What does great learning design look like to you? The answer will depend on your learners and the tools you use, but it probably features engaging content that changes behaviour in the way that you planned. It looks professional and doesn’t blow the budget, and it involves as smooth a ride as possible for those involved.

In fact, good learning design is as much about planning as it is about content and tools. After all, learning is no use if it’s produced behind schedule or doesn’t deliver what your organisation needs. Good planning means you can take charge of the schedule, bring the right people on board at the right time, and make the most of people’s skills and expertise. Above all, it gives you the power to do what you do best – design great learning.

In this post, I’ve put together some tips on planning and developing learning design that I’ve found helpful over the years. I have also included advice from some of my favourite learning gurus, including some names you may recall from last year’s NZATD conference.

  1. Understand the problem

What is your response to hearing, ‘We need training!’? If you say: ‘Tell me more about that. What’s the problem?’ then you’re setting yourself up for a great start. Asking someone to articulate the background to their training request provides you with essential information – including whether there really is a problem and whether training is the answer.

Performance consulting can help you here. It’s a method of exploring a business problem, why it has happened and what needs to be done to get the organisation where it’s meant to be. Paul Matthews of People Alchemy points out that the solution may not be learning and action mapping guru Cathy Moore agrees: she has even created a flowchart to guide you through the research process.

  1. Clarify responsibilities

Everyone involved in a project needs to know what they’re meant to be doing yet this often gets overlooked in learning design, with the result that subject matter experts may start to run the project instead of working in partnership with you. So, before you get started, make sure your project team members are clear on who’s responsible for what.

Connie Malamed, one of my favourite elearning bloggers, sets out those responsibilities in a way that clarifies how people’s areas of expertise come together on a learning design project.

  1. Know your learners

Stakeholders and subject matter experts tend to focus on getting their own message across, so it’s up to you to make sure these messages meet learners’ needs. Create groups of learners who share similar characteristics and develop personas based on these.  This will help you work out what learners need and map the learning design against this.

This free downloadable worksheet from Bottom Line Performance is helpful for creating personas.

  1. Set clear expectations from the start

If you don’t manage the work, you could be stuck in an endless cycle of changes and scope creep. Start as you mean to go on by holding a kick-off meeting in which you clarify everyone’s responsibilities and gather essential information. Be ready to ask and answer many questions: the aim is to put information on the record and get it agreed before work starts in earnest.

Tim Slade has a free learning project plan for download: it’s great for capturing those key details.

  1. Know what behaviour needs to change

Make sure you don’t leave the kick-off meeting without a clear idea of what behaviour needs to change.

If you’re a fan of Cathy Moore, you’ll know that her approach is all about drawing out this information from subject matter experts. In fact, some of her favourite questions are ‘What do people need to do?’ and ‘What information do people need to do that?’ You may find Cathy’s script helpful for practising this conversation.

  1. Keep it simple

Keep costs down and time under control by storyboarding, prototyping and testing rather than building fully functional designs. Aim to demonstrate how the learning will meet the needs and goals you have identified: Jackie van Nice has put together some simple steps to follow, while Tom Kuhlmann of Articulate outlines how to sell the value of prototypes to your subject matter experts.

  1. Looks matter

Once you’ve nailed down your storyboard and interactions, you can apply more complex visual design. Consistent branding and professional-looking graphics will boost learner engagement straight away, although there are so many templates, downloads and sources of free stock images available now that it’s easy get carried away here.

I always keep an eye on the resources that Mike Taylor includes in his weekly email – they’re clearly curated so it’s easy to find what I need quickly.

  1. Expect change

All that up-front planning and management of expectations help you deal with change, which is inevitable when you’re working with others. Arun Pradhan has been writing recently about learning agility and the importance of being able to unlearn, and this is an increasingly important skill for learning designers in an era in which subject matter experts expect constant flexibility. Unlearning starts from being aware of the mental models you use and challenging them. It’s a powerful skill to cultivate.

  1. Keep it plain

Most of the tips here focus on project management, but there’s one small thing that makes a big difference in learning design: plain English. You will boost engagement and impact when you use it in your learning. Using it as part of pair writing with your subject matter expert will help them clarify the concepts and focus on learners’ needs.

Need to convince your stakeholders that plain English and informal language are right for learning? Take a look at the chapter on this in ‘Elearning and the science of instruction‘.

  1. Build in time for testing

Learning isn’t effective if it doesn’t work – both functionally and in terms of learners’ needs. That is why it’s essential to build in time for rigorous user testing and taking in changes. Aim to choose testers from the user groups identified during the learner research process so you can be confident you’re gathering feedback from everyone who’ll be taking the learning later on.

If you don’t use Articulate Storyline 360 or DominKnow, both of which let reviewers and testers add comments to content, you’ll find the user testing resources on Tracy Parish’s ZEEF page helpful.

Great learning design doesn’t exist on its own – it needs great planning and confident project management to help it come to life. I’d love to hear which tools you’re using to manage your learning design projects. Drop me a line or let us know in the comments section below.