Why is it that some online learning initiatives succeed, while others are destined to be desolate digital deserts of wasted time, effort and money? Is there a secret to great e-learning?

There are many experts, local and international, who weigh in on ‘the recipe for e-learning success’. We subscribe to their blogs, we attend their webinars and conference sessions, and we do our best to continually evolve our practice as we strive to deliver the absolute best for our customers.


We’ve experimented with new approaches and as you can imagine, we’ve had successes and failures and we’ve learned a whole lot. We’ve adopted and adapted the tools we’ve found useful, like Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping, and Michael Allen’s CCAF tool, and we’ve challenged established ‘upfront design’ paradigms such as ADDIE.

Through our experiences with our customers, we understand the challenges that face designers of traditional learning as they attempt to put new e-learning theories into practice.

With this in mind, we blended the best theories out there with our own experience of what works best in the field, to produce for you, our 7 Instructional Design Secrets for e-Learning Success:

  • Outcomes 1st, Technology 2nd
  • Measurability
  • Brevity
  • Hearts and Minds
  • Challenge
  • Feedback = Content
  • Know-how and Know-where

1. Outcomes 1st, Technology 2nd

Focus on what you need your learners to be doing when they go into the workplace and worry about how you’ll deliver that second.

Interview all the important stakeholders; Subject Matter Experts, frontline managers, star performers, your project sponsor and most importantly recent learners and new learners to ask them:
“What is it that we expect our learners to DO at the end of this training?”
“Why aren’t they doing this now?”

Your analysis of the context, not the content is the key. Look at your organisation’s problems rather than the PowerPoint.

People want to know how to do something. Often training is too focussed on theory and principles rather than the doing of your job. Learners, particularly if they’re at work, want ideas that are relevant to their current problems, not abstractions.  You can only discover the real issues to be tackled by you analysing the context, challenges and opportunities within your learners’ job.

You won’t find that in a PowerPoint. But it might be in your SME’s head.

At this stage, don’t worry about whether you’ll need an app or a wiki or an e-learning module. Leave that conundrum to future-you.

2. Measurable

Make sure that the outcome of your training is measurable. The secret to success for any eLearning deliverable is knowing what you want to achieve beforehand.

Talk with stakeholders to uncover any strategic initiatives going on in the business that you can align your project to. Your training should support business initiatives and make it easier for everyone in the organisation to reach for the goals being set. This practice not only shows value to your managers and leaders, but also means that your designs are more focussed on the performance outcomes you expect to see in your learners.

Performance outcomes require a focus on skill building, not information.

3. Brevity

There often isn’t a lot of space for e-learning on the screen or in our learners’ hearts.

In some organisations, poorly executed online learning has left a bad taste in the mouths of stakeholders and learners. Online learning units need to be as short as possible and focussed on one main idea. Anything more than this and your learners are going to struggle to cope or care. This mentality extends to content too. Eliminate all unnecessary detail.

If a learner genuinely wants more detail, supply it another way. e-Learning modules already have enough problems with screen real estate without trying to cram in supplementary information.

Build focussed scenarios that help each role in your organisation overcome the issues related to your topic, rather than catch-all mega-modules that are so cumbersome and bloated with information that you start to measure success by seat times.

4. Hearts and Minds

Get your learners’ attention upfront with a powerful and memorable moment that prompts a visceral reaction.

You’ve got to get them to care. Try to put yourself in your learner’s shoes:
What are the consequences to me? Do I lose the respect of my peers? Do I get fired? Do I have to stay back to fix my mistake? Do I lose out on getting that bonus so I can’t take my vacation to the Bahamas?

By identifying these personal consequences, you will create a meaningful context for your e-learning and for every interaction within it.

5. Challenge them

e-Learning success means taking a risk. Or rather, having your learners do so.

Allow your learners a chance to fail, and engage their brains! Don’t spoon feed them content, you need to encourage them to figure things out. This means taking off the training wheels and letting them fail.

To do this, include elements that act against your learner. Whether that be time, difficult customers or annoying co-workers, identify what challenges in the workplace are preventing the smooth implementation of your desired outcomes.

Identifying the challenges can help you shape the format of the e-learning or even provide inspiration for a gamified interaction.

6. Feedback = Content

Wherever you can, consider how you might work your content into the feedback sections of your interactions.

Think back to tip 5. Present feedback as a narrative that describes the consequences of the decision made by the learner as they happen in real life. Avoid describing how they misapplied the content, let them discover that.

This helps your learners to understand how knowing this information beforehand could have helped. You’ll struggle to overcome any resistance to change in the learner without giving them the awareness and desire to do so.

It also provides an easy way to ensure that learners only get ‘content’ when they demonstrate the need for it. If I can successfully negotiate a process, there is no need to tell me anything at all, however if I make a mistake, that’s an opportunity to provide small chunks of content.

7. Know-how and Know-where

The importance of training is in showing people how to do their job. They also need to know where to go in order to find out more, or even to review the same content, once the training is over.

Often, e-learning projects are centred around materials that are available in other locations, such as your Intranet.

Don’t reinvent the wheel; instead of trying to put this material into the e-learning, show your learners where it is. Get them to use it like a cheat sheet to solve your e-learning challenge.

Well, there you have it – 7 Instructional Design Secrets to help you make e-learning loved by learners and leaders alike. We hope you’ve found some value here and it helps you to create challenging interactions and a demonstrable impact on your organisation.

And we’re always here to help. :)


Cath Ellis, 20 April, 2009

Cathy Moore, 10 June 2013

Clive Shepard, 30th April 2009

Christoper Pappas, 14 October 2014

Instructional Design