One of the more frequent questions we hear goes something like this:

"I've done all the right things: I did my analysis, designed appropriate learning activities, and developed my course using valid instructional design principles. Yet I'm not getting great feedback on my courses. What am I doing wrong?"

The short answer: You're probably not doing anything wrong.

You didn't say which process or methodology you're using but the fact that you have standards in place leads me to believe you're doing the right things.

Most designers use ADDIE (analysis, design, development, implementation, and evaluation) as a process for building courses. Sure, there are variations, but almost all instructional design models incorporate similar elements, in one form or another.

And while ADDIE provides a helpful and systematic approach for crafting learning experiences, it's not a tool to stimulate creative thinking.

Lookin' forward to the e-learning

Remember how much air time the Friday music video got when it first came out? After a few weeks, what happened? I'll bet each subsequent time you heard or watched the video, you liked it less.

E-learning courses are a lot like the Friday video.

A course that seems great today probably won't seem nearly as great next year or the year after. Building better courses is less about doing things "right" and more about finding ways to manage and meet your learners' shifting expectations.

The advertising industry understands this. The most successful ads are usually those that don't look like ads. There's even an annual contest to celebrate the best and most creative ads each year.


The ADDY Awards are the world's largest advertising competition. Its sponsor, the American Advertising Federation, describes the awards like this:

"The ADDY Awards program is designed to reward creative excellence in advertising. It is, therefore, a creative competition. Of course, there are no absolute measures for creative excellence, no devices that can be laid beside a piece of work to determine its worth. The judging of good or effective advertising, versus bad or ineffective advertising, is a difficult task, at best. Like other selective processes, which call for opinions, it is extremely subjective."

In other words, you can do everything right and still not win.

Let's be clear. No one's suggesting you skip over doing the basics—that's your foundation. You still have to conduct analysis, design appropriate practice activities, and structure everything in a way that makes sense.

But there's also an x-factor. Like successful advertising, great elearning courses also have an "it." And that "it," is your ADDY.

Click here to learn more about "it"

Does This Course Have ADDY?

ADDY doesn't mean you have to redesign your course model or change how you're delivering courses. Instead, it's about incrementally trying new techniques and approaches.

Here are a few ways—with examples—you can design more ADDY into your courses.

Storytelling devices

Stories are ideal for communicating how something works in the real world. Emphasize or exaggerate the conflict or consequences over the information.  Want an easy place to begin? Try reproducing a popular reality show format like Mike did in Psyched in 10:

Another idea is to let the dialog drive the course using a layered-storytelling approach similar to Bruce's Machine Principles.

Humor and parodies

What are some common analogies or clichés that apply to your topic? If you're designing a course on lawn care, what could you compare it to?

If you think of weeds as your enemy then you might also see it as your mission to eradicate them to protect the residential lawn. That could give you a Home Improvement meets Stripes meets Caddyshack design theme.

Point of view and perspective

When you want learners to see your courses differently, you have to disrupt their expectations. Reversing or changing viewpoints is a classic ADDY technique for contrasting the expected with the unexpected.

If you're training sales people to educate consumers about bed bugs, for example, you could present things as if you were:

  • The salesman looking to generate new business
  • The consumer looking for common signs of infestation
  • A bed bug looking for room and board

Check out this inspiring thread for even more creative angles you could use.

Shock tactics and drama

If your training is about solving a problem, try emphasizing the problem with drama or provocative graphics.

Say you're designing training on diabetes, how would you begin the course? Bullet points? Graphs and charts? Statistics? If you're going for ADDY, you might open with the sound of a heart pump and a time bomb strapped around someone's waist.

What do you think?

What are some of your favorite courses? What made them stand out from others you've seen? What are some marginal changes you can make to give your courses more ADDY?

Post written by David Anderson

David Anderson
Lawrence Tagrin
Steve Flowers
David Anderson
duane shoemaker

Yes, David.. there is.... keeping the audience at center mass throughout the process only ensures that success is achieved. Creativity around the look and feel of a course extends beyond this core belief. Understanding the learning style of your audience can open doors to the imagination of building a course that is unique and successful. While I agree that expectations and objectives of the client are extremely important when it comes to content and possibly implementation, the real success comes from harnessing the learning style of the audience and combining it with the client's expectations (content). The fun part of ADDIE is really in the D and D of ADDIE. Thinking outside of the box for design and development must reflect the learning styles of the audience. This is wh... Expand

Steve Flowers

I think we've missed David's point with this post. Maybe by using a style of communication that leverages the psychology of persuasion in the construction of messages we could be more successful than when using bland, linear, cookie cutter expectations so common in courseware? There is A LOT of science in marketing communication and it's all validated by the success of the campaign. User tested. That presents a tremendous opportunity for application of the lessons of one discipline to another. I don't think David's post was about look and feel at all. It was more about the construction of our messages and the sources of inspiration we draw from to build those messages. I like asking my audience what they like and need. I also like testing with my audience throughout the process. But ... Expand

David Anderson

"The fun part of ADDIE is really in the D and D of ADDIE." Agreed! And that's the reason I referenced Joe's bed bug training course. Targeted to sales people, it creatively reversed the "expected" narrative by framing the training from the bed bugs' perspective. Admittedly, I didn't see the final product, but I imagine most of the extra design effort came from the writing and scripting side more than the visual design. I also agree with your point that audience is central to all successful learning. The challenge is balancing audience preferences with corporate constraints like time and resources. Most times there’s a one-size-fits-all approach that usually fits no one. That’s where having a creative angle can help. If I want to learn Office 2010, for example, I have over 600 books to ... Expand

duane shoemaker

Great post, David! This is an interesting topic to ponder.... What is interesting to me is that people attempt to straddle the lines of marketing and instructional design as if it is the same thing. While there are some similarities between these two concepts, they are very different. At it's core, they both attempt to appeal to the audience. However, marketing is a strategy to find a captive audience. The instructional design strategy is to retain the already captive audience. Thus, the methods used are different. Getting you to purchase a car requires different selling techniques. Teaching you how to drive the car you already purchased requires different tactics. Catering to a broad and general audience requires the ability to determine commonalities that are within the learni... Expand

Steve Flowers

@Duane. I would argue that marketing and instructional design are not as far apart as you implied above. If you think the audience of your courses is captive already, just by nature of opening your course (by choice or under duress)... Some one is fooling one's self:) Sure the methods of conveyance are different. But that's not the intent of David's parallels between one communication discipline and another, in my opinion. It is the consideration that you still need to captivate your audience at some level to get them to drink from the fountain (not visually, necessarily). Psychology applies in either case and in some cases using identical methods. The nature of marketing collateral is fleeting. You have a very short period of time to catch someone's focus and burn a positive associ... Expand

Mike Enders

I'm with Steve on this one. All too often, audiences are only "captive" because they are required to take a particular course (compliance, yummy!). Also, even though the research on "learning styles" is, at best, mixed, the concept is now commonly accepted and pursued. In fact (in terms of online courses), the two largest factors in learner success are prior knowledge of topic and learner motivation. The motivation aspect is where, I believe, this current thread comes into play. If I have a group of learners who are less than enthusiastic about the course I am developing, how can I borrow from other fields (such as marketing) to, as Steve states so well, "catch someone's focus and burn a positive association." How can I imbue my course with "it" so that an unmotivated learner beco... Expand

Bruce Graham

Bruce arriving stage right - late to the conversation (again) but it's because I was invoicing and trying to close the month as positively as possible - FORGIVE ME GENTS FORGIVE ME!!!!!!! Did that work? > Apart from being true, (hopefully you could actually imagine it happening, and empathise with it..?), it was a rather "unusual" entrance to a thread. For me, if allowed by "my client" (whoever they are), I try to find something that all the audience, potentially can say "That's me!" within a few seconds. Learning styles are important, but you would not teach an org-chart using drone - you would use a picture....BUT...if I can say (for example - and I am making this up as I go along...after Merlot) "Hello and welcome to this course called Musical Chairs, where am I going to sit ... Expand

duane shoemaker

Awesome dialog here! It is interesting to see the various opinions and the sharing of experiences on this thread. The one thing that I have experienced over the years is that old ideas are constant. The only thing that changes is how they are presented. For me the audience is the number one factor to consider. If a full audience analysis is done properly training will focus on the differences of what people already know and what they need to know for that job or function. Thus, required skill minus current skills equal training objectives. These training objectives are matched with the client's objectives and expectations to ensure that appropriate content is included. Knowing your audience makes a big difference in how training is delivered and presented. Understanding your contr... Expand

Bruce Graham

The observant Duane wrote: "The one thing that I have experienced over the years is that old ideas are constant. The only thing that changes is how they are presented." Welcome to the world that magicians inhabit!! He also pointed out that: "Often times, the client realizes that the issue was not training after all but more of a management issue". This is one of my "unwritten" checks and balances when investigating course requirements. I will assume it is not a training issue until proven otherwise. Duane's statement is one of the most insightful observations here, and in any of the "business" related eLearning threads. Often, our industry/IDs miss this completely, partly for fear of not "making the sale", or "getting the bonus". Very often, the client will have a budget t... Expand

Melisa Cobb

I enjoyed reading this post and appreciate the tips. I am new to the field of Instructional Design and reading about different strategies and approaches can help me have an advantage in my organization, as they are currently looking for new ways to design and deliver the trainings. This post fall in line with what they want to accomplish. Most of their trainings all follow the same format and after a while they start to all look alike. It is becoming more of a challenge to keep trainees engaged in the online learning. Every once in a while they will create a new training that has a completely different format. One I remember was in the form of a comic book. They would walk you through a story, inform you of the material, then have you decide what the character in the comic should do nex... Expand

Skip Hagan