By the time I led my first design meeting, I had attended countless similar meetings as a content developer. While I appreciated the new challenge of being responsible for the design, I had watched my skilled colleagues lead these meetings many times before… What could go wrong?

Well, it turns out, there is a lot of information that bubbles up during design. What I had not accounted for was how to filter that information to stay laser-focused on my priorities: the format, structure, and interactivity of the solution. As a new instructional designer, it is tempting to want a “script” to guide the design discussion. The fact is, each client and project is unique in some way. So being too rigid or formulaic is a guarantee that you will not arrive at the optimal solution.

If you’re new to instructional design or just looking for a refresher, here are some “mile markers” to help lead you to design meeting success.

1. The Goal as the Gatekeeper.

Make sure your instructional goal is a true “north star.” It should designate the content that is required just as much as it filters out content that is “goal-adjacent” or nice-to-have.

  • It should be behavior-based: What will learners do differently?
  • It should not include objective-level tasks strung together.
  • Read it in your head. It should give you a gut feeling of “I know what this includes” and an initial idea of what it does not include. Share these observations with the group so that everyone is aligned.
    • In my experience, “red flag” content that needs clarification includes things like soft skills or process skills that are assumed in order to accomplish the target. For example, clarify that you’re teaching sales reps the facts to counter objections with, not foundational selling skills. Or, that you’re teaching managers the questions to ask when coaching employees, not basic coaching communication skills. Those are big differences that the goal discussion can help uncover.
  • Picture the goal on a continuum: if 0 = no subject matter knowledge and 10 = subject matter expert, where do you expect learners to be at the end of the training? Hint: if it’s a 5-minute microlearning “burst” or even a 30-minute eLearning course, the answer is not “10.” Answering this question can help stakeholders reign in their own expectations for what the training solutions can accomplish.

Distilling a direct and behavior-oriented goal out of a group conversation is not as easy as it sounds. The group will be tempted to wordsmith with corporate buzzwords or feeling words. Stay strong! Remember, this goal needs to hold meaning for the team throughout the life of the project – that could be many months.

2. Use empathy maps and personas.

instructional designer

Design thinking has become an integral part of our instructional designer process. As powerful as design thinking tools can be, getting started with them can be challenging. If you are anything like me, your first thought with these tools was, “I can design without those,” or “Those take too much time.” I admit I was a hard sell on learner personas. I just didn’t see how target audience data impacted the design. But let’s be honest – if this were true, the existing slide deck of 200 slides of text would suffice, and we could all go home.

  • The name of the game is to make sure all your major design decisions take your learner into account: the content included, the delivery medium, when and how it is accessed… all of these should be grounded in the learner data.
  • If you’re not seeing the value of this data, you may be asking the wrong questions. Often, once you start with the basic questions, the answers often point to additional information you’ll want to explore.
  • If you’re still on the fence, start small. Ask actual target learners their thoughts and feelings about the task in question, as well as the challenges they often run into. You may be surprised at how much these questions reveal about realities such as conflicting priorities, time constraints, cognitive overload, etc.
  • Ready for the next step? Ask about the use case for the solution you’re designing and what a “Day in the Life” looks like for your learner. Use this to inform the accessibility requirements and delivery medium.

Again, the time it takes for audience analysis is not just an investment in the design, but in the entire lifespan of the project; can you afford to sink resources into something the learner can’t find or doesn’t use?

Want to know what type of training will best motivate your learners? Create your own learner persona with our Learner Persona worksheet.

3. The Medium/Format as the last decision.

Let’s say you’re Christmas shopping for three family members. First, you buy 6 boxes – that’s two presents per person. Then, you begin Christmas shopping. When you get ready to wrap, you realize you’re ill-equipped; many boxes are too small or too big; some presents could actually have been combined in a single box, and you have one large gift you’ll actually need to wrap in pieces. “…That’s ridiculous!” you say. – you’d never buy the box before you know what you’re buying. But how often does a stakeholder say, “We need 3 eLearning courses,” before we know what they will contain?

I know – there are lots of reasons this happens, and some of them are quite compelling. Just make sure that if you were ever asked, you could make a case for why the designated format is the best one for the job.

  • Does it take into account the use case? For example, if the user needs just-in-time support, and you’ve designed an eLearning course on the LMS, is it likely to be used as intended?
  • Is it the simplest possible solution? You may realize that what you’re designing isn’t training after all, but rather an awareness-level communication campaign. Don’t overcomplicate it.
  • Does it meet the learner’s needs and wants? For example, if learners are global and speak English as a second language, a flashy eLearning course may get their attention, but this must be weighed against the ease-of-use of a more easily-translated solution.

Of course, design meetings always have a way of taking on a life of their own. But following these three guidelines can help keep you focused and provide a little more confidence that you’re designing a successful solution.