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Practical advice on better learning design: avoiding the seven deadly sins

Delivering good learning design by resisting the seven deadly sins of learning - tips and advice from Learning Pool's content development team.

In our recent webinar, Jack Quantrill, Alex Peterson and Rosie Scott from Learning Pool’s content development team spent an hour examining some of the pitfalls which learning designers can commonly fall into – and gave practical advice and tips on how to avoid them.

They were joined by participants from across the UK and around the globe, who spent an hour reflecting on what good learning design might look like – and shared some of their challenges and priorities for their own professional development.

Consistently good content development isn’t easy – external pressures come in many forms, whether there is not enough time, insufficient resources, a lack of professional skills or just the sheer volume of content which teams are expected to produce.

Many of these pressures are specific to the environments that participants were operating in – so we wanted to find out more about their settings, the majority of which were in learning and development teams.

Like any complex task, a familiar set of tools, processes and skills will help anyone involved in content development work efficiently and effectively. Opportunities to establish those will come from time dedicated to this – so how much of participants’ roles is set aside to put these elements in place?

Over a third of our participants said that learning content development was their main role – with a further quarter saying that half their time was spent on this. It’s likely those who only dabble in content development very occasionally – where it’s an extra responsibility on an already full plate – might be under pressure to sacrifice quality in the pursuit of quantity.

Content development can sometimes feel like an isolated role – and for some participants it was, with 12% working alone in content development for their organisation. More common is working as part of a small team – with nearly three-quarters being part of a learning development team of up to five. Just one in twenty were in a much larger L&D team of  20 people or more.Some pressures on a learning and development team – such as shrinking budgets, resource challenges, a changing & often compliance-focused environment – will reflect wider pressures across and organisation, and therefore can’t be considered unique to those of us in L&D. However, our teams may need to respond to unique challenges such asand it’s these pressures which – in many people’s experience – can tempt us into taking shortcuts, or adapting our workflow just to get the content done and in front of our audience of learners.

So how can we respond to these temptations, particularly if we’re in a challenging environment? Jack, Rosie and Alex spent the greater part of this webinar addressing these challenges using the seven deadly sins of learning design as a theme: Taking pride in the learning content we create is something which most – all – content developers would hope to do. It’s the negative aspect of this – assuming that as we’re the learning designer, we know what’s best for our learners – which can dig a pit for us to fall into.

With that in mind, we asked participants what they knew about their audience – those for whom they design their learning: Responding to this, Jack Quantrill – learning design manager at Learning Pool – described how reflecting on past work he’d done had made him aware of some issues in this area:

“Just before I was leaving a job a few years ago, I was looking through all of the courses that I’d developed in the time that I’d been there. I was clicking through each one – as a learner would – and I thought they were brilliant. I was having a great time – I thought ‘Man, I’m hilarious. There were so many great jokes in this, look at all of the hidden Easter eggs – I am just really good at e-learning.’

“Having got to the end of that process, I began to think a little deeper about why I’d had that reaction – and I realised that I may have written all of those courses with myself in mind. It’s a trap that’s so easy for us to fall into – we think about the type of learning experience that appeals to us or the people around us, when in actual fact our audience can be very different from that – their circumstances in terms of the answers to those questions above about their age, education, device choice and beyond.

Jack’s tips for avoiding the sin of Pride

Use your LMS data

– whether it’s device types, HR data or any other metric which allows you to understand your audience better.

Ask your stakeholders

– what do they know about your audience that you don’t?

Do some research yourself

– visit the places where your courses are being used and hear first-hand what your audience thinks of the content

– whether it’s device types, HR data or any other metric which allows you to understand your audience better.- what do they know about your audience that you don’t?- visit the places where your courses are being used and hear first-hand what your audience thinks of the content.


As learning designers, the relationship we have with those who are providing us with content for our work is critical. Sometimes it’s very difficult to say No to them – for example if they insist that every single word of their traditionally paper-based course makes it onto your learners’ smartphone screens.

We wanted to know how this vital relationship – between those providing the content and those tasked with creating it – sat among the tasks which participants might undertake before starting to design a course:Reflecting on this, learning designer Rosie Scott took a look at the important relationships between a content developer and those who provide the content for an organisation’s learning materials:

A headshot image of Rosie

“Sometimes a subject matter expert (SME) will give you a big pile of content and say ‘this is what people need to know’ and expect you to just turn what they’ve given you into a beautiful, shiny online experience – but you can never simply do that. You need to insist on having a call with the SME – or a face-to-face meeting with them – so that you can really understand what the problem is.

“One of my rules is to do my best to understand that content before I go into that call… if you do read it carefully and look at it from a learner’s point of view then you’re going to be in a much stronger position when you do eventually go in to talk with that SME.– be relentless in asking questions of your SME – why do learners need this?

Why now? – ask your SMEs what they want learners to be able to do as a result of this learning.- don’t just start scripting from the pile of content you’ve been handed. Make a plan.

To hear Jack, Rosie and Alex’s tips on how to address each of these potential pitfalls, watch the webinar recording below. Don’t forget to stay up-to-date with future webinars – including our next one on Practical innovation in learning and development – on our Events page.

learning and development
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