Instructional Design – What are Storyboards?


Blog posts grow organically. You write, hope that people read and engage enough with your content to comment or ask a question. It’s a good marker for creating engaging content that people do take the time to ask a question.

This is how this post came about, and came about pretty quickly. On Monday of this week (16/04/2018) I published the first post on a new series of posts on Instructional Design and through LinkedIn got a question from a colleague who was stuck on a part of the instructional design process about storyboards. I hadn’t planned to write a post on storyboards, or even that quickly, but content came together pretty quickly and here we are with a new post on storyboarding in Instructional Design, so I hope it makes sense and is helpful!

Overview of Storyboarding

What is a storyboard?

An e-learning storyboard is a document that will indicate the visual elements, text elements, and audio elements for every screen of your course. You can think of a storyboard as the basic game plan that you and stakeholders agree on, before you actually develop the course in an e-learning tool. There’s no one right way to build a storyboard, although there are common approaches, all of which I’ll be covering. Regardless of type though, most storyboards contain the following information:

  • The project title and screen information, such as the screen title and where the screen appears in relation to others in the course.
  • The on-screen graphics and text. Basically, what the learner is going to see on-screen.
  • Audio information, such as the voice-over narration, or sound effects.
  • Navigation indications that show how the slide advances, and where the learner is going after this slide.
  • And finally, there’s a space for reviewers to put in their comments.

Benefits of Storyboarding

It can take a bit of time to write and format a storyboard. But there are a lot of good reasons for doing so. Here are the most important ones:
To begin, a storyboard will get everyone involved in the project on the same page, by specifying exactly what content is going to be developed and how. In this way, a storyboard is a mutual agreement you make with members of your team. Because everyone is on the same page regarding the required content, a storyboard invites collaboration on the form the content will take and allows others to take part in the designing of the course.
A storyboard also forces you, as the instructional designer, to think about the structure and flow of your course. Why are you designing it this way? Is there a better way to present the information?
And finally, the storyboard has the capability of saving your organisation time and money. By getting a consensus before anything is developed, the storyboard may reduce the amount of rework when the course is actually developed. Storyboarding takes real time. However, it often takes less time than having to redo a project from the very beginning because it didn’t meet the expectations of your intended audience.

Core Concepts of Storyboarding

To get the most out of your storyboarding, you’ll want to keep the following four points or concepts in mind.

Concept One

There are many different ways to storyboard. There’s no one correct way to do it. Some people prefer, what we’ll call a text-based approach. Where you’re mostly writing about what the learner will see and hear and interact with. Here you will see various columns devoted to voice over narration, on screen text, on screen graphics and so forth.
Some developers like the immediacy of a more visual storyboard, which often includes a screen shot of what the actual learner will see on screen. Other elements such as voice over and navigation indications are included as well. And some developers take it even further by doing what’s called a rapid prototype, which means building and publishing a rough version of the slides. Doing everything from a quick and dirty recording of the narration, down to syncing the animations.

Concept Two

Build your storyboard to meet the needs of the people reviewing it. They are your primary audience. So keep them in mind as you decide what to include and exclude. If you don’t know what they want, feel free to ask your reviewers what type of storyboard they prefer.

Concept Three

Be aware of the large gap between the storyboard and finished course. Especially if you’re creating some type of text-based storyboard. It takes some imagination to look at the storyboard and envision what the slide is going to look like. Make sure that your most important reviewers have the ability to visualise what the finished product will look like. If it seems they don’t, then it may be necessary to sit down and talk them through the storyboard.

Concept Four

Include just enough detail in your boards. Some storyboards contain too much detail. Remember, a storyboard is an indication of what the course will look like. And an overdone storyboard might cause you to spend a lot of time creating and formatting an idea that ultimately gets rejected.
This type of storyboard may also hinder collaboration. With such a detailed vision, where is the space for a different point of view or for collaboration? At the other extreme, is the absence of detail. Include just enough detail for your reviewers, given the type of storyboard you’re using.

Understanding When to Start

Let’s get a brief, high-level view of the first few stages of the instructional design process, so you can see where storyboarding fits in.And please don’t worry if your organisation follows a different process, or calls the stages something else. Most training projects begin with an analysis stage, often called a needs analysis. And here you’ll be asking the big questions like, what issues or problems are we trying to address with this training? What are the best ways, in terms of e-learning, to address those issues? And, what do we want the learner to know or be able to do after the course is done? This last question helps you come up with your learning objectives.
Once the analysis stage is complete, you will have a good understanding of the topics and the learning objectives you’ll be focusing on. What you need now is some quality content that relates to your objectives, which is why this next stage is often known as content development. In this stage you’re culling and reworking existing content. Say, from a resource, document, training guides, or PowerPoint slides and creating new content that fills in some of the gaps you have. You’re also thinking about activities and interactions that will serve as a frame for the content.
Once you have some quality content, you’re ready to develop it into elearning, which means your ready to storyboard it. If you storyboard too early, you may create a course that doesn’t respond to your course needs. You may also not have enough relevant content. If you storyboard too late or not at all, you might miss the chance to have input from your reviewers before the course gets too far down the line. Storyboarding at the right time allows you to create a course that addresses your curriculum needs in an efficient and timely fashion.

Text-Based Storyboarding

Understanding Text-Based Storyboards

Text based storyboards are usually designed in Microsoft Word, and will have a landscape page layout, consisting of columns and rows. The above image is a good example of how this might look. We‘ve got the screen title, the the slide number for the course and the time (or more accurately duration). You have a sub-column for media: images and narration; media notes (which will include comments on how the graphics behave, and how the slide advances, and where the learner is going after this screen), screen text (which is any text that appears on the screen) and media script. Although it’s not on my image, you might also want to include a column for reviewers of the storyboard to make any insightful comments.
So, when might you use a text based storyboard? Well, you might consider using it when, you as the instructional designer have got a graphics person handling most of the graphics, or in instances where the visual look of the course has sort of already been established. Say for instance your organisation uses a slide template with approved colours.
You might also consider using a text-based storyboard if your reviewers are tech-challenged, or really pressed for time. Most people can open up and make their way through a Word document without too much trouble.

Mock-up Storyboarding

Above, you see a visual type of storyboard, sometimes called a mockup storyboard. Visual storyboards are often built in PowerPoint, and by nature focus more on what the learner’s going to see onscreen. This is unlike text-based storyboards, which tend to focus on the content and the details of how it will be presented.
In a typical mock-up storyboard, you’ll have a space for the project title, screen title and the total number of screens. You’ll have a large space for the onscreen graphics and text. Usually as a developer you are mocking up the main graphic for the screen, saving that graphic as an image and then pasting it in the space. We will be covering how to build the main graphics when we cover rapid prototyping later in this post. You’ve also got a space for audio information, such as the voice over narration or audio effects. There’s a section for graphic information, such as details of animation or video, if needed. Navigation indications that show how the slide advances and where the learner is going after the slide, and finally, a space for reviewers to insert their comments.
When might you use a visual type storyboard? You might consider using it when you want to give reviewers a clear picture of what you’re planning to show on screen. If your reviewers are new to storyboarding, or if your layouts and graphics are quite different than what’s usually done in an online course, creating a visual board may save you a lot of time and rework.
You might also consider using a visual-type storyboard when you, as the e-learning developer are mostly responsible for the layouts and graphics of the course. You’re going to be developing the graphics anyway. Why not do a mockup and show people what you’re thinking? Visual storyboards are a great option when you need to give reviewers a clear picture of what will be happening onscreen.

Rapid Prototype Storyboarding

Rapid prototyping is a rough version of a slide or interaction complete with narration and animations. Instead of storyboarding what you’re planning to do, you build a quick version of the slide and present it to reviewers for their feedback.
When might you choose prototyping? When it’s crucial that your reviewers experience the proposed look and feel of the course. For instance, if you’re building a large course for a new client, probably a good idea, early in the process, to actually build a few slides and interactions, so the client can experience your vision of what the course will look and feel like.
Secondly, you might also choose prototyping for complex interaction. The text descriptions and screen shots, often included in storyboards, often can’t accurately explain how the learner will engage with the content. For example, if you’re building a fairly complicated branching scenario and your reviewers have never gone through a scenario, you may want to build a prototype of it. So, your reviewers can experience it as a learner would. In this example, you would also be able to use your team as a way to receive learner feedback and help further refine your content or layout.

Addressing Common Challenges

Publishing Your Project

When the time arrives for you to publish your project make sure to do so using the appropriate settings. If your course is going live on a website, then publish for Web. If it’s going to live on a Learning Management System, then publish for that. This may seem really obvious, but what happens a lot of the times is that, because of convenience, people publish to the Web and then are disappointed when the course doesn’t play as it should when it’s launched from the LMS. Each environment, whether that’s the Web or a particular LMS, has its own quirks and you need to plan for this in advance, not as an after-thought.

Sharing Your Storyboards With Others

Even if your storyboard is clearer than crystal, you’re still going to have to guide your reviewers as they make their comments on it. I would suggest that you provide a set of instructions on how to comment on the storyboard. In those instructions ask your reviewers to:

  • Insert their comments in the proper place in the template, if you’re using one. This might seem obvious, but it is easy to get wrong if the proper guidance isn’t given.
  • Ask that they give alternatives to elements that they don’t like. This gets the reviewer involved. It’s easy to make a criticism, but can a better solution be proposed? Sometimes you’ll get a comment like, “this image just doesn’t work.” As a developer it’s much more helpful to know why the image doesn’t work, and what kind of image would work better. Ask for the reviewers comment on what they want or expect to see.
  • Ask reviewer’s to identify their comments. This can be done by having reviewer’s turn on track changes if your story board is in Microsoft Word or just by having them type their name or initials next to comments they make. It’s crucial that everyone knows who is saying what.
  • Ask reviewer’s to send in their comments by their due date. If they don’t, the project may very well come to a standstill.

If you are using rapid prototyping, you might be interested in an e-learning review service. Basically, you publish your project to one of these services and reviewers are provided a form in which to make comments as they view the course online. Other benefits to these types of services is that comments are generally collated and reviewer’s get automated reminders when their comments are due.

Editing Storyboards Based on Feedback

Here are some tips for handling client reviews of your storyboards.

  1. Before you send out storyboards for review, you’ll want to set the number of review cycles. Two or three is a pretty typical number. If you don’t set a number, you may get stuck in a cycle of endless reviews and this will significantly delay the projects launch. Not to mention sour people’s attitude on the project.
  2. Before you make any changes to your storyboard, make sure you fully understand what the reviewer is asking for. If there’s a hint of vagueness and a lot of the time there will be, ask the person for clarification. Ask them to give you examples of what they’re looking for.
  3. Make sure the person who has sign off authority on your board gives you a master list of must have changes.Here’s a situation a lot of e-learning developers are in. We’re in charge of building the story board but we don’t have the authority to sign off on it. For instance maybe we’re creating a course for external client and the person on the client’s team is the one who provides final approval.

In instances like these where you’re likely to have multiple reviewers, you want to request the client provide you one master list that whittles down all of the requested changes reviewers have made. If you don’t, you’ll end up receiving everyone’s comments, some of which may be contradictory. Some comments may be important, while others might just be a complaint over the font size/choice, which might follow a style guide and so there is little choice over. For this master list to happen, whoever is in charge of signing off on this storyboard, will need to go through all of the comments, and then list the ones that must be addressed.
This isn’t exactly fun work, so let this person know ahead of time, they’re going to have to do it.
In summary, before you send out a storyboard for review, let everyone know how many review cycles there will be. Before you make an edit to a storyboard, make sure you fully understand what the reviewer is requesting. Make sure the person who has sign off authority on your board gives you a master list of must-have changes.

Free Download Text-Based Storyboard Example

Click on the icon for a free downloadable version of a text-based storyboard for free use! It is slightly different to the example I used earlier, but all the main aspects are there for your storyboarding!


Example Mockup Storyboard

Click on the icon for a free downloadable version of a mockup storyboard for free use! It is slightly different to the example I used earlier, but all the main aspects are there for your storyboarding!



Got a question or a topic you'd like to know more about? Leave a comment or ask me through a social media platform!

Michael Johnston

About Michael Johnston

I'm a Lecturer in Computing and the Foundation Degree Director in Computing for the Northern Regional College in Northern Ireland. My research interests in the areas of technology enhanced learning, how we interact with technology, blended learning and professional development. Michael currently specialises in the computing areas of web development technologies, cyber security, software development and IoT. Michael has worked in a range of different roles in IT-from teaching roles to running his own web design company, Michael is equally at home working with theory, as he is conducting research, or building a bespoke IT solution. Michael is currently studying a PhD in Cyberpsychology.

One Comment

  • Mitch says:

    Hey Michael! Just want to say I think this is an awesome rollup! I’ve been involved with designing various training courses on for around 5 years now, but it’s my first time hearing about three types of storyboarding you’ve outlined here. I think my favorite part about your article is the part about seeking and applying feedback to your plan. I’ve gone down the path of creating something without feedback only to launch it and have a ton of feedback immediately from multiple people at once about a clear miss that would’ve been caught even if I shared with one additional person. Thanks for this and keep the great content coming!

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