Design Crimes in Learning & Development

Recently I have been “Optimising” a huge library of learning and development materials for an organisation who wish to transfer traditional teacher-focused learning to a flexible blended approach.

The collection of  learning materials has been designed by a variety of individuals and consists of a mixture of styles, templates, fonts, this is a mistake the approach has diluted the organisations branding and provides no consistency for learners, however this issue is relatively easy to address since in the future the material will be presented via a variety of methodologies aimed at producing learner-focused experiences which were simply not possible using the traditional classroom methods only.

What is difficult to comprehend is why the organisation failed to provide those they commissioned to design the learning materials with a standard template, and why these materials failed to deliver against objectives.  However the worst crimes have been committed by those who have designed the materials.

I am trying not to rant here, however when you have finished reading this article if you are remotely interested in ensuring the effectiveness of your training and development materials to accelerate learning, I suggest you go check them for examples of the following design disasters:

  1. A picture is worth a thousand words, but are the selected images appropriate to convey information and to communicate goals? I am finding clipart for ClipArt’s sake in workbooks and presentations mainly, for the sake of aesthetic’s rather than to convey information. In many cases I find myself distracted by inappropriate and ineffective images and puzzled by the presentation which often became a media showcase the message or content buried.
  2. Obscure objectives – Clear objectives help designers to figure out what content and activity is required to meet them and set expectations for learners. When clearly defined aims and objectives are lacking, there is no sound basis for the selection or design of material content and methods. I am also finding examples where objectives have been clearly stated and not met.
  3. A focus on activities not information –workbooks stuffed with activities with no information about the purpose of the activity and no opportunity for the learner to evaluate the activity. Often the workbooks were designed  thrown together as support materials for accredited training courses which required participants to write assignments but of course when the material lacks the information required to generate new knowledge it is useless as a vehicle to provide continuous and effective learning reference resource
  4. What does the learner need to know that is useful in the real world? What is the learner supposed to be able to do and what behaviours must people take to reach that business goal and acquire skills and/or knowledge that will be immediately transferable in their role at work? Oh dear I could weep –94% of the masses of material that I have assessed has been populated with excessive information about established models and left me as a learner asking “so what, how can I apply this, and why is it helpful”?
  5. Spending too much time on the nice-to-know versus the need-to-know and therefore creating an information dump. You’re almost always going to have more information than you need and clear learning objectives provide a framework for filtering out the critical information. If learners have too much information they effectively overload and  unable to see wood for trees. Cover the need-to-know and put the nice-to-know in an appendix if necessary.
  6. Using language that is inappropriate or patronizing. Use of unexplained acronyms, slang, culturally offensive and excessive text. The language used between the learning resource and the learner must be common to both rather than use few words to express meaning I have found pages upon pages of text pasted from Wikipedia which obviously hasn’t been proof read.

 The effectiveness of training and the ultimate transfer of learning starts at the design stage and the design provides an opportunity to take the first critical steps to engaging your participants – stakeholders if you are reading this perhaps now you might understand why your training and development materials dont achieve all they might and need to be overhauled.

Avoid design crime visit us at for  bespoke effective competency based learning  and development designs and no crimes!


6 responses to “Design Crimes in Learning & Development

  1. Thanks Joy for some timely reminders here…kathey

  2. Hi Joy, Thanks for this. As usual a crisp and clear post.

    You make a really good point about the need to be focussed on the objectives and structure the materials around this.

    I recognise many of these crimes in materials I have seen in my career. I hope I have not committed too many of these myself.

    There are many more crimes than the dirty half dozen! I expect you’ll return to this theme in future posts.


    • Hi Adrian, thanks for your comment and I agree with you, there are many more design crimes yet to mention and I too am probably guilty of a few. I find that “blending” learning materials presents a massive new crime scene worthy of investigation. Joy

  3. Nice summary of (some of!) our major crimes.

    I wonder if in part it’s down to putting too much pressure on ONE person to do all this? (Or more likely, one person deciding they can do everything.)

    Can you imagine if newspaper reporters had to design and produce their newspapers too? It’d be a right dogs’ dinner.

    Some Instructional Design teams recognise this. But half the ‘Instructional Design’ jobs I see these days could be parsed as ‘Captivate User’ (or whatever technology they’ve chosed as the ‘one’ to use).

    I think there’s also a hangover from teaching/training days. I know from experience that when a trainer learns about a new technique, they tend to use it to death until they’ve mastered it. (Being diplomatic here, most trainers like and understand learning, so are keen to activate stuff.) I know this means I’ve ended up doing inappropriate stuff simply to practise my latest training ninja skills.

    The same is true for performance support stuff – the Peter Principle applies to techniques as well as people.

    • Hello Simon, thanks for your comments, I agree with your observation about instructional designer jobs and the focus on wizardry with tools at the expense of the integrity of the design.

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