Best Practices for Synthesizing Course Content

Though I've written multiple storyboards, they take me way longer than I want them to.  I've come to the conclusion that there must be a better way!  To me, the true art of instructional design is efficiently and effectively taking the mountain of information and making sense of it - identifying key messages, and narrowing content.

What are your best practices for sifting through all of the content that a client gives you, then grouping them into logical learning units?  What process do you use to sort and organize all the video, documents, audio, and notes from SME meetings?  How do you avoid being overwhelmed by the information dump?  How do you get up to speed quickly?

What tools do you use to sort it all... Sticky Notes, whiteboards, pencil and paper, multiple monitors, digital tools?  

How much do you interact with your SMEs during this phase?  Daily?  Weekly?  Via calls or email?

I'm hoping to discover a process that will work for me that will speed up my turtle's pace so that I can actually consider myself a rapid elearning designer!

Thanks in advance for sharing your process,


6 Replies
Steve Flowers

This is a tough situation. Here's the thing I like to do with content:

  • Push it to the side for awhile while we sort out some other important stuff. It's really easy to get bogged down in organizing and treating content. So much so that most of my energy could easily be eaten up by things that might not be the most valuable use of my time (and consequently, the time of my stakeholders).

One of the more difficult things to do at the start of a project is mapping the intent of the solution. Not being able to see the structure of what is and *what needs to be* is a real challenge. I think of design as a process of illumination. Illuminating the gaps and distance between the what is and the what needs to be helps to highlight the trade-offs. There's a structure to this training stuff and I really think starting with content is a little unhealthy

Content IS useful. It's critical. Content contains data and sign-posts that inform design and create scaffolding and structure around the foundations of the experience. As valuable as content is, I have been trying to train myself not to start with the content. Golly, it's hard. Content is the biggest elephant in the room. I really think if we're to win proficiency battles and provide real value, we can't be slaves to content.

There are a few ways to start down the track after neatly wrapping up my content for safe-keeping (I'll need it later) Here's part 1. I'll touch on another approach I'm trying to develop (it's part strategy, part habit) in part 2.

  • I've asked the client to tell me the story of "When this is done and perfect, what does it look like? What do you see in your head?". This starts a conversation and anchors the follow-on questions to a vision they've already got started. Follow-on questions include, OK - you've described how you want it to look and the information you want it to contain. But what are people not doing or are they not proficient at that you want them to be more capable of? What choices are people not making that you want them to make? What do you want people to DO, to BE, or to BELIEVE that they currently do not? Why? Why? Why? OK, so that task is difficult? What makes it difficult? Why?
  • When the story is finished and the conversation has paused, I have a picture of what the expectations are and a pretty good idea of what the skills are that we're looking to improve, what decisions we want people to make, what things we want people to be fluent and proficient in that they aren't now. We have a focal point or lots of focal points.
  • I have this thing I believe to be true. We can train the skill but we can only support the task. It's the old "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him / her drink." So much of the time, we try to spray information in an effort to support the task but we don't have the focus within the experience (or the effort applied) to train the skill.
  • These focal points and the map above are a playground. I spend some time playing with the performance data (anything I can get my hands on) to map out contexts. I look for opportunities to create moments that will facilitate or support a change in skill or fluency. Like a sheet of music, the design has measures. I want to create intentional notes that flow together. I can't do that if I'm bound by the burden of content...

When this first part of the process is finished, I have a clear map of the key moments of the experience. I can see how these key moments support the things (skills / fluency / proficiency) we want to help the participant improve. And I have a visible structure that I can now use to wire up authentic tasks and ask additional questions. Best of all, I have a clear structure and skeleton that I can start moving around, reconfiguring, and attaching things to. I may tear parts of it down, I may build parts of it up. But I needed to start from the core, from a place where the foundations are. The bones.

There's lots more to it than this, but too many times I feel that if I'm not in this mindset in the beginning, things won't end up as great as they could be. I  I wrote about something I call design economics a few weeks ago. A little more detail there. More in part 2. 

Anna Vilarnau

Hello Jill,

I can help you with the audio generation for your eLearning courses: have you considered Text To Speech (TTS) to generate the voice overs? TTS allows you to generate audio files instantly. You can type any text (your slide content or script) and select the voice and audio format.  This will eliminate any waiting time to get your audio content, and you know you can access the same voice at anytime if you need to re-do any part of the presentation; or add more content.

I have helped hundreds of eLearning companies with audio generation and they are very happy with our TTS. I will be happy to help you as well, if you are interested you can contact me directly at If you are curious to check how the voices sound, you can check out the iSpeech Demo.

All the best with your eLearning creations, and I look forward to speaking with you soon!


Rich Johnstun

Steve really makes a solid approach. 

I deal mainly with technical courses. My SME's are often engineers and my audience is not. They will throw reams of information my direction. What it really comes down it is a serious training analysis to start the project.

Identify the gap. Where is the audience at today and what is the expectation of where they will be at the end of the training?

After identifying the gap, nail down solid objectives. The objectives have to be actionable and measurable. 

Once the objectives are nailed down, map your content to your objectives. If you leave out a piece of content that the client wants in and it doesn't map to an objective, then it's time to revisit the objectives. On almost every project I do, the SME will say, "You didn't include X, you have to include that.". To which I'll say that it doesn't further any of the objectives, is it really necessary? Most of the time, after some consideration, they will come back and say that it doesn't need to be there after all. 

The point is that you do all of your analysis and lock in your objectives before ever dive into the content. Clients and SMEs usually want to start with content first, and that can be a battle the first couple times you run through a project with someone. 

Cathy Moore

Jill, I've had success with a streamlined process I call action mapping. You can get an overview of it here:

Basically, it's a way to get everyone focused not on the content but on the behaviors they want people to take. It happens in 4 steps. The first 2 can take place in a meeting of about 2 hours that includes the client, the main SME, and any other stakeholders who have veto power over what you might want to do.

1. Identify the measurable improvement you want to see in business performance as a result of the training (e.g. "Increase widget sales X% by Q4").

2. Identify what people need to do to achieve that increase and why they aren't doing it. (these become your objectives)

3. Brainstorm realistic activities that will help people practice the necessary actions. These are often scenarios of some sort.

4. Finally, identify the information that learners absolutely need to have in order to complete the activities. This might best be provided as real-world job aids instead of info presented in the course.

Ideally, because they're involved in 1 & 2, everyone buys in to the idea that we're changing behavior, not dumping information. Then the SME can help brainstorm challenging activities and, with luck, becomes less fixated on presenting information.

All this can be done in a big mind map. If you use mind mapping software that lets you insert files, you can attach content to your activity ideas right in the map. The map identifies your content, and you use it as a guide to write your storyboard.

I hope this helps!

International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)

Before I do anything I have a kick off meeting with the SME to determine what content will NOT be needed. That cuts down extra work later on. Often after I have already put in 30 hours of work they come and say "remove that"or "update this". This kick off cuts down that content issue issue by 80%. 

I then create a concept map using word or power point. I create main sections and sub-sections for all the content. Its great to see everything unfold and get a top-down perspective. No content, just headings for where the content will be. If you use branching in yoru course this process is indispensable. Then, most importantly show this concept map to the SME for sign off or validation. SMEs often shuffle things around a bit. Show it once, because the more they see it the more they fiddle with it. And show ONE SME, another will just switch stuff around. 

Once the SME agrees to what they see on the concept map,  develop it. I cut out storyboards these days and get right to rapid prototyping. I have no time. So instead I build the course in storyline and the notes section serves as narration for the narrator. The SME review it in Storyline. 

I get validation and get it narrated and shazam, a finished product in a week depending on how much content they want. Also depending if they want level 1, 2 or 3 interaction. 

Bob S

Hi Jill,

It can be a bit overwhelming. But as others have basically said, you need to flip things around backwards...

Focus on what you want the learner to DO, then teach only the information relevant to impacting that... Instead of teaching all the information SMEs want in and hoping it will impact learner behaviors.

At times you may literally sound like a broken record, but it's important. Heck, I often warn SME's that they are going to hear me ask "What do you want them to be able to DO, not what do you want them to KNOW" so many times that they will hear it in their sleep.

Good luck,