Choosing an elearning authoring tool isn’t easy and it takes more than a free trial. With each tool offering a wide range of features, workflows and support packages, it’s important you find the right fit for everyone: shop-floor staff all the way to your in-house Learning Designers. This detailed guide will help you find a solution which meets your unique and changing needs both now, and in the future.
Finding something that meets your retail training needs
Choosing an elearning authoring tool is not an easy decision and realistically you’ll probably need more than a demo to make it. As with any new technology, you want to be sure you’re making the right choice and investing wisely – that means it has scope to grow as your business and team grows too.
The challenge is finding something which meets the needs of a wide range of stakeholders: your authoring team, any design contractors, learning and business leaders, and last but not least, your end users. And because you are likely delivering content globally, it also needs to to be simple to use, support multiple languages and be responsive, at a minimum.
Yet each tool offers a potentially bamboozling array of different features, workflows, and technical integration options. Each provider will also have their own way of working with customers and offer different levels and types of support.
So, how do you weigh up which option is right for you?
This article will take you through a process for making the right decision, equipping you with the necessary questions and considerations you’ll need to work through to find the right fit.
Before you have a demo…
Spend a bit of time putting together your shopping list (pun absolutely intended) and doing a bit of research before you invest too much time in demos and free trials – we do love a list!
Some of the common training challenges we’ve seen our retail customers experience include:
- SPEED: Huge volumes of skills and knowledge elearning needs to be produced and delivered rapidly. Keeping up can be tiring and cumbersome.
- SIMPLICITY: With skills gaps and varying abilities in the Learning Design team, many retailers seek an authoring tool which is easy to use and has a sleek user experience.
- SCALABILITY: Global teams mean a whole lot more elearning. Things like translations and constant onboarding of a transient workforce require scalable processes for maximum efficiency.
These are just a handful of the common challenges we’ve seen with retail clients, but they should give you a good idea of the issues you may face too. So without further ado, let’s get started.
Be clear on your needs
It sounds obvious but understanding your own requirements before you work with a supplier is vital. Without knowing what you and your stakeholders need to get from an authoring tool, it will be hard to weigh up which one is the right fit. A software provider might offer loads of snazzy features, but do you need them? What challenges are you trying to solve with a new authoring tool? Is it capable of growing with your business in one year? How about three?
Whether you are bringing elearning production in-house to gain more control or cut costs, or just want to replace your existing one to introduce better processes and quality control into your L&D, we recommend you take a step back and consider your set-up, needs and plan. Here are six elements to consider:
- Size – the size, location and available time of your production team
- Skills – the level of skill/experience your authoring team has
- Quantity – the amount of content you’re aiming to produce, in a given time-frame, and the number of learners you’re aiming to reach
- Quality – the types of content you need and want to create now, and in future
- Scale – the need to re-brand, re-version, translate and/or regularly update content
- Systems – where your content needs to launch from and systems it needs to integrate with
Decision timescales are also key here. If you know you need to have X number of products launched by a certain date, work back from that to assess when you need to have your new tool in place, and when you need your team up to speed using it by.
An example: A retailer snapshot
Three things that can help you capture your own needs:
- Do some stakeholder mapping – consider the stakeholders for your authoring tool, from your project sponsors and business leads looking for ROI, through to your end users. Break your production team down into varying roles from subject experts, designers, authors, editors, and reviewers and consider their needs.
- SWOT up – carry out a SWOT analysis on your authoring team. What are their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats?
- Create a vision statement – Don’t just focus on the kind of digital learning you want to create now. Where do you want to be in two years time? Consider the kind of content and products you want to be delivering, to whom, and what kind of feedback you want to be hearing. Set out a clear vision statement.
2. Gather reviews and recommendations
So, you know what you want and need from a new authoring tool. Great. Now it’s time to do your research. Why not start by creating a shortlist of potential tools and see what people are saying about them. A few places to start with include:
- Review sites such as Elearning Industry and Capterra
- Look for customer stories and testimonials, like this one.
- Comparison articles, like this one: 9 Authoring Tools – comparison and review
Are like minded customers using the tool? Can you talk with any of them, via LinkedIn or similar? Could the platform’s team help set up some references?
When it comes to presenting your business case for the tool, showing your stakeholders how other teams have been successful using it will really help your case.
Free-trial vs. guided demo - what’s best?
Some authoring tool companies offer free trials, others offer conversations and guided demos. We recommend getting on the phone and having a conversation, rather than attempting to evaluate the tool through a free-trial alone. Especially if it’s your first time exploring a tool of this ilk. Here’s why.
A free trial
- Gives you a quick feel for the authoring interface, but doesn’t always help you evaluate it from all stakeholder perspectives
- Leaves you to your own devices, meaning you might not really see the tool properly. Chances are a licensed author would have technical support/training available when using the tool that might not be available fully at free trial
A guided demo
- Helps you experience more than just the authoring interface. Get a tour of how it feels for every type of user: end users, reviewers, learning managers, administrators and more.
- Enables you to ask all your questions and have the sales rep do the leg-work for you in presenting or gathering the answers
- Gives you a chance to get a feel for the company, what they are like and how they treat customers
A six point scorecard to help you navigate demos
It helps if you have a consistent measurement method when weighing up different tools - it’s another good thing to include in your business case too. To help you navigate tool demos and dialog with reps, we’ve put together a six point scorecard. Within each of the six criteria, make notes and try giving each tool a score out of 10.
These scoring elements include:
- Ease of use
- Efficiency and Scalability
- Technical capabilities
- Maintenance and future proofing
- People behind the tool
Step 1. How easy is it to use?
According to Towards Maturity’s Benchmark report, 66% of organizations are struggling to build teams with the development and learning design skills needed to use some of the legacy authoring tools. It’s key that you find a tool that makes it easy to get great results and that offers real support to get your team up the learning curve. Some tools are super simple, but perhaps offer less features and have more restricted output results. Others offer wider ranging or higher end results, but authoring teams need a bit of a leg up initially to get proficient.
The reality is, you must consider the skills which your teams already have. Is producing content quickly important to you? Do you have a lot of elearning to create? Then something more straightforward might be a more logical solution.
To judge ease of use, you have to consider how easy it is to use out the box and what support is available to help teams take it to the next level…if there is a next level that it goes to! When considering your requirements, It’s a bit like weighing up ease of input vs quality output.
Some aspects to consider when weighing up the ease of use:
- How easy is it to use the tool? What are your first impressions? Does the interface feel logical? What’s the user experience like? Does the workflow make sense?
- Does it come with pre-built themes, page types and interactions?
- How easy is it to achieve high-quality results?
- What skills does it take to achieve good results? Can anyone do it? (or do you need graphic design or coding skills, for example).
- How long does it typically take to produce a 5min piece of content?
- How long might it usually take a novice to get fully up to speed with the tool?
- Does it automatically make content mobile-friendly or does it require additional authoring?
- How easy is it to carry out reviews, make edits, make comments?
- How easy it is to publish/upload content?
- Is it collaborative? How easy is it to work together on a project in the tool?
- What support is available to help your team…
- How quickly could you get up and running with the basics?
- What about becoming a master of the tool?
- What is the availability of any support teams and average response times/ratings?
Step 2. Understand efficiency & scalability
Because of the sheer volume of elearning you have to create, evaluating how efficient a tool is will be key to your success. How well will the tool help improve the abilities of your team whilst increasing quality output? Could it keep up with production on a global scale? Consider the following:
Efficiency via re-use
- How does the tool make high scale production more efficient? i.e. what features does it have that support:
- Duplication and re-usability of interfaces, layouts, whole projects
- Translation into multiple languages (all languages?)
- Ability to create variations of the same course for different regions and users?
- Customizable branding so one course can be switched to an alternative on-brand look?
- Bulk assets upload and management?
- Are there any limits to the number or size of projects?
- Are there any limits to how many authors can work in the tool?
- Does it support contractors using licenses for short periods?
- Can authors work together on projects, at the same time?
- Can teams ‘jump in’ and edit other people’s projects easily?
- Can reviews and suggested edits be carried out in the tool, by non-authors
Step 3. Evaluate technical capabilities
It’s vital you take the time to understand how well each tool integrates with your existing systems both now and in future.
- Does it integrate with your required platforms or LMS?
- Does it need an LMS or platform in order to publish content?
- Is it xAPI enabled? (Ask for case studies)
- Is it SCORM compliant (if you need this)?
Data management & project evaluation
- How does it gather, store and present back data?
- What kinds of data does it collect/present?
- Does it include in-built data dashboards that tell a story about projects?
- Does it require downloading and manual manipulation of data to grasp trends?
You should also consider how important data will be for you; is it something you need? If so, how easily does it use and present data to help you recognise successes? Could you easily utilise the data to understand performance, improve and iterate?
An example of an in-build data dashboard, from the Elucidat Authoring Platform
Step 4: Dig into quality potential
Be wary of providers who can’t show you lots of output examples! Ask the provider to show you examples of projects created in the tool, so you can experience them from the end-users’ point of view. Interact with them and try to gauge the look, feel, usability and range of what’s offered to you.
Examine what kind of outputs the tool produces, out of the box:
- How easy is it to quickly produce high-quality content?
- Does it have a specialist area? Most tools will be particularly good at a certain type of design approach e.g. branching scenarios
- What does it offer that’s more sophisticated? Do you need these items? e.g.
- Ability to embed and use videos and audio
- Personalization features
- Gamification features
- Ability to create immersive scenarios and branching
- Range of ways to ‘score’ and track learning
- Social elements – such as social polling
- Ability to animate content
- Ability to create custom layouts, navigation devices, interactions, templates
- Any others that are important to your requirements?
Step 5: Maintenance & future-proofing
Ease of authoring projects is one side of the coin – on the other is how easy and quickly you can make changes to projects, whether they are already published or still being worked on. Suss out what steps exist to update projects and find out if anything gets ‘disturbed’ by doing so. You should have the freedom to make changes to live projects without users or data streams being affected – so ask lots of questions!
- How easy/quick is it to update content?
- How easy/quick is it to re-publish content?
- Who has the rights to do it, within a project team?
- Are there any downsides to updating content i.e. loss of historical data?
- Based on where you want to be, will this be the right tool for you in 2 years’ time?
- What’s on the tool’s development roadmap for the next 12 months?
- How far has it come/what’s been added in the last 2 years? (Ask for retrospective roadmaps)
Step 6: Get to know the people behind the tool
Yes you’re buying a tool. But the people and services behind that authoring software make all the difference. We’ve all experienced bad customer service - and it’s even worse when it’s with things we’re tied into. It’s not fun. If you’re investing a lot of money into a tool, you want to ensure the fit with the people behind it is right and that they’ll support you every step of the way.
Get a feel for their approach and values
- Who are the company and what’s their background? i.e. are they all ‘techies’, are they learning design specialists? Have they worked client side before? What’s the mix?
- What do they believe in? – i.e. what are the company values and what’s their mission?
- How do they come across when you talk with them?
- Have you been to visit them? What’s the vibe in the office?
- Are they loud and proud of their design outputs and customer stories, and are happy to share?
Do they go that extra mile?
- Do they share advice, tips, and ideas willingly?
- What do they offer to help you get started as quickly as possible?
- Do they give you a dedicated customer success or support contact?
- Do they offer services beyond just the software i.e. Professional Services in digital learning design. Can they help you with design ideas? Coaching new authors in learning design? Consulting on your elearning strategy?
Weighing it all up
Only now can you truly weigh up value for money. Make a note of the costs, but don’t judge on face value. Use your scorecards and notes to help you. In theory, you should have scored higher where the tool best meets your needs – and this is where the value comes in for you
Make sure you fully understand the true cost for each tool. Try to sum up how much it will cost for your team of X people to use the tool for X projects for X time period – you need to find a way to create a like for like comparison.
You then need to pull back and consider what value you get for that cost. Your scorecards will help here.
It might help to set up a spreadsheet with notes, comparisons and scores for each of the tools you’ve evaluated, and then add the comparative costs into this so you can review cost and value together.
If you whittle your decision down to two tools, or even just one, consider bringing in other stakeholders to experience them too. For example, consider bringing in some authors, graphic designers, novice designers into the mix to run some tests. After all, these are the people who will be using the tool with fervour. Just remember that trialling a tool solo can be a narrow experience of a true tool, as it might not show the full support offered by the provider to holders of a real license.