In 2004, I took my first instructional design course. It was my second semester in my masters program, and I was eager to show off my skills. The class had each student paired with a client. On the first night of class, 20 potential clients came in to pitch their projects to the 15 or so students in the room. We each wrote down our top 3 choices and the professor set us up.
I got my top choice, to work with the San Diego Maritime Museum. It was a project that centered around the travel journals kept by a Mr. Stead Ellis as he spent 9 months aboard what’s now known as the Star of India. Euterpe was traveling from England to New Zealand, and Mr. Ellis and his family were on board. In his journals, he described the feeling of pulling away from the shore, the dangers of a storm at sea, and the risk of getting sick on board.
Not only did he keep this travel journal, but he worked with other passengers on board to create a small handwritten publication called the Euterpe Times. All of which is part of the permanent collection of the museum.
As I said, this was my first experience with a client, and I learned an important lesson. Sometimes you need to take orders and follow directions, and other times you need to help the client define what they’re asking for before you get to work. The need and the ask aren’t necessarily the same thing.
The project ended up being an interactive DVD. We hired an Englishman to read through some of the passages and put the audio behind the pictures we had of Euterpe in her heyday. We didn’t have enough pictures, so as the narrator was talking about the games they played at sea, we’d be showing portraits, or a shot of the boat on the water. We had a crawl running along the bottom of the text, but rather than doing subtitles like you would for a movie, the ask was for a scrolling CNN-style caption that didn’t always sync with what was being said at the time.
Cognitive Overload overboard!
The project was for 80 hours, and I easily spent double that. In our final meeting, I learned that the biggest reason we wanted an interactive exhibit was so that people could look up lists of passengers from the different voyages. I felt the pain of putting so much work into something they couldn’t use for the first time. I’d given them what they asked for without asking the questions up front I needed to find out what they really wanted.
This has been a project that pops up every year or so since then. Eventually I got into podcasting and blogging and showed them a mockup of the same content, but in a audio blog format, which they liked. That prototype came up in google as Mr. Ellis’s great great great grandson was researching family history, and I got to exchange emails with him. Then this past week, I met with new exhibit designers who are interested in reviving this project.
I’ve agreed to work with them on the Stead Ellis Cabin. They’re going to convert one of the cabins on board into a study/library along with a showcase of his writings from his journal. I’m helping them integrate our readings somehow. Not on an interactive DVD with not enough pictures and too much text.
I’m doing it because it’s a neat project, but also because I was impressed with the legacy the man left behind. The way he chose to spend his time on board inspired me and I want to help pay tribute to what he did.