Learning Design Best Principles – From The Learnnovators & Quinnovation Project


We, at Learnnovators, joined hands with Clark Quinn of Quinnovation to develop a course on ‘Workplace of the Future’, which we recently shared with the learning community free of charge. The links to the course, as well as a series of blog posts by Clark Quinn explaining the underlying process, are provided at the end of this post.

The idea of the project was to develop a course under practical constraints typically faced by learning design and development teams, and show that it is possible to adhere to good principles. So, here they are, the principles that we employed in the development of the course:


The entire course is decision-based. It is full of practice activities, with minimal content that can be pulled by learners if needed.

Learners who enter the course see some initial context-setting content, and then are placed in a scenario where they need to take decisions to move the conversation forward. The ‘content’ is made available only as reference, and can be accessed if needed (not mandatory). However, the scenarios are challenging enough that learners have to access the content to understand the underlying logic of the decisions they are faced with. The decisions also include misconceptions that are likely to have been entrenched in the minds of learners.


We believe that the decision points in the scenarios are neither too easy nor too difficult. Learners need to ponder over them to make a choice, and accessing the reference content makes that decision more informed. This engages learners’ intellectual curiosity, motivating them to interact better with the course.

And, the right answer is not too obvious, to make learners want to access the content, in order to be able to take the scenario forward.


We’ve added intrinsic feedback at the end of the scenarios; by this, we ‘show’ the consequences of the learners’ decisions once they reach an endpoint. This we provide through a simple description of what happens in the organization a few weeks / months after they reach the end, and follow it up with an explanation why this happened.


Though this course is on a topic of importance, we didn’t want to make the experience overly long. Hence we stuck to about 30 minutes. This is the duration that a learner would have to spend, in order to get the most out of the course.


The course does not have audio. We did dabble with the idea of using audio, either for the dialogs or as ambient sounds, but we dropped the idea since we did not see value in it, and also because we were conscious that the course might be viewed in a public environment.


We have used a graphic novel approach for the visuals – it’s new and fresh, and not used enough in e-learning. Moreover, we ensured that we could get a fair representation of characters from different backgrounds and cultures.


We have taken into account that learners are intelligent, and that they will be able to deduce how to navigate the course and interact with the elements. So, while we’ve provided an initial heads up on the navigational elements, we have refrained from indicating, at every juncture, to ‘Click Next to continue’. While we have left it to the learners’ discretion to sense the availability of the Next button and click on it when they want to move forward, we have presented subtle visual cues for other interactions.

The course, in addition to the characteristic navigational ingredients like Menu and Previous & Next, includes a couple of novel elements. These are:

a) My Chat: Through this, learners can track the discussion in the scenario. It provides the dialog that has taken place so far in the form of a chat transcript.

b) My Path: This is an iconic representation of the complexity of the scenario, with a set of dots that changes color as a learner progresses along. This is to indicate to the learner that their path is not linear, and that there are multiple other paths available.

c) Reference: This is the content of the scenario, and is presented as a scrolling document. Learners who access the reference from a point in the scenario are taken to the section of the document that is relevant to the decision point they are in.

The course follows the open navigation model, wherein learners can move freely between the scenarios and the sections.


This turned out to be one of the most critical components of the course design process. The feedback we received from testers (a representative audience group) was deep and insightful, and we were able to make several improvements to the content as well as the structure as a result of this.

Here’s a very brief overview of the underlying process:

– Very often, we diverged and then converged, taking the best of ideas from all quarters and adding them to the course.

– For every objective, we developed the practice first, and then the associated content. If there are multiple practices, then we developed the final, most difficult one first.

– As scenarios got more complex, we made flowcharts in PowerPoint to understand where each link was leading.

– We decided to use Articulate Storyline (the most appropriate tool for development in this case) after careful consideration.

– To ensure that we all had a fair idea of the outcome of a scenario, we decided on a few parameters before starting to write a scenario:

a) The role played by the learner, and who they would be talking to in the scenario
b) The decisions that they would have to make
c) The misconceptions they are likely to have

Here are the links to the four blog posts written by Clark Quinn on Learning Solutions Magazine:
– Post 1 – Deeper Design: Working Out Loud
– Post 2 – Deeper Design: Beyond Traditional Instructional Design
– Post 3 – Deeper Design: Tweaking the Media
– Post 4 – Deeper Design: Putting It All Together
– Post 5 – Course Launch: Learnnovators and Quinnovation Launch Demo Course Based on Learning Design Best Principles

And, here’s the link to the course: Workplace of the Future.

Forward Design

Forward Design

We design more information-based courses today than we would care to admit. Agreed, these courses can instead be called web pages, cheat sheets, information dumps, knowledge stores, etc. They don’t necessarily have to fall under the ambit of ‘courses’. But whatever we call them, the fact remains that these are designed by learning designers, and we would do well to keep a few good practices in mind before we set upon designing them.

Forward Design: E-learning’s Dirty Little Secret
The best learning programs are designed backwards. This means that you start by ascertaining the goals of a program, and then work backwards to meet those goals. (In case you haven’t heard this term before, here’s the definition of backward design by Wikipedia.) So, if a client comes to you stating the need to design a course for so-and-so topic, you push back a bit and ask them questions, as to what the actual goals are, what learners need to do, and so on. And then for those goals, design learning courses comprising activities and a series of support materials to help learners through the activities.

But many a time, what happens in reality is quite different. I hate to admit it, but we design ‘forward’ (there’s no such term, but I’m using it because what I am talking about is the exact opposite of ‘backward’ design) as much as we do backward, if not more. Consider these situations:

  • Learners are starting out on a new job, and there are loads of information to be covered
  • The subject is voluminous and complex, and learners will benefit from a sense of direction rather than being directly put into the proverbial soup
  • Learning is not directly tied to performance related goals (such as in higher education scenarios)
  • The client doesn’t have the time, or budget, or the inclination to get internal buy-in for a different approach (most likely it is all three!)

In such cases, where the purpose is to disseminate information, and not to change behavior (at least not directly), it is better to start out with what needs to be covered, rather than with the end goal in mind. Now the question is, how do you make the most of this approach? Here are some tips and guidelines:

1. Design your learning into the smallest units possible:

If the idea is for learners to obtain information from this course, make it as easy as possible for them. No one wants to go through a lengthy course that drones on endlessly. There is a lot of research pointing to the fact that learners have a short attention span (well, who doesn’t?), so you might as well keep it short and simple. Moreover, a short topic that addresses one or two learning goals is easier to digest and come back to than a long topic that covers dozens of goals. Which brings me to the next point…

2. Make it easy to search for content

If what you are designing is an information-based course, then is it not appropriate for learners to be able to come back to the course again and again? Let’s say you are trying to cover insurance related concepts for the employees of an organization. In that case, it would be safe to assume that learners will not just take the course once, but would come back whenever they have to refer to the concepts therein. In which case, there are two things you can do to make the course contents searchable:

  • Make your topic and screen titles simple and straight forward (remember, your learners should be able to look at the title and understand what is covered inside)
  • Enable the search feature inside the course (many authoring tools today allow you to do this; if not, you might have to take the help of course programmers to embed this functionality inside the course)

3. Do not narrate every screen

It can sometimes be tempting to do this, and many clients might even insist on this. But there are numerous research reports that point to the pitfalls of this approach. Narration without purpose tends to take control away from learners and reduce motivation. I’m not arguing against the use of audio narration. If used well, narration can really have a positive impact on the learning outcomes, but the key here is knowing when to use narration. Use only if one or more of the following conditions are satisfied:

  • You are describing a procedure or a complex concept, and you want learners to be able to follow it without having to read text on screen
  • You want to add a bit of emotion to what you are describing (for example, to provide feedback to a learner input)
  • You have one or more characters speaking as part of a scenario

There are could be other situations where audio narration lifts up the learnability of a course, but the key is to consider those situations carefully and then take a decision.

4. Do not lock navigation

This is one of the big afflictions of modern-day e-learning. In a well-meaning but futile attempt at ‘helping’ learners get the most out of a course, the ubiquitous Next button is locked down completely, and opens up ONLY when the learner has ‘completed’ the content of each screen. Result: Screen after screen, learners have to suffer through the agony of having to go through content that they cannot identify with, that they already know, or plainly are not interested in at that point of time. And if the entire content happens to be narrated, it is agony doubled for learners, since they need to wait for the entire narration to be complete before they can click the Next button. The answer: Do not lock the Next button, or any other button in the course.

To sum it up, my advice for those who want to design an information-based course: keep in mind that your learners are adults, and that they would want to take control of the pace at which they learn. In any case, isn’t that what you are designing for – so that learners can pull your content when they need it, instead of having it pushed to them?

What other tips/techniques/guidelines do you recommend for designing information-based courses? Thoughts?