How action mapping can change your design process

Happy action mapping users say that the model helps them create lively elearning. But would it fit into your design workflow? Here’s a look at the process from start to finish. Read more

How action mapping can change your design process

By Cathy Moore

Happy action mapping users say that the model helps them create lively elearning. But would it fit into your design workflow?

Action mapping makes stakeholders work together to analyze the performance problem, commit to the same measurable goal, and agree to focus on activities rather than information. This can be a big change to the typical course development workflow.

Without action mapping

  1. The client says, "I need a course."
  2. You say, "Okay."
  3. The client gives you a pile of content, the phone number of a subject matter expert (SME), and a deadline.
  4. You create a detailed storyboard or script, getting information as necessary from the SME. The structure of the information determines the structure of the course.
  5. The client and SME approve the script and you go into production.
  6. The course is made available and your job is done.

action mapping for instructional design

Using action mapping

  1. The client says, "I need a course."
  2. You say, "Great. Let's get together to make sure we all understand what you want to accomplish."
  3. You schedule a two-hour meeting in a space with a whiteboard or in a virtual meeting room where you can share a mind-mapping screen. You include the client, at least one subject matter expert, and possibly others from the table below.
  4. In that meeting, you identify your business goal and how you'll measure success. You also identify the behaviors needed to reach that goal.
  5. As a group, you analyze why the behaviors aren't happening, confirm that training will actually solve the problem, and identify how the training will be supported by managers, workplace changes, and other improvements.
  6. After the meeting, you brainstorm practice activities for each behavior needed to reach the goal.
  7. You work with the SME and possibly others to identify the minimum information necessary to complete each activity and decide how it should be provided.
  8. You create a prototype activity and test it on stakeholders and learners.
  9. Once the prototype is approved, you write scripts for the remaining activities. You could work in batches, with the SME approving some activities while you write others.
  10. You deliver the activities in the best format for the learners. This often isn't a one-time course. For example, you could deliver activities individually, spaced over time.
  11. Once the material is being used by learners, you and the client begin measuring its impact, and you revise it as necessary.

The above list makes it look like action mapping takes longer, and it will take longer if you're not doing much analysis now. However, the rest of the process can actually go more quickly than conventional course design. You save time by:

  • Not creating a course when it isn't necessary or won't help
  • Addressing only the specific behaviors that need to change
  • Excluding unnecessary information
  • Taking advantage of easily updated job aids
  • Designing activities that test multiple areas of knowledge at once
  • Creating tightly focused materials that don't waste learners' time

The Partner from the Start toolkit walks you through steps 1-5, helping you steer projects in the right direction from the start.

Who should be included?

The table below lists the four steps of action mapping and identifies who you might consider including at each step. The first two steps can often be covered in one two-hour meeting, if the client and SME are familiar with the learners and the performance problem.

The SME needs to be someone who currently does the job. They shouldn't be just an expert in the content. They need to be a current performer, so they can help you understand the real-world barriers people face.

If you're required to use a SME who is only an expert in the content, include a learner or two in your analysis. They'll help you understand the challenges they face on the job.

One of the goals in action mapping is to identify what information needs to be memorized (put in the course) and what can be referenced on the job (put in job aids). Often, existing job aids are created and "owned" by someone in a different department. They need to be included in some of your planning to make sure the job aid can be used as you want, to approve any changes to it, and to offer their ideas about incorporating it into practice activities.


Step Client SME Job aid
Learner Graphics/Flash
1: Set goal Yes Yes Maybe Maybe No
2: Identify behaviors & why they're not happening Yes Yes Maybe Maybe No
3: Brainstorm practice activities Approve prototypes Help brainstorm or at least approve prototypes Help brainstorm or at least approve use of job aid Provide ideas, feedback on prototypes Help create prototypes
4: Identify necessary info No Yes Approve use of job aid or changes to it Maybe, as tester No

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35 comments on “How action mapping can change your design process

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  1. Hi Cathy

    Obvious way to work – but so often we go for the first scenario – why? Maybe because to do it properly (second scenario) means we have to actually get involved and involve those ‘troublesome’ SME’s.

    However, the action mapping model is clear, simple and most importantly, after implementation, we can measure and prove our worth. As trainers/designers, when we measure, we should be bringing more into the organisation than any sales team can do!

    Thanks for the step by step guide – Excellent (I’ll tweet this to my followers)

    David Gibson

    1. David, thanks for your comment. It reminded me of a cultural issue I sometimes think I see. I’ve gotten the impression (or erroneously imagined!) that some instructional designers get most of their satisfaction from organizing and presenting information. If an instructional designer chose this field because they enjoy the mostly solitary work of organizing info and explaining it, then it’s understandable that they’d be uncomfortable with and maybe want to avoid the messy, collaborative work necessary to include business strategy and stakeholders. Maybe the degree programs could help prepare them for this messier work.

  2. Cathy,

    I love your Action Mapping process. What I didn’t think about before (because I think we seperate e-learning and classroom learning in our heads) is that this process will work for ALL kinds of instructional design. It’s a step-by-step process of what I also do when I am designing short ILT courses and workshops. I just have to understand the medium…understand that the activities will be different in their design. It should all work the same way, really. The main idea of all training/learning design is to have measurable goals and get there! Thanks!

    (It’s easier for people to create junk learning as e-learning because they don’t have to endure their learner’s emotions as they teach the class….the feedback there for the ID is immediate!) 😉

    1. Laura, that’s an excellent point. It’s easier to create bad elearning because we can’t see the suffering of our audience. I also agree that action mapping can be used with all types of training, and I’ve used a similar process to plan how to reach big goals in life. A program called Goalscape is great for that — you put your goal in the middle, and then use outer rings to identify what you need to do to reach that goal, breaking down each action into small steps that you can check off as you complete them.

  3. Hi Cathy, I want to address your question of what’s missing and what’s worked for me. I am a proponent of needs analysis a la Allison Rossett’s model of First Things Fast. I think the Learner should be included in Step 2 — Identify behaviors and why they’re not happening. The Learner may not be at the table/whiteboard, but a quick survey to learners will uncover the gap between optimals and actuals and WHY they’re not performing at optimal levels. Since they’re the ones closest to the work, I think their voices should be heard early on. They also provide a perspective the SME does not have and can readily pinpoint reasons why optimal behaviors are not happening. Obviously, they may not know how, and thus a learning solution is needed. But they also might identify problems with the incentive system, lack of tools, resources, etc. that contribute to the problem. My two cents and a plug for the learner’s perspective.

    1. Jeanne, thanks for your comment. That’s an excellent point, and I’ll change the version of the post in the blueprint to include that. It’s not safe to assume that the SME has recent experience in the job or can represent the learners’ perspectives, and while in the blueprint I tell IDs to talk to and even shadow learners, those points aren’t clear in this post. Thanks!

  4. Cathy – I like the Action Mapping Process. Engaging the client in the “think tank” will make a big difference in the partnership, creation and ownership of the training solution. Too often “training” establishes the objectives and the client signs off and sends designers on their way to create the magic solution. Identifying the goal and measure of success helps to determine if there is a need is training, or if its a communication, management or operational issue. As far as what might be missing, I have found observing the learner in action and/or asking for their perspective validates whether it is a training issue and what is getting in the way of performing that behavior now, as well as things to take into consideration as you work toward achieving the goal.

  5. Hi Cathy,

    Great article. It’s nice to know others actually follow a similar methodology to me! For me, I also add in:

    1 Not just how – but when will change be measured?
    2 What needs to be learned formally, what can be learned informally and what learning will take place osmotically? (I find this neatly sidesteps the ‘we need a manual and eLearn / class on every single point’ discussion)
    3 What underpinning knowledge and skills are required to meet the goals? Do the learners actually have these?

    All too often, training fails because the change needed is actually ‘doing the job’ and getting sufficient practice and experience in the real world. Employers often have realistic expectations that learners will be magically perfect as a result of training or be able to reach the same KPIs as those that have been doing the job for year.s

    For example, if the goal is for them to process 100 widgets an hour with 95% accuracy. Do we expect them to do this immediately after the learning or do we expect this after a period of time? If so are we going to measure this periodically to ensure learners are on track and identify anyone who needs coaching in the meantime?

    For example, perhaps we expect them to procees with 95 % accuracy:

    – 30 widgets immediately after training
    – 50 widgets after two weeks on job
    – 80 widgets after three weeks on job
    – 100 widgets after after 4 weeks on job

    What if to process the widgets they need to be able to type at around 65 words per minute – can the students already do this? What if they can’t? Can they realistically ever get to 100 widgets with 95% accuracy. Do we need to work on their typing skills first? What if actually, we’ve been hiring on the wrong skill set? Does the system actually allow them to process 100 widgets with 95% accuracy?

  6. Thanks for your comments, everyone. To clarify, this post is a high-level overview of what might happen when and how the process could fit into your workflow. It’s not a detailed description of the analysis that I recommend should happen at each step.

    For example, here are only some of the questions that I suggest should be answered during analysis of the learners in step 2:

    • What do learners know now?
    • What new information do they need to perform the required actions?
    • What information should they memorize, and what could they look up?
    • Where is this information now?

    • What skills do learners have now?
    • What skills do they need to perform the actions identified?
    • How can they develop these skills?

    • How do learners feel about the topic now?
    • Why would they want to perform the needed actions?
    • How can we show them those reasons?

    • Does anything in the workplace prevent the learners from taking the required actions?
    • Do they have the right tools, enough time, and supportive managers?
    • What can we change about the learners’ environment to help them meet our goal?

    I also recommend visiting the learners’ work station and, if possible, shadowing them as they work.

  7. Hi Cathy, I agree with the posts commenting on involving the learners early on. I like the Action Mapping approach a lot, but I think the target group mapping aspect needs to be underlined. The key question “who are we doing this for” should always be asked. For example, I think a basic level target group analysis should at least conclude if the target group are beginners or not. Or if there is a mix.
    Keep up the good work, Cathy!
    Best regards,

  8. Hey Cathy! As someone new to the field, I’m truly enjoying here what you veterans have to say! I will be following your blog closely throughout my degree program!

  9. I’ve noticed that when it comes to any kind of system training or EAT type courseware, most eLearning shops opt for method one. Almost any other type of courseware follows the action mapping process, I think – whether its behavioural or skills training or management and leadership. As an ID, you want to know about the business objectives behind the requirement so you can address any pain points and ensure that the courseware adequately addresses the stated need. The common assumption is that system training needs come from critical business needs and therefore need no more probing. In fact, it’s hard to convince sales guys to allow us to ask any further questions of the business. Its a battle I often fight although now I have some sneaky work-around strategies to help me get the information I need 🙂

  10. Cathy-
    This blog is very insightful. I am a student studying Instructional Design at Walden University. I have ran into several of these issues as an Instructional Designer. I recall working for a previous employer and we had a client that always wanted to do things their way. They preferred the first approach that you mentioned. The client gave the team that I was working with all the information that they believed as necessary, but did not realize that additional information was required in order for us to give them the product that they were requesting. We were given a job aid, the material that needed to be changed on uPerform, the phone number to their tech lead, and SME. The issue was that the tech lead and SME were very difficult to get in touch with. Furthermore, when we did hold meetings, via phone conferencing, it resulted in a back-and-forth debate and nothing was ever accomplished. It was frustrating. Your blog definitely highlights what can go wrong and how to improve productivity for a client.

    Thank you!

  11. Hello Cathy,

    As a newcomer for instructional design, I find your blog very insightful. I recently started my coursework in this area and came upon it. As I was reading about the importance of mapping, it brought to mind how courses are delivered at my company. We are a big organization that is constantly changing and therefore, there are new trainings or “refurbished” trainings every few months!!

    From the learner’s perspective, I can say that sometimes it is hard to have to go through the same training, to learn the same information that you had already obtained because there has been a revision. Sometimes I wonder if it would not be easier to simply address the change or if it is because of the new employees that everybody has to “start over” with the trainings. This does make you wonder if time would be better allocated if only the revisions would be focused on the trainings and have a training session for only new employees.

    From the instructional designer’s perspective, I have spoken with a couple of designers from my company and by what they have mentioned, it made me understand that sometimes have had not used mapping. The also mentioned that on occasions it is very hard for them to be able to contact a subject matter expect because they may be located across the country! I think all these things do not necessarily help how trainings are delivered. There is always something to learn and improve and I will definitely take this with me and how important mapping is to be able to meet objectives and obtain the best results. Thanks!

  12. Hi Cathy,
    I love your blog, and follow it by RSS!
    I wish you would have a post on training of complex software systems.

    1. Melville, thanks for your suggestion. I’ve had several people ask about technical training so I’ll try to cover it more in the blog.

      1. What ever happened to the idea of covering how action mapping can be used with technical training? I work entirely on Technical courses and the idea of action mapping sounds interesting, but I don’t want to make a proposal to use it unless it’s been proven to be a viable option.

  13. I’ve been following your “action mapping” concept for a bit now. I really enjoyed this post. Your action mapping matrix looks very similar to a RACI chart. LOVE IT!

  14. I had just in the past year or so *finally* gotten my clients and stakeholders to realize the benefits of designing activities that improve behaviors, rather than just stringing pages of information together with a manual dexterity test of how fast users can click Next to continue. My tutorials have become leaner and the feedback and impact are showing an improvement. However… we are now implementing a corporate university accreditation program, and all of my courses need to be designed “to ensure academic rigor” — my older courses are being awarded more credit hours but my more recent courses are being criticized for not containing enough basic knowledge and general definition drills. Any tips on how I can approach this situation? I feel stuck!

    1. Jennifer, thanks for your comment, and my condolences for your situation! Can you show the stakeholders how learners must have the basic knowledge and know the definitions in order to succeed in your activities? It’s possible that the corporate university folks are just looking at the type of activity rather than the knowledge that it tests.

      Maybe you could dissect some typical activities like I dissected a multiple-choice question in “Do they just know it or can they use it?”. If you can demonstrate that contextual activities demand the same knowledge as simplistic drills, maybe the powers that be will recognize the academic rigor of your work.

      Another approach could be to question whether learners really must memorize all the facts and definitions that the stakeholders think represent academic rigor. That might be a lot harder to accomplish, however.

      1. Cathy,

        Thanks so much for your response and for pointing me to your earlier blog entry. I’m taking your advice on trying to demonstrate that the activites meet but also go beyond the basic knowledge drills. That article, as well as your post, “Why you want to focus on actions, not learning objectives” — gave me some good ammunition for the battle I’ve got ahead of me! I feel much more prepared now. I think I’ll memorize your closing remarks on “Actions lead to lively activities” when I try to make my case. Or maybe I’ll just leave the review commitee locked in our conference room with printed copies of your articles until they succumb! Thanks again!

  15. Cathy,

    Too often a person wants to get started on a new project and does not consider the important aspects associated with this venture. As a result, as you state, the mapping process usually takes less time and requires more stimulation and involvement. Considering the underlining problem identified, what are the chances that a specific training course becomes too larger and does not effectively correct the situation or would the initial meeting identify this potential problem?


    1. Isaac, thanks for your question. Action mapping should narrow the focus of the project, since only the behaviors that will correct the situation will be included on the map and addressed in the training. Aspects of the problem that can’t be solved through training would be identified at step 5 above and moved out of the training project to be addressed through other means.

  16. I am so excited to have found your blog. One of the many things I appreciate about your site is that it is not intimidating. Your humor and style are very welcoming to those who visit, even those new to the Instructional Design world, like me. Your posts are very thoughtful, easy to process and enjoyable! I couldn’t have found this post at a better time! My company recently went through a merger. The cultures behind these two companies could not be more different. One of the many challenges my Learning & Development team has faced is supporting business partners that have never had their own L&D team. My team & I thought they would be thrilled to turn over the development, design and facilitation of training to us, since they are managers, not Instructional Designers and it would free up time for them to focus on their main responsibilities. We could not have been more wrong. Losing the control they had over all aspects of training has been the biggest issue for these managers. They withhold information from us, question every aspect of what we do, think our trainings are never enough…the list goes on. Where many of your posts (“Are Learners Idiots?” and “Are Instructional Designers Doormats?” are two of my favorites!) speak to challenges my team & I have encountered, this post will be most helpful with where we are now. What I appreciate most about action mapping is that it can be applied to multiple skills. I train HR professional and there are over 10 different skill sets we are responsible for training. I feel that where we are with these partners, the idea of action mapping is just what we need to help them understand why we do what we do and how we do it. Involving them and their SME in the action mapping will hopefully begin the road to healing this relationship and pave the way for great training. Action mapping will allow my team to follow our processes and methodologies, while giving our partners the chance to better understand our methods and share their thoughts and ideas about the training in a structured manner. Additionally, I plan on sharing your blog with them, to help them better understand the world of ID. Thanks so much for your thoughts and ideas!

    1. Melissa, thanks for your comment. I’m glad that action mapping has helped you include the stakeholders, and hopefully it will increase their buy-in. Good luck!

  17. Hi Cathy
    Great to read through your blog.
    Based on your vast experience, could you please let me know which tool is best suited for softyware screen simulation? This will help us during product training.
    Thanks a ton.

    1. Hi Sandy, I’m not really a tool person so I can’t recommend any tool in particular. You’ll get a lot of good answers from developers on one of the LinkedIn groups for elearning, such as the Elearning Guild group. Good luck!

  18. Cathy,
    I have really enjoyed this post. I am a school teacher and would like to offer you insight into utilizing this in a school system. The goal of a school system is to educate all learners, but we often get lost in the influx of technology and new techniques. This strategy will help pair down the technologies utilized within the Professional Learning Communities. Our training is all over the scattered and disjointed. This strategy would help administration choose only training that was relevant. Schools often pay for training. This would be an excellent training for administration. Additionally, we utilize goals that are very similar to what you utilize. They are called SMART goals. It is an easy acronym for us to remember the components of an effective goal. These components are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-framed. The one recommendation I have for you is to create some acronym or symbol to help Action Mapping become a household term. Tell your story in a way that applies to desiring Action Mapping. This will help us connect with the product on a personal level which will increase sales. Thank you for posting this important information.

  19. Hi Cathy,

    I am so happy that I came across your blog last week while putting together an assignment for my Instructional Design class at Walden University. I do not have any experience in the field, yet I feel like I am getting a peek into what my future might include. Though it may take more time in the beginning it is easy to see the benefits of getting everyone focused on the same goal. Also, I have to say that the way you presented the difference between using action mapping and not using it helped me to really understand the process. Thank you!

  20. Hi Cathy,
    I really liked learning about the action mapping approach to designing trainings. I am responsible for all the trainings in my unit (a child and adolescent psychiatric unit) and I am also what would be considered the SME. I am not new to training but recently started a second masters degree in Instructional Design to learn better and more efficient ways to meet the goals and needs of my unit. I have been using mind mapping to map the goals of my trainings but really like this approach much better. I am currently incorporating trauma informed care onto the unit and already am planning on changing to this approach. Some of our goals are tangible and easy to measure while others are not. One of the goals is to reduce the resistance to the changes and one is to increase cooperation between staff- do you have any suggestions on how to incorporate these into the map and what activities are best when not all staff will be present at the same training and I am using different modalities over a period of weeks to roll this out. Thank you!!

  21. Since the day I am into instructional designing, I have not come across a better ID than Cathy. Even one of my bosses, Prakash Bebington, was a specialist, but he was a theorist who guided us to develop courses exactly as per guidelines, theories and principle. I find Cathy just opposite; she is unconventional; she has her own approach and ideas, but her techniques help you deliver courses that provide solution to the client; not just an elearning course that the client has asked for. It just gives a wow effect to the elearning.

    Cathy can you take me into your team; I am ready to work for free….