An illustrated stick figure holds an oversized pen and draws a question mark.

When you’re kicking off a project, the first question you need to address is whether training is actually the best solution. When the answer is yes, that often leads to a trickier follow-up: What’s the best format for your content

Learning experiences can take so many forms, from structured in-person classes to self-paced e-learning, video tutorials, podcasts, ebooks, email newsletters, and more. But that wide range of options also makes it challenging to know which is best for your audience—especially when multiple formats could potentially fit your needs.

But thankfully, all it takes to narrow down your choices are a few targeted questions! They’ll help you take your content, situation, learners, and organization into account to uncover the strongest contenders. Not sure which questions to ask? Here are a few I regularly use at the beginning of my projects.

1. Do learners actually need to retain this content?

Have you ever been asked to teach skills or information your learners won’t use regularly, if at all? Sometimes that rarely used information still needs to be committed to memory. For example, consider lifeguard CPR training. That’s information you hope they never need to use. If there is an emergency, though, a lifeguard can respond much faster if they already know what to do than if they need to look up steps in a how-to pamphlet or tutorial video.

But more often than not, learners don’t need to retain rarely used content—they just need help in the moment. When that’s the case, it can be more efficient to skip training and instead design job aids or just-in-time tutorials. You’ll regularly see this approach for supporting new hires with one-off onboarding tasks. Things like setting up a new work computer or filling out new-hire forms aren’t something they’re likely to do again soon, so it’s not a great use of their time to teach them those skills. Instead, many companies use quick tutorials to walk employees through every step—so there’s no need to memorize anything.

Another helpful approach is to teach people where to look for the information when they need it. What can that look like? Think simple, like a video tutorial on how to use the company wiki. Since a wiki is a way to outsource memory, you don’t need learners to remember everything in it. They just need to know how to search through it.

2. What do learners truly need to know?

The scope of your content can do so much to narrow down your options. For example, when you’re learning to drive, there’s a lot to learn about the rules of the road. The content is complicated and vast, so it makes sense to break it down into multiple lessons and spread them out over time to avoid overwhelming learners. But if you’re just teaching them the meaning of different traffic signs, something like a short handout or video tutorial would probably be more appropriate.

To choose the right format for your training, you need clarity about what learners need to take away from it. Unfortunately, you might find your initial scope is poorly defined. That’s because clients and stakeholders don’t always have experience sorting between what learners truly need to know versus nice-to-have additional details. That’s where your guidance comes in. By kindly challenging their assumptions about what information needs to be included, you can focus your efforts on the true essentials and trim out the fluff. And that leaves you in a better position to match your training solution to the actual scope.

3. How important is this information?

Not every project has the same level of priority. And given we all have limitations on our time, resources, and budgets, the relative importance of the content you’re sharing is another smart way to guide the kind of training you create. Resource-intensive or complex solutions could be worth the effort if the information or skills in the course are mission-critical. But if the content is lower priority, it’s better to choose the simplest solution that still gets the job done.

So how do you gauge the importance of your training topic? Start by thinking about what would happen if someone didn’t apply the information or skills correctly in real life. Would the repercussions be minor or severe? When it comes to topics like surgical procedures or driving a car, making mistakes can literally cost lives. So, helping learners master those skills would be a high priority. But compare that to sharing tips on keyboard shortcuts in Word. That content is helpful, sure. But if someone makes mistakes with it, there’s no harm and it’s easy to fix. So if you have both on your plate, the tips content is the lower priority.

Another clue can be how much the content contributes to major company goals—for instance, meeting sales targets or improving hiring practices. 

The size of your audience is another thing to factor in. A larger audience could justify a more expensive solution, since the cost per learner would still be low. But if your audience is small, choosing a cheaper solution is often the best use of limited resources.

4. What are the project limitations?

Nearly every project has constraints—like the budget you need to stay under, how long you have to complete it, or what resources you have available. And don’t forget to consider learner limitations too. For example, maybe you’re training a global audience that can’t all be online at the same time or they need to access your content while working on noisy job sites. Getting a clear idea of the constraints you need to account for helps weed out ideas that theoretically work from a learning perspective but wouldn’t be a good fit for other reasons.

Talking through these limitations—and documenting them—has another benefit: it helps set your client or stakeholders’ expectations. Suppose they have dreams of a complex training game to teach employees about the company’s health and wellness program. But during your discussion, they also admit there’s a short timeline and small budget. By talking through how those limitations impact the training, they’ll be more likely to understand when you recommend something that’s still effective but easier to produce quickly, like a series of explainer videos.

5. Who are your learners?

When you get to know your learners, you’ll uncover important insights about which training approaches best suit their needs. Connecting with your learners helps you assess what knowledge they are (or aren’t) bringing to your course. And it also can hint at how different approaches will land.

For instance, say you’re teaching people how to request time off using a new app. If it was similar to the system they’d used previously, your content could be brief since their past experience would transfer over. But what if they were switching from paper forms? That shift to digital would be a substantial change, likely requiring more training and support for your target audience to feel comfortable.

Or imagine you’re creating new product training for your sales team, and your content would work equally well in an e-learning course or a live webinar. Both seem worth considering—at least until you talk with a few of your learners. With their busy schedules, it’s tough for them to clear a long block of time for training, let alone find a free slot that works for everyone on the team. In that case, the self-paced e-learning course becomes the clear winner since your learners can take it in small chunks whenever is convenient for them.

6. Which format best suits the content and use case?

Have you ever tried explaining how to change a tire using only text? Sure, it’s technically possible, but it’s a lot less straightforward than a video or live demo. Each training format has its unique strengths—for example, video could make it easier to grasp the physical motions required to crank a car jack. Being strategic about which format best suits your content can help clear winners stand out.

You can also narrow things down further by considering how and when people will be using your training. Let’s go back to our tire-change example. While a streamable video could initially stand out as the strongest option, it isn’t so helpful if someone’s tire goes flat and their phone battery’s low or their cell service is weak. In that case, providing a printed instruction manual people can keep in their glovebox to use in the moment of need is more practical.

7. Could using multiple formats be the right solution?

There’s another option to consider with our tire-changing content: Why not use both approaches? Using a mix of different kinds of training or just-in-time support can sometimes be more effective than just one format on its own.

One way to do this is through blended learning, where you use more than one training method to teach and reinforce information. Take, for instance, a course on handling customer complaints where employees learn the basics in self-paced e-learning and then practice the complexities of de-escalating angry customers with an instructor in a classroom setting. Pairing the two approaches gives learners the best of both worlds: the convenience of e-learning for content they can master on their own and live facilitator feedback to ensure they’re correctly applying what they’ve learned.

Another option is to combine multiple formats in a single learning experience. You’ve likely seen this approach tons of times before—maybe in an e-learning course that uses infographics to make data easier to grasp or in a webinar that includes a video to show how a process works. In these cases, there’s usually one main format—the star of the learning experience—and others make brief guest appearances as needed.

So, if you’re struggling to choose between several formats, consider not choosing at all. Just pull together a mix of effective options that balance each other out.


So there you have it. With the answers to just a few questions, you can take that huge list of potential training options, cross off the ones that aren’t strong fits, and focus your energy on those most likely to land well with your learners and stakeholders.

Wondering how to gather the insights to answer these questions? These articles have a bunch of valuable tips that can help.

And by no means are these the only questions that can help with your decision. If you have others you’ve found useful for narrowing down training options, consider sharing them in the comments below. And be sure to follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning.

1 Comment