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3 tips for avoiding design failure

Have you ever experienced learning design failure? It’s pretty easy to spot — the primary “tell” being the utterly confused or disgusted looks on the faces of your learners. Or it’s when your stakeholders or learners actively start sabotaging the design and doing whatever they want. Or they just get up and leave. That is a failure of learning design.

Having recently gone through a design failure, here’s some tips for avoiding this gut-wrenching experience.

Tip #1 – Make sure there is ONE owner/sponsor

The hardest thing for an outside consultant (or an inside L&D employee for that matter), is to make sure there is ONE person who owns the design. One person who will give you the sign-off, the go-ahead, the buy-in, the responsibility. If you find yourself in a situation where the owner or sponsor isn’t really owning the project — RUN, don’t walk, in the other direction. Ease your way out, or find a way to address the situation. To be honest, by the time you realize this, it’s often too late.

Tip #2 – Get your stakeholders’ attention

We all lead busy lives and our working lives seem to never let up. Learning initiatives often take a backseat to making the end-of-quarter numbers. So when you have your stakeholders review the information, make sure you are getting them at a point where they can pay attention and really try to understand what’s going on. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a nasty surprise just as you’re ready to launch, and where they will claim to have never been consulted.

Tip #3 – Make sure they understand the what the learning experience will feel like

Remember Tip #2 above — first get people’s attention. In addition, if people don’t do learning stuff every day, they will not easily understand the learning experience. Once you have their attention, do whatever it takes to help them understand the what the learners will be doing in the module, what it will feel like, what they will be doing, how the learning sequence ties together. Help them enter into the experience in your head. Then they will be able to give you honest, and grounded feedback on whether or not your learning design will work.

Don’t design alone

The hardest thing to do is do design alone without feedback. Do whatever it takes to get that feedback from your owner/sponsor, your stakeholders, your learners. Consult other learning designers if available. Do whatever it takes to get involvement and avoid surprises.

But sometimes, you just make mistakes. You make errors and there is no one to catch them. Or your design doesn’t quite fit expectations. Admit your problems and if there’s time and money, fix them. Otherwise, take a deep breath, do some meditation, and move on — and don’t forget the lesson you’ve learned.

Posted in guidelines, instructional design, learning profession.

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6 Responses

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  1. jk says

    smart–well put

  2. Tim Flood says

    Rani, very good points here. I especially like your counsel not to design alone and getting sponsors to understand what the learning experience is like. Most of us think we know better, especially sponsors. This is also why a lot of software products fail — when the development process occurs without the client’s or user’s involvement.

  3. Rani H. Gill says

    JK – thanks for the feedback. Trying to put it out there without blame.
    Tim – good point re: software. We have to do a better job of helping people imagine the end result, whatever the end-product is.

  4. Dwayne Hodgson says

    Sounds like you went through a wrenching experience; but good for you to learn from ot and share your reflections. Thanks.
    Your advice echoes what I learned from Jane Vella and her research assistant, Eleanor Ray. I now hire her for all my learning designs. She does a great job of assessing the learners’ needs, experience, and safety issues, which usually (but not always) helps to anticipate problems.

    But getting the sponsor on board is key; I just walked away from some work when it became clear that the head honcho was obviously hostile to facilitators (he didn’t think they were necessary and basically said he would take over if he didn’t like what I did!). No point walking into a situation like that.

  5. Rani H. Gill says

    Dwayne – thanks for recognizing it was a wrenching experience. Took me a while to realize it wasn’t about me. All good, all learning, yes? I have to work on that skill of recognizing when it’s a situation set up for failure and walking away — good on you for doing that.

Continuing the Discussion

  1. Focus groups as learning interventions | wander@will linked to this post on September 5, 2011

    […] engagement that  I had where the interviews I conducted resulted in a mass of confusion, and a failed design – what could I have done differently in that instance? I’m not sure the dialogue […]

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