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Write learner descriptions

“What are design documents?”

“How should learning audiences be described in design documents?”

“How can designers create inclusive learning experiences?”

Learning designers are responsible for bringing stakeholders and subject matter experts to consensus around key decisions–and then recording those decisions through a design document. Design documents come in various formats and levels of detail.

Through this lesson, you should be able to differentiate between various types of design documents and write a learner audience description for a design document.

What are design documents?

Design documents are blueprints for learning experiences that are reviewed and approved by key decision makers in a project. In complex projects, designers may craft a high-level design (HLD) to map an entire program and then create more detailed designs (sometimes referred to as course outlines) for specific learning deliverables (e.g. a course, a video). In simpler projects–like a standalone eLearning course–one design document may suffice.

Designers can use a variety of formats to create design documents, most often including Microsoft Word, Google Docs, and PowerPoint. As explained in the Create a detailed design lesson, design documents typically include the following sections:

  • Purpose: What is the purpose of this learning experience? What are the intended outcomes from an organizational and learner perspective?

  • Instructional strategy: What techniques will be used during the experience?

  • Audience: Who will complete the experience, and how will it be delivered?

  • Duration: What is the estimated duration of the learning experience overall as well as its individual parts (e.g. module, activity)?

  • Prerequisites: What should learners complete prior to this learning experience?

  • Source content: How will the source content be obtained? Are updates required?

  • Media: What media will be used, and where is it coming from (e.g. existing, new development)?

  • Deliverables: What deliverables will be included (e.g. facilitator guide, participant guide, job aids, eLearning modules)?

  • Learning objectives: What measurable knowledge, skills, and abilities should learners be able to do by the end of the experience?

  • Content outline: What are the topics and primary messages for this learning experience? How will they be sequenced?

  • Assessment strategy: How will learning objectives be assessed for this learning experience? What level of proficiency is desired?

How should learning audiences be described in design documents?

Oftentimes, one of the first sections in a design document is a learning audience description. While some designers may provide bare-bones information (e.g. “managers in Sales”) or skip this section altogether, it is good practice to share data-driven insights around learners to help keep learners top of mind while project teams make key design decisions–as well as to identify the range of learner needs to ensure a more inclusive learning experience.

With that in mind, designers should write audience descriptions based on learner data collected during the Analysis phase of the project. In cases where Analysis was truncated and learner data is not available, designers should schedule a call with key stakeholders to gather necessary information about the target audience so they can champion a learner-centric design approach going forward.

Below are just a few examples of data points that may be included in a learning audience description–but note that the information should be limited to what is most relevant to the project:

  • the number of learners in target and secondary audiences

  • geographic locations and languages

  • unique identifiers (e.g. role, job title, staff level)

  • thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and motivation levels regarding the topic

  • knowledge and experience levels

  • technical capabilities

  • access to technology and any other required resources (e.g. internet)

  • learning preferences and expectations

  • any physical, mental, social, emotional, neurodiversity, and/or other accessibility needs

Scroll through the carousel below to review a few learning audience description samples:

How can designers create inclusive learning experiences?

When it is time to review the learning audience description with the project team, take this opportunity to point out the range of unique needs that should be considered (as opposed to the needs of the so-called “average” learner). This conversation should address accessibility accommodations plus any additional physical, mental, social, emotional, and neurodiverse needs that must be considered. Ask yourself, “What do our learners need to be successful in this learning experience?” Using an 80/20 approach (where teams aim to meet the needs of the learning majority) is the same as saying the 20% outside that majority don’t matter–so don’t go there! Inclusive design requires teams to take the steps necessary to ensure all learners can succeed–and to consider those needs from the very start.

To start this conversation, consider the sample questions below. For each, consider what design decisions should be made and what reasonable accommodations can be granted to ensure all learners can succeed.

Airport training: a learning project case study

Kristine is a learning design consultant, and she just attended a kick-off meeting for a new project. During the call, Amir (the lead designer) shared that Analysis has already been conducted and now they are entering the Design phase of the project. Amir shared a learner persona spectrum with the team, and then he explained how Analysis results suggest the airport staff (represented by that spectrum) need training on recognizing signs of human trafficking and reporting suspicious activity to authorities.

Amir shares a link to a design document, which so far only includes the course project title and a brief description. He asks Kristine to use the information provided in the learner persona spectrum to write the learning audience description.

Shown below are the learner persona spectrum provided by Amir, as well as the learner description that Kristine wrote for the detailed design.

Amir's learner persona spectrum

Kristine's learner audience description

To help block human trafficking at the airport, all ~5,000 airport staff members (including all job roles and staff levels) need to learn how to recognize the signs of human trafficking as well as how to report suspicious activity to the proper authorities. This audience's current awareness, motivation, and proficiency levels vary. They are willing to learn but short on time.

Staff typically use phones and tablets for training; they prefer mobile eLearning that includes scenario-based videos that illustrate how skills are applied to the job. They also find value in performance support resources (e.g. signs, job aids).

Given the broad audience for this training, all reasonable accessibility accommodations should be implemented.

Summary and next steps

Now that you are familiar with how to write learner audience descriptions in design documents, continue to the next lesson in LXD Factory’s Design series: Write learning objectives.


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