You are here:

Request a Demo Contact Us

Can Just Anyone Do ID? With Frank Troha and Bob Little [L&D Insights Podcast]

Rachel Salaman 

August 28, 2015

If you need to create a training course, what’s the best way to go about it?

Should you break out the PowerPoint and put together a 50-slide face-to-face seminar? Could you get up to speed with some of the latest “rapid authoring tools” and build your own e-learning course? Or would it be worth investing in the services of an instructional design (ID) expert? Which will deliver the most effective learning experience and how can you tell? In this podcast, we hear from U.S. instructional designer Frank Troha and U.K. corporate learning and PR specialist Bob Little.

Listen to the full 30-minute interview below, then use the Comments section to tell us: what does Instructional Design mean to you, and what questions would you like answered?

Install Flash Player.

Interview Transcript

Rachel Salaman: Welcome to this edition of L&D Insights from Mind Tools. I’m Rachel Salaman. In this podcast we’re going to be digging down into instructional design with two experts in the field. One is Frank Troha, a highly experienced provider of instructional design services to leading global organizations including Pfizer, Colgate-Palmolive, PepsiCo, Merrill Lynch, PricewaterhouseCoopers, and Google. The other is Bob Little, a PR and corporate learning specialist based in the U.K. He’s the author of numerous books and articles including a series of blog posts on instructional design which you can read elsewhere on this blog. Welcome to you both.

Bob Little: Thank you.

Frank Troha: Thank you.

Rachel Salaman: Now let’s start with definitions. Bob, what is instructional design?

Bob Little: It’s taking a piece of content that is going to be seen and learnt and whatever by a very wide range of people who you, the producer of that content, don’t really know. You don’t know anything very much about them: you don’t know what their learning preferences are, you don’t know what they already know before they do the learning. So you’ve got to find a way of engaging them, and getting them to learn what they need to learn in the best possible way, and that’s what instructional design does. It’s something, which if it’s done well, it really does show a huge impact in the organizational bottom line because people will be more productive.

Rachel Salaman: Frank, what’s your definition?

Frank Troha: Well, it’s really quite different because I believe that instructional design, if it’s done properly, asks the right questions upfront and prevents a lot of problems from occurring down the road. So here’s how I define it anyway. Instructional design is a systematic or step-by-step approach to the design of a learning experience.

It begins with an analysis of the learning need and it ends with a design document or blueprint of the learning experience. The output of the design process is either a design document, and sometimes it is referred to as a blueprint, and that is used to guide the development of the actual course or learning experience. And it could be a classroom course, it could be e-learning, it could be blended learning, it could be a small component of a particular course or it could be the entire curriculum.

In other words, instructional design, it’s systematic, it’s rigorous, you go step by step and in doing so you identify the overarching goal of the course, who your audience is, what they like, what they don’t like in terms of instruction. You identify constraints, you think about an evaluation strategy to determine whether or not your audience has learned what they should learn, and a whole variety of things.

And if you do this upfront, odds are you are going to end up with an excellent learning experience for your target audience. So not so much is left to chance, you are not designing something generic and hope that it’s going to work. No, more often than not you are designing something that’s quite specific and it will work because you’ve done the proper work upfront.

Rachel Salaman: So Frank, you’ve worked on numerous instructional design projects. Can you give us an example from your experience that helps us understand what you’ve just been saying?

Frank Troha: Well I’ll take for example the design and development of a marketing and sales training curriculum for a leading accounting firm. Going back and thinking about this particular project, I sat down with the project manager who also happened to be the director of marketing and sales – he was a managing partner in the firm. And I walked him through the process that I use in designing and developing training. We spoke initially at a high level and I asked questions along the lines of, “Tell me how you would express the purpose of this curriculum, who was the audience?” (The audience was to be made up of managing partners.) “What exactly do the managing partners need to come away with as a result of completing the curriculum?” I asked a lot of questions in that vein.

As a result I was able to come back to my client and share with him how I perceived the courses that would make up this particular curriculum. I was using instructional design at a very high level at that point and it worked very well, so the instructional design process was very helpful in terms of scoping out the curriculum itself at the curriculum level.

Then as time went on I was drilling down into the courses themselves and there again I would ask, “OK, on this particular course that has to do with building and using a network of contacts, what exactly do we need the managing partners to come away with? What do we want them to know, what do we want them to be able to do as a result of completing this particular course?” So it goes from macro down to micro basically, it’s the same process basically that’s been applied. So in other words instructional design should be a very scalable process.

Rachel Salaman: And in that process, the people that are involved in creating the instruction, if you like, the course, could they all be called instructional designers? From you as the “master chef,” if you like, the person who has a handle on the whole project and the goals that it is trying to achieve, right down to the person who actually makes the videos – or do you see a distinction there? Are those creatives who are actually putting the things together, are they not instructional designers?

Frank Troha: I would say they are not instructional designers. Typically there’s the team of people working on a particular project, and the team membership of course varies depending on what the project entails. But key to my being able to accomplish this project was my access to subject matter experts. (Those are people who are expert in all aspects of what the course was intended to cover.) And I would have regular discussions with them in order to elicit the content that the course needed to cover. I also needed to understand before what the course was really all about and that’s where the subject matter experts come in to play.

Now in terms of the development of materials and the production of materials, oftentimes people who are key like video production people would come into play. They could come into play fairly early on but most definitely they would come into play during the development phase which would be more like scripting, storyboarding, that sort of thing.

There is also a role called instructional developer. Instructional developers are more writers than they are instructional designers. That’s not to say that we don’t have instructional designers who are both designers and developers, anyway I would say most instructional designers adapt to both design and development but now we’re getting into …

Actually I was describing a course that was kind of, I don’t like to use the word old-school because in my opinion it’s not really old-school. There is certainly a place for face to-face classroom instruction. But when it comes to e-learning, things change considerably. Usually there is a larger team of people involved, usually IT is involved from the get-go because you have to know, have to understand what various systems are capable of within an organization. So it does vary in terms of team membership and team roles.

Bob, I think, has more experience and has done further research into some of the latest technologies that are being used. I have had some experience with them but I don’t think I have the breadth of experience that Bob has.

Bob Little: Yes, my sort of observation is that I think Frank is absolutely right in that he has mentioned instructional designers, developers and subject matter experts. Those are three key people, or groups of people, within the whole design process for a piece of learning.

There used to be, certainly in the U.K., there used to be a big differential between the instructional designer and the instructional developer but I think in recent years that those two have certainly merged, particularly with the onset of the subject, the rise of the subject matter expert. Because, as we’ll come on to talk about, the growth of rapid-authoring tools has encouraged organizations to say, “We don’t need instructional designers, we don’t need specialists anymore! Now we have the technology for anybody to produce a piece of learning, of structured learning, we’ll give it to the subject matter experts and let them do it.” And that’s taken a lot of the instructional designer’s role away, probably not to a good result.

Frank Troha: What Bob is saying is probably very true and I feel like the really good instructional designers, those who can design anything whether it’s classroom, whether it’s online, whether it’s blended, and they can do it terrifically well, they are being marginalized by people within corporations who don’t understand what true instructional designers bring to the table. They see e-learning, it’s cool, it’s sexy, it’s this, it’s that and they just don’t, as Bob said, they really don’t see the value of an instructional designer when someone who charges a whole lot less can knock out something that looks really nice. And then of course, within an organization it maybe takes some time before they realize that this stuff really isn’t that good, that’s being turned out.

Bob Little: I absolutely agree.

Rachel Salaman: What kind of background do instructional designers have?

Frank Troha: Well my experience is that they tend to come from a variety of places. Some are former school teachers, some are graphic artists who have latched on to instructional design, some have backgrounds in computer science. Some are people who come in from the field, so to speak. Like, let’s say you have someone who’s been a sales person for 10 or 15 years and is looking for, is maybe even desperate for, some kind of change. They may come into the corporate L&D department at headquarters and they might learn the role of instructional designer. And then of course you have the people who have actually studied it formally. Here in the United States many universities offer Masters degrees in instructional design.

Bob Little: The last sort of formal training for instructional designers that we had in the U.K. sort of died out towards the end of the 1980s, which was before my time in the industry.

Rachel Salaman: OK, so once an L&D professional or whoever it is within a company, has decided to use the services of an instructional design expert, let’s say an external one, what is the next step? How do they go about finding the right person, Frank?

Frank Troha: Well I would recommend that they consult their networks and see who they might know within the networks who have reputations as, good reputations as, instructional designers. What I also recommend is something that I think a lot of organizations don’t want to do but I think it really is worth doing because it gives the L&D department a head start on the design of the training.

When starting a course it’s a good idea to understand what is the overarching goal of the course, who is the audience, what do we want the audience to come away with, what are the constraints that we’re dealing with in terms of deadline, in terms of available budget? Are we thinking that this program should be online or predominantly online, should it be a combination of things, maybe a little bit of classroom, face to face, maybe a lot online and maybe some follow up coaching?

These are things that actually the L&D department I think should be getting answers to and that would put them in a wonderful position to be able to interview candidates for the role of instructional designer because then they can have a real conversation with someone coming in that they’re sitting with.

That person is going to want to know, “What do you have in mind for me, what’s the project?” And then you’re able to communicate what your need is, even though it is not totally defined it is still fairly well defined. You might even look at it as kind of like a preliminary design. So basically by doing some work upfront, and it doesn’t have to be terribly laborious or time consuming, it’s just going to the right people within the organization to get these questions answered.

And you sit down and you interview probably three instructional designers. And I really think it’s important to have like a scorecard or rubric for each of the designers and the people doing the interviewing should be scoring each one and then in the end make a pretty objective decision as to who to bring back for another interview and perhaps make them the offer at that point.

Bob Little: I like Frank’s idea very much of using your network to find your instructional designers. If you don’t want to employ one in-house there is the idea of going to companies that produce bespoke or custom-built online learning and they should have some designers for you.

Some, I know, have got into instructional design in a sense “the wrong way” but it works for them because they’ve been subject matter experts who then had to learn a rapid-authoring tool. So they’ve gone on a course to learn how to use the rapid authoring tool and from there they’ve actually got involved and got interested in instructional design, and have taken their studies on that way.

Rachel Salaman: Now you talked a little earlier about research on this subject and it is actually something that people can’t necessarily just pick up and there are a lot of established models out there for instructional design. We haven’t got time to go into many of them now and people can check out Bob’s Mind Tools blogs to read detail on a few of those. The model called ADDIE provides a really useful overarching framework. Frank could talk us through that briefly?

Frank Troha: Yes, ADDIE stands for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation. Now a lot of people refer to this as an instructional design model. I don’t. I see it as a framework. If someone were to ask me, “What does the field of learning and development entail?” I would use ADDIE to describe what it entails.

Bob Little: Yes, any instructional design process, any serious process of learning design, has got to encompass those five things anyway, so you might just as well remember ADDIE because it’s a good mnemonic – Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate.

Rachel Salaman: Bob, how much do you think an L&D professional should educate themselves in the various models like ADDIE before going ahead with creating an online or other type of learning program?

Bob Little: Well yes, an L&D professional has got to know them. I would have thought that was a whole part of their professionalism was to know that. Because if and when they need to commission some learning materials, or even buy some learning materials, they need to be able to know whether those materials have been well designed or not. Otherwise how can you tell what it is you’re buying, is any good?

You need to know the theory, you need to know the principles. OK you might know ADDIE, you might know ARCS – John Keller’s framework of Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction – you might know a few of those, you might know one or two of the other models. But you need to know them, not necessarily because you are going to apply them yourself personally but because you need to know when you are validating – I won’t say evaluating but when you are validating – the various learning materials that you are going to buy and implement in your organization. You need to know if they are any good or if the quality is there, surely?

Rachel Salaman: Frank, how should an L&D professional expect to work with the instructional designer to make the most of their expertise and ultimately get the best results?

Frank Troha: First of all it’s important for the L&D professional to understand what an instructional designer brings to the table. It kind of pains me to say this but I don’t know that all that many really understand the role of an instructional designer. And certainly the instructional designer has to know the role of the L&D professional as it relates to the project. Is the L&D professional going to be the project manager, for example? So I believe that the roles and responsibilities absolutely must be clarified upfront if they’re going to work well, as well as possible, together.

I also believe that it’s important to work out standards in terms of responsiveness and accessibility. I recently worked on a project where I thought I had worked out our communication, how often we would communicate and why it was important to communicate on a regular basis, but sometimes even if you do work it out it doesn’t necessarily go so smoothly, so diplomacy is a very important thing.

Kind of going back to the things that I think are most important, clarify roles and responsibilities, also set some standards in terms of what is needed in order to bring the project to fruition and that would be really above all to ensure that there will be regular communication and you have worked out how to be accessible to one another and that you agree to be responsive.

I think the least amount of communication would be once a week for an hour and that would be communication between the L&D professional and the instructional designer. I think that’s in most cases. It also depends on how the project is structured, the number of people on the team and the roles and responsibilities, but if it is a fairly simple project where the instructional designer has as his key contact and primary contract the L&D professional, I think once a week for an hour is going to prevent a lot of problems from occurring.

Rachel Salaman: People learn best when they are interested in what they’re doing, which is something you touched on earlier, Frank. How much is the entertainment factor a consideration in instructional design, and is that changing at all?

Frank Troha: You know, it’s a very tough question for me to answer. I was taught, when I received my Masters and that was a long time ago, that if you really understand your audience, and you know what they like and what they don’t like, and you know what their on-the-job needs are and you know what their priorities are, then, if you design the instruction that will give them precisely what they are looking for, what they need, then you don’t have to worry so much about entertaining them.

I still believe that’s the truth. I really believe that substance really supersedes anything that can be done with entertainment – but there is nothing wrong with incorporating some entertainment. I’ve done it in every program that I’ve ever designed and developed. I’ve always included certain interesting facts – they have to be relevant facts – like factoids are included. Some humorous quotations, but again the quotations can’t just be humor for the sake of providing humor, they have to drive home a point. I’ve included even some humorous generic video snippets that I took from commercially produced training films, (back then they were called training films,) and incorporated those. So as long as it helps the audience attain a particular objective, entertainment really can and probably should be welcomed.

Now entertainment is tricky because if you incorporate something that you think is funny or that maybe your client thinks is entertaining and humorous and amusing, you may find that this falls flat, and it falls flat with an actual audience, with a complete audience. It just doesn’t work and you are getting all kinds of negative feedback. So I think entertainment should definitely be considered, it’s not the main consideration but if you can work it in that’s great.

One also needs to be careful, before launching any kind of learning experience. Generally it is a good idea to find a sample of the target audience, or maybe even do a pilot with a complete audience but let them know it is a pilot, and get their feedback on the program in general. And part of that feedback of course is going to include whatever entertainment that you included and may not have been so sure about when you included it. I am very curious as to what Bob has discovered in his research.

Bob Little: Well, yes, I would broadly agree. I think that these days, particularly where a lot of online learning is being designed and then delivered cross-culturally, even globally, it’s very difficult to make jokes and put jokes and things like that into the program because they may not translate well across cultures, they may not translate well across different languages, they may even be not politically correct in certain cultures. So I do think you have got to be careful about that.

But the other thing of course is that you do want to create a “wow” factor in your learning, and entertaining people is one way of doing that. Particularly these days as we all become more used to more sophisticated, the use of sophisticated, technology and video and whatever, and I think we look for that in our learning programs now as much as anything else. So the old-fashioned page turning e-learning is probably not going to do well or get a good response.

So I do think it is a real difficulty but those are exactly the sort of issues why you would go to an instructional designer rather than just give a subject matter expert a rapid-authoring tool and say go and produce some e-learning that we can send around the world.

Frank Troha: I think Bob makes excellent points about being aware of cultural differences. And also the fact that oftentimes it can be someone who doesn’t have an instructional design background sitting with a tool and just being given free rein to be creative so to speak, and that can lead to some problems obviously. There are ways of controlling that, one way being formative evaluation but yes, I agree absolutely with Bob’s points which I think are excellent.

Rachel Salaman: So where do you both see instructional design going in the future and why? Bob, would you like to answer that first.

Bob Little: Yes, I don’t want to be too negative and I don’t want to be too depressive about it. I think instructional design certainly on this side of the Atlantic is going through a tough time and is continuing to be under a lot of pressure from people who think that they can get a result without spending the money, if you know what I mean, that they can do things cheaply. What I think would be really sad, and I really hope does not happen, is that in 20 years’ time, once all the instructional designers have well and truly gone, somebody suddenly decides that we really ought to resurrect the discipline of instructional design again. I think it would be really sad for that to happen and so I’m really hoping that it doesn’t!

Rachel Salaman: Frank, what are your thoughts?

Frank Troha: I do think that it will get better over time. I think the quality of the course where, however you want to refer to it, the learning experiences, will get better with time. And I say that because I think the people who may not be well trained in instructional design will kind of learn through their own experience, through on-the-job experience. In a way it’s a good way to learn but it is also expensive for the organization, for their people to learn this way. But however it goes, time will lead to improved quality I believe.

Now as far as what designers will be striving to do, I feel, I think things are not so good now. I think they’re moving in the right direction. I think things will move towards giving the learner perfectly relevant instruction whenever he or she wants it and in the manner he or she wants it. I think the technology is there to do that now, however that’s a terribly expensive undertaking, but I do think that that is the ultimate goal and I’ll repeat it. And I believe it’s to give the learner perfectly relevant instruction whenever he or she wants it and how he or she wants it.

I’ve often asked myself, what do I think would be the best way for me to get information or instruction on a particular topic? Something comes to my mind and I say gee, it would be great if I could go to maybe some place using my phone or my pad and go there, and I would type in or speak what my particular need is at that time, and I would then be given… based on my need and perhaps before I would get my response I would have to answer a series of questions… but then I would be taken to a menu of learning activities and also, which would include even people that I could speak with… to get the exact information I need to perform whatever task I have at hand.

That I think is where we’re going. I think to some degree that probably exists today. But I also think that if money were no object the best thing would be to have access to someone 24/7 who is both an expert learning guide or coach or mentor or all those things rolled into one, but also a perfect subject matter expert, so that you would combine the skills of instructor perhaps and subject matter expert.

Now, how you get there I don’t know, it is probably going to take a long time to get there but I think that some of the things I just mentioned are probably what we are striving for now. Whether we’re doing it consciously or unconsciously I think we’re headed in that direction where we want to give the learner perfectly relevant instruction whenever he or she wants it and how he or she wants it.

Rachel Salaman: A very interesting and useful discussion, thank you both very much indeed.

Bob Little: A pleasure.

Frank Troha: Thank you.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. All fields required.

View our Privacy Policy.

One comment on “Can Just Anyone Do ID? With Frank Troha and Bob Little [L&D Insights Podcast]”:

  1. Bob Little wrote:

    At the eXact learning solutions’ User Group conference, held in Rome, earlier this month, Lorraine Moore, General Manager at the Dublin-based, global e-learning materials designer, Intuition ( offered this insight into instructional design: “You can’t explain what instructional design does but you always know when it hasn’t been done.”