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The role of Instructional Designer – a pivotal role within any learning project, is all-encompassing.

They are at the heart of any action or communication flow. Work isn’t restricted to designing learning. That’s why I found it difficult to whittle the ID practices you can’t live without down to 5. There’s definitely more than 5 (in fact when drafting a list this went well into the double figures), but in this blog I’ve tried to focus on practices that I felt, if missing, would have the biggest impact on the effectiveness of the learning programme.

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1. Advocate for your learner

eLearning often ‘happens’ as a result of businesses looking for cost-effective alternatives to face-to-face training, or existing methods of training aren’t working. There’ll be a strategic goal behind the learning but HOW is it directly relevant to the learner? It can be very easy to lose sight of the WHY behind the learning.

WHO is the learner?
WHAT do they need to know?
WHY do they need to know it?
WHAT activities or tasks will help learners to do what they are currently not doing?
WHAT are their pain points?

Have you spoken to them to learners to find out? Even better, involve them. It’s dangerous territory to assume what learners might respond to, even worse not to consider them at all.

You can also use educational insights to help guide your content design. Although adults are all children at heart, they do have different priorities and expectations when it comes to learning. Connie Malamed’s Get Your Audience Pumped: 30 Ways to Motivate Adult Learners is an excellent point of reference. I’d like to home in on options, exploration and allowing for mistakes. Children and young adults have sat through years of tests and dictatorial teaching. Adults, now in a less institutionalized environment, like to be free to make choices, they want to be given the opportunity to develop beyond a multiple-choice question and they want to know how to do their job well, learning from their mistakes by experience.


2. Get your ducks in a row

Before starting on a project, before even thinking about that first idea, it’s important to get all the information you need upfront, so you don’t have to backtrack later. It’s also showing respect for the product and for the work everybody is putting in to produce said product.

When you’ve found out you’re going to work on a project, ask everything you can about your client. Get to know who they are. Get to know what they stand for. What is the project? What are the client’s expectations? Who is their typical learner? What has already been scoped out? How does this project fit in with other learning?

Understand who you’ll be working with. What is everybody’s part to play in this project? Where do I fit in? Who are the subject matter experts? Who is responsible for the leading the project and for signoffs? Could we involve learners? What does everybody know about the project?

You’ll need to know your deliverables. What’s the budget and what is it allocated to? What timeline do you have to work with? What are the accessibility and technical requirements?

What’s needed to help you with your instructional design? What are the aims of the project? How will you approach the project? For example, will you storyboard within the authoring tool? Will you have an internal workshop to discuss a treatment? What interaction do you need with the client?

Now for content curation. What relevant source content exists? What images and other assets can I use? Are there brand guidelines? Who can I speak to to get all of these?

3. Good research technique

In a lot of instances, you’ll be provided content to work with that guides your instructional design. The problem is, sometimes you’ll get too much and sometimes you’ll get too little. If you get too much, you’ll need to ask SME’s to help you sort out the wheat from the chaff – what’s directly relevant to the aims of the learning? If you get too little, you might need to do some research yourself or direct SME’s to providing more for you.

As an instructional designer, you’re playing the role of pseudo-expert. You don’t know enough about the topic yet, but you need to know enough to pull together what’s important. If a piece of learning has an assessment, it’s useful to work backwards. What questions/actions would I be asking as part of an assessment? Does this content match up? If it doesn’t, it’s not useful.

It’s also important to play devils advocate. Don’t accept the status quo with the content you receive. Find the holes. Present the content with confidence.

Is the content up-to-date?

Does the content represent a biased point of view?

Is it too superficial? Look for other sources to add some substance.

Is this content futureproof?

4. Impact

Take a look at this Dumb Ways to Die video. Content should always create an impact. Creating impact relates to emotional resonance. Content should evoke a significant emotional response with an audience that prompts them to take action or is at the very least memorable. Did this happen after watching Dumb Ways to Die? How did you feel? What was the key message?

How can you grab the attention of a learner? Sometimes plunging the learner in with an explainer video or animation can be effective. Firstly, audiences are more receptive to video content. Secondly, this can be a neat way of setting the tone for the rest of the learning. You can use the best technology and the hottest gamification techniques in your learning, but if it doesn’t add any value, i.e. the learner comes out of a course none the wiser. It’s not had any impact.

5. Think UX

UX refers to user experience. How do you want learners to experience your content? It has to be easy to navigate – we can’t create any more obstacles to learning than there already are.

Google is a fantastic point of reference. When you ‘google’ something, have you ever been instructed how to do it? You don’t need the instruction – the design is simple and intuitive enough for you to work it out. Sometimes, we can be in danger of over instructing learners. We don’t give them enough credit. ALL learners want to succeed, so let’s help them get there as quickly and intuitively as possible.

Here are some tips on how to map out your learning content to enhance user experience;

  • Break your content up into chunks.
  • Think about how these chunks relate to each other. Is there a logical way to present the information? What story are you telling?
  • Place your most important information first. People scan content – they barely read every single word on a page.
  • Use sub-headings.
  • Don’t fill your pages with clutter. Don’t be afraid of white space! Imagine your learner is using a mobile device to read your content. There’s probably enough space to write a Twitter length post.
  • Don’t rely on bullet points. Are there other ways to visually represent content you might otherwise pop into a bulleted list?


Great UX is important, but it doesn’t work in isolation. You’ll absolutely need to produce great content in the first place.

Who is your target audience? What will they respond to? What’s the need to know versus nice to have? How can I use the written word to engage my audience?

Have you read our blog on Creating eLearning for your audience with your audience?

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