Instructional Designers

Do you ever feel stuck as Instructional Designers with content you can’t work with? Do you feel uninspired as to how to make something active? Do you feel like you’re doing the same thing over and over again? Here are some potential cures for what ails you.

1. I’ve been staring at this content for what feels like forever and have no idea what to do with it.

Spending time staring at the ceiling or reading and re-reading your content? Still no ideas? It took me years to figure out that this was almost always a symptom of me not truly understanding the nature of the content segment. If you’re struggling to know how to handle a piece of content, it’s likely you lack information.

Find someone who can answer questions like:
What does this content mean (clarify jargon or terms you may not be familiar with)?
Why does the learner need to know this (what task does it support)?
What is it about this particular content that might trip a learner up or that they might have a hard time understanding?
If the learner truly understood this, what would they be doing/not doing?
• How would it be observable that they truly got it?

Once you understand these things, it becomes much easier to know what to focus on, how to present it, and what activity you may be able to design that supports the learner applying this knowledge via an activity to a realistic task or scenario. After that, the design comes easy.

2. There’s nothing action-based about this content, but I have to make sure it’s included.

Sometimes you have to cover things that aren’t action-oriented or that don’t support behaviors or tasks. Additionally, sometimes the slides you design are leading up to a task or behavior-based event later, but for now you are presenting general information. How do you do that without boring bullet points?

One answer I have found over the years to focus on a visual presentation of the content, meaning: how can you take the WORDS that need to be covered and help them make better sense, more easily, to the learner? The answer is through visual design.

Over the past decade, info-graphics have become increasingly popular. Instructional Designers can take lessons from this practice because an info-graphic essentially takes a paragraph or three of text (for example a boring run-down of statistics or numbers) and finds a way to present it in a visually-interesting manner that engages the learner and makes them interested in exploring and absorbing it.

The additional advantage of visual design is that the learner has a better chance of retaining it – not only because they spent more time with it and were more interested, but also because the visual layout, icons, or pictures you may include help to activate another input method, increasing chances of retention.

So: find a way to design your page that is a visual representation of the point being made or that more easily allows the learner to chunk, categorize, or identify the key points of the information. This provides a much-needed upgrade to the standard bullet-point layout.

3. I can’t think of a decent visual way to present this content.

Take a tip from Brother Dan Frazee, as I recently did: go to a site like and enter in “infographic” for the search. Take a look at the various types of ways information can be laid out on the page. Which types of these layouts might work for your content or the point you’re trying to drive home? Download one or make necessary modifications and mock up one of your own. Either way, these ideas can provide inspiration for doing something unique that works for your course.

Another thing you can try is to start doing some word association. If the key points of your slide are efficiency, accuracy, and timeliness, for example, you may start asking yourself what types of icons or photography would clearly convey those concepts to your learner. Once you’ve obtained them, how can you organize them in a way that helps to make a point or section/chunk the points that are made about the key concepts? You get the idea.

4. I’m tired of using the same old drag-and-drop, hot spot, etc. activities.

If you’re tired of them, your learners certainly are! Good for you for caring. I’ll tell you the same thing I tell anyone who I’ve taught eLearning design to: design activities for your LEARNER — not for what the built-in authoring tool activities provide.

Start with the end in mind:
In what context will your learner apply this information once training is over?
What tasks will the learner be asked to perform at that time?
What decisions will they need to make?
What resources will they have to consult in order to do the right thing?• What are the potential consequences of success or failure of the applied learning?
What are the potential consequences of success or failure of the applied learning?

Once you know the answer to these questions, the activity (or scenario) has mostly written itself. You now know what type of environment or background you might want to create to place the learner in, what type of challenge or activity you should make them do, what inputs you need from them, what types of help or aids you should provide, and how you can create feedback or results to the activity that are realistic.

The ultimate point here is to not be afraid to craft something CUSTOM for the learner. Don’t just rely on whatever standard widgets or built-in activities come with your authoring tool. Get creative! Piece things together! Your learner will love you for it. You can also always go browse the eLearning Brothers Template Library for tons of eLearning games, quizzes, activities, scenarios, and interactions for more ideas!

5. My course is too text-heavy, but it all has to be covered.

Many of us face this problem every day. Before you mortgage all your white space or convert all you font to 8 pt text, consider breaking your content up into multiple mediums or methods contained on the same page. Some of your content can be appropriate presented via:

Audio narration and embedded or triggered audio clips allow you to present information that doesn’t have to be read and doesn’t take up space. Just make sure not to include anything too important (that the user may want to re-read or study) as part of intangible audio.
Visuals can represent some of the information in a way other than text.

For example, instead of listing all 15 states that a certain regulation applies in, you could insert a single graphic of the US with the 15 applicable states colored in. This saves space.
Pop-ups or clickable tips allow you to embed key content on the page, but not have it taking up the whole page. This way the learner can click it and read it when they need it and it saves space.
Feedback messages, audio clips, or character reactions allow you to present some of the information in the form of coaching or guidance.
Characters who present viewpoints, mistakes, or instructional information via their experience or advice
Click-and-reveal categories of information that are chunked in an easy-to-understand manner and have supporting audio and visuals (our library has many great examples of this)
Slide-out windows can contain activities, decisions, helpful tips, or feedback.

They can display at an appropriate time rather than taking up permanent real estate
Animate some of the content to come in and then leave when it’s no longer needed in order to free up space.

You can also always choose to split your slide into two slides or eliminate redundancy to make more room.

As Instructional Designers, what common design problems do you run into that you’ve finally found a solve for? Share them below!

Need more ideas for Instructional Designers? Read 10 eLearning Game Ideas for Instructional Designers.


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