Ten Tips for Instructional Designers

As a marketplace for online training courses, we’ve quickly learned what our customers are looking for in elearning courses – and what keeps buyers coming back for more. In a web presentation during yesterday’s Elearning Guild Online Forum, I shared some of the instructional design best practices that we’ve learned from talking with customers. Here’s my Top Ten: 

1. The 11 Minute Rule. In 2004, a scientist named Gloria Mark completed a study of human-technology interaction. She found that each worker went an average of 11 minutes on any given task before being interrupted by a coworker, email, IM or other demand for their attention. This probably sounds familiar to you, too!

You need to design content to fit in the short chunks of attention that your learners are likely to have available to them. This doesn’t mean that each course must be less than 11 minutes, but it means you should structure the information in the course so that each piece can be digested, if you will, in one 11 minute sitting. You can separate skills or information into smaller experiences that can be explored within the timeframe that a learner is likely to have open to them.

2. Space your learning. The lag time between repetitions is less important than encouraging the learner to examine another topic and then revisit the information previously discussed. This “spaced learning” – forcing learners to reprocess information – increases retention and helps reinforce the new skills you’re trying to share.

3.  Use a storyboard. A course really is a story. You’re leading a learner through an experience. And just like Hollywood movies start with a story board, we hear from many of our successful instructional designers that an old-fashioned storyboard sketch will help you understand and focus on how a learner experiences a course before actually beginning design.

4. Don’t rely on text. From each and every customer, the #1 complaint we hear is that courses are too filled with text. Don’t insult learners’ intelligence with an “elearning course” that’s little more than a document broken into different screens. In general, delivering the same information through visual content and audio is redundant and boring.

If you’re struggling with how to ensure your course is 508 compliant while avoiding the text nightmare, check in with your authoring tool’s help documents. Many tools offer the ability to offer a transcript in a sidebar that can be hidden or viewed as necessary.

5. Experiment with video. If you’re showing a social or interpersonal skill, video can help your learner connect with examples. And I can tell you from experience that when given a choice between texty courses and courses that use video clips, our customers prefer the video clip based courses every time.

And while video might sound expensive, we’ve seen really effective iPhone-shot videos incorporated in courses as either an interview, product demo or just simply sharing an example. You can also effectively use video by curating and sharing video resources that exist throughout the web. Out of hundreds of millions of videos on YouTube, there’s probably something that will help you tell your story – even if it’s just something showing what not to do.  

6. Choose the right photo. When selecting images for your courses, make sure the people in the pictures look like your audience. For example, we’ve heard from customers in the construction industry that they just can’t use courses with imagery from an office setting. Viewers are distracted when they can’t relate to the people in the images they’re seeing alongside information they are supposed to relate to their everyday lives.

7. Practice what you preach. Make sure that your videos, photos and graphics are factually accurate and practice what you preach. For example: if your lesson is about using power tools safely, make sure that all of your imagery show people working safely! It may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s easy to make mistakes, especially when you’re not the expert on a specific task. Take an extra few minutes to check over your images, with your SME if necessary, to make sure you don’t create a distraction within your content. Your audience needs to be able to see themselves in the context that you’re creating to create that emotional connection.

8. Tips for mobile content. Needless to say, phone and tablet screens are small. Design for big, poky fingers and people who might use reading glasses. No small print, no tiny buttons, and make sure learners can always access the menu. This has to be simple and really intuitive to use.

9. Ask learners to “encode” information. Art Kohn is a seller on OpenSesame with his company AK Learning. Heand also a neuroscientist who shares his insights about the way the brain works when learning. Art advises that the levels of brain processing applied to any piece of information will affect the quality and strength of that memory. This means that if you simply tell a person something, they will remember it in a superficial and fleeting way. But if you ask them to analyze, evaluate or respond emotionally – they will have to process the information, and thus will encode it more deeply in their brain. The idea here is that you need to get the learner to do more than just hear or read the information that you’re sharing. They need to process it in additional ways in order to make it their own.

10. Think lean. The lean startup methodology is a concept for running startup and technology businesses that inspires founders to be more responsive to their customers needs by moving the “product launch” earlier in the product cycle. The concept here is that the best way to design your technology is not in a vacuum – it’s in connection with your actual customers, as they use your product.

In a 2010 book, Strategic Speed: Mobilize People, Accelerate Execution, Jocelyn Davis, Edwin Boswell and Henry Freshette outline an approach to using “lean’ for every company. From here, let’s explore the idea of lean learning, where any course or content is never precisely a finished product – it’s consistently, improved, built onto and edited to reflect changing times and evolving feedback from customers. You can get closer to your company’s business objectives by developing learning resources alongside the learners as they work – and continually improving your content as you have the ability to observe it in the “wild”.

Additional Resources

A few examples of sellers using video in their courses:

A few examples of 508 compliant courses that work well:


Image credit: Mike Sansone on Flickr