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Designing Web-Based Training. William K. Horton. 1999

Multimedia Instructional Design. William W. Lee, Diana L. Owens. 2000

“Learning Online Style Matters.” Colleen Frye. Inside Technology Training. September 1999.

“Learning Online — Best of All Worlds.” Carol Sabia, Connie Cassarino. Inside Technology Training, October 1999.

Web Resources:

International Society for Performance Improvement is a great source for information on instructional design.

Comprehensive list of WBT examples.

Design Lessons

1.   Storytelling is effective with all audiences and with all cultures. The key is how the story is told.

2.   Touch the hearts and minds of your audience. Be prepared to ask questions about the motivation and needs of the audience. Common questions I ask are:

q   What’s in it for them?

q   Why do they get up in the morning and go to work?

q   What do they love/hate about their jobs?

q   What are their primary emotional needs?

3.   Design only to what is important. “Nice to have” content should go into the performance support section of your course.

4.   Design media elements to their lowest common denominator; it’s the design not media elements that result in an outstanding learning experience.

5.   Look for little ways to delight your audience. Something as simple as a rose might do the trick.

6.   Match design to learning style of your audience. If the audience is experienced and loves problem solving, give them discovery learning. If your audience is new hires and inexperienced, use a combination approach.

7.   Games do not work universally. We found that in some regions of the world users are not familiar with certain games. Horse racing or Jeopardy type games work in some countries but not all. Tic-Tac-Toe, and Racecar type games worked well in all.

I will never forget Ms. Adams. She had wonderful white hair and she captivated me and the other high school English students with her quiet manner. When she encouraged us to read literature and write about it, I somehow felt better about myself, more real. As I sit down to write this article, I remember Ms. Adams. She reminds me of what a great instructor can be and how the complex process of learning can be impacted by readiness to learn, content, and presentation.

Design for Global Audiences

The most important question an instructional developer should ask does not revolve around age, sex, or education but around values. Why would an audience care about learning this content? We often find this more difficult to ascertain than prerequisites or demographics.

A few years back I helped a Fortune 25 company roll out elearning to a global audience of channel partners. This was a very diverse worldwide audience. They represented 36 countries, 70,000 companies, and about 1.65 million end-users. Through Meta study analysis, we found that the target audience really didn’t think much about distance learning; in fact, they much preferred classroom training

The chart below compares employee perception regarding online learning with management perception according to the Meta studies I reviewed:



Prefer classroom/laboratory training over online learning

Prefer online learning to classroom training.

Enjoy getting out of the office and taking a learning break from the everyday work.

View classroom training as inefficient and disruptive.

Enjoyed talking with other employees and finding out what they are doing.

Provides more flexibly so workers can learn anytime. Reduced costs in terms of travel.

Based on this data, we felt that the design team must first understand the hearts and minds of their audience. Our most important task was to determine how to motivate and encourage reluctant learners to give online learning a try.

Since research studies can be flawed, I requested that we conduct focus groups from representative populations. We set up about a dozen groups and I set out to find how could I better understand this audience. It turned out worse then I thought. The audience, composed primarily of sales people, was highly motivated by making and exceeding quota. They indicated they were willing to spend about an hour in online learning. That was it. It had to be useful or they said they would discard it faster than sour milk.

 Also the range of end-user machines varied from the latest technology and high-speed access to older machines with 14.4 kbs access speeds. Most used Internet Explorer but a number still used Netscape 3.0 browsers. For this audience the training had to be more than reference; it had to serve as a bridge to increase success as measured by increased sales. It had to grab the audience and keep them interested for hours at a time. The design had to reach out and strike the right cord with this audience or we would fail. I questioned myself more then once: Would online learning work? I felt that the right design could reach out and motivate this diverse global audience.

After a brain storming session with the client, we settled on a metaphoric design. The key features of this design included:

q      The trainee assumed the role of a new hire working for a new channel sales company. In this virtual role they had to rapidly come up to speed on product knowledge, then apply this knowledge in case studies. We all agreed that this would work regardless of geography.

q      Application case studies would be designed to span each product (two hours of content).

q      Practice and reinforcement would be achieved with customers who called, faxed, emailed information requests, etc. These practices were designed to help the channel sales representative generalize their knowledge and to appeal to the wide range of learners from this diverse global population.

We created a complex environment with eight “characters,” some management, coaches, and product experts. Each character had a unique personality and style. For example, their manager “Ann” was a philosopher and would coach the employee on the importance of continuing education to respond to rapid market changes. The channel partner in turn experienced the joy of meeting new friends, taking virtual breaks (in the game-like environment) and talking to others in a simulated work world.

Equally as important as the course design was the positioning of job aids. I realized that the knowledge base available to remote channel sales partners was a key component to achieve the goals. If they learned how to look up and find data in a role-play case study, they would be more likely to find data in the real world.

Now that we had an interesting design, could we execute it in a manner to ensure good performance even with lower access speeds, older equipment, and VGA monitors? The technology ended being a compromise between what I wanted and what the audience needed. Here are some ways user access and hardware affected design:

Each screen was designed for VGA resolution across but with Super VGA down. As a result, in some cases vertical scrolling was required but never horizontal.

We chose to design custom cartoon-style graphics for the characters, and used photos of the products highly treated in Photoshop to minimize their size. Our goal was a 10-15 second screen display. If longer, we made sure that text would appear quickly on the screen allowing users to have something to read as their graphic illustrations loaded more slowly. Now we had what we thought was a motivating design and a workable graphic treatment.

How did we deal with the massive size of this curriculum? There were over 100 products in 5 product families. This could potentially be over 200 hours of training materials. We asked ourselves, “What’s important?” We reduced the content of each module to what could be communicated to a customer in 60 seconds or less. Anything else was moved to performance support job aids.

During a six-month period we created 40 courses with over 25,000 pages of supporting job aids, configuration guides, check lists, electronic estimators, and competitive white papers. It has been over three years now; the curriculum is updated weekly, and continues to be used. This company views it as a competitive advantage.

The Rose: It’s the Little Things That Count

Administrative Assistants have a tough job. Their primary responsibility is to provide support for senior managers. Often this involves preparing detailed weekly reports for their managers to use at staff meetings. We needed to design an online hybrid program to help new hire Admins prepare reports using specialized software. The application we were teaching was quite a few years old. The organization had a 55% turnover rate in this position. I attributed this to mediocre compensation and a challenging learning curve. We couldn't do anything about the compensation but we could help with the learning.

We conducted a brainstorming session and decided on an office metaphor. We identified four characters that could participate as mentors. The results of the session led to the development of the blueprint (a planning document). As I read the draft, it became clear something was missing. How could we delight this audience? I knew we had a strong design, a metaphor the audience could relate to and photo characters that could be related to yet I was concerned.

It was about midnight and I called the one staff member I knew worked long hours and said, “Sandie something is missing. This design doesn’t work.” We asked ourselves what was the primary need of this audience. We concluded it was being appreciated. What could we do to show our appreciation? After an hour or more of banter, we finally settled on a rose with a bow on it. We would place it on the users’ virtual desktop with no indication of use. During beta testing, we found that the audience loved the rose. Over 98% clicked on it and up popped a personal note from the mentoring team thanking them and welcoming them to the job. Often, in design breakthroughs, little things make the difference. In this case, the rose was just one of those special things.

Software Training for Technical Audiences

Many people tell me that my design philosophies are great for sales training or large software rollouts for inexperienced end-users but for a highly technical audience they are a waste of time. Technical people don’t appreciate time-consuming case studies or role-plays.

We were asked to design a course for new systems administrators 100% of whom had prior computer experience and 50% had knowledge of similar systems. Again we asked the key questions: “What motivates this audience?” “Why do they get up every day and go to work?” “What is most frustrating for them?”

We concluded that System Administrators liked problem solving. They liked to figure things out on their own. We also discovered, through interviews they often feel unappreciated. While they were fixing problems, end-users were complaining that their systems were down, email didn’t work, they could not print, etc.

We wondered what would happen if we created a learning environment where learners could figure it out on their own, i.e., discovery learning. How about being appreciated for helping out?

The design incorporated a manager, Ann, and senior system analyst, Paul (mentor). Paul was overworked (this is a very common complaint) and needed someone to pitch in and help him. The learner received the main menu as a memo in the form of a welcome. It pointed out that they were to help Paul out by completing tasks listed on the memo.

Each lesson was introduced with the job tasks that the learner needed to complete and then asked them to log in and do that task such as add a printer, add a user or reconfigure the Kernel, etc. Using a pure discover-learning model, learner gave them feedback if they made a mistake; otherwise, the screen changed in a manner consistent with the software. We added a details button that provided a second level of content for the highly experienced users who wanted more, as well as a “page Paul” button for hints from Paul.

A lot of debate went into this design. The client had never heard of a design like this and was very concerned that the audience would be frustrated. We voted and the consensus was to go ahead with the design.

Prologue: About three months after the course was released to customers, I got a call from a trainer. He said he overhead them discussing one of the course scenarios, Kathy Smith a new user. He heard them say, “Kathy really appreciated their help.” The course worked.

Eric Parks, Ph.D. is President/CEO of ASK International. Parks is an international know eLearning philosopher. He has served as a contributing editor to Technology for Learning (a Billcom publication) for over 5 years and has been featured in many industry publications including Training Magazine, Online Learning Magazine and IOMA Reports. Contact him directly at or on the web at