Let’s talk about: how to use instructional design to take your training to the next level?

Instructional Design Workshop
  • Have your target group – the learner – in mind when creating the training
  • Define your training goals
  • Use suitable learning formats

What is Instructional Design?

Instructional Design is the systematic design and creation of learning concepts. An Instructional Designer deals with the conception of learning content. To do so, he asks himself three questions:

  1. For whom am I making this learning offer? 
  2. Why am I doing this? What learning objectives do I want to achieve with it?
  3. How do I get there? → Which learning format is suitable?

For Whom Is Instructional Design?

It’s for anyone who delivers learning content and produces learning formats of any kind. It’s suitable for digital learning formats as well as for someone who develops [face-to-face] training.

Does an Instructional Designer Primarily Helps the Trainer To Create Efficient Training?

Yes, you could put it like that. In the best case, a trainer can or should be an Instructional Designer himself. Anyway, a trainer should be more than just a content expert but someone who should have an educational concept on which to base his training. 

How Does an Instructional Designer’s Career Typically Look Like?

I can tell you how I became an instructional designer. I originally come from foreign-language didactics. I have been a trainer for German as a foreign language for over ten years. As part of my studies, I did further training in didactics for over a year and learned how to develop learning and training concepts, and learning materials. Afterward, I worked in adult education and then got into e-learning via teaching German as a Foreign Language. As a supplement to this, I took further education in “Educational media” at the University of Duisburg-Essen. 

But you don’t need to study Instructional Design. What I want to make clear is that not every trainer needs to study Instructional Design, but they should be Instructional Designers. Everybody who’s been trained as a trainer has an idea of how to design learning formats, hopefully, based on the three questions I listed earlier.

Is There a Step-by-Step Plan for Training Concepts in Instructional Design?

You start with a needs analysis, which begins with the question: For whom? 

This is a procedure you know from marketing: you should always know who you are dealing with so that you can provide your target group with precisely the content they need.

When you develop learning formats, you should always keep in mind the learning context of your target group. In what context will the learners do your training, what are their real needs, and what do they expect from the training you are going to give them?

What Does This Analysis Look Like in Training People Handling Return Processing in a Warehouse?

In this case, you first consider what expectations a learner has when he or she hears that there is a training course. What previous knowledge do they already have on the subject? How old are they? After all, age may determine past learning experiences. What kind of experience with technology do they already have? This is particularly important when creating e-learning or digital learning formats. You have to take into account what experience the learners actually have in dealing with technology. A younger target group, who are constantly using social media, have a completely different approach and a completely different inhibition threshold to approach digital learning formats than older target groups. Although workers from other generations may use social media like Facebook as well, their attitude towards e-learning is still very different. 

It is important to note that these learning groups cannot simply be defined as ‘the workers’ or ‘the employees of department x’. Within a group of twenty learners, you can usually typify two or three subgroups. They have certain commonalities, different expectations, previous knowledge, and attitude. 

Always be aware of the fact that you’re creating the training concept not only for young trainees, who spend most of their day with their smartphones. You’re also designing it for people who are about to retire and who don’t use digital devices, who maybe don’t feel the need to learn something new and think that they already know everything. And perhaps also career changers, who are highly motivated and eager to absorb all the knowledge they are offered, will take part in your training. Nevertheless, you have to reach all members of this heterogeneous group where they are with one and the same training.

After Understanding the Target Group, What Is the Next Step?

The second question is: Why am I creating this training concept, what learning objectives do I want to achieve?

As a starter, ‘training in the warehouse’ is not yet the learning objective; it’s merely the title of the training! After you have determined the title, you have to do the very tedious work of finding out what the concrete learning objectives are. What does “training in the warehouse” actually mean? What are the tasks behind it? What do the learners need to know, what do you want them to be able to do?

At this stage of the development of a training concept, as an Instructional Designer and as somebody looking at the whole thing from an outside perspective, I can get a bit demanding. Since here I demand we take everything apart and say what exactly we want to achieve with the training.

Would “The Employee Should Achieve a Particular Increase in Productivity as Quickly as Possible” Be a Better Objective?

Well, this is your objective. It’s quite interesting that you’re putting it like that! See, the question of why we do something always has different sides: In every project, there are various stakeholders. The producer of a training outline has an interest in increasing and achieving the learner’s productivity. It’s your objective as a stakeholder, and it’s obviously also important. But me, I’m the learner’s advocate, so to speak. I think your objective is excellent, but I am also interested in what the learner can do to achieve your objective. We really have to think about that: What are the concrete learning objectives for the learner? We should use can-do descriptions here: What can the learner do? 

The objective is, for example, the learner should be able to make a setting on a machine. Well, here, the learning objective is either: the learner knows how to adjust the machine, or the learner is able to adjust the machine. These are two completely different learning objectives and the latter is more likely to be your actual objective: Instead of theoretical knowledge of how to do it you’re aiming at a practical skill. You achieve it in a different way and also you’ll have to test whether your training was successful in a specific way.

How Long Does It Take From the Decision To Design a Training Together With Your Customers Until the Rollout?

That varies and depends on many factors. We usually conclude the concept, including learning objectives within a day’s workshop. The more complex step is then to fill the concept with content. How long this takes depends on how much content is already available: Do we perhaps already have an old training course that we can simply redesign based on our new structure? Do we have an expert who has one week to summarize his knowledge exclusively for the training? Unfortunately, this happens only in my own dream world… Then feedback loops also play a role. Who else has to participate in the creation of the training or will evaluate it? 

Then comes the third step, which is very time-consuming, especially with e-learning or digital learning formats: the production. The content must be produced in some form of an authoring tool. A screen design has to be put on top of it and maybe videos have to be shot… 

Creating the content is generally the most time-consuming step but I have also seen some projects that were completed within a week… and some projects that take three months or half a year.

Does Instructional Design Always End up With an E-Learning Format?

No, absolutely not! Instructional Design can lead to any format. And it is also essential to remain open although of course nowadays everybody wants to do online training. Personally, I approve of that because it’s my field of expertise, but wouldn’t always go for digital. Both face-to-face and digital training have their advantages and disadvantages.

For instance, with your objective of producing an e-learning course on the subject of ‘familiarization in the warehouse’, we might realize when we’re developing our learning objectives that e-learning would actually be far too extensive because the learners could achieve their learning objectives much faster if they had PDF documents to print out. Such an insight also counts as a result!

I think this is another crucial point in instructional design: that you really choose the learning format that fits your needs rather than starting out by first committing to one learning format and then tailoring everything else to it.

Do You Have an Example of Why Training Fails?

The first question is: When has learning actually failed? We already talked about the different stakeholders. If your task as a project manager is to launch an e-learning program for topic X in quarter 3 and that’s exactly what you did, then of course, from your point of view, the task did not fail.

A learning program has failed if you weren’t able to reach the learners with it or if the learning objectives have not been achieved. You may realize that your training designed to increase productivity didn’t lead to people being trained better; neither were colleagues relieved nor was productivity significantly increased at all. There are plenty of possible reasons for this: maybe the target group and the learning objectives were not clearly defined or improperly prepared, you had the wrong learning objectives, or perhaps they weren’t specific enough?

Especially in the industry and in logistics, digital and e-learning formats often fail because of technology. Thus, there are some projects with the most ambitious objectives and decide to do an online training program with videos with step-by-step instructions, all web-based and mobile-friendly — but there is no internet in the warehouse! Or there is no WiFi signal in the corner where training on a certain machine is meant to take place. Or the employees are not allowed to take mobile devices to their workplace… These things really happen! 

How can they be avoided? In theory, there is a straightforward way: you could involve the target group right from the start. Unfortunately, this happens far too seldom. But if you do involve one of your (experienced) warehouse workers right from the start, in the training development, they would tell you immediately that there is no internet in the hall. Or that it makes no sense at all to create a mobile training course because they don’t have mobile devices there.

Would You Suggest To Try the Training Once Yourself?

Right, that makes sense — both in terms of technical presuppositions and learners. You could do an internship in the company or follow someone’s working day as a “job shadow”. That’s super helpful because often training courses are not appreciated by colleagues in the warehouse in the way expected by the producers because the developers are white collars, who have their own theoretical idea of what the work in the warehouse may look like and they try to find ways to make their workers feel better, be happy and work faster and more efficiently. Unfortunately, there tends to be a gap between the office, i.e. the developers and users: You think you’re offering improvement by presenting them with great video footage but the employees prefer a paper printout. It’s a real challenge to overcome this gap!

Would You Say That It Makes Sense To Integrate the Target Group as Early as Possible?

Unfortunately, that happens quite rarely because the target group usually does not have the time for such things or cannot be exempted from their tasks. A good alternative is to bring in trainers who have already worked with the target group, for instance, in face-to-face seminars. From my experience, these trainers have received direct feedback from the group and can therefore often reflect very well what their needs are and with which of the proposed approaches they won’t be happy.

Does It Happen That You Are Facing Reluctance Against New Training Concepts?

Yes, definitely! As an Instructional Designer, you don’t really meet any rejection because people hire you in the first place due to a need for support. As far as training or innovation in general is concerned, I occasionally experience rejection from the learners, but also from the experts I work with. 

Why would an expert, who is entirely familiar with the processes and theoretically knows how to increase productivity, have negative feelings towards feeding his experience and knowledge into a training concept? Well, simply because this project will mean even more tasks for him! He probably has a whole bunch of tasks and enough to do anyway. And now he’s approached by someone, mostly highly motivated HR staff, with the training project for which he’s asked to take his time to prepare the content and read it back and so on. 

In this case, rejection has to be read like “Please don’t give me another task!”. The Instructional Designer’s task is to make the process as smooth and short as possible for the expert, so that he has as little work as possible with it, resulting in a positive attitude towards the training development and the project. 

I often meet learners who are still afraid of contact with e-learning offerings and digital learning – not because they are scared of technology but because of bad experiences. I have the feeling that almost every company has been using e-learning for compliance training at some point. (It seems to me that this is the first topic that was conveyed with e-learning worldwide.) And anybody who has ever done an old school compliance training can tell you that it can be really boring at times. You have to listen to an audio track carefully for 40 minutes and always keep clicking to proceed. These are the older models and usually not the most attractive variants of e-learning. Those whose first experience with e-learning looks like this will perceive the method in a negative way and they are likely to reject it.

In such cases, you have to do a little bit of advertising for e-learning. That’s usually not too hard: You simply show people a few more possibilities, demonstrate a few other projects, let people feel it, really try it themselves. That way, doubts usually dissolve. Compliance training can be interesting and engaging!

But I think the time factor is responsible for resistance most of the time: “I have so much to do anyway, I don’t have the time to do a training session! As a learner, do I have to do that in my free time? Because during working hours, I don’t see when I could possibly take part in training for 40 minutes!”

Superiors must communicate how long the training will last and in what time frame the employees should complete it. Is it allowed or is it obligatory to do it during working hours? This is how you dissolve resistance — ideally proactively so that it doesn’t arise in the first place. Learning should be fun! 

What Are the Advantages of Instructional Design?

If you have a training at hand that works, makes learners happy, helps you achieve your objectives, and helps learners learn what they are supposed to learn, keep using it! I must emphasize that although or because my job as an Instructional Designer is not necessarily to make everything new. But if you notice that you are still having difficulties at one point in your training or if there is resistance from the learners, I would offer you the opportunity to think about the cause together. I would recommend you consider refreshing long-existing pieces of training and to sharpen the focus on what you want to achieve.

Can You Say That Instructional Design More a Kind of Improvement or Modification?

Instructional Design is not a new approach but a structured approach. To approach things in a structured way can never hurt!

If I Want To Start With Instructional Design Approaches in My Company, Where Should I Start?

I would recommend you to call me 😀 I mean: talk to experts. Because they ask the right questions and can work with you in a really short time, in my case in a half-day or one-day workshop, to produce valuable results and give you answers to the many questions you have.

Together with an Instructional Designer, you can clarify the question of the target group, learning objectives, and learning format in a single day. I ask you the right questions, and you only have to answer. I structure everything so that I can present you with a result afterward. 

Of course, this is the best option, because it leads to the goal by the shortest route. But if you just want to start for yourself, just ask yourself the discussed questions and try to get a better picture of the target group that is supposed to participate in this training. Set up three personas for your training to onboard blue-collars in the warehouse or to increase productivity, with age, previous knowledge, etc. Here you can proceed as in creating target personas marketing. You can easily search the internet for this and find many templates. 

Talk to your target group about learning objectives: what should the learners know at the end of your training, what should they be able to do, what should they understand? Go deeper and deeper and deeper until you can’t get more detailed. This is a really good exercise, by the way, also to penetrate your topic. This often makes you realize very quickly that everything you have planned can never fit into the scheduled 20 minutes of learning time, but that five courses could be filled with it. You could do that on your own, but then you would soon realize that it is very exhausting. And then you could still call me 😀

What Would Be Your Key Take-Away?

That learning should be fun for the learners. And that Instructional Design should be fun.

how.fm instructional designer Christiana Degen

Christiana is an instructional designer and learning consultant. She supports companies in developing learning formats that are both effective and entertaining for learners. With over a decade of hands-on experience in training and didactics, she always puts the learner’s needs first.
Her company “Christiana U. Dehnen – Learning Consulting” offers workshops for training development as well as guided production for training managers and developers.

Christiana Dehnen
instructional designer and learning consultant.