Instructional Design Basics


Useless Gift Bags


A couple of weeks ago I received a gift bag as part of a tour. This gift bag intrigued me as it included a giant calculator and upon seeing it I thought, “Well this is perfectly useless.”

Saying this, I should note that mathematics isn’t one of my strengths and that a calculator should have been a great gift.  This would have been true several years ago, but we have Smartphones and other mobile devices now that can easily do this— so lugging around another device for calculations seems kind of silly.

This realization started me thinking about other tools and I came to the conclusion that we as trainers are doing the same thing, that is, we are giving outdated and useless tools to our students.   Here our checklists, reference manuals, note cards and other job-aids are still needed but in their current format, they fail to take advantage of our student’s mobile devices. So in a sense, they are a little outdated and kind of useless.

Today I’ll talk a little more about this and give you some options on how to make these items valued again.

Dead Weight

As trainers we recognize that our students may not need to internalize all of the information that we cover.  We also recognize that our students will forget or lose much of the information that is covered.  As such many of our strategies include ways to help our students access content after training has been completed.

Some of these strategies include giving our students manuals that they can go back to whenever they need.  We also like to develop process guides and job-aids that users can print out and use on the job.  Finally we may create reference materials that users can access to quickly find information that they need—phone lists, price guides and other like aids are handy tools to have available.

These needs are still true, but the problem with these tools is that rarely are these materials on hand.  Often when our students need this information they have to go back and dig up the manual, print out a new checklist, or find the reference list that was developed.  Rather than doing this though our students have found that winging it, asking someone nearby or just avoiding the task is often easier to do.

Because of this, we as trainers should be interested in making our tools more accessible to our students and a great way to do is by making these materials mobile friendly.  Here we need to recognize that our students are constantly connected with their mobile devices and that these devices could easily contain all of our tools and more.

By making our tools mobile friendly, we would not only increase the likelihood of our student going back to our content, but we could also help them realize productivity gains. Here by taking advantage of the computing power in these devices our tools could automate some of their work by performing calculations; triggering alerts and notifications; and exporting their data into other forms and devices.  These activities would then give our students more time to perform their other work and may cut down error rates associated with some tasks.

Mobile Performance Support Tools

In this light, moving your tools to a mobile friendly format seems like a great idea and to help with this need, I’ve developed the following table:






Now it may be awhile before you realize these mobile options, but that day needs to come. If not, then one day soon, your students are going to confront your tools like I confronted that gift bag calculator.


Family Secrets

Back in the day, I use to enjoy watching a little Jerry Springer. Hearing about dark and twisted family secrets, was a nice escape from my quiet life.

As I have gotten older I have realized a couple of things: the Jerry Springer show is terrible; and we all have our family secrets.

Today I’ll talk about a family secret that instructional designers and other learning professionals don’t like to acknowledge.

Performance Support

As learning professionals we like to talk about changing behaviors and measuring learning. To us this is what matters and what allows us to justify our existence.  Here if we can demonstrate mastery of skills and knowledge then we have done our jobs.

However, there is an area in our field that doesn’t care about changing behavior or mastering skills. This area just wants you to perform your given task at hand.  And if you learn or master that task then good, but it isn’t really necessary. After all, if you need to perform that task again you can always refer back to that resource.

The area I am talking about is Performance Support and the following story helps illustrates what this is:

A reporter once asked Albert Einstein if he could have his phone number.  Einstein agreed and proceeded to grab a phone book to look up his number.

The reporter was intrigued that Einstein didn’t know his own phone number and asked about it. Albert’s response was, “Why should I memorize something when I know where to find it.”

As the story illustrates, performance support tools are mechanisms that are designed to bypass the learning function.  Here you can perform your duties without having to internalize a chunk of content.  These tools often show up in the form of job aids, handouts and help files but can also take other forms.

A performance support tool that I have grown to love and depend on recently is my Garmin navigation system. This tool allows me to get to my destination without having to study a map and plan a route. It does all the work and as such I think Albert would have been a big fan.

The Secret

These tools are often easy to produce and distribute but that’s not why we don’t like to talk about them. Our secret is that they are very effective and can be used for a variety of knowledge types.

Now you may see why it’s our dark and twisted family secret.

As instructional designers and learning professionals we know that performance support tools are effective; however, they are not on the formal side of training. And how are we supposed to justify our existence if we don’t track the mastery of skills and knowledge?

Why We’ll Talk About It More

There have been some recent technologies though that might get us talking about these tools.  One I am excited about is the use of QR codes to augment the users immediate environment.  Here we can project 3d images onto a computer screen that the users can interact with and or observe.

With such abilities we could create better job aids that our users could access when needed.  Job aids that allow our users to:

  • View all sides and components of an object
  • Zoom in or out to pick additional details
  • Watch an animation of how a task is performed and
  • Interact with the animation to trigger certain actions.

Given the rising prevalence of smartphones, this is a technology that people will soon have ready access to.  And given the sophistication of smartphones, tracking usage should be an option that can be incorporated into our job aids.  So maybe those formal folks can quit worrying about justifying their existence.  Maybe they will even start to acknowledge our dark and twisted family secret.

Me though, I’m not so concerned with all of that—I just want to play with this stuff.