LXD Central

A Learning Design Document Isn't a Script

So you’re ready to design and develop a learning program. Great… how do you get started? A Learning Design Document is a good place to start. I recently heard a YouTuber say Design Documents are a bit old school and may not allow a team to move fast enough in today’s corporate environment. He went on to suggest that a method like SAM might be an alternative which tells me all I need to know. SAM is a development model and not a substitute for a Design Document. To be clear, I think the principles behind SAM are great, but don’t jump into it without first creating a Design Document (which is very different from a Script, which is what SAM aims to move us away from). Enough of the insider speak, let’s get into the Learning Design Document.

What's the Purpose of a Learning Design Document?

A Design Document is a blueprint for a learning solution. It provides focus and governance for what’s to be included, the instructional and visual approach and how you’ll know if you’re successful. Sounds simple, but let’s get real for a moment. Way too much learning is developed without these simple guardrails and the results are disastrous for both that specific solution and the industry, as too often these solutions fail to make an impact on the business, leading to an overall skepticism of the importance and effectiveness of L&D.

With that in mind, the most important role of the Design Document is to create alignment with your project sponsors and Subject Matter Experts (SMEs). Remember, the people you support with training or learning solutions often have little or no background in learning and they may believe that all that needs to be done is for “content” to be communicated and change will happen. As Learning Designers, we know that’s not the case. Learning is about people and how we develop solutions to get people to start, stop or do more of the things that achieve our desired outcome and that’s what an effective design document should layout for the team.

What's in a Design Document?

While there are many versions of design documents, below are what I see as the key elements you don’t want to leave out. For each element, I’ve curated some helpful resources that include detailed descriptions, methodologies, examples and more.

Section 1: Problem Definition

What is the business problem being addressed?

This is where every great learning program begins and too often the cause of their failure. Think about a mind map of your training solution, the problem you solve is at the center of it. Everything leads back to that problem and if it doesn’t then you have a strong argument for not including it in your program. 

We’ve all been guilty of jumping to solutions the first time we hear about a new training need, but more often than not, we’re better served taking a few steps back and being clear about Why training is needed in the first place. This starts with a clear articulation of the problem.  Below are a couple of examples:

Example 1: The company’s Net Promoter Score for our Wonder Widget Product decreased by 10% from a year ago. A consistent concern raised by customers for lowering their score is a lack of strategic support from their Customer Success Manager.

Example 2: New regulations were introduced to ensure companies protect personally identifiable information (PII). Our company collects PII of our customers and from prospective customers for marketing purposes. We need appropriate controls in place to make sure all employees who have access to PII or develop solutions that leverage PII act in way that is consistent with these new regulations. 

And here are a few resources to help you get the problem definition right:

Who is the audience for the program?

Effective learning design is human-centered. The audience for our training program are the humans, not the content. As we move forward in the design process, it’s the audience that we use to provide context for performance consulting, to inform our delivery method and more. Here are a few resources to guide you in gathering information about the audience: 

What are the performance gaps to be addressed for each audience?

There is no more important step in the design of a learning solution than to be clear about performance gaps. Performance gaps are the raison d’etre or reason to be for a training solution.  They articulate the “from”- “to” for our audience. The from being the current state of their performance and the “to” articulates how those states will change post-training. This articulation is at the heart of performance consulting and there are literally books written on the topic, but here are a few resources to get you started:

Section 2: Solution Architecture

What behaviors need to change?

The next big question we need to answer as input to our design is what are the behaviors our audience needs to develop to close the performance gap? “Shh” don’t tell our business partners, these behaviors are what we refer to as learning objectives in L&D speak but for our SMEs and Sponsors, we simply want to explore what do they need to do so they move toward the desired state?

What stops our audience from these behaviors?

Now that we have a clear articulation of the current and future state of our audience and agree on the behaviors we want to see in our audience that will move them the current to the desired state, we need to map our desired transformation into a learning solution and that starts by surfacing the underlying causes of the gaps. Some of these will be addressed by training. Other won’t. A Performance Gap can typically be associated one or more root causes:

  1. Skills Gaps: This is a gap in the things an employee is doing vs what the organization wants them to do.
  2. Knowledge Gaps: The difference between what the employees knows vs what the organization wants them to know.
  3. Motivation Gaps: The employee doesn’t think the desired actions for behaviors are in their personal and / or the company’s best interest.
  4. Environmental Gaps: This one is a bit of a catch-all for things that don’t fall into the above but includes access to tools, culture, logistical constraints and often need to be addressed outside of a training solution.
The first two are likely candidates to address through training, while the others likely require other solutions. Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping provides a straight-forward framework for how to surface these underlying causes.

How will the learning solution address these underlying causes?

Now that we understand the root cause of our Performance Gap, we can formulate a set of training experiences or actions that we propose to develop to bridge the performance gaps. You can workshop your solution with stakeholders by walking them through the logical sequence you’ve surfaced in the process above. What is most powerful about this approach is that your turning the design into a narrative using language your SMEs and sponsors will understand and feel confident contributing and critiquing.

Let’s look at an example for Sales training.

How we know we’re successful?

Of course, this is often considered the holy grail of learning – how will we prove our solution is effective. In some cases, you may be able to use business data to measure your success or failure. Like in the example above, you measure the increase in the conversion rate from Sales Qualified Leads to Opportunities. But let’s be realistic, that’s not always possible and even when possible, the business will sometimes look skeptically at the results given the multiple factors that can affect a metric. An alternative in the above example is to engage Sales leaders to observe and evaluate how well salespeople perform the process.

The most important thing is to agree with stakeholders and sponsors about what success looks like. This may be completion rates, a quiz score or something more ambitious like the examples above. 

Section 3: Delivery Strategy

What delivery method(s) will you use to deliver each of the experiences?

Most learning experiences can be delivered in multiple formats and delivery methods. For example, if you decide practice is an important part of your solution, that practice can be delivered live or via virtual classroom as a role-play or via eLearning as a scenario. Another example is an executive presentation, this can be done at the cost of the executive’s time to present live or via Zoom or you can choose to invest in a video team to capture and edit the talk. While the type of experience isn’t necessarily the driving factor in deliver medium, there are typically three factors – cost, size of audience and logistics, to consider when deciding what medium to deliver a learning experience.

As a general rule, asynchronous learning solutions, like eLearning, require significantly more investment upfront, but that’s just one factor to consider. That investment may be more than justified if you have a large audience and the alternative is flying people around or investing in a large-scale production for a classroom or virtual event for something like a simulation. Let’s take a close look at the example of a simulation. The investment to design and develop a 60-minute eLearning simulation can range from $20,000 – $75,000+ depending on how much of the effort you outsource. By comparison, the cost of flying 100 executives into a central location for several days and hiring actors to support a simulation exercise could cost $250,000+, so in this case you need to decide between the benefits of having everyone together vs the significant investment for in-person.

You also have to consider the opportunity cost of taking people out of the field. You may have a relatively small audience, but they may be in a highly sensitive role, so flying them into a single location isn’t even possible. There aren’t right or wrong answers to delivery method, it’s about balancing the needs of your audience against the constraints of the solution. Check out the resource below for some more insights on deliver methods:

What media to include in the experiences?

Once you decide on the delivery method, the next thing to consider is the use of media like video and animation. These are very effective for enhancing storytelling, introducing emotion and explaining complex ideas, but they also add cost to a solution. Again, this is a decision that will often be driven budgets, but as the Learning Designer, you can help the team prioritize where to spend money on media so that you maximize the value. Here’s a collection of articles on creating and using video in your learning solutions.

What is the duration of development and cost of you solution?

The final answer to include in your Design Document is how long and how much your learning is going to take and cost. Hopefully as you read through the above, you can understand how the shape and size of a learning solution might change as you move through the design process. You’ll uncover some new needs and find that content originally in scope is no longer needed. You’ll make decisions on delivery method. You’ll make a lot of decisions. The power of the design process is that this something you’re doing hand-in-hand with your sponsor and SMEs so when you propose a solution that may differ significantly from what they originally had in mind, there aren’t any surprises. In fact, ideally they are now telling you that the solution they need is quite different and they are fully bought in to the solution you’ve designed.


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