How to Design Effective eLearning

Updated on 
August 9, 2022
How to Design Effective eLearning Cover Photo

If you’re like most of us, then you’ve probably sat through some pretty boring eLearning courses. Paragraphs of information, monotonous narration, and interactions that have you regurgitate what you’ve just read or heard.

Many people spam-click the “next” button as quickly as possible and guess their way through the assessment questions to check the box and get back to their real work.

This is what the eLearning industry refers to as “information dump” eLearning, a term popularized by Cathy Moore’s Map It.

In this article, I’m going to share the approach that I’ve been using with high-value clients and teaching to people in my Stand-Out Portfolio bundle of courses to help them land some of the most competitive instructional design opportunities..

The result of this process is a story-driven, scenario-based experience that is memorable, engaging, and effective.

This type of training experience invites the audience into the experience as an active participant, kind of like a “choose-your-own-adventure” story.

It lets them practice making real-world decisions in a risk-free environment and learn from their mistakes without causing any real-world damage.

Overall, this approach helps the audience perform their jobs more efficiently and confidently, and it can help establish you as a skilled instructional designer (and land better opportunities) if you demonstrate this process in your portfolio.

For the best experience, I suggest watching the “How to Design Effective eLearning” video and then using this article as a reference.

What is an eLearning Designer?

An eLearning designer is someone who designs and develops learning experiences in a digital format. The more popular term for this role is “instructional designer,” and with the recent shift to remote learning, the two terms have become synonymous.

The main tools that eLearning designers use include Articulate Storyline 360 and multiple tools from the Adobe Suite, such as: Illustrator, Photoshop, XD, After Effects, and Premiere Pro.

Beyond the visual design and technical development, eLearning designers may also spend time interviewing subject matter experts, writing learning objectives, and reviewing raw content.

While many eLearning designers create courses that are info-heavy, this approach will guide you create stand-out experiences that draw people in and help them practice the same actions that they would perform on-the-job.

How to Design Effective eLearning

This eLearning design approach relies on a step-by-step process: each step builds on the previous one.  

And each individual step is iterative: you will want to gather feedback from the stakeholders before advancing to the next deliverable or phase.

Doing this will save you time and rework down the line, and it will result in a much better eLearning experience.

eLearning Design Process Overview

The first step is to identify the need that you are trying to address and decide whether eLearning is part of the solution.

If eLearning is part of the solution, then you will work with your clients, subject matter experts, and preferably members of the target audience to create an action map. This is where you determine which actions people need to practice in order to address that need.  

Once those actions are chosen, you create a storyboard for the eLearning experience.

The storyboard is the blueprint for your project. This is where you write the story, the questions, and the consequences that will mirror the person’s experience and decision-making on the job.  

After that, you design visual mock-ups to create the look-and-feel and refine your layouts.

Next, you develop a prototype to ensure that the experience works well and matches the stakeholders’ needs.

Finally, once the prototype is approved, you build that prototype out into the final product.

Step 1: Identify the Need

To determine if eLearning is part of the solution, you must answer several questions:

1. Is there a performance problem or opportunity to improve performance? Is there a way that people could be performing their tasks better, or are people doing something incorrectly?

If there is a gap in skill and it’s causing a performance problem, then this is a good opportunity for eLearning.

2. Is this problem worth solving? If the improvement won’t have any effect on the company or produce any results, then it’s likely not worth the effort to design an eLearning solution.  

3. Is the problem caused by a lack of knowledge or skill? If the problem is caused by a lack of knowledge or skill, then eLearning may be part of the solution.

If the problem is outside of the audience’s control or caused by environmental issues (for example the computer systems are simply outdated), then eLearning won’t help.  

4. Can the problem be solved with practice? The goal with this eLearning approach is to simulate situations that people will experience on the job and let them practice handling the situations correctly.  

We want people to be able to practice what they will be doing in the real world in a risk-free environment.

If the problem can’t be improved by practice in a virtual environment, then this type of eLearning solution will not help.  

To answer these questions, you need to talk to the client, the subject matter experts, and even people in the intended audience.

While you can brainstorm on your own, the best eLearning is built from the data gathered from all of these sources.

If you decide that eLearning is the best solution, then the next step is to work with your stakeholders to map out which actions people need to perform in order to address that need.

Identifying a Need for an eLearning Portfolio Project

If you are working on a project for your portfolio, then you will probably not have all of these stakeholders available to talk to. In order to create an idea for your project, it is a good idea to think of a problem that people face in a role that you (or someone close to you) know(s) well.

For example, if you are a teacher, a common problem might be that teachers make the situation worse when having difficult conversations with upset parents.

If you noticed that many of your colleagues struggled with these kinds of conversations, then it indicates that it may be a worthwhile performance problem to solve.

Working from your own expertise or the expertise of someone close to you, you can then identify who the client would be based on the real-world need you have identified.

Step 2: Create an Action Map

Cathy Moore’s action mapping inspires this approach heavily, and we draw from her action mapping recommendations rather than opting for traditional learning objectives.

This approach is much more effective than traditional learning objectives because it focuses solely on measurable actions that you can watch people perform.

Action Mapping for Instructional Designers Example

In an action map, you put the main objective you want to achieve in the center. In the example above, the primary goal was to minimize lead exposure in the workplace.

Side note: With a strict action mapping approach, you can include a measurable business objective in the center. Explore this action mapping video for more details.

Next, you work with your clients, subject matter experts, and members of the intended audience to map out actions that people must perform to accomplish the main objective in the center.

For the example above, corresponding actions might include:

When you have gathered as many observable actions as you can, work with your stakeholders to identify the high-priority actions that will have the largest impact.

Once you define these high-priority actions, it becomes much easier to design story-based scenarios for your eLearning experience in the storyboard. Each action will wind up corresponding to a question in the storyboard.

Action Mapping Tips for eLearning Designers

1. Observable actions only: One of the biggest mistakes that new eLearning designers make is including actions that can’t be observed.

For example the audience will “Understand the effects of lead poisoning.”  

You can’t show that somebody “understands lead poisoning” ; there is also no guarantee that this “understanding” would do anything to change behavior on the job.

Another slightly better objective would be “identify what causes lead poisoning.” We could assess this with a multiple-choice question, but we want someone to make choices that minimize lead risk, not recite knowledge.

Identifying the actions we want people to take on the job is better than including traditional knowledge-based learning objectives.

A good way to test whether an action is measurable is to imagine that you and 10 other people were watching someone perform that action.

If everyone watching would agree that the person performed the action, then it is measurable enough to be included in the action map.

2. Choose your action mapping tool wisely: I highly recommend MindMeister as an action mapping tool.  It is great for collaboration, and the keyboard shortcuts make it easy to generate actions as stakeholders rattle them off.

That being said, I have seen people use other tools such as Miro, Figma, and even Google Slides. Regardless of which tool you choose, make sure you are comfortable using it in fast-paced settings.

Step 3: Write the Text-Based Storyboard

The storyboard is the blueprint for the rest of your project. It is a text-based outline of your project that includes all of the interactions and programming notes for the eLearning experience.

Storyboard Intro Example

This is where you establish the context and setting of the story and the goal that your audience, as the main character, should achieve.

The storyboard is also where you design the supporting information that people can turn to if they get stuck during the eLearning experience or would like additional explanation on why a choice is correct or incorrect.

Finally, the storyboard is where you add the elements that make the simulation immersive and realistic. The context in the story must mirror the context of the real world.

Designing the experience like this in a text-based storyboard makes it easy to quickly adapt to feedback from stakeholders. It minimizes rework down the line, and you should get the storyboard approved before advancing.  

Establish the Scenario

With this eLearning design approach, the entire experience is a narrative that the audience will advance through.

In the beginning, you let the audience know who they are, what they’re trying to accomplish, and what the setting is that they’re operating within.

As you can see in the example below, from the very first line, the audience is aware of the context and their role and objective. They are immediately immersed in the story.

Scenario-based eLearning Intro Example - Setting the Context

Once you’ve established the narrative, timeline, and context, the rest of the storyboard becomes much easier to construct.  

Creating a Job Aid or Mentor

After introducing the context and goal, the next step is to show the audience where they can go if they need additional information about one of the core actions.

With this approach, the audience is making choices about how to proceed in a simulated environment. When they come to a difficult question, or get stuck, it is important for them to be able to reach out for help.  

One option is to use a job aid. In the job interview project, the audience is introduced to an interview tip sheet that they can consult whenever they are struggling with a question.

Job Aid User Interface for eLearning Example

Another common option is to introduce a mentor character.  We can see an example of this in Alexandra Drobik’s flagship project.

In this simulation, you are a new sales associate at a pottery studio.

You accidentally broke a customer’s pottery project, and your goal is to rebuild the relationship with the customer.

As you progress through the narrative, you are introduced to the mentor character, Kaolin, who you can turn to when you need help.

Mentor character for eLearning example

Using mentor characters is a great option in eLearning. According to Mayer's Principles of Multimedia Learning mentor characters are highly effective for giving feedback or guidance to the audience.  

Pro tip: Whether you use a job aid or a mentor should be determined by the scenario you are creating.

If the audience will be able to use a job aid in real life in the context, then a job aid is a great option for the eLearning experience.

If it’s more realistic for them to turn to a mentor or colleague, then a mentor character is ideal.

Choose the form of support that is most likely to be available on the job. This will not only lead to a more engaging experience, but it will make the transfer to real-world settings easier.

Make the eLearning’s Setting and Timeline Realistic

There is an art to creating immersive eLearning experiences. You want to address the high-priority actions from the action map while ensuring that they reflect what actually happens on the job.

We can make the experience more realistic with the following:

You don’t need to get too detailed. Add enough information that the audience will recognize the environment in a real-world setting after they complete your eLearning experience.

Show the Consequences of the Choices

One of the goals of eLearning experience is to show your audience the real-world results of their choices. You’d include all of these in your storyboard.

Let’s return to Aleks’s project: the learner just broke a customer's pottery piece accidentally. As you can see in the image below, there are three options available.

Scenario-based eLearning question example

Each one of these choices has a corresponding result. For example, if the audience chooses to clean up the breakage (the wrong option), the following prompt appears.

Scenario-based eLearning Consequence Example

Once the audience sees the results of their choice, they can go back and try again. If they aren’t sure what to do, then they can ask Kaolin.

Giving the audience an opportunity to make choices and see the results of their actions is more memorable, engaging, and effective.

When the audience selects the correct choice, on the other hand, then the story should advance just as far as it needs to in order to bring the audience to the next question in the scenario.

Key Elements of eLearning Storyboards

The storyboard is what you will use to walk the stakeholders through your project and / or guide your development. You want to clearly label different elements of your storyboard and make each interaction easy to understand.

In the storyboard below, the audience is in the middle of an interview. They have three choices available to them when faced with a question.

Side note: You can go with two choices if there are only two common paths in the real world, but three choices is a good rule of thumb to aim for with scenario-based questions.

Directly under those choices are the programming notes where you can see the results of each option.

Presenting the storyboard in this way will make it much easier to get feedback and approval from shareholders.

Text-based storyboard scenario-based question example

The storyboard is the backbone of the entire project. And it serves as the blueprint for everything that follows, from the visual design to the final product.

Taking the time to ensure that your storyboard is complete will make the rest of the project much easier to develop.

Instructional Design Storyboard Tips

1. Keep the storyboard cohesive: Establish the setting, main character, and goal from the beginning. Maintain a logical narrative that the audience can work through to the best ending.

2. Show, don’t tell: Use pictures and dialogue to convey the story and Incorporate realistic human reactions.

Instead of saying: “The customer, Susie, is very upset” show an image of a crying woman saying “I'm really upset that your company did this to me. You're not going to get my business again.''

These kinds of interactions make the entire experience more real and personal.

3. Keep your writing short, clear, and conversational: Try to keep to a middle-school reading level. Avoid long or academic-sounding words.

The experience should resemble the kind of conversation you would hear in the real world. A good way to test whether your writing sounds natural is to read it out loud.

Step 4: Design Visual Mockups

Once the storyboard is complete and approved, it’s time to start bringing the project to life visually.

The visual mockup phase is where you design the look-and-feel and layout of your project.

This process includes the design for buttons, color choices, overall art direction, and slide layout. For this part of the project, I recommend using Adobe XD (possible alternatives include Figma, PowerPoint, or even Storyline itself).

eLearning Visual Mockups Example

When designing visual mockups, it is important to remember that this is an iterative process. You will create a variety of different options then refine them, perhaps even sending them out to stakeholders for feedback.

For this reason, it is a really good idea to create one layout for each type of slide that will be in the project.

For example, design one question slide with all of the text, visuals, and buttons. Then iterate on that single slide as you collect feedback. This way, you only need to apply the feedback to one (or a few) slides instead of the project as a whole.

A common mistake that beginning eLearning designers make is to create a mockup for the entire project. Then, when they collect feedback, they need to apply it to dozens of slides.

It is much easier to make one question slide, then when that slide gets approval from all of the stakeholders, you can use it as a model for the rest of the question slides in the project.

Once you have determined the final visual layout for the project, you can simply export the slides to your developer and use them as a framework to develop the prototype.

Visual Mockup Tips

1. Design for iteration: As mentioned above, make sure that you only develop one slide for each type of layout in the eLearning experience. For example: one prompt slide, one question slide, and one character speech slide.

Doing this means that you only have to change one slide based on the feedback as opposed to changing the visual layout of the entire course or all of the question slides.

Once you get approval from all stakeholders, you can then copy that layout and change the necessary elements.

2. Get as much feedback as you can: Gather as much feedback as you can from the stakeholders at this stage, and don’t move into development until the layouts have been refined.  

Step 5: Develop a Prototype

The prototype stage is where you develop a short, interactive version of the project. It functions exactly as the final project would, but it would only include up to one or two questions.

The prototype is where you can get feedback and iron out any programming issues. As a general rule, you should only include one or two questions or interactions.

The slides you develop here should look and feel exactly how they will on the final product. But you don’t want to develop too much at this stage.

You want to do this for two reasons: First, it will be much easier to apply feedback to several slides than to 50+ slides in an entire project.

Second, if you find a mistake, it is much easier to address. For example, realizing that the back button doesn’t work on the prototype is much easier to fix than if you realize that it doesn't work after you finish the project.

Once the prototype is approved, you can move into full development with the assurance that your interactions work and that the stakeholders approve of the design and development approach.

Interactive eLearning Prototype Tips

Step 6: Develop the Final Product

Once the prototype is approved, the last step is to develop the final experience in your authoring tool. This is where you use the copy, paste, and replace method to build out the entire course.

The main focus at this stage is to rigorously test every possible interaction.  You don't want this to go live to thousands or hundreds of thousands of people to then find out that there are technical problems.

Get as many eyes on the project as you can. When you are using the copy, paste, and replace method, make sure that you replace everything that needs to be replaced.

After you have finished this stage, the project is done. The final deliverable is a story-driven, scenario-based project that addresses a real world need.

You can follow up by administering surveys, interviewing the audience, and monitoring key performance indicators to evaluate the impact.

Final Product Tip

Creating Engaging eLearning

The steps above cover the core eLearning design process, but if you want to make your eLearning experience even more engaging and effective, then you can take things even further.

You can do this by adding moments of delight and enhancing transfer.

Moments of Delight

You can create moments of delight for your audience with animation, interaction or sound. These moments are what really set eLearning projects apart—they make the experience memorable and enjoyable.

These moments can be small details that add up to a big effect. For example, in the scenario where you are the new sales associate in a pottery studio, you break a vase and damage your relationship with the customer.  

eLearning Moment of Delight Example

As you move through the experience, you then have an animation that shows the pottery piece being repaired as you repair the relationship with the customer.

Rebuilding the Customer Relationship Pottery Example

Small touches like this that surprise the audience, or provide positive reinforcement, will really make your eLearning project stand out.

Other examples include this project by Alex Hoffman. As you can see, Alex has a nice, clean, human-centered design.  

Clean User Interface for eLearning Example

When you click the “ask Sophie” button in the bottom left-hand corner, the background blurs and there is a notification noise that ensures that the audience is fully focused on the information the mentor is providing.

Blurred Background eLearning Example

This small detail (in addition to many others) has an impact that makes the learning experience unforgettable.

Another example from Teresa Moreno shows how we can use animation to engage the audience.

eLearning Title Screen Example

When you hover over the start button, the “glitch” effect lifts and the background comes into focus.

eLearning Title Screen Comes Into Focus On Hover

Small moments like these make eLearning experiences much more engaging, memorable, and exciting.

One last example shows how you can include gamification elements as a moment of delight.

Gamified eLearning success meter example

In this eLearning experience, you are trying to ace a job interview. As you answer questions, the meter at the top shows how the interviewer is perceiving you. As you answer correctly you can watch the meter slowly move to the right.  

Moments of Delight Tips

When you are planning how to use moments of delight, there are several indicators of where moments of delight could be effective:

1. Indicate progress: Is there a way to use sound, animation, dialogue or meters to indicate that the audience is making progress as we move through the simulation.

2. Call attention: Can you use sound or image effects to call attention to different elements in the simulation?

3. Immerse the audience: Imagine two eLearning experiences that show you what to do if there is a fire in the building. The first one has an opening screen that explains that it is essential for all employees to know what to do in case of a fire.

The second one starts with you realizing that you’re in a burning building and having to make choices about how to get out.

Finding opportunities to use images and animation to indicate your point can also significantly increase engagement.

4. Give choice to the audience: When you give the audience small choices (for example, when to start an animation or which direction to take in the story) you are putting them in the driver’s seat and giving them freedom.

When you let the audience make these small choices, you are giving them the option to engage with the experience. This interaction and agency can make them much more engaged overall.

Enhancing Transfer

As stated before, when you design an eLearning experience, you want to replicate what the person will experience in the real world as closely as you can.

This will help bridge the gap between the training experience and the on-the-job performance.

The example below is from a project by Steve Chea.

In the scenario, you are part of the customer support team. You are assigned these different support tickets, and your goal is to get the highest rating possible from each customer interaction.

eLearning User Interface Example

The interface above closely mirrors what a person would see on the job.

Here is another example from Sarah Greig. In this scenario, you are a resource teacher and you have to record problem behaviors you observe from students in class.

Vyond for eLearning Example

After you interact with a misbehaving student, you see a chart that looks exactly like the one that you would use on the job.

Enhance Transfer with Same Chart as Real World

The more your eLearning experience replicates the real-world experience, the more effective it will be.

To view more scenario-based eLearning project examples, explore the portfolios and flagship projects in the portfolio showcase.

How to Become an eLearning Designer

If you’ve made it this far because you’d like to become an eLearning designer (more commonly known as an instructional designer), then you can use this process to help you achieve your goal.

People who use this eLearning design process for their flagship projects in the Stand-Out Portfolio bundle are securing some of the most competitive instructional design roles on the market.

To see examples of portfolios that highlight this process and learn more about the opportunities they were able to land, explore the showcase.

If you’re at the start of your eLearning design journey, then you can become an eLearning designer by doing the following:

  1. Learn the instructional design theory
  2. Learn the in-demand eLearning technology
  3. Create your flagship project
  4. Develop your portfolio website
  5. Optimize your resume and LinkedIn profile
  6. Prepare for interviews and start applying
  7. Create supporting projects
  8. Network, network, network!
  9. Ace the interview
  10. Give back to the community

These steps are outlined in detail in my full guide to becoming an instructional designer.

Conclusion

If you can move away from designing information-dump eLearning and design story-driven, scenario-based learning experiences instead, then you can open new doors in your career and serve your audience better.

The proven eLearning design process covered in this article will help you move in the right direction and design engaging, effective learning experiences: whether they’re for your portfolio or a global audience of learners.

To view a video recap with plenty of examples, check out the How to Design Effective eLearning video.

And, as discussed, you can view over 20 examples of portfolios and scenario-based projects via the portfolio showcase.

Explore more content

Explore by tag