Elearning Design Process

Harnessing The Elearning Design Process: How To Create Highly Effective Elearning Scenarios In 4 Simple Stages

Dear soon-to-be-elearning-juggernaut,

You’re going to find this elearning design process practical.

Very practical.

It’s a process I, myself have had to try to remember over and over. So I guess it’s fair to say I wrote this for me as well as for you. It’s a process you CANNOT afford to forget. In simple terms, you have to…

Separate The Vital Stages
From The Trivial Activities

Basically, you just gotta know where you’re at in the scenario design process (and then what to focus on.) And, it seems to me, that alone translates to at least two benefits: (1) you’re happier by avoiding decision fatigue; and (2) stakeholders are no longer fumbling in the dark.

Even though I’ve designed many many elearning courses… and… I seem to got it all “figured out”… I still get bewildered by scenario design as much as the next guy.

That’s why the goal here is to see the big picture from the 30,000 foot view,…and get grounded in the core fundamentals. (On more than a few occasions, I drop to 10,000 feet to point out specific strategies.)

Now, before I go on, I feel I should answer a couple questions that I think you may be thinking:

Question #1: What about a timeline? How long will development take?

Here’s the thing: Don’t set a specific time frame — only because elearning projects are a collaboration, so you don’t have control over the deadline.

You see, almost certainly, Subject Matter Expert’s and Stakeholder’s will be trying to juggle the elearning project, with their “real” job. Therefore, expect them to be the bottleneck and not the developers.

Just remember that hitting each of your milestone dates will depend on your communication latency (and other factors outside of your control.)

Question #2: What about quality? What will the end product look like?

That entirely depends on how sexy you want it.

The process I am going to teach you can be easily applied to creating an interactive graphic novel experience, a response-provoking interactive video experience… or…. even an eloquent sequence of story-driven multiple choice questions.

It’s wise to do two things: 1. Make yourself a collection (a “swipe file”) of good elearning in a wide variety of technical styles… and… 2. Get to know the “reason why” your stakeholders need elearning scenarios. Ask ’em “Why?” three times to get to the real root of the problem. (You might discover that a grand, elaborate elearning scenario may not be the solution.)

I hope those explanations are clear, but, if you’re not satisfied, simply send me an email and I’ll try to make it more clear.

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”
— Albert Einstein

Alright, now, after all this you should be ready to start the process. Here’s how to create elearning scenarios from scratch:


Discover big business impact.
Mine every hidden resource and overlooked opportunity.
Uncover how elearning scenarios fit in the larger learning context.
Get maximum performance and maximum yield.


Regardless of whether we’ve agreed on elearning or not, we need to do a Learning Goals Session (LGS).

A LGS establishes business value by answering, “How are we going to measure success?”


A business metric at the organizational level. For example:

  • We want to reduce injuries at the DuPont, Washington, Amazon Fulfillment Center, by 15%, by next year.
  • We want all North American adidas District Managers to improve their 360 reviews by 10%, by the end of the 2nd quarter.

Later, we draw out specific situations from a Subject Matter Expert (SME) that will change our metric, impact it, and,…give us our desired result.


The LGS helps us deliver a solution that really adds value. That is to say, support people in performing the kinds of behaviors that actually impact the organization.

It also gets us to think about how elearning scenarios fit in the context of the company—stressing that it needs to be part of, integrated, and marketed as a piece of a larger overall learning initiative.

When we understand how our scenarios fit in the bigger context, we can be more focused. That’s because we can’t solve all the problems, only specific problems.


What happens is, our elearning attempts to solve too many problems instead of addressing specific performance problems.

A LGS is a proven way to increase the odds of designing a winning elearning module that supports a bigger learning initiative.


(1) Stakeholders (usually at the Director level)
(2) Instructional Designer (ID) / Performance Consultant*

*The ID works with the Stakeholders to extract a vision and, will convey that vision to the creative team.


Getting a SME to give us the right information to develop elearning scenarios is very simple and complex.

The simple part involves taking our metric from the LGS, and asking,“Okay, how are we going to impact this? What behaviors will make this happen?”

The goal is to come up with a list of problem situations, which will make our scenarios tightly focused on impacting the business metric.


In the first meeting, the ID helps the SME understand what kind of information they need to give us, and, how it will translate into elearning.

This is what the process looks like:

  1. The ID meets with the SME to identify behaviors – or characteristics of a person – that impact our metric, ie., the formula from our LGS.
    1. As the ID does this, she will take notes on everything pertinent. Take notes on everything interesting. Take notes on things that pop into her head.
  2. Afterwards, the ID will generate high-level ideas about situations somebody would have to practice, and writes up a few rough scenarios based on her extensive notes.
  3. And then, the ID reviews with the SME while making them feel comfortable about giving feedback, and critiquing.
  4. The process is repeated three or four times to hone a scene to perfection.

Overall, the ID challenges a lot of assumptions, and attempts to figure out the real reasons actions aren’t performed properly.**


(1) ID / Performance Consultant
(2) Subject Matter Expert
(3) Novice (optional)

**Most people believe training is the solution. But is it? For example, an expert ID may figure out people are motivated and knowledgeable, but lack resources or proper performance support.

Elearning Design Process. You are here.
“The best ideas start as conversations.” — Jonathan Ive


Draft situations.
Propose potential software solution (depending on the type of situations and learning goals).
Quick review of project potential.


In Stage 01 we generated a business metric and a solid list of situations we should tackle.

Next, we carefully go over each one and define our target audience.

We need to make sure which group isn’t executing properly because our scenarios need to be relevant to their unique needs.


We send the solution to the wrong people.

For example: It would be a serious error if we believe the solution is relevant to front line workers, if, in fact, the SME Deep Dive points us in the direction of management (where the real performance issue is).


(1) Stakeholders
(2) ID / Performance Consultant


We will reverse-engineer the scenarios to provide unique moments of decision (and reflection).

Quite simply, we specify how the elearning will behave, and how the learner will interact with the learning experience.


We have settled on some innovative “Ah ha!” moments of reflection, choice and forced decision, and a template to structure the scenarios.

We’re now able to confidently recommend how to proceed with working examples.


The ID and Creative Lead begin mapping scenarios to a prototype and drafting a narrative (for the project’s specific context.)

What we are going to discover is the simulations that will facilitate and encourage someone to learn.

Please keep in mind the prototype is functional, but general. Which means, there’s nothing to critique, other than a basic interactive choice mechanic, rough narrative thread and maybe the editorial tone.


(1) ID / Performance Consultant
(2) Creative Lead


We have an informal review of the enormous potential of pursuing the project and, to keep aware to the possibilities of overlooked performance improvements.


The ID will keep Stakeholders aware of the important items gathered and show how it all relates to performance improvement.

The business metric has given everyone laser-sharp focus… plus… with contextual scenarios targeted to the right audience, the Stakeholder not only gets an idea of the viability of this project but also, they’ll see overlooked opportunities and undervalued possibilities!


(1) Business Council (optional)
(2) Stakeholders (and usually at the Director level)
(3) Instructional Designer / Performance Consultant


“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”
― Stephen King

This is the last stage before development iterations.


O.K., after we have rearranged all our scenarios so they conform to a narrative thread, we go deeper into storytelling, bring characters to life, edit and, in general, tighten up our script.


Everyone nods in agreement that we got the brevity and details to keep our audience completely engaged.… and, most importantly, everyone is super happy with the learning outcomes (along the journey) and moments of reflection.


We collaborate in a simple Google Doc which is formatted to mimic the prototype. It also includes some guidelines for writing effective elearning scenarios.

This way we have the ability to see the entire narrative from beginning to end, and also, easily judge if it flows properly.

Here’s how we do it: First, we work backwards from a desired outcome, i.e., “How does this end?” Next, we make sure each optimal consequence, moment of reflection, and story point fits into the context of that outcome.


(1) Creative Lead
(2) Instructional Designer / Performance Consultant
(3) Writer  (optional)


The Creative Lead will go back and forth to a prototype to test concepts and, also, to see if the things in the script actually work in elearning. They’ll take the prototype, refine it… and include written notes explaining to the team what is taking place.

This is to confirm whether or not things fit and play out as expected.


Feedback on a functional minimal viable product (MVP), which must include thoughts on user experience and visual communication.


Before we get to the creative bit we love, there are a few other things we should consider. The most important is the element that makes training, and particularly elearning, so powerful. That is, our scenarios are contextual, compelling and deliver deep moments of reflection.

Basically, what we want is confirmation we have the right learning outcome before we go heavy on to graphics, interaction, and game elements.


We got our cake. Now we add the icing!


Alpha is about getting working software out to end users to test.


Our graphic designer has produced ideas, concepts and illustrations… and we’ve plopped them into our module. (The elearning is published and available to experience.)


Our scenarios, design elements, and moments of reflection—choice and forced decision—are now integrated into working software.

The cool thing about having the alpha is, we can get feedback from users and if something is not clear, we will know and can make it clear.

We’ll know exactly what to tighten up and incorporate in the beta build.


We can now see the finish line!

Beta is about incorporating feedback from our Alpha users for a final round of approvals.

We quickly tighten up and improve design and engagement elements of every scenario.


If we did everything right in pre-alpha, alpha, and beta, gold is just trivial details to boost results!

It’s so small some users may not even notice a difference—we simply optimize.

The end.

P.S. Like this process? Sign up for my newsletter and get elearning design tips in your inbox every Monday morning.

P.P.S. Oh, yeah… one more thing. You should also know veteran performance consultant, Anna Sabramowicz, vetted and reality-checked each stage of this process.  Check out her site — AnnaSabramowicz.com — when you get a moment.

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