How to respond to “Make one course for everyone”

Your client wants “one course for everyone.” You know this means “one generic info dump that everyone will forget.” How can you steer the project in the right direction? Learn more.

How to respond to “Make one course for everyone”

By Cathy Moore

“I’ve got a great idea!” says the new employee at Acme Tea Company. “Some people like iced tea. Other people like hot tea. Let’s make everyone happy by selling room-temperature tea!”

The L&D equivalent sounds like this:

  • “Everyone needs to be aware of this, so put a course on the LMS and assign it to all employees.”
  • “Make a course about the new product features for the repair people, help desk, and sales staff.”
  • “Everyone should treat patients with respect, so let’s create a workshop for all staff.”

The result? A bland, room-temperature information dump that everyone quickly forgets. Here’s how to get your client to take a more effective approach.

1. Solve a problem. Don’t just deliver information.

Group of iconic people being subjected to an information dumpOur clients often expect us to install information in people’s heads. Instead, we need to ask the right questions to uncover the problem that the information will supposedly solve.

Take charge of the conversation from the first contact with the client. What problem are they trying to solve? What do they need people to do? Why aren’t people doing it?

You might discover that information alone really would solve the problem. In that case, you probably don’t need a course or workshop. How about some easy-to-use job aids and some motivating messages from leadership?

If the client wants everyone to be “aware,” try these tips.

2. Segment the audience by what they do on the job.

Repair staff need to troubleshoot misbehaving widgets. Sales staff need to match the right widget to the customer’s needs. Giving them both a generic presentation on new widget features will help neither of them.

Consider creating at least one persona to represent each segment. A persona is a fictional but realistic character with a name, age, interests, and everything else that makes a person real. Consider what that person needs as you design solutions.

Does Betty the widget salesperson need to reassure people about the heat generated by the new widget? How can we help her do that?

Will David the widget repair person be tempted to misdiagnose a wobble in the new widget because the feet are designed differently? How can we help him avoid that mistake?

Some people use “persona” to mean “weird-looking avatar character that annoys the heck out of me in elearning” (or maybe that’s my own definition). I’m using “persona” in the marketing and usability sense. I’m not saying, “Put Betty and David in your materials.”

3. Focus on designing activities, not information.

Now that you’ve segmented people by what they need to do, help them practice doing it.

Create unique activities that let people pull the information they need to solve a realistic problem that’s specific to their job. These activities will be different because your segments have different jobs with different challenges.

For example, a technician drawing blood has one type of interaction with a patient, while a nutritionist providing advice has a different type. What does “respect” look like in each case? How can each person practice saying and doing respectful things?

If you’re packaging your activities as one online course, you can have each person choose their job role and send them on different paths. However, a one-shot course is rarely the best solution to a problem. For example, you could consider offering a bank of activities so people can practice on demand, over time — and that’s just one example of many possibilities.

Here’s one fictional example of the activity-first approach that avoids a generic information dump.

The core problem: “Training is knowledge transfer”

Our learners aren’t in school, preparing for a test. They’re in jobs that require them to do things. They often need practice, not just information.

However, many clients (and too often, our bosses and instructional design professors) assume that our job is to install information into people’s heads. We’re supposed to get the information in there and then test to make sure it survived a few minutes in short-term memory.

We can change that perspective by politely but relentlessly turning the conversation to the performance problem that needs to be solved, not the information that people supposedly need. Here’s an interaction that summarizes the action mapping workflow.

Get more tips from my mini-expert system

This interactive tool asks you five questions about your training project and provides custom advice, thanks to the power of variables in Twine.

If you have a performance problem that could be improved with information and advice, you might use Twine or a similar tool to answer the common questions.

Scenario design toolkit now available

Design challenging scenarios your learners love

  • Get the insight you need from the subject matter expert
  • Create mini-scenarios and branching scenarios for any format (live or elearning)

It's not just another course!

  • Self-paced toolkit, no scheduling hassles
  • Interactive decision tools you'll use on your job
  • Far more in depth than a live course -- let's really geek out on scenarios!
  • Use it to make decisions for any project, with lifetime access



6 comments on “How to respond to “Make one course for everyone”

Comments are closed.

  1. These are excellent ideas and provides good inspiration for solving the issue of “one course for all employees” directives. I am from the old school and cut my teeth on designing instructor led training (still do that) and have not done a lot of online learning design yet. One thing that always helped me when designing those “one course for all…” was to make sure the content, examples, activities, etc. are all as real-world as possible up to and including using class participants to give their spin. I would also include the “Big Picture” look at the process or content, so everyone would know where they fit in. Believe it or not, sometimes having different folks from various job classifications made the class richer and my motto is find the positive and accent that. So participants were able to learn more about co-workers’ jobs and how they can support someone in another department and all work together to make things better.

  2. Nice one.
    I like the use of the phrase, “they just want us to install information”. Sadly, so often so true.
    Cheers, Paul

  3. An article that is insanely realistic!

    We are in an age where everything is hyper customized except training still follows the One Size Fits All approach

  4. A valuable read. It really is about associating “knowledge” with the context if a situation or circumstance. Information is simply data that has no meaning or purpose unless it is associated. Nice.

  5. Hi Cathy,

    I enjoyed your post/presentation, thank you.

    I agree with the approach you recommend an instructional designer should have when meeting the SME’s. We shouldn’t just have a lot of content for the learner but give them an experience which is something they will remember. There is a misconception that having a lot of repetitive content is an effective way for someone to learn but the truth is a person learns if the instructional designer, in this particular case, encodes the problem with the SME by asking the right questions that will enable the learner to understand and apply the knowledge in a beneficial way. (Laureate Education, n.d.).

    Your presentation resonated with me as I am currently in a training on learner experience design, a fairly new theory which involves achieving the learning outcomes from a human and goal oriented position. Learning experience design is focused on the learner, right at the center of the whole design with quadrants that include the goal you need to reach, an experience which is something we all learn from, the design and putting the knowledge into practice. (Floor, n.d.). If you ask the right questions as instructional designers, you will have a clear understanding of what will work for the learner therefore achieving your goal through experience and not through a lot of information.

    Laureate Education (Producer). (n.d.). Information processing and problem solving [Video file]. Baltimore, MD: Author.
    Niels Floor (n.d.) What is learning experience design. Retrieved from:

  6. Cathy,

    I really enjoyed your post. You mentioned a few things that really struck me. I am currently in a Masters program for Instructional Design at Walden University. I am in my second class and am enjoying what I am learning. I have always enjoyed training and that is why I choose this career path. What you said that really struck me was when you mentioned that our learners are not in school, they are on the job. I really think this is something that we must always remember when presenting a training. We aren’t just giving them information that can be forgotten. This information is to help them do better at the their jobs in one way or another. I think if we focus on that, when we prepare our presentation, we will find better ways to help our leanrers actually learn and be able to implement what we have taught. Thank you for sharing!

    Brock Westover