Blog Post

Workplace Instructional Design is All About Finding the “Sweet Spot” of Business Goals, Performance Needs, and Learner Needs

Robyn Hazelton
September 22, 2022
a person staring at a large computer with text and images

In simplest terms, workplace instructional design (ID) is the systematic design of educational content and training materials for employees, customers, or partners to meet the needs of both the learner and the business. 

There are many models and frameworks for instructional design, but one of the most used is the ADDIE Model of Instructional Design. It has five steps:

  1. Analyze
  2. Design
  3. Develop
  4. Implement
  5. Evaluate

To create content that drives the desired outcomes, instructional designers must understand:

  • Business goals (what the organization wishes to achieve)
  • Performance needs (what learners must gain to perform at the desired level)
  • Learner needs (what the learner wants to get out of the educational experience)

They must then find that “sweet spot” in the middle where all three overlap. Only then can they design and develop content to move learners from point A (current state) to point B (desired state).

A venn diagram with three circles - business goals, learner's needs, and performance needs. The intersection says 'sweet spot'.

If you’re new to instructional design—or workplace instructional design—this article will give you a high-level look at:

We’ve also compiled some of our favorite resources for those who are new to instructional design. (If you have a favorite resource you think we should add, please let us know!)

The Origins of Instructional Design

“Instructional design as a methodology has its roots in World War II, although learning the psychology behind it had been around for a long time by then,” says Jordan Hopkins, Education Program Manager at Intellum. “[Commanders] wanted to find an efficient way to train military members. They wanted to systematically build training.” 

In 1965, psychologist Robert Gagné, Ph.D. developed one of the earliest systematic approaches to instructional design: Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction. Notably, he believed that “instructional events” must be strategically arranged in the right format and sequence. 

A diagram showing Gagné’s Nine Events of Instruction:  Gaining attention Informing the learner of the objective Stimulating recall of prerequisite learning Presenting the stimulus material Providing learning guidance Eliciting the performance Providing feedback Assessing the performance Enhancing retention and transfer

Across the 1950s and ‘60s, several renowned psychologists helped shape the discipline of instructional design, including:

Nowadays, people usually use the phrases Instructional Design, Learning Design, and Learning Experience Design interchangeably. Another term, instructional systems design (ISD), typically refers to more systematic methods for designing learning (like Gagné’s Nine Events or the Dick and Carey Model).

There’s yet another category of instructional design approaches, which is considered more “agile.” Examples include the Successive Approximation Model (SAM) and Rapid Prototyping

Regardless, all of these instructional design models and approaches are meant to put the learner’s needs first, and to follow a systematic approach to create efficient and effective learning experiences. 

Analyzing Goals and Needs to Find the “Sweet Spot” 

Our 2022 Organizational Education report found that the No. 1 organizational education challenge is that “learners abandon training midway through.” There are many reasons why a learner might abandon training, however, a common reason is poor content quality. 

Reasons why a learner might abandon training, however, a common reason is poor content quality Learners abandon training midway through - 28%, we struggle to deliver high quality training to every learner 22%, we are manually maintaining course & certification competition records - 22% , employees leave and knowledge leaves with them 21%, we're not set up to educate multiple audiences, 15%, we don;'t have enough content, 13%, we don't have the resources to invest in a high quality platform, 13%, we don't have a system for organizing our content well 11%

A common reason for poor content quality is skipping straight to content creation. 

“Bad instructional design begins with content first,” Hopkins says. “Finding a bunch of content and throwing it at learners without thinking about what those learners need.”

Good instructional design, on the other hand, begins with a training needs analysis. This is a systematic process of identifying and assessing gaps, or needs, of a specific audience to develop effective training. If training is relevant and helpful, abandonment is less of an issue.

If you’re using The Intellum Methodology™, the training needs analysis is part of Step One: Research.

“When I’m doing a needs analysis, I look to see which questions customers ask most on our forums, in our Evolve LinkedIn community, on Reddit, etc. I have conversations with employees. I run surveys. I look at common support requests sent in by customers,” Hopkins says. “Together, these give me a sense of what people need to learn most.” 

Additionally, instructional designers should talk to people within the organization to uncover the biggest friction points in terms of adoption. You can ask questions like:

  • Is the sign-on process difficult? 
  • Is there a certain feature users get hung up on? 
  • Does the product need an in-context tool tip?

“Through a needs analysis, instructional designers should look at the business goals, performance needs, and, most importantly, learner needs,” Hopkins says. “Then find that sweet spot in the middle where all three overlap.”

This concept of the overlapping sweet spot is common in Design Thinking. “Sharon Boller and Laura Fletcher’s book ‘Design Thinking For Training and Development’ inspired my thoughts on this and is a good read for any ID professional,” Hopkins adds.

Exactly how do you find the sweet spot? Let’s use the example of firefighter training:

a venn diagram of business goals decrease response time from six minutes to five minutes, learner's eeds feel more confident in my role, ensure my personal safety, performance needs understand equipment needs understand how to quickly move from the firehouse to the fire site, middle sweet spot competency how to reach the fire site within five minutes safely

Focusing on the sweet spot ensures learner engagement because learners can see that the training is worth their time and effort. There’s something in it for them

The sweet spot also increases the odds that the content will drive the desired behaviors — which can in turn drive desired business outcomes ranging from increased course completions to increased revenue.

Designing Solutions to Meet Goals and Needs

Let’s look again at our firefighter training example. The firehouse needs its employees to gain competence in one key area: they must know how to safely reach the fire site in five minutes. But companies can’t throw all the information at learners at once. (This is especially true for employees who are new to the job — and customers who are new to using your product.)

“You don’t want to have someone read a 20-page manual or watch a 20-minute training video,” Hopkins says. “They’ll have cognitive overload and won't retain as much information.”

Instead, break learning competencies into sub-competencies, also known as performance outcomes, learning tasks, or objectives. For example, “going down the pole quickly and safely” is one sub-competency. “Having your uniform ready to go” is another.

“When I design learning, I use Intellum’s Evolve content authoring tool to segment content and create learning paths in digestible chunks,” Hopkins says. “Instead of a 20-minute video, I’ll have four 5-minute videos, and I’ll ask some follow-up questions so learners can think and reflect in between.”

firefighter training with segmenting or 'chunking' - compentency: how to reach the fire site in five minutes safety, sub competency going down the fire pole quickly and safely, have your uniform ready to go, driving the fire truck to the fire site

Segmenting content provides learners with a chance to rest and make connections with what they already know. Grounding new information in a known context is critical. 

“Adults need timely, valuable information,” Hopkins says. “Content has to be well thought out and connected to their context — where they're working and how they’re working.” For example, if you have many customers that allow their teams to work remotely, you don’t want all of your educational training content to reflect an office setting. 

Hopkins also relies on backwards planning to inform instructional design.

“Our newer customer success managers needed practice doing certain actions in the software,” Hopkins says. “We developed different criteria of things they need to do on the job, then we backwards planned on how to get them there.” 

A big part of instructional design involves having users rehearse new skills in a context very similar to what they’ll have to do on the job. This is why firefighters don’t simply watch a training video; they practice in a controlled environment with heavy equipment on, under pressure, and in high heat.

“We’ve been developing a hands-on training that’s all about rehearsing new skills,” Hopkins says. “We have short micro videos, short practice activities, short live sessions — a mix of learning formats is what we thought was best.”

Factors that might determine format:

  • How much time is available
  • What kind of content people engage with most. 
  • Audience preferences
Engagement metrics: How many people are logging into the software? Using it regularly? When are they bouncing?  Certification equity: Are people able to pass it? You can make a certification but if no one can pass it, it’s probably not equitable or fair.   Completions: Are people completing the work? What is your drop-off rate?  Sentiment: What reactions have you received from customer surveys? Reviews?  Cold zones: What’s not being clicked on? What’s not helping?  Questions: What questions do people ask most often in forums, communities, or your knowledge base?

Developing Solutions and Creating Content

Although educational content can come in many formats—from videos and podcasts to blog posts and certifications—there are two primary buckets for educational content in the workplace:

  1. Formal Learning: This is all about the company delivering learning via curriculum, courses, scheduled webinars, classrooms, training, compliance, etc. 
  2. Informal Learning: Also called social learning, this is all about learners’ crowdsourcing knowledge via social media, conversations, forums, chats, email, and work intranets. 

Highly-successful customer education programs include both formal and informal learning. 

The Intellum Organizational Education Platform allows Hopkins to not only create segmented learning paths, but also incorporate elements of social engagement and community. Research shows that having some elements of social constructivism — where you give people a chance to make meaning of their learning in a community environment — is better than doing it in silos. 

“Our whole social platform is built in,” Hopkins says. “People can chat and ask questions, which enables peer-to-peer learning instead of just instructor-to-peer learning. This gives more value to the learner, and it also reduces some of the support load!”

Implementing and Delivering Content

After the content is created, it’s time to implement the education initiative and deliver the content. Delivery is the presentation of discussions, demonstrations, and exercises or activities that will help learners gain the required knowledge or skills required to perform a task or learn a subject. 

Delivery methods include:

  • Instructor-led training: When an instructor facilitates a training session for a group of learners or an individual learner
  • Virtual instructor-led training: Allows for learners to learn virtually 
  • E-learning: A structured course or learning experience delivered electronically 
  • Mobile learning: Training on-the-go in the form of microlearning, short how-to videos, social learning, and other engagement formats
  • Blended learning: Leverages a combination of approaches

“At Intellum, we prefer a blended learning approach,” Hopkins says. “It’s a mix of live training and asynchronous learning they can do on their own. This meets the needs of learners who prefer hands-on support as well as those who are really busy and prefer to squeeze in learning when they can. Also, think of your power users. Often they prefer to watch a 3-second video to upskill then get back to work.”

You might not be creating net new content but rather making the best use of existing content. Say you have multiple methods for onboarding, including a training session with a customer success manager, help articles, and on-demand videos. The instructional designer’s job is to determine:

How do customers navigate through these? 

How do these training materials connect to one another?
When do we point a customer to one instead of another?

As you might imagine, the aesthetics of your learning environment contribute to the success of the program, so UX must be a factor when implementing and delivering content. 

In an episode of Underscore, we sat down with Nick Fabiano of Twitter, who talked through the expectations, challenges, and realities of completing a UX refresh of Twitter Flight School.

Evaluating effectiveness

Be sure to evaluate your instructional design using summative and formative assessments throughout the process.

Hopkins notes one con of the ADDIE Model: Evaluation comes last. 

“Evaluation should happen all the time,” he says. “Start formative evaluation as soon as possible. When we designed our new training, I had a very basic outline. I shared it with people to see if I was on the right track before I developed anything further.”

At Intellum, we like to think of measurement as falling into three maturity levels:

Novice performance measurement

Novice performance measurement is focused on learner engagement. Metrics include registrations, enrollments, and completions (of a given course, webinar, etc.). While this is basic reporting, it’s important. You need this foundation to achieve more mature levels of performance measurement.

Competent performance measurement

Competent performance measurement is focused on content efficacy. Metrics include assessments, learner perception, and behavior change. This type of measurement shows us how effective the content was. If you remember, instructional design seeks to drive behavior change. This goes far beyond whether or not a course was engaging. 

Expert performance measurement

Expert performance measurement is focused on business impact. Metrics include outcomes and ROI of the training material. For example, if you trained your customers on how to use a specific product feature, you’ll want to measure how often they use it, and whether that usage led to any positive business outcomes (e.g., are they using the platform more?).

A helpful model instructional designers can use to measure the effectiveness of their workplace education program is the Kirkpatrick Model. It measures proficiency across four levels: 

a triangle detailing the kirkpatrick model

The most impactful parts of Kirkpatrick’s model are levels three and four where knowledge has transferred and change has occurred. 

If you’re using The Intellum Methodology™, evaluating effectiveness is part of Step Seven: Measurement.

Interested In An Instructional Design Career?

Or curious where your current instructional design role could lead you someday? 

There are lots of possibilities. 

Some instructional designers focus on designing curriculum (typically courses and certifications). Others focus on creating content using tools like Intellum’s Evolve Authoring, Camtasia, Adobe Captivate, or Articulate 360. Some even deliver live training. 

“In my current role, I do all parts of ADDIE,” says Hopkins. “As an ex-classroom teacher and school curriculum designer, I’m very comfortable doing all stages.” However, as a company’s training needs become more complex, it can help to have team members niche down. “Being a good live trainer is a whole skillset in itself,” Hopkins adds.

“As an ex-classroom teacher and school curriculum designer, I’m very comfortable doing all stages of ADDIE in my current role.” - Jordan Hopkins, Education Program Manager at Intellum

Or, if you’re interested in exploring how to use Intellum as part of your Instructional Design efforts, we’re always happy to chat. Connect with us.

About the Author

Robyn Hazelton headshot
Robyn Hazelton
Vice President of Marketing and Growth
Robyn is the VP of Marketing and Growth at Intellum and helps to ensure that every interaction an individual has with the brand is as awesome as possible. An experienced and trusted leader with a history of consistently impacting revenue, she's always talking about funnel management and biased toward action.