3 Questions You Should Answer Before You Design An Effective Learning Solution

3 Questions You Should Answer Before You Design An Effective Learning Solution
Summary: Learning design is about creating the right learning experience for a given need. The inputs to get to the right design are a clear set of outcomes to measure yourself against, a well-defined picture of the audience, and prioritizing the right content to include. Read on to learn more.

Want To Design An Effective Learning Solution? Answer These 3 Simple Questions

Do you approach learning design as a bottom up, or a top down process?

If you see your role as making content you inherit from Subject Matter Experts as engaging and effective as possible, then you’re a bottom up designer. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, and as a custom learning development company, this is frequently what we are asked to do. However, we also recognize most of the determinants as to whether the solution will make a business impact or not are largely based on decisions made before the project is handed off to us.

On other projects, we engage with our customers much earlier, and for those projects we have a number of critical questions we like to explore as input to the design. By being clear on 3 areas, outcomes, audience, and content, we are much more certain of our ability to create training solutions that get results.

Question 1: What Does Business Success Look Like?

This may sound obvious, but all too often training programs have content as a starting point versus outcomes. This shouldn’t be a surprise given that Subject Matter Experts are often at the center of the process. Subject Matter Experts love their content and think everyone should know it all. This is where the business owner or project stakeholder comes in and provides with our first critical input to designing the best solution. We want them to answer one simple questions… If we’re successful on this project, what will be different? Here are some examples of what the response might look like:


  • Sales associates increase average deal size.
  • Salespeople increase win rate.


  • New team members decrease time-to-competence.

Customer Service training

  • Customers increase ratings of satisfaction.
  • Customers decrease returns.


  • Employees increase number of suspicious emails they flag.
  • Employees increase calls to our hotline.

It’s important to push the sponsor to be as specific and concreate as possible. Their response to this question is one of our anchors as we move through the design process. When in doubt, we can always ask: Does "x" move us toward achieving the outcome to make a quick decision?

Questions 2: Who Is Our Audience?

Knowing who we are training is critical. A program targeted for an inexperienced, new hire versus a ten-year veteran will be very different. The adage that if you try to please everyone, you’ll end up pleasing no one couldn’t be truer than with training programs. To get the focus we want, we typically create 2-4 personas to make sure we get this right. While the training may still be deployed to a broader audience, the personas represent the most important members of our audience – the ones who will have the greatest role in delivering business success. For each persona, we want to document a holistic view of their needs. We do this by exploring a handful of questions:

  • In what context will the skills/content be applied?
  • What’s their current level of knowledge?
  • What’s their attitude toward and motivation for any change the training will call for?
  • What prior training and education have they received in the domain?
  • What do we anticipate they will see as barriers to change or acting on the call to action of the training?
  • What are their learning preference – ILT vs eLearning, mobile vs desktop, video vs presentations, etc.? For an interesting take on looking at a learners digital body language as one input check out the eBook by Lori Niles-Hoffmann [1].

Once we develop a clear picture of our audience, we make their needs, priorities, attitudes, etc., become the second anchor of our solution. They inform us about what type of experience or experiences are best suited. For example "Are we raising awareness, or providing an opportunity to practice, or are we helping someone understand their current performance?", etc. Check this earlier article for more details on defining purpose.

Question 3: What Content Should Be Included?

Excuse me while I get up on my soap box for a minute, but the biggest problem with most training programs is that they try to cover too much. I’m a firm believer that less is more when it comes to training. But what should we include? This starts with filtering content based on what supports our business outcomes and the needs of our audience, but what if even after applying these filters there’s still too much? Our approach is to prioritize content based on 3 criteria:

  1. How frequently is it relevant to the audience?
  2. How great is the impact if they get it wrong?
  3. Our ability to change or impact it with training.

We use a number of techniques to assign a value to each of the criteria. These include workshopping some subset of with SMEs, stakeholders, managers, and learners, surveying direct managers of the audience and shadowing workers in some cases. The important thing is that we move away from intuition to a systematic approach to make these decisions. We find an SME much more open to leaving something off if you support your argument with data. For a case study of how this is applied, check out Chip Cleary’s blog post.

Sounds simple, right? I’d love to hear how these keys compare to what you’re doing? Do you have additional anchors for your design process? Tricks of the trade we can all learn from? I’ll look forward to your comments.



  1. Data-Driven Learning Design