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Learning by Design

First published July 27, 2003

Learning design is an ill-structured domain. Only reflective experimentation can reveal what works and what does not. Even then, what works in one situation may not work in another. But insights gleaned from such experiments do find their way into common practice, making it more robust and more attuned to meet current requirements. "Learning by Design" is Stuart's experiment with e-learning design. It is ironical that Stuart chooses to remain anonymous (see reason below) but we all can benefit from his observations. - Maish Nichani (.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address))

Stuart, Senior Learning Designer for a leading UK bespoke e-learning company (Stuart chooses to remain anonymous as his ideas do not necessarily reflect those of his company). Stuart can be contacted at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Rediscovering design

When you read about Instructional Design, you probably find yourself coming across the same topics time and time again.

There's one word that doesn't crop-up very often: design. Strange, given that it stares us in the face everyday when we look at our job title: Instructional Designer.

In this article, I want to share my enthusiasm for design and show how it can help us provide better learning experiences for people.

Learning engineers?

In the e-learning industry, those of us who are concerned with content tend to call ourselves Instructional Designers. In an awful lot of companies, I believe we act more like learning engineers.

What do I mean by that? Well, engineers mainly concern themselves with applying trusted techniques and processes to new situations. There tends to be a focus on the functional elements of a solution and its robustness.

The same approach seems rather prevalent in our industry. Many e-learning companies follow a set process. It probably follows something like this:

There are many variations of this set approach, but they all follow a rather rigid step-by-step methodology.

What are the advantages of this approach? It's reliable and produces satisfactory results, it's easy to manage and it's cost effective (lots of re-use).

Now, what's wrong?

A more eloquent criticism of the approach can be found in an earlier article on this website: empathic learning.

This is where my enthusiasm for design comes in: I feel it gives us a new way to think about our work and a way out of our current predicamentÉpossiblyÉ

Are we designers?

At this point, some of you may be dubious about seeing yourself as designers. It's hard to shake design's associations with wacky creative types and visual stylists. Perhaps a better model to hold in your head is that of the garden designer:

I believe our work has the same issues; it's just a different medium.

The value of design

I think there is now a real value in seeing ourselves as part of the larger design community. Why is this?

When we choose to view ourselves as designers, we suddenly open up vast opportunities for learning and development. The design community offers us a rich reservoir of knowledge, skills and inspiration that we can apply in our own domain.

The rest of this article explores some of the immediate ways we can benefit from taking on this new perspective.


Designers seem to share a set of attitudes that are helpful in producing exciting and innovative solutions:

I believe this attitude is a prerequisite for moving our industry forward and producing e-learning that is great rather than merely good. I also believe it is an attitude that can be cultivated. How do we begin this journey? One easy way is to start looking at the products we produce with a critical eye. Starting to become dissatisfied with the current situation is a first step towards looking for new ways of doing things.

Another step in this journey is to spend more time watching learners using our programmes, especially learners new to the medium:

In product design, more and more large companies are hiring individuals with observation skills (ethnographers, anthropologists and psychologists) to help them see with beginner's eyes; to understand how people and technology really interact and to see opportunities for new developments. I think the e-learning community would also benefit from this attitude.


There is much we can learn from the fluid development process used by most designers:

Immersion -> Incubation -> Generation -> Evaluation

This process is an excellent vehicle for generating new and unique solutions, rather than just forcing new problems into existing solutions. I describe this process in more detail below. A much more eloquent description of this process can be found in a previous article on empathic learning; another related article is learning personas.


Designers immerse themselves in the situation they are designing for. Designers are especially interested in unexpected issues and Ôhidden' problems/information.

We too can benefit from doing much more detailed research. Start by performing the tasks to be learnt and asking the following questions:

Then, look at the context of the learning:

Take the time to really learn about the audience, being especially careful to avoid stereotypes. Learn about them in all their diversity, with all of their unique qualities, abilities, attitudes and needs. How are you going to cater to this audience? How are you going to meet their unique needs?


After designers have immersed themselves in the problem at hand, they have the wisdom to leave things alone for a while. This gives the mind time to integrate the disparate information and for the sub-conscious to get to work.

In my own Instructional Design work, I have often found this to be the most fruitful stage of the whole design process.


Now comes the time to generate some solutions. Designers actively seek to come up with as many possible ideas and solutions as possible. For a moment, they set aside the constraints and their critical minds and just attempt to generate ideas; quantity not quality. There are many creative thinking techniques that can be used at this stage (another thing we can Ôborrow' from the design community): brainstorming, concept fans, provocations, humour and inspiration from related problems.

As ideas are generated, it is usual for a few strong ideas to start to be reinforced. These usually emerge as a small set of candidate solutions to be explored further.


Finally, each candidate solution is explored. This will probably involve sketching, rough screen designs, mini-storyboards and possibly prototypes. Which ideas pan out? Which ideas fail under further examination? Which ideas can be combined to make something stronger? The ideas can also be explored and evaluated from a learning perspective to ensure they follow sound principles of learning design.

The remaining ideas can then undergo an even more rigorous evaluation:

Answering these questions usually leads to a final design that the designer or design team is happy to recommend to the client.

There will be those of you who will be worrying where training/learning theory fits into all this. In practice, this emerges naturally from the designer's knowledge of their field. They draw on their knowledge of learning theory to create or to modify ideas in a way that fits the principles of learning. This doesn't have to be done explicitly: a good practised learning designer automatically draws on this knowledge and critical faculty. This works in the same way as, for example, a garden designer coming up with ideas. They automatically understand those plants that will fit a garden/climate and will generate ideas accordingly.

The benefits of the process

As you can see, this process is rather different to that traditionally employed by Instructional Designers. Does it work? My company has used variations of this process on many projects and project bids and it seems to work. I've won a lot of work from large-blue chip clients using this approach. Oh, and all of these projects have had to meet demanding time-scales, budgets and technology constraints.

I think we can all benefit from playing with this process. I encourage you to try it on a low-risk project and see if you get anything from it. If nothing else, it will help you question your current process and the change might give you a well-needed boost of energy.


The design community offers ideas on how we can develop as professionals.

Design critiques/peer review

When a project ends, we need to systematically evaluate the results of our efforts. We need to encourage other designers to critique our work and help us to objectively evaluate our efforts. We also need to get detailed feedback from our clients. Perhaps most importantly, we should look for opportunities to watch learners using our programmes and see what works and what doesn't so that we can apply the lessons to future projects.

Study genres/examples

I feel one way we can develop is to become better acquainted with good practice in our field and the history of our subject. I feel there is great value in studying the different Ôgenres' that have developed in our field and understanding why they arose and their strengths and weaknesses (e.g. Ôdrill and practice', Ôcognitive tools', microworlds, simulations, electronic-books, etc). There is also enormous value in studying current examples of good and bad practice to inform our future design activity.

Celebrate play/experimentation

Designers recognise the value of play and experimentation. We need the opportunity to try out novel approaches and ideas without the fear of failure or the usual business constraints. I believe every company needs to systematically build in opportunities for constructive play. Perhaps examples of your play projects could be shown in your reception for customers to look at while they wait.

I also feel that industry needs to celebrate innovation, diversity and novelty. I would love to see an annual competition or exhibition celebrating these values, perhaps in the way that car companies show-off concept cars at motor shows. I would love the competition to encourage off-the-wall ideas that do not need to meet an immediate client need.

Learn from other design disciplines

We need to actively seek inspiration by constantly exposing ourselves to many different experiences from different fields or vocations.

I would recommend you to start subscribing to design magazines from other design fields: architecture, garden design, product design, usability, interaction design and branding and marketing, etc. I would also encourage you to read the core text in these areas. Look at how designers in these fields meet the goals of their audience, how do they tackle constraints/problems, what genres have emerged, how do they practice their arts, what processes do they use? How do ideas/skills/knowledge from different fields map onto the learning design field?

Personally, I've learnt a lot from product design, architecture, usability, interaction design and systems thinking. I'm trying to make my design bookshelf as diverse as possible and I believe I've really benefited from this practice.


I believe that there is great value in experimenting with what it means to practice Instructional Design. Currently, I think our practice is too heavily influenced by economics and the demands of business and production. I also feel it has been dominated by our need/desire to find some standard principles of learning that we can rely on to produce satisfactory learning outcomes. Now, I feel that we need to explore beyond these constraints to find new ways of doing things. Only then will we move on as an industry. I suggest that one way of doing this is to look to the other design disciplines and see what we can learn.

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