Do You Really Need a Course Design Document?

A person's hand writing on a blueprint.
In this post, I discuss the importance of a course design document and provide tips for what to include in it, as well as some templates you can use for your courses.

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Reading Time: 7 minutes

Introduction

Cyclical graphics with the following steps: Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation. Evaluation is at the center of the process.

If you had to skip one phase of ADDIE (or a different instructional design model), which one would it be?

A company I used to work for asked instructional designers that question during the job interview. I remember my own slightly panicked reaction as I talked through each phase and couldn’t find anything that wasn’t essential. As I moved up in the company, I also sat on the other side of the conference table listening to candidates talk through the process and the value of each stage. Of course, that was the entire point of the question.

Unfortunately, instructional designers and course creators often feel pressure to take shortcuts in the development process. For example, after a client reviewed the initial development schedule for a recent project, he asked me to skip the course design document deliverable. It’s not the first time a client has asked me to jump ahead to development, but I always push back.

Why You Need a Course Design Document

Creating a course without a design plan is like building a house without a blueprint. If you’ve never seen what that looks like, let me tell you about a structure in my rural community (i.e., no code enforcement) that I call The Monstrosity.

The Monstrosity has been under construction for at least five years. It started as a small house but has been added onto over time, so now it’s a sprawling eyesore that dwarfs the neighboring houses. Different parts are in different stages of construction. Some parts have siding and some don’t, some parts are roofed and some aren’t, some windows have been installed and some haven’t, and some parts are still being framed. It’s clear that there’s no plan.

When you build without a plan, development takes longer and costs more, and the end product is usually an incohesive mess. With a plan, you see what the end product should be and are better positioned to achieve intended outcomes.

As I explained to my client, the design plan helps ensure that everyone is on the same page from the start. It clearly defines the performance goal—what the learners need to be able to do—and how the course will enable them to do it. 

The design plan also reduces the need for costly changes later in the process. It’s much quicker and easier to change a Word document than a Storyline file or video. Getting approval of a design document allows you to push back against (or request more money for) change requests if the client or SME veers from the design later. Even if you don’t need someone else’s approval—say, if you’re a course creator with your own content—a design plan helps keep you focused so the final course matches your initial vision.

What Should the Course Design Document Include?

A course design document can take many forms and go by many names (such as a plan, guide, or framework). I’ve created some 50-page design documents and some 4-pagers. 

Determining how much detail to include is based on the project needs and whether established standards and styles exist. The key is to make sure the course design document includes the essential information needed to build your course. If you had to turn over development to someone else after the design stage, would they be able to produce a course consistent with what you would do? Is the design on paper or mostly in your head?

Overall Design Considerations

My course design documents typically specify the following overall design considerations:

  • Learning environment
  • Tone and style
  • Instructional strategies
  • Assessment and evaluation strategies and scoring/completion criteria
  • Support tools
  • Inclusive design (including accessibility)
  • Interactivity
  • Authoring tools and file formats
  • Technical specifications (LMS/publishing standards, recommended end user requirements, etc.)
  • Mockups (look and feel, UX)

Course-Specific Information

If clearly defined and documented standards already exist, you may not need to describe all the items listed above in your design plan. However, I recommend always including the following essential course-specific information:

  • Target audience (including characteristics)
  • Performance problem and goal 
  • Terminal and enabling objectives
  • Course format (e.g., eLearning, ILT, VILT, blended)
  • Prerequisites
  • Time estimates
  • Content notes
  • Assessment strategies
  • Development notes (including scenario specifics)
  • Source materials

Are Storyboards and Prototypes Enough?

Some instructional designers develop the learning objectives and then go straight to writing storyboards. Others map out the basic structure of the course and/or the storyline for the scenario but don’t run that past the client before proceeding with development. Personally, I would not be comfortable with these shortcuts. Skipping approval of the design can be a critical mistake.

It’s a good idea to create a prototype before launching into full development, particularly when developing a new kind of product or using new styles or technology. I still like to create a design document ahead of time, so the client can sign off on the overall design before development begins.

How a Course Design Document Can Help You Avoid Project Issues

When you don’t take enough time to clarify design standards and requirements at the beginning of a project, it can come back to bite you in the end. Here are a few examples from my own experience.

Frustration from Learners and the LMS Administrator

During the pilot offering of a linear eLearning course, the client’s LMS administrator received complaints from learners who weren’t getting their course certificates.

We discovered that these participants weren’t selecting the popup links, which launched lightbox slides. Because the Storyline completion settings required participants to view 80% of the slides, those who skipped lightbox slides weren’t achieving a completion status. 

Completion settings were only vaguely specified in the design document, and I hadn’t planned appropriately for communicating the requirements to the learner. To mitigate the issue (without locking down the navigation), I added caution popups throughout the course if the learner selected the Next button without viewing the popups. 

Caution sign with text: You have not viewed all the content on this screen. Are you sure you want to continue. Cancel button, Continue button.

After that project, I stopped using lightbox slides and started using layers instead.

Inconsistency in Quality and Style

One client requested a Master Course Design Guide to identify overall standards, styles, and themes to apply across their curriculum. In addition, they requested separate content outlines listing course-specific information. This approach might work well if everyone on the team understands it. However, in this case, the training development team grew fairly quickly without adequate orientation for new members. Thus, several instructional designers were unaware of the Master Course Design Guide. As you can imagine, this led to vast differences in the quality and style of courses being developed. Even the best design document is useless if it’s simply filed away and not put into practice.

Along these lines, having a style guide and some quality assurance guidelines can save time and headaches. As an example, for one instructor-led course—before I learned to request client style guides upfront—I had to re-punctuate every bulleted list because the client had some unusual styles that weren’t shared early in the process.

SCORM Rework

Not getting the client’s pre-approval about the structure of an eLearning course from a SCORM perspective has burned me not once but twice. The first time, my design plan specified SCORM 1.2 output, but not how the SCORM files would be structured—at the course level or lesson level. After the pilot offering, the client asked me to restructure the course as lesson-level SCOs. Luckily, this was an easy fix in Storyline because each lesson was its own scene. So, I could simply publish each scene separately. But the fix would not have been necessary if I had asked the right questions upfront.

The second time I ran into issues with SCORM, the client-approved design plan had specified lesson-level SCOs. After delivering the separate zip files, I learned that my client point of contact hadn’t cleared the plan with the LMS administrator, who needed a single SCORM file. Live and learn, right? I should have consulted all the the appropriate stakeholders in the beginning.

Course Design Document Templates

There’s no one right or wrong format for a course design document. I usually use a narrative format because it provides the most details. However, this document can get rather lengthy, and some clients prefer a shorter format. For those clients, and for those who have clearly defined standards and styles already, I typically use a table format. You can download templates for both my formats below. Feel free to use and modify these for client work. (You’re welcome.)

For even more free goodies, check out this example outline for creating an instructional design document from eLearning Industry and these instructional design document templates from F.Learning Studio.

Summary

Using a course design plan as a blueprint for development helps ensure that the learning solution addresses the performance problem, meets the identified needs, uses consistent styles and strategies, and aligns to the learning objectives. You might say it keeps the project from ballooning into a monstrosity.

Of course, creating a design plan doesn’t guarantee you won’t have problems or clients won’t change their minds midstream, but it does give you a bargaining tool if that happens.

When creating design documents, consider these questions:

  • Who is the target audience?
  • What is the performance problem to be solved?
  • What is the performance goal and how will learners reach it?
  • How will the content be taught and assessed?
  • What support tools do learners have or need on the job?
  • How can you provide context with stories, scenarios, and case studies?
  • Which authoring tools will be used?
  • What standards and requirements must be met?
  • What tools, facilities, and equipment are required?
What to Include in a Course Design Document. List of overall design considerations and course-specific information. See blog post text for details.

Overall Design Considerations

  • Learning environment
  • Tone and style
  • Instructional strategies
  • Assessment strategies
  • Scoring/completion criteria
  • Evaluation strategies
  • Support tools
  • Inclusive design/accessibility
  • Interactivity
  • Authoring tools and file formats
  • Technical specifications
  • Mockups/UX

Course-Specific Information

  • Target audience characteristics
  • Performance problem and goal
  • Terminal and enabling objectives
  • Course format/delivery mode
  • Prerequisites
  • Time estimates
  • Content notes
  • Assessment strategies
  • Development notes
  • Source materials

Your Thoughts?

What other questions do you consider when designing learning experiences?

Have you ever been burned by not clearly defining the design upfront?

Leave a comment!

Want to Learn More?

I’ve gathered some resources for learning more about effective design planning.

If you enjoyed this post, check out some of our other instructional design tips:

Want some help creating a design plan? Get in touch!

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