Instructional Design Basics


My Bad

I've been there before—I've made decisions that seemed wise at one point; only to have those decisions quickly turn bad. I know this is something that will probably happen again, but that’s ok. After all, I know that our failures can be our biggest learning opportunities.

So today I am going to talk about some of my failures or instances where an Instructional Designer (ID) caused a problem with course development.

Getting Lost

A few years ago I worked with another ID on a project. Here she was the lead designer and contact person with the client.   For this project we were tasked with developing a simulation at the end of the course.

And at the start of the project, the simulation seemed like it would be an easy pursuit as the client had existing case data for the simulation. So with optimism and a fresh outlook, I jumped into the storyboarding. This attitude didn’t last long though as I quickly encountered problems.

Scoping proved to be a main challenge with this simulation as it changed several times.  Initially the simulation was set to cover 5 objectives; however, a couple of weeks into the project, the lead designer decided that the simulation would need to cover all ten course objectives. This change only lasted a few weeks though as she later decided that the original five objectives would meet the client needs.

Creating a simulation in this environment was challenging, but I thought I had it under control so I kept plugging away. In this regard, I started off ok as the scoping was clear and I was able to focus in on the course objectives.

The problem occurred as the scoping changed back and forth.  Here I had developed some pretty solid storylines and navigation schemes for the simulation. And as I made my changes I tried to maintain this content as much as I could.

In this regard, I slowly started focusing more on the storyline and the navigational structures within the simulation.  I soon got lost in this pursuit and failed to focus on the course objectives for the simulation.  So in the end, my final storyboards had an elaborate story and an engaging interface but did not truly cover the course objectives.

Ultimately the simulation was scraped as we ran into a time crunch and had to focus our resources on other course requirements.  I can’t help but think though that if I hadn’t lost focus here we could have had the time needed to build this part of the course.

Sure We Can Add that Content

There are few courses that really impress me, that make me question my abilities and wonder if I have what it takes.  Running into these courses can be humbling and several years ago this is what happened.

This course was a thing of beauty and to this day I don’t think I could have designed it. All of which is why this next project was so disturbing.  You see a few years later I was part of a team that got tasked with a redesign of that course—that thing of beauty.

Here the client had some new content that they wanted to add to the course.  This by the way was the second redesign of the course, a year earlier; the client had added other content into the course.

Some of you may see the problem already.

Courses are complex creatures; they have subtle traits and characteristics.  The original course had a well-defined storyline that followed a real world scenario.  It also had a style and flow that worked well within that scenario.  The first redesign had already changed that creature; made it something less cohesive. We were about to make it drastically so.

As we started adding content we soon ran into a problem. Here the original style was different then what was used with the 1st redesign, so each version had a slightly different look and feel.  The fact that there wasn’t any real style guide documentation for the two versions added to this problem. So as we storyboarded, we were forced to find pages/styles that seemed to fit with the new content needs and use those as our guides.

In this pursuit we didn’t always find a perfect fit, so we added our own style characteristics into the course here.  This ultimately meant that the course was built with 3 different styles. And from a user experience, this translated into an inconsistent course— one where navigational clues, language preferences, and even course features changed across the course.  This thing of beauty was now a Frankenstein.

The new content also influenced this outcome as it did not tie in well with the original story.  This new content added a level of distraction to the original storyline and was in essence a side story.  And from the user experience that followed, this side story felt a little forced or appeared to be an after thought, which is exactly what it was.

Serenity Now

Both of these examples point to a problem you may face in your pursuits—a reluctance to start over when you need to.  In this regard, you should always keep your basic course needs in mind as that will keep you focused.

With the first example, I let the story drive the simulation at the expense of the content.  The course objectives should have been the driving force for the simulation as following those would have ensured that the content focused on what mattered. Each time the scoping changed I should have stopped the storyboarding and revisited my needs here.

With the second example, the team let the new content drive the project at the expense of the overall course.  Here we should have started from the beginning and looked at the original course goals.  Here we should have determined how the new content fit into these goals and what they would mean for the story.  This questioning would have helped the team define a natural storyline that would drive all of the content.

Starting from scratch in this regard would have also allowed us to create a standard style guide to be used for the course.  And in the end we might not have matched the original thing of beauty but at least we wouldn’t have disfigured and or destroyed it.

As seen above IDs can cause some problems in your elearning projects and to help you get started on what to expect from IDs, I’ve put together a short table of Types of Instructional Designers you may encounter.

As you read it you can see that some IDs may be more apt to having a bad idea or two.  And if you encounter this, just think of it as learning opportunity.

If you have encountered other types of IDs please add comments to this post describing them.


Stuck on You

One of my 1st real experiences with kids occurred several years ago when I went to visit my buddy Scott.  Here I got to spend a few days with him, his wife and their son Jeffrey.  And I must say, Jeffrey was a pretty cool little kid— he was smart, creative, well-mannered and everything else you could hope for in a son.

It wasn’t all good though; Jeffrey did have one small episode while I was there.  It occurred one night while he and I were sitting at the table playing with his dinosaurs. And when it became time for his bath, the little guy calmly ignored his mom’s request and kept on playing. At this point his mom tried to reason with him, telling him that he would get to play after the bath but he wasn’t having any of it.

This standoff ended shortly when his dad got involved—here Jeffrey got a spanking, had to take his bath and then went to bed without finishing his dinosaur adventure. Things could have gone much more smoothly for the little guy if he could have just let go for a bit instead of getting stuck.  In his mind the dinosaurs had important things to do—the bath had to wait. This however, did not jive well with reality, that being, the need to listen to his parents.

In a way, this is a situation I have encountered in many of the projects I have worked on.  Here I have often seen people getting stuck on an idea of how something should be presented rather then reality of the project.  Today I’ll talk about some of these experiences and hopefully present you with some ways to get unstuck.


I often see people getting stuck in this regard when a solution calls for a non-traditional approach.

Traditional Approaches
Traditional in this sense is a reference to behaviorist approaches that tend to follow a standard Tell/Show/Do model.  Here a course is very controlled and systematic—topic A then topic B and then C—and probably has a lecture type feel to it.

One key component of these types of approaches is the need for close-ended interactions and assessments. Here definitive correct/incorrect behaviors must be demonstrated and assessed.  In these approaches, objectives are often covered as distinct content pieces and assessed as such. And the overall training goals of the solution are realized when the users demonstrate specific behaviors.

Non-traditional Approaches
Non-traditional in this sense is a reference to constructivist and social learning approaches that tend to have their own project specific models.  Here a course is less controlled and may not be systematic— part of topic B and C unless the student wants A first and then maybe the rest of topic B—and may take the form of stories, scenarios, games, simulations and collaborative problem solving activities.

These approaches use open-ended assessment activities that require a rubric of some kind. In addition, objectives are usually covered together and wrapped around a real world story/problem. The goals of these courses are usually not defined around changing specific behaviors, rather they center on the user producing a product.

Obviously there is a lot more to behaviorism, constructivism and social learning but we’ll save this for latter posts. For now just realize that each approach has some fundamental differences in what is required and these differences are often what get people stuck.

Getting Stuck—Creating Content

A few years ago I worked on a project that had a simulation at the end of the course. Here I worked with another ID that was a hardcore, “A then B then C” type of fellow.  So as we worked on the simulation we quickly ran into some roadblocks.

As stated above, interactions for constructivist approaches tend to be more opened-ended in nature and revolve around real world situations. How this might play out in your assessment is that in the real world there often isn’t one clear right/wrong way to address a problem.  In addition, sometimes there may not even be a good choice to a problem—the lesser of two evils.  So it may make sense for your interactions to reflect these types of situations.

Knowing this I wrote the storyboards around a series of events that a user may experience on their job. The storyline that emerged here included a few of these challenging situations. In these instances, I limited the user choices to ones that didn’t have definitive correct answers.

I finished my storyboards and passed them on to the other ID for a review cycle. As this other ID reviewed these she immediately started rewriting the interactions.  Here she edited the situations and options so that there were clear right/wrong choices.  And by doing this, she altered the storyline to such an extent that it no longer followed a real world situation. In addition the final product that emerged was something that felt less like a simulation and more like a series of multiple choice questions that were loosely tied together.

This was an instance of the ID being stuck on the nature of assessment. In her mind these situations had to be clear and definitive—your classic closed ended question types. The reality of the project though called for something else.

Now in her defense I can understand her motives for the changes—she wanted the assessment to hit the exact content that was covered previously in the course.  In the course things were clear—there were specific answers and steps to follow. In addition the content had a high level of detail to it. Here the training focused around a small set of parameters, variables, and conditions. Anything outside of this may seem like a trick question or something that is unfair to the user.

These are valid concerns but there are better ways to address them in your simulations. The nice thing about these types of assessments is that you have more feedback options that are available to you.  With simulations you have the following options here:

  • Storyline—this is how the characters react or what changes to the environment happen based on the user choices.
  • Image—visual display of the changes to the environment.
  • Assessment—specific feedback you can give the user about their choice.

Each one of these options presents an opportunity to tie back to your clear and specific course content.  So in this regard you could have a character react in a way that forces a new interaction.  This new interaction could contain the expanded detail content that was covered in the course.  Your feedback offers the easiest way to address this though as you can tell users exactly how it connects back to the course content.

The important thing to remember with simulations is not to get stuck on the questions you are asking. Here focus on the story and use that to clear up and connect to any existing course content. Some tips with developing simulations can be found here. I’ll have more on simulations though in future posts.

Getting Stuck—Navigation and Interface Needs

This next project was quite a few years ago and focused on a new orientation course.  Here the sponsor wasn’t so concerned with users demonstrating mastery skills, rather they wanted a resource that would introduce users to their new world.  Engagement was a key focus for this sponsor as they wanted users excited about their jobs.

So after meeting with the sponsors I developed the appropriate design/scoping information and passed it on to the instructional designers (IDs) on the project. Here the IDs started developing the storyboards around our standard interface template. In addition to this template, they started reusing our other normal navigation controls (Table of Contents, Next, Back,…) and interactions within the course.

Shortly after they started the storyboards we all met up to see how the course was going. At this point, I discovered that what was emerging was basically our old A then B then C type of course.  I knew this wasn’t what the sponsor had in mind so I had stepped in to help the IDs on the project.  Here we had to start over as they were stuck on trying to make the content fit into existing templates and frameworks.

To start fresh we defined the common elements and themes in the content. With these themes we then talked about how they could be represented in menu structures that users could interact with. For example one theme was that users would have to interact with a lot of different people in their new job.  So we created a visual representation of these people that users could click on to interact with and access the content.  This graphical menu structure was much more engaging then our normal navigational structures. We did this with several themes and created a hierarchical content framework for the course.

We also found ways to create new interactions within the content. For example there were several tables in the content that contained various statistics about their jobs. Here we introduced a slider bar that users could interact with to view the different values. We followed this up with questions on the data contained in the new animated tables.

This process wasn’t easy though as the IDs were seriously stuck on their old methods and strategies.  To get them to be comfortable with the new approach, collaboration was a key—here I needed to create an environment that didn’t constrain possibilities.  Next we had to take these ideas and represent them online with prototypes.  In this regard, I encouraged the shitty first draft concept. I just wanted them to build out the content—we would refine it and fix it as it came. And slowly but surely the course that emerged was very open and focused around discovery interactions. More importantly our client was very satisfied with this end result.

What To Do if You Are Stuck

If you haven’t developed a non-traditional course yet and you are tasked to do this, you probably will get stuck at one point. Developing for this type of course is a paradigm shift—the standard Tell/Show/Do models and your regular interface templates will not work here.  You have to go back to your project needs and examine how those relate to constructivist and social learning activities. Here don’t be afraid of creating a terrible first draft.  Also plan on using prototyping and collaboration to help you get your content into shape.   After a few painful tries, you’ll learn to let go and just go with it.  This is important as you don’t want to end up like little Jeffrey here—getting a spanking is no fun at all.