Whether designing a single learning object (such as a graphic or video to explain a simple concept or process), compiling a set of instructions that shows how to get from step A to step B, or developing a whole new educational program, you’ll need to do some prep work upfront to assess the lay of the land and determine the parameters around the learning challenge you’re trying to solve.
A big part of Learning Experience Design is project planning. Don’t worry—we don’t mean a long and mind-numbing project plan that no one (I repeat, NO ONE) will ever read. We’re talking a one-pager that summarizes and connects all the logistics of your project. This plan will no doubt change as things progress, but it will allow you to identify constraints, narrow your focus, and reflect on key information like timelines, working environment, staffing, budget, and expected outcomes and deliverables. Your plan should include concrete steps that will allow the design team (we’ll talk about them later) to establish how they will work together and how they’ll track what they have accomplished and what still needs to be done.
Which bits and pieces you include in your project plan will depend largely on the nature of the learning design challenge you’re about to tackle. That said, the following components are common to most plans.
1. A CLEARLY DEFINED CHALLENGE
A clear and concise problem statement or design challenge will set parameters around the work that needs to be done and get everyone on the same page from the get-go. Creating this statement is part of establishing your point of view (the first step in any learning experience design challenge). Put this baby at the top of the page in big, bold letters. A properly developed challenge statement is actionable and provides a clarity and focus that improves the rest of the design process. Your statement should be broad enough to allow for a variety of solutions, yet narrow enough to provide action.
2. LEARNERS & STAKEHOLDERS
Knowing who you’re designing for is essential. Creating learner profiles is a good start. You’ll need to dig deep to create meaningful design. You’ll accomplish this by narrowing your scope down to specific types of learners.
Since there will be more than one type, you’ll also need to ask questions to identify common denominators shared by different learners as well as to uncover the unique characteristics and needs that set them apart. Are they students? Are they employees of a particular organization or members of a specific community group? What do you already know about them? What are their stories? What challenges are they facing? What beliefs or knowledge do they possess that you hope to transform or build on as a result of the learning experience you design for them? What important skill sets are they lacking?
When you’re getting started on your project, you won’t have all the answers to these questions. At this stage, you only need to include what you know for sure. As you dive into the next phases of the process, you’ll start to validate any assumptions you might have about learners and add details as you find out more about them. The iterative nature of this process will allow you to cycle back and refine this section with each new discovery.
The Learner Profile Tool and the Cart Sort activity are great ways to get to know who your learners are, what experiences they bring to the table and what life circumstances might impact how they contribute to the learning community.
3. THE TEAM
As part of your project plan, list the skill sets needed to move through the various phases of the design process. Then recruit people with the right competencies (knowledge, skills-sets, and abilities) to do what needs doing. When assembling your design team, keep in mind it’s also important to have people who can effectively solve problems together—even if you have a couple of rebel boat-rockers on your team.
More significant LXD projects such as training and development programs, academic programs, or even education and awareness campaigns will most likely require a mashup of skills. These might include instructional design, research, project management, graphic or visual design, facilitation, subject matter expertise, and writing (technical or creative, depending on the project). As those smart people at Strategyzer point out in their book, Design a Better Business (2016), it’s also essential to tap skill sets that won’t necessarily appear on anyone’s business card but are crucial to moving things forward. So, as they say, be sure to engage a broad mix of lateral thinkers, big-picture thinkers, and project ambassadors (Pijl, Lieshout, Lokitz, Pluijm, & Solomon 2016).
Smaller projects might require some or all of these talents at different stages. Once you assemble your team and take inventory of the various skill sets on offer, you’ll be able to identify gaps and bring on additional members as needed. The key is to assemble the right people with the right mindsets and a wide range of skills, knowledge, and perceptions about what the learning experience should be from start to finish. Most importantly, you’ll want a team that’s ready and willing to get things done and deliver results.
As your team and your stakeholder groups grow, you’ll want to establish clear expectations regarding who the decision-makers are, how you’ll communicate with one another, and what methods you’ll employ to successfully engage others. You will need to identify the key ingredients that will help make the process worthwhile not only for the core team, but also for the people you engage at each step along the way. Your own behaviour and communication style, the efficiency of your processes, and the quality of tools and systems available will impact others’ willingness to contribute. And without their participation, your project won’t have a leg to stand on.
As you begin your project be sure to ask yourself, What are the ingredients to our success? What can we do to make this Learning Experience Design journey enjoyable and worthwhile for everyone?
Knowing what your project’s budget parameters are right from the start will help you determine your overall return on investment as you work through the process and make design decisions that might require additional resources. This will also help you decide if the project is even worth the effort.
When considering your initial budget draft, you’ll probably have to guesstimate some of the expenditures based on what you know about the activities, resources, and materials required. You’ll also need to align all costs and expenses with the expectations around deliverables at each stage of the process. A simple list that outlines what you do and what you deliver can help manage expectations, track progress, and determine timelines.
While transparency is important, refrain from getting too detailed in your description of deliverables. Allow for a certain amount of flexibility in how you allocate resources, spend money, and respond to unexpected changes. In other words, start with what you know about typical costs and expenditures and allow for a reasonable buffer. Find out what your thresholds and constraints are and then leave room for any surprises you might encounter along the way (P.S. it’s pretty much guaranteed there will always be surprises!). A good rule of thumb is to begin your project by finding out the maximum budget your client or project sponsor is willing to sign off on, and then scaling up or down from there.
As you work on projects, have project team members track their hours. This will help with planning and making cost estimates for future projects. It will also help your team identify opportunities to create efficiencies in the process.
Make a list of any items that might impact decision making during the design and development processes. This list might include reference documents, links to policies and procedures, regulations, or quality standards that have been set by the beneficiaries of your design. The point is to make these foundational resources easy to access.
6. TIMELINES & DELIVERABLES
Checking things off a list can be hugely gratifying when working through a long process with lots of steps. To keep progress tangible, have your timeline include some of the actionable items (big and small) that make up the different phases of your plan as well as the expected deliverables. By identifying tasks that everyone can do immediately without permission or additional resources, you create quick wins and build momentum. This makes it easier to tackle some of the more significant items on your list. Onward and upward!
CAST. (2015). Universal design for learning guidelines. http://www.cast.org/our-work/about-udl.html#.VUo38xdex8Z
Dam, Rikke, and Teo Siang. “5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process.” The Interaction Design Foundation, https://www.interaction-design.org/literature/article/5-stages-in-the-design-thinking-process.
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Pijl, Patrick van der., et al. Design a Better Business: New Tools, Skills and Mindset for Strategy and Innovation. John Wiley & Sons, 2016.
Quinn, C. (2019, February 5). David Kelley on the 8 design abilities of creative problem solvers. IDEO. https://www.ideou.com/blogs/inspiration/david-kelley-on-the-8-design-abilities-of-creative-problem-solvers
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