Instructional Design in the Wild

Looking at the world with “instructional design colored glasses”creates an interesting perspective on the motivations and techniques behind communications of all sorts.


Fios Remote [Personal photograph taken in Fredericksburg, VA]. (2017, January 22).

Consider the humble remote control.  As our society has moved away from relatively expensive printed instruction manuals and towards user discovery, implicit and explicit instructional design becomes more important than ever.  The design of this device has a significant impact on the end goal of providing the user with a satisfactory viewing experience and has an impact on the consumer’s perception of value for all the various components that make up the experience: the television manufacturer, cable company and even the content providers.  Yet the understanding of its use and the details of successful interaction are left to the consumer to figure out from the design.  Customer satisfaction is dependent upon button placement, shape, size, labeling, color and juxtaposition and many of the labels only make sense in a present day context.  While ‘mute’ would be familiar to someone from the 1970’s, ‘last’, ‘widgets’, ‘menu’ and ‘PIP’ would probably not be easily understood and may even be mysteries to contemporaries but interestingly may not have a huge impact on most users’ satisfaction.  In our present culture, as long as the basic functions are easily understood, many of the more esoteric functions are left as ‘Easter eggs’ to be discovered by those who want to figure them out.

Another interesting facet of the design of a remote control is duplicative functions depending on user preference as some people may prefer to choose specific channels through the number keys while others use the channel toggle while still others may want to navigate the guide with the direction buttons.  As channel choice is the most important feature of the remote control, it is understandable that there would be several modes to accomplish it that would appeal to different users.

The remote control has to be many things to many people and it is relatively successful as most people don’t even notice how it provides them with what they want.  Simple, direct, useful, communicative, differentiable and intuitive are useful characteristics for a technology and instructional design as well.  Especially when considering learning technology which may preclude direct instruction, making something that communicates well without requiring a lot of direction is an important characteristic and useful goal.


Prep List [Personal photograph taken in Per Se NY]. (2015, July 13).

In the summer of 2015 I had the great opportunity to experience one of the most educationally rich environments of my life as I interned as a commis for a month at Thomas Keller‘s Per Se in New York, one of only 14 restaurants rated 3 stars by the Michelin Guide in the United States.  An essential tool of communication was the commis prep list.  The staff of the kitchen are part of a traditional hierarchy known as a kitchen brigade with the chef at the top of the pyramid and commis at the bottom but the work of the commis kitchen is some of the most important as its quality forms the foundation of the quality of work throughout.  The goal of this document is to let the commis know what basic preparations the upper level chefs (chefs de partie) need to make the dishes they have planned for the day.

I have made and used many forms of prep lists but this one is designed in an elegant and effective way.  The standard recipes are listed with amounts and which shift needs them and categorized by which commis station will most likely be working on them with space available for special prep that is outside the routine.  With a 9 course tasting menu that changes daily there are always special projects.

The collaboration that the prep list helps to structure is also remarkable.  The line chefs all have a meeting at the end of their shift every day with the chef in charge of the commis and they decide, after looking at what is available, what they want to serve the next day and what they need from the commis kitchen.  Each chef hears what the others are creating and builds the menu so that there are no repetitions and the sequence makes sense.  The next day the commis kitchen uses the same list collaboratively so that everyone knows what needs to be done and can work on something they are good at or pitch in on projects that are going to be difficult or time consuming.  As no one leaves until everything is done, completion of the list becomes the goal of the commis kitchen and fulfills the goal the line chefs had in filling it out.

Besides the tactical advantages I learned from the use of such a list, another aspect that would directly apply to instructional design would be the use of structure to create collaboration and teamwork.  It’s not just that the list is well formatted, the way that it is used builds on the core values of Thomas Keller Restaurant Group and promotes an effective kitchen culture.


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