Category Archives: Design Within Constraints

The Ideal Solution

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How can you be sure that your solution is the aligned with the business outcome? What is the business outcome?  Furthermore, what is the root problem that is preventing the business outcome from being achieved?

There is a way to find out. When stakeholders come to you requesting training, like the characters in this video, use the PRIMED framework to ask questions that will reveal the business outcome and the root problem.


For instance, when a stakeholder requests customer service training, avoid asking a question that focuses on the assumed solution, “What kind of training do you want?” Rather, ask something like, “What first brought this need to your attention?” (Initial Indicator) Help the stakeholder think about the why behind the training. “Can you tell me a story that’s happening in the call center that illustrates the need for training?” (Real Stories), or “Is there anything in the workplace that could be distracting them from giving good customer service?” (Distractions)

As you listen to their answers, look for a measurable business outcome (customer satisfaction scores, increase in sales) and the root problem (staff is so overwhelmed by paperwork that they can’t focus on giving good customer service, sales people lack business acumen). Once these are identified, take the information the stakeholder gives you and use your KSA filter to determine the ideal solution.

KSA Filter.png

If the root problem is a work environment or process issue (like staff being so overwhelmed by paperwork that they cannot deliver quality customer service), then the solution is to fix the process (repair broken systems, streamline processes, eliminate inefficiencies). Training is not the solution for these root problems. If, however, the issue lies on the right side of the filter, then the stakeholder who is asking for training is correct…training can affect the problem.

It’s important to identify what kind of training solution is needed: Knowledge, Skills or Attitudes, or a combination of these three.

Can the learner perform the desired behavior successfully if they are given a little guidance? If so, it’s probably a KNOWLEDGE solution. Often a job aid or visual guide accompanying the training will help learners change their behaviors without too much trouble.

Is it reasonable to think that learners can perform the required action without practice? If not, you’re dealing with a SKILL. Your training solution needs to include practice doing the skills learners are expected to do on the job.

Are learners asking “Why do we need to change the way we are doing this? The other way was easier!” Do they feel like their performance has no impact on the entire process? This is an ATTITUDE solution, which should explain the importance of the new actions they are being asked to do, the benefits to the learner, and an understanding of how they fit into the bigger picture.

Pump your stakeholder for answers that reveal the business outcome and root problem. Use your KSA filter. Offer them a solution that will actually work!


“I Don’t Have Time To Storyboard!”

Storyboard house 1

This guy is really happy with his new home. He hired an architect, who designed it just as he envisioned. Apparently, this dude likes symmetry.

Storyboard house 2

His neighbor is not so happy. The builders just showed up and started building. The builders have a lot of re-work to do.

When a homeowner decides to build, they hire an architect, who designs something according to their wishes. The architect passes that design on to the contractor, who hires subcontractors. The house is built according to design and the homeowner is happy.

Similarly, the stakeholder in a training intervention hires an instructional designer to design a course according to their specifications. The instructional designer passes their design to the developer and the support team to create the course accordingly. The stakeholder is happy and the learning intervention is successful.

Storyboard Compare 2
Thanks to Kevin Thorn of Nuggethead Studioz for the house / course analogy.

What do the architect and the instructional designer have in common? The architect produces a blueprint. Likewise, the instructional designer creates a STORYBOARD!

The storyboard is like a blueprint for course-building. Without it, the stakeholder does not have a clear picture of what the final will look like and the likelihood of changes in the development phase increases.

A storyboard helps the designer spot problems before development begins and decreases the likelihood of an irate stakeholder who is asking you to rebuild their house.

Yet even with all of the benefits of storyboarding, few instructional designers actually do it. “I’m the designer and the developer.” “I don’t really know how.” And, of course, “I don’t have time.”

Storyboarding is a skill–a fairly simple one–that, if mastered, will save you a load of time. And it really doesn’t take that long to create a storyboard. Even if you are a one-person training department, resist the urge to put on your developer hat before the design is complete. It will save you countless hours of needless work.

I’ll share more on storyboarding techniques, but I’d like to hear some of your best practices, or frustrations, with storyboarding. Let me know in the comments!


High-Flying Constraints: Design Constraints For Learners


Picture 6-10 229 Small

We’ve talked about designing WITHIN constraints, but let’s talk about designing FOR constraints. And I’d like to start with the story behind the above picture. It’s a model plane that my 9-year-old son built. When my wife bought it for him, she thought it was going to be relatively easy to put together. Imagine her surprise when they opened up the box and found these instructions…and strips of raw of balsa wood in the box. Picture 6-10 240 Small

Tiny, almost cryptic, words written by someone who struggled with the English language. Despite the diagram, I couldn’t decipher the steps I needed to take to build the airplane. I recognized some wheels, a propeller, and a cockpit, but not much else in the box resembled a plane. My son, however, studied the instructions, cut the pieces out of balsa wood, cemented the strips together in a frame shaped like a plane and covered the frame with tissue. He used this stuff called “dope” to make the tissue stick to the frame and spritzed the tissue with water; when the water dried, it made the tissue taut and durable. Even more amazing than the fact that he waded through the sea of unclear instructions, is that the plane actually flies!

As designers of learning, clarity is on our minds a lot. Is my language clear? Do the visuals clearly support the content? Does the learner know what to do next? Is the screen cluttered? That’s why it’s important to construct constraints for the learner from the beginning.

In his blog, “Creativity: How Constraints Drive Genius“, David Stuart quotes renowned architect, Frank Gehry: “It’s better to have some problem to work on. I think we turn those constraints into action.”

Matthew May closes his blog, “How Intelligent Constraints Drive Creativity“, with this conclusion: “An intelligent constraint informs creative action by outlining the “sandbox” within which people can play and guides that action not just by pointing out what to pursue but perhaps more importantly what to ignore.” He also outlines a study on constraints you may find interesting.

When Stuart talks of constraints “driving genius” and May concludes that constraints “drive creativity”, they are really talking about critical thinking. And both lead to action. Isn’t that what we are trying to achieve through our design of learning? Performance objectives are actions the learner must be able to do to perform their job well.

Are we making it too easy for learners? What do you think? There’s something to be said for the cryptic instructions inside my son’s model airplane box. He may not end up being an aeronautical engineer, but the critical thinking involved is invaluable.

Here’s some ideas for your next project:

  • Leave some information out so the learner is confronted with what they do not know, and provide ways in which they can figure it out on their own.
  • Add a puzzle element to the learning.
  • Introduce mystery into the course.

Designing for constraints may not be natural for designers of learning, but its adoption may be the very thing our learners need to really soar.

DESIGN within constraints

Three Design Principles

Design With the Learner In Mind  DESIGN an experience  DESIGN within constraints

If you would like to get a feel for my BIG PICTURE view of design and learning, check out these three basic design principles. Most of the topics discussed in this blog will relate to one of these three principles.

Design Within Constraints

DESIGN within constraints

This principle–designing within constraints–has two prongs. One for the designer and one for the learner. Let’s start with design.

At The Ohio State University, where I studied choreography, Vera (Vicki) Blaine, the chair of the department, taught the first class in dance composition for all incoming graduate students. It was a tough class. Vicki set such specific perameters around our movement quality and composition that, at first, it seemed unreasonable. I had to work for hours to master the kind of movement quality she was looking for. But it set the creative stage for an incredibly fulfilling education in choreography.

What does this have to do with learning? Everything actually. Vicki Blaine was teaching students how to set constraints for themselves in such a way that forced a creative response. Recently, I attended a workshop with Kevin Thorn (NuggetHead Stuidoz), an amazing artist and designer who landed in the Learning Development field (lucky for us). He gave similar advice concerning constraints. “Design something with only 3 colors. Design a course without audio.” In other words, design within constraints.

But how do you come up with constraints without them seeming contrived? You may not have to look very far to find your constraints. Client only wants you to use PowerPoint for eLearning? Stakeholders want to throw the kitchen sink in along with the rest of their content? Legal won’t budge on modifying language? Management wants to cut down on the time you have to present training? We’ll talk about that in another blog. Suffice it to say that some constraints are out of your control. But even these barriers should be viewed as constraints not hinderances to design, because constraints force a creative response. Beyond the outside constraints or setting your own restrictions on the project, how do you define the constraints from project to project? Ask yourself these questions to narrow down your constraints:

  • What design skills do I want to deepen? Story-telling, authoring tool skills, dialogue, audio editing?
  • Where am I challenged the most in the design process? Developing the script, getting to know the learners, choosing color schemes and fonts, creating visuals,?
  • How can I tailor this experience to fit the specific needs of the learners? Language level, case studies, training environment? 

Need to deepen your story-telling skills? The constraint may be to include an element of story-telling in every subtopic of learning. Challenged most by script development? The constraint may be to present a portion of the script using audio only, such as a podcast, instead of relying on your strengths in visual design to help propel the script development forward. Need to cut out legalese and make the course more readable? The constraint may be to reach a determined Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level.

Constraints force a creative response…for both the design process and for learning. I’ll talk more about constraints for learners in a future blog.

In the mean time, I’d like to hear how you place constraints on your design.