 thoughts on “How to Get Started Writing a Branching Scenario for Learning

  1. I have recently stumbled across your blog and really gleaned a lot of great information. I especially like the idea of beginning with the end in mind because it acts as a tool to facilitate how to help a learner process the material in a way they can understand and apply. I see how imperative it is to explore the different aspects as behaviors, environmental factors, or social interactions can either enable or inhibit a learner. Which is why I like the idea of looking at both the expected and unexpected type of behaviors in a scenario as a means to meet objectives. When starting a branching scenario are creating clear objectives a good way of guiding the information for learning?

    1. I think starting with clear objectives is a good way to start creating any kind of training, branching scenarios included. For workplace training, that includes figuring out the specific behaviors you want to use. In fact, the first two steps here (Begin with the End in Mind and Get Specific with Behaviors) really apply to the analysis for any workplace training.

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