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How to get the most out of your instructional designer

November 25, 2015

(or how to be a good “client”).

We recently wrote a post about what makes a good instructional designer, and a great instructional designer is not the only factor in a successful working relationship. We believe it should be a mutually beneficial relationship, so here are some things that YOU as a client can consider when procuring e-learning or instructional design services and getting the most of our your instructional designer.

  1. Define the business problem AND the  performance problem. The instructional designer is uniquely qualified to help you solve these problems. Asking for a course is not getting to the real problem, it’s like picking a solution before you know what to solve or whether that choice is actually a solution. So, when we ask you “what’s the problem you are trying to solve here” don’t answer with “we need training on…”. Are you trying to address quality issues? Decrease time-to-competency? Speed up time-to-market? What do people need to do that they are not doing today. Let us help you with that.
  2. Don’t create prescriptive Requests for Proposal. Asking an instructional designer to just build the course as described diminishes the value that you’d get from a good instructional designer. Actually the whole RFP process is often a waste of time for all parties. An RFP shouldn’t be a list of specifications, it should be an open invitation to help you solve a problem.
  3. Recognize that there are many types of designers, and think carefully about what you really need from a project.
    • Are you expecting the audience to do something differently, from this point forward?
    • Do you have a range of skill levels – novice to master – that need different types of instruction?
    • Do roles influence what content you’d provide to the audience?

If you answered yes to any of these – You’d probably be better off with an instructional designer on your side.

  1. Tell your instructional designer what’s really important to you – is it cost? Is it release date? Is it easy maintenance going forward? Is it multi-device operability? If we understand what’s important, then we know how to help you and what the constraints are with the project. And, everyone has budget constraints, so be up front with these.
  2. Be clear on the existing standards or practices in your organization. If you have an established template or standard within your organization, your instructional designer might find it restrictive so it’s better to know up front. Your instructional designer is a creative type, so having to fit everything within a specific format might work for presentations or branding, but might not work for learning. Most instructional designers I know don’t want to be handcuffed during the process, however give them the opportunity to decide and not find out part way through the project. If you are looking for someone to just do what you tell them, then hire a temp or a co-op student and save yourself some money.
  3. Include time/budget for up-front analysis, which includes: defining the audience(s) and identifying the barriers to behaviour change, among many other factors. If we are able to do this part of the work, we might be able to recommend a LESS costly option (as in – maybe you don’t need a course after all…), or we may suggest that you’d be better served training managers as well. Or perhaps we determine that a course won’t help, but a peer-to-peer learning option would.
  4. Provide access to the actual audience & Subject Matter Experts (SME’s) – REAL access. One of the common challenges many instructional designers have seen is that the SME thinks that “everyone” needs to “know” a laundry list of things. But, they may not, or perhaps not in one fell swoop. And knowing does not equal doing. And being able to vet that with your target audience will help us ensure that we’ve hit the mark with both defining the problem and the solution. Your instructional designer can help you not only filter the content, but also working with the audience representatives shape the delivery method, the sequencing, and other aspects around how the instruction is delivered or accessed.
  5. Share the outcomes you’d like to track. This is especially true if you want to track things with your LMS or using xAPI. Knowing this information is an important part of the design process, so tell us this information in the discovery/analysis phase.

Above all be open to different interpretations/proposals that view your problem from a different perspective.

If you are an instructional designer, what did I miss? What would you like clients to do/say to make the working relationship smooth?

How to identify a good instructional designer

November 23, 2015

In the last post, we made the case for why instructional design matters.

We believe that designing good instruction for learning requires a unique set of skills and the reality is (as with any profession) there are good ones and not so good ones. When you are looking for an instructional designer, especially to build your online course, here are some things you should look for:

  1. Good (needs) analysis skills – they ask questions about the outcome and challenge you on the creation of the course. Why does it deserve to exist? Cathy Moore describes this so well.
  2. They focus on activity first – they don’t just ask you for the powerpoint file and then develop a course. They want to understand what the key tasks are involved so that the instruction supports the task. What do people need to be able to DO after this instruction? Or what is it intended to support them doing?
  3. They ask about mistakes that the audience might be making (as a result of lack of training) and consequences of those mistakes – understanding how to use training to avoid things that would harm the organization is critical. It’s not just about telling them things (i.e. sharing content), it’s about ensuring that the training is used to actually train someone, not just show them information that we hope they’ll use when the time comes. I think Dave Ferguson’s post is a good place to start.
  4. They ask questions about the environment – your instructional designer should be preparing your audience for the moment when they apply that task. Consider that you might need to have not just training, but also performance support.
  5. They differentiate between information that needs to be memorized vs information that should be referenced. In other words, they understand that some information remains constant and some changes and shouldn’t be memorized, but the process of looking it up should be.
  6. They help you solve your business problem within the constraints of your business. Sometimes a course isn’t pretty because there isn’t budget or time to enable that. But if it solved your business need, does it matter if it was “award winning”? Look for a partner that is looking to make YOU more successful, not themselves.
  7. They meet you where you are. A good partner won’t be forcing their “best practices” on you or belittling how you approach training (unless you ask them to help you shake things up).
  8. They don’t just build a course, but challenge you and ask about the actual business problem, the performance gap, and WANT to solve your problem. Even if that means telling you that a course/training won’t solve your problem.
  9. Their solution is not just a course. To really change behaviour (and that’s why you are working with an instructional designer), you need to address timing, feedback, spaced repetition, culture, process, etc. People aren’t just “trained” by the magic training wand. Will Thalheimer outlines his approach.
  10. They look at assessment as more than a multiple choice quiz at the end of the module. They help you design meaningful ways to ensure that they have learned something.

Bonus: they pay attention to information about how people learn.

Of course, you’ll also want an instructional designer that can translate all of that into an online environment, but first and foremost, you want someone who is interested in the learning needs before the technical requirements.

What have I missed? What would you say are the must-have skills?

Why Instructional Design matters

November 16, 2015

In the first post of this series, I wrote about my observations of blurring the lines between web design and elearning, as well as the obsession with beauty over useful. In this post, I’ll explore what the differences between the web design and instructional/e-learning design. They are different, but closely associated, design approaches.

So, the closing question at the end of the previous post was “does instructional design matter”? I’m going to declare my bias right up front. I am an instructional designer. I think instructional design matters.  A lot. Some would argue that instructional design doesn’t matter and is “old style”. I think a good instructional designer is going to know HOW to best support learning and when a good instructional designer thinks an e-learning course is a good fit, they know it’s different than a website.

What IS instructional design?

In short, instructional design is the systematic process by which instructional materials are designed, developed, and delivered. (See more at:

To me instructional design is primarily to provide access to learning activities, sometimes through a guided sequence of content. The overall design intent is engagement, learning and behaviour change.

How is it different than web design?

“A Web designer is someone who prepares content for the Web. This role is mainly related to the styling and layout of pages with content, including text and images.” (

To me web design is primarily to organize and structure information so it can be located easily and to style content. The overall design intent is efficiency and succinct communication.

Why does it matter?

A web designer cares about CONTENT first. What is the body of information that we have to work with? How can we categorize it logically in areas that make sense? How do we structure this content to meet the goals? The website owner (“the client”) decides what content is in there, and the web designer determines how to organize it. In looking at the competencies for a web designer (or user experience designer), there’s no mention of behaviour change.

An instructional designer cares about ACTIVITY first and content second. What are they going to do with that content? Should this content be included? What format should it be in? What order should it appear in to ensure that it sequences in a way that supports behaviour change? The instructional designer advises (or should) the online course owner (“the client”) what content should be included and in what format. More of a content advisor. These competencies are different than those of web design.

I could be wrong, but the biggest differences to me are:

  1. Design intent – what is the reason for this site/course to exist?
  2. Role of the designer – web designers offer expertise on how to treat content; instructional designers offer expertise on whether or not the content is the right content and what activity is necessary to meet the instructional goal. Perhaps it’s too simplistic, but I think that web designers focus more on the output (they work with what they are given) and instructional designers focus first on the input and then on the output.
  3. Audience – web designers are building for a broad audience; instructional designers are (attempting) to build for a focused audience
  4. Who benefits – a website benefits the client who commissioned it, whereas an online course benefits the individual who is taking the course

What about graphic design?

Both instructional designers and web designers care about the visual aspects of the project. How we use visuals and what the purpose of it, differs, but it’s pretty nuanced. I think (and I could be wrong), that visuals can stand alone more in web design, whereas in instructional design, visuals are used to support the instructional goal. Pretty is not enough. It has to look good, but not detract from the instructional purpose. I have seen online courses that are so meticulously visually designed, but it’s almost distracting and you’d remember the theme or the style, but not actually learn anything. I think it’s a really hard balance, but I’d hope that an instructional designer would direct the graphic designer to ensure that the end result is a perfect balance of form and function.

So, who cares what it’s called?

I do.

Design is a word that gets tossed around pretty frequently these days. But, it’s not a homogenous profession. I worry that not differentiating instructional design from web design or graphic design diminishes the field of instructional design. I worry that it’s seen as an unnecessary or so easy that any related field (or smart enough person) can just “make training”.  Why pay someone to do instructional design at all?  I worry that there’s an overemphasis on style instead of substance. Dazzle them with beauty and no one will realize that the course itself is hollow. I worry that instructional designers are not educating people about the importance of instructional design.

So, how to channel that worry into something more productive?

  1. Do a better job defining the value of instructional design so clients can feel good about investing in it.
  2. Work on comparison samples to show the differences – perhaps take a website and create an online course out of it.
  3. Continue to pursue e-learning design that’s begins with substance and is enhanced with style.

Whatever design you are referring to, one principle that should weave through all types of design is to make something useful. So, if your users need to learn something, you should engage the services of an instructional designer.

Design Confusion

November 12, 2015


The word has such lofty connotations. You create. You make. You construct. You model. You build. You design.

I’m a designer. An instructional designer. I design instruction. Seems pretty simple, right? Well, it used to be, but it’s become a bit more muddy these days. At least to me. Recently I’ve noticed a few things that blur the lines between instructional design (or more specifically e-learning design) and other types of design, including web design and graphic design or just misappropriating the term “online course” (and by association instructional design). I’d argue not in a good way. Design is certainly a term that is being applied to all kinds of fields: business model design, app design, product design, industrial design, usability design, etc. But the intent of how design is applied is different. Or at least it should be.

First of all, what is design?

According to Wikipedia,

there is no universal language or unifying institution for designers of all disciplines. This allows for many differing philosophies and approaches toward the subject.

Which explains my confusion. Design is such a broad term!

These are some examples of how I see design confusion manifested:

Confusing the purpose of a website and an online course/e-learning.

I’ve seen a few “educational” websites where it is called an online course, but it would appear that the emphasis on the project is actually to provide resources. They are often quite attractive and it’s obvious that the web designer took a lot of time to make them look cohesive and usable. But, they are framed as online courses, not websites. All I see is text or maybe a video or animation. What do I click? I read the text, now what? I watch the video of someone talking at me. So what? The most alarming thing for me is when these are health topics. These are sites that SHOULD be instructional: how to manage a chronic health condition or how to identify someone at risk for example. There’s little that helps apply any new information. There’s no differentiation between what might need to be learned or memorized vs what could be referenced. There’s not a lot of context about when this information would be best accessed. There’s not a lot that I actually do on these sites. I worry that there’s an emphasis on including existing resources or focusing on high production values and little to no thought to the educational aspect.  A website and an online course are not interchangeable. Just because you view them both on the web, doesn’t mean that they are the same thing. Moreover, there are many instances where BOTH would be useful. The design intent is what matters. If you intend to make an educational website, then make sure you include instructional components.

It only matters if it’s pretty

I’ve noticed an overemphasis on visual or graphic design to determine the effectiveness of a course (or a website for that matter). I think great graphics or visual design should support e-learning (and web design), but bristle at some of the things I’ve seen that are supposed to teach you something. They look gorgeous, but don’t actually have any structure that would support learning. Or they are “award winning” courses, based on the visuals. No mention of whether or not they are instructionally sound or have had impact on the business problem they were intended to change. I’m especially irked when this is done for public projects. If we want to support a behaviour change, for example, in financial literacy for youth, why would we just create a pretty website and call it a course? All that money and effort into slick graphics aren’t going to translate magically into learning.

Interestingly I read this article during the contemplation of the post you are reading: One of the statements that jumped out at me:

“Apple is reinforcing the old, discredited idea that the designer’s sole job is to make things beautiful, even at the expense of providing the right functions, aiding understandability, and ensuring ease of use.”

So, it’s not just me that is noticing the trend towards “pretty”.  Form and function are both necessary for great design. Don’t design for the accolades of other designers. Design for usefulness for the user and to address the business problem.

Anyone can make an online course. It’s easy!

Another interesting aspect that I’ve noticed is the explosion of online courses sold by individuals. These courses are usually subscription style online courses or e-learning. I would argue that many of them are actually marketing material (you are either providing training as a way to demonstrate your expertise or as a product that provides passive revenue). Some of these are quite good. Others are terrible and sound like get rich quick schemes. The biggest beef I have with these, is that they are typically passive pieces of content that are pushed out. There’s no behaviour change expected. There’s no skill practice. There’s not even any learning activity. Mostly it’s click to get access to my exclusive webinar type of stuff. It’s just a series of emails that push content to you. I love the notion of subscription training, but not every subscription course is created equal and some use the term “course” a little more cavalierly than I’d like. If the intent is to teach something, then make sure you allow people to learn.

All of this begs the question: is there actually anything special about instructional design? Am I deluded in thinking that there’s a difference between web design and e-learning? Is the proliferation of online courses good or bad for instructional design? Is everyone confused about design these days or just me? Am I alone in worrying?

In a series of posts, we’ll explore design, from the perspective of instructional design, and try to make sense of it all.

Learning to learn | Learning to think

August 17, 2015

I’ve seen a few articles around the topic “Learning to Learn” recently:

It would seem that learning to learn is a skill that is in demand. But (and this could be a wild generalization), I wonder how well we as a society teach learning. I’m not talking about learning styles, or generational preferences. I’m talking more about process than content. We focus a lot on “what”, but as a rule are less interested in “how”.  I see this as a parent (one of my pet peeves) and as a custom training developer.

One of the most common aspects of learning to learn is learning to think. And a very important aspect of that is the use of critical thinking. You might be able to learn a lot of facts or theories, but if you can’t apply them or can’t identify a bias around the information, then you have an opportunity to learn about your learning. IF the lack of critical thinking is a knowledge or skill gap, the good news is that you can change this as an individual, a parent and an organization.

How do you go about developing and exercising critical thinking?

  1. Baloney detection kit
  2. Shift your perspective (Rubber ducks), change your thinking or use techniques like six thinking hats
  3. Develop new habits
  4. Channel your inner 3 year old and embrace the word “why”

These could all help individuals build their critical thinking skills in general. However, organizations are more interested in whether or not employees think critically about their work.

As a custom training developer, we do get tasked with building product training modules or policy/procedure training. And oftentimes, the client laments that their employees don’t apply critical thinking. One example is that the custom software or tool saves the employee time to calculate something, but the employee doesn’t know/understand what logic it’s based on and won’t recognize if the bottom line is out of whack or not. If you are putting together training, it’s important that you include aspects that provide the employee/target audience with the fundamentals of what’s important and add practice situations. Don’t just dump information on them, but help them see how these are applied in their work. Find ways to get beyond the facts and help them understand “the why” behind the what.  You may not teach them how to be a critical thinker in every situation, but you will ensure that they can critically think in THIS situation.

How do you design training programs that support critical thinking?

  1. Use realistic scenarios and situations where you can emulate and illustrate the repercussions of the task
  2. Include coaching from a manager, journeyman, mentor, etc
  3. Don’t treat training like an event – build in opportunities to revisit the information

I’d love to hear how you’ve approached this. How do you learn how to learn? How did you learn to think? Are learning and thinking the same thing? Share your perspective.


An ode (of sorts) to serendipity

July 9, 2015

I’ve just returned from a short trip to New York City, my first trip there. It was a celebratory trip and there was some self-imposed expectation of greatness. I wanted this to be a trip to remember and while some things were planned or at least written in a list, there’s so much to see and do, that I left some up to chance. I was not disappointed with that choice.

2015-07-03 15.28.53

On one foray downtown, we decided we wanted to go looking for vintage shops. On the trip, we are serenaded by a doo-wap group on the subway. We give them a small amount of money and they sing just for us. It’s pretty awesome, actually. We alight from the subway and wander into a cafe/restaurant that looked popular and ate a fabulous lunch with a great vibe and did some serious people watching. Some sloppy internet research led us to think a certain street was going to be bursting with shops. It turned out to be 90% restaurants and bars. We had just eaten, so it seemed pointless to sit and eat again. So, we found a subway station to check out a different neighborhood. Arrive at a park where a large jazz band is playing for picnicking families. Plop ourselves down to enjoy the concert. It is fantastic. After awhile we decide we’re going to continue walking the neighborhood and grab a cold drink. What do we spot, but the giant new and used book store with a city block of used books lining the street in library carts. We gleefully browsed, holding up ludicrous titles that would suit this person or that. We pick up a couple of books and march onward. Hit the free night at MoMA and battle the crowds, and the selfies (really people, why do you all need to take a picture?) but enjoy the energy. Truth be told, giggle at a few of the pieces. So, vintage shopping as we planned it was kind of a bust, but the day was fantastic.

Lesson Learned: Be open to veering from your plan2015-07-04 11.35.15

The next day we thought we’d wend our way east towards ourplanned fireworkswatching spot that evening. After the circle line boat tour, we thought we’d check out the Highline, but it was raining, so, we opt to explore more of the East Village (we had only hit the edge the day before). We head into Alphabet City. It’s raining and the streets are sort of empty (it’s the 4th of July). We spot a community garden that’s open and wander through it, marvelling at how we love the contrast of urban and green. We continue on and it’s raining harder, so we duck into a pizza restaurant and eat the most amazing thin crust pizza while we wait for the skies to clear. We ask our server for some shopping advice. She gives us a few suggestions, but lets us know they may not be open today (holiday). We finish our meal and look across the street and there’s a funky shop with piles of vintage jewelry and stuff. Score! Sun comes out so we continue on and find another tiny shop where we find a one-of-a-kind jacket on the $5 rack. Perfect fit. Score! Eventually we continue to our fireworks spot, stop to watch a break-dancing show for the crowds (wow!) and then find the busy “Fourth” celebration spot. Bands, food, shops, it had it all, except seating. Apparently (in Manhattan anyway), people don’t sit much. We enjoy things for a couple of hours then decide we should make our way to the fireworks viewing area, which turns out to be jam packed and we spend the next hour in a crowd surrounded by police. Eventually they send us away, as the FDR viewing area is full. So back to the streets where we realize we should have stayed where we were. Oh well. We people-watch some more, oooh and ahhh at the fireworks and then head back to the hotel. Exhausted but very pleased with how the day turned out.

2015-07-04 12.17.57

Lesson Learned: Ask for input

We have a bit of time to kill before our Broadway matinee, and we leave our hotel to discover a street market is setting up outside and there’s food carts, tacky souvenir stuff, music that runs for several blocks. So, we meander and snack and souvenir shop. It’s a great atmosphere. After fretting over picking which Broadway show we should go to, we pick one that we hadn’t heard of and have a fabulous time. After the show, we hit Hell’s Kitchen and decide to do a mini-restaurant crawl. Appies at one place, dinner at another. We end up with appies at both and our selection is based on how we are feeling at the time. Everything is delish. Hop a bus and spend the morning at the Met followed by a ramble through Central Park. We packed our books and some food to just enjoy the atmosphere of this iconic park. Find a spot and chill. We saw a cardinal (not a bird we get on the west coast) which was unexpected. Get slightly lost as we try to find the exit on the west side, but stumble on to Strawberry Fields and serenaded by Beatles sing-along. Serendipity!

2015-07-06 11.55.59

Lesson Learned: Take a leap

Now that I’m back home, I realize that I didn’t do some of the touristy things (missed the Empire State or “Top of the Rock” view), completely bypassed some neighborhoods (Upper West Side – whoops) and could have saved a couple of hours here or there with a bit better planning, but on the whole allowing for some serendipity was a great decision. As a compulsive planner, this went against some of my instincts, but I’m glad I did it. It’s a good lesson for learning as well. Sometimes you need to allow time and space for serendipity, you never know what you might discover and learn. As for me and NYC, well, let’s just say I’m planning future trips that’ll be the same blend of planning and discovery.

e-learning for social programs and community initiatives

June 23, 2015

There are a lot of causes or issues in the world and we often see wonderful websites or resources that are beautifully presented to provide information related to a particular need. As an instructional designer, I often find myself identifying that a form of training or instruction could enhance a campaign or website and increase the likelihood of long term behaviour change. There are some elements of instruction, and particularly e-learning that I think could enhance a website:

  1. Interactive video – adding in context and engaging critical thinking about a story or situation in a video could be incredibly powerful. Imagine the video plays and at a certain point, it stops to ask you what to do next, or it points out something that you may not have noticed, but is critical to learn for prevention. Consider Lifesaver, an interactive film.
  2. Branching scenarios, especially first person perspective scenarios – there are lots of places where a slight adjustment in language could make a big difference. Instead of “what should <insert name here> do?”, it’s “what would YOU do”. Branching in other ways can help you show the variety of options related to a single concept. Here’s an example of one that helps you see the impact of your choices, here’s another one.
  3. Interactive features especially with contextual feedback – providing context-sensitive information really underscores the learning opportunity. This might be taking notes within your e-learning and email them to yourself, or completing a survey within the course (at a point in time) to build a profile. Maybe you are able to drag things across the screen to sort or reveal more information. Here’s an example about recycling.
  4. Voice over narration – somewhat overused in corporate projects (especially where they are reading what’s on screen), but if they add emotion, it will engage people on another level. Your web resource is now a bit more like a movie than a website – consider this example: The Great Flu.
  5. Sequencing – providing content in a sequence allows you to guide someone through the content and build their understanding and skill in a stepped way. Using sequencing can also enable the content to be layered and repeated, which is crucial for learning and recall.

Most of these interactive or media elements in e-learning are actually about CONTEXT. Context is so important to good instruction and takes your content to a level where people can clearly identify what’s in it for them. It also allows them to internalize. It isn’t just information about the cause or issue, but it’s about them and how they are more empowered to manage themselves. Most importantly the focus is on what will they learn, not just what information they might be exposed to.

Think about some of the things that you’ve seen advertised or campaigns. Here’s a list of some that I noted in my twitter feed or things I noted in the Instructional Designer’s Mindset:

  • Mental health awareness: youth, men, First Nations, new mothers, etc
  • Gender identity
  • Health Prevention
  • Injury Prevention
  • Health education (i.e. sex ed)
  • Chronic health conditions
  • Aging (i.e. supporting aging parents)
  • Financial literacy, especially for kids
  • Investment fraud awareness
  • Web literacy
  • Food waste
  • Reducing garbage or other eco-living goals
  • Citizen science initiatives
  • Healthy eating
  • Parenting
  • Violence prevention
  • Anti-bullying

Imagine you were in a position to do community outreach for an issue like this and you wanted to maximize the impact that you could make for your cause/issue. You’d want to invest your resources into something that is going to change behaviour, right?  Consider going beyond the brochure and website and find out about e-learning. The best part about e-learning, is that it will not only increase the likelihood that people will learn a new behaviour, but it can also extend your reach (geography is no longer an issue), strengthens your ability to sustain the learning, and you can launch a campaign with the goal to change behaviour, not just increase awareness. It can also benefit your certification program and complement your in person training.

We’re focusing on how we can help organizations that build capacity or address issues like these over the coming months. E-learning doesn’t need to be corporate focused or fall into the domain of post-secondary education. E-learning can be used to enhance and extend existing awareness campaigns and an instructional design mindset can go a long way to changing behaviour. We’ll include stories of how our clients have incorporated e-learning so you can get an idea of how it might help you too. It would be a great thing to be able to build capacity in our communities and help people live happier, healthier lives, don’t you think?


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