Basic E-Learning Workflow and Design Process

New e-learning developers often come to the E-Learning Heroes forums to find a basic overview of a process they can follow to design e-learning. Now, let me tell you up front: there is no right or wrong way to approach an e-learning project. Everyone has a different opinion on what works best. It depends on many variables, including your budget, time, talent, resources, as well as what has worked well in your past experiences.

I’ve worked on quite a few projects now, most of them as a one-woman e-learning team, but other times in a coordinated group effort. From these experiences, I feel I’ve narrowed down an e-learning workflow that suits me. My design process is pretty straightforward and practical, so I thought it might be helpful to share it with others—particularly those new to e-learning. I can’t cover every single detail of the process in one article, but I’ll give you a high-level overview of how I develop e-learning from start to finish.

Step 1: Chat with the Client

When you land an e-learning project, the first thing to do is identify why the client wants to create a course in the first place. Training is typically requested because managers sense there is a problem that training will solve. So, your first goal is to learn what performance gap the e-learning is supposed to fill. In many cases, training isn’t really the appropriate solution, but for our purposes let’s assume a proper training needs analysis indicates a real business need for e-learning.

Talk to your client and identify the expectations, including:

  • High-level objectives
  • Budget
  • Tools
  • Timelines
  • Review process
  • Branding requirements
  • Course access (email with a link, learning management system [LMS], hosted online, etc.)

The client might also provide you with additional details that will be pertinent to the course design and direct you to a Subject Matter Expert (SME) who can answer your questions and provide content-specific knowledge. Additionally, the client might share existing content and materials that can be leveraged, or point to resources that can serve as a starting point.

Step 2: Gather and Organize Content

During or after your client meeting, your client might give you a big pile of raw content, such as past training materials, or a PowerPoint presentation compiled by the SME. Your next step is to sort through all of the content and separate the “fluff,” or “nice to know” information, from the “need to know” and task-based content.

If you don’t have existing materials that you can leverage, you’ll likely need to do the research and write the content yourself. In some cases, you might work closely with SMEs to extract their knowledge. While every e-learning project is different, the aim of training is generally the same: to teach someone a new skill that will improve job performance. As you dig through your research materials, focus on action-based content that will help you reach the training goal.

Group your content into small pieces that are easy for learners to digest, and organize these pieces in the order that makes the most sense. Clarify and expand on any additional information by consulting with your SMEs. You should start considering which photos and multimedia to use in your e-learning course. You don’t need to spend two hours on stock photo sites searching for the absolutely perfect image quite yet, but you should have an idea of what multimedia you want to use.

Step 3: Storyboard

The tool you use to storyboard and develop your course will depend on what’s available to you, which applications you’re familiar with, and what your client wants. I’ve had the luxury of being able to storyboard directly in Storyline, which has been a huge time-saver in the design process for me. I find it takes a lot less time than storyboarding in one application and moving the content over to an authoring tool later.

My storyboards consist of text, placeholders for multimedia (images and videos), and functioning navigation. I don’t usually include animations, but will put notes indicating what animations I’d like to use. At this point, I’m not trying to make it look pretty or add visual design elements (except for logo placement); I’m just identifying how all the content will be laid out and linked. It’s key for me to make sure my course has a good navigation flow.

Sometimes, instructional designers need to storyboard a course and then hand it off to someone else for development. If this is the case, you’ll need to include detailed notes for the developers. You should also incorporate instructions and screenshots to make sure your storyboard is very clear and thorough for the course developer.

Having a solid storyboard makes it easier to avoid mistakes, such as when you reach the final few slides of your beautiful course and realize you need to add a button on every single slide. Ugh. For more tips on storyboarding, check out this article: 10 Best Practices for E-Learning Storyboarding.

Step 4: Review and Edit

Once I’ve got a good storyboard with functional navigation and all of the content sorted out, I will publish it and pass it along to the SME or a trusted colleague for review. I will usually stress the fact that the storyboard has not yet been styled, so it doesn’t have the polished look or the final glossy images. I know I will eventually get there, but before I do, I need to make sure I have rock-solid content and a functioning interface for navigation.

Thanks to Articulate Review it’s easier than ever to share my course with my reviewers. I simply select the Articulate 360 publishing option in Storyline 360 and send them the link to view my course. They can then add any comments directly to the slides as they move forward. If any of their comments require further clarification, I can respond inline. Articulate Review then sends an email to notify the SME that I’ve responded, and they can continue the discussion with me. And since all the comments are in context, it’s easy to make sure we’re all speaking the same language.

Once I’ve applied the changes, I can resolve the comments and republish my course. Articulate Review keeps a copy of the first version while making the new version available via the same link. Easy-peasy!

You might have to go through several rounds of review before you get everything nailed down for development. It’s easy to get frustrated with review cycles, but try to keep in mind that the feedback you’re receiving will likely improve the overall course quality.

Step 5: Develop the Course

This is the fun part! Now that you’ve got all your multimedia, text content, and navigation details sorted out, you can have fun styling, adding color schemes, choosing fonts, and poring over the perfect photos and illustrations.

If you’re using a tool like Rise, you don’t have to worry about your course design. Thanks to its sleek, modern interface, your courses will look beautiful every time. And the best part is, you don’t have to do a thing! Just insert your content. You’ll have everyone wondering how you created something so gorgeous so quickly.

If you’re using a slide-based tool, like Storyline, here are some visual design basics to give your course a simple, clean, and modern look, such as:

  • Leave a good amount of white space and keep slides clutter-free
  • Limit yourself to one or two fonts throughout the course
  • Limit yourself to two or three colors throughout the course
  • Buttons and links should be in the same place on every slide
  • Align and distribute items and text on your slide
  • Use relevant and meaningful photography
  • Stick to one type of clip art or photography throughout your course

These are just some of the basics for developing a visually appealing course. If you’re having trouble with the graphic design aspect of the course creation process, never fear: Content Library is here! With hundreds of course templates to choose from, you’re sure to find what you’re looking for.

Step 6: Quality Assurance and Testing

Now that you’ve storyboarded and developed an awesome course, it’s ready for launch, right? Not quite yet. Testing is a really important step in the process.

At one of my former organizations, I discovered the true value of the testing phase firsthand when we asked five employees, who had different levels of technical skills, to complete an e-learning course. We recorded them doing it and then got their feedback. I got a lot of similar comments that surprised me, such as not knowing where to click on a certain slide, even though I thought I had made it very clear. This on-the-ground feedback was really helpful and I made quite a few course edits that really improved the course. We also caught tons of typos, grammatical errors, and small design errors (alignment issues, wrong color choices, etc.) that, when all cleaned up and edited, made a huge difference in how polished the course looked.

All this to say, don’t rush to publish your course, even if you’re really proud of it and excited to get it into the hands of your learners. Take the time to have it thoroughly reviewed from top to bottom for design inconsistencies, broken navigation links, spelling, and grammar. Additionally, have it tested by potential participants and watch them as they complete the course to see where they struggle, what works well, and what doesn’t work well. You can always adjust the course based on your observations for a better end result.

Step 7: Publish and Deploy

After all that hard work, you’re finally ready to publish and deploy your e-learning. The type of output you publish to depends on how your learners are accessing their courses. In some cases, you might simply publish your files for the web, upload them to a web server, and provide the URL link for your learners to access the course.

If you want to track your users using the company LMS, you’ll need to publish your course to SCORM or Tin Can API (depending on the standard your LMS uses) and upload those files to the LMS. Provide your learners with clear instructions on the software requirements for viewing the course, and where and when they can access it.

Developing an e-learning course from start to finish can seem like an extremely daunting process to a newcomer, and there’s definitely lots to learn along the way. Following my seven-step e-learning workflow will help you get started.

This article is part of our E-Learning 101 email course, a series of 10 expertly curated articles that’ll help you get started with e-learning—delivered right to your inbox. You’re only a click away from becoming an e-learning pro! Sign up here to enroll.

28 Comments
Heather Leblond

Great article, thank you. We are just starting to use Storyline at my company. We currently have existing processes to create e-learning that likely involve several more people/processes than we'll need when developing and streamlining in Storyline. My biggest question involves how do most Storyline users split work between the ID and Creative? If you have the right master pages and layouts reflecting a client's brand and preferences do you really need the process to include the creative ongoing or can you have the ID do everything? Maybe it depends on skill level. Secondly in your step number 4 you mention your initial SME review is done by using a simple document with a two-column table - one with a screen shot of every slide and the right hand column for the SME to enter comments - is t... Expand

Arturo Aguilera

Hi Heather. My experience is that the ID should dictate most fo the creative effort since he orshe might understand the concept better than a graphic designer or developer. Creativity must aid learning and not just look pleasing. I am used to do everything because I like to have control over the entire process. As for the SME document, I like to use PowerPoint and use the notes as the script. This allows the SMEs to have a better view of how the final product will look. In Addtion, by using PowerPoint, you can add the audio script and graphics at the same time. When the storyboard is signed off, then you just import to Storyline and all you need to do is add animation, synch the audio and start the QA process. Some people called this method "rapid development". I have some samples that I c... Expand

Nicole Legault
Sarah Street
Curtis Pembrook
Curtis Pembrook

@Vijay, I'm not sure if you are looking for a general ISD Model, like ADDIE, or a process for designing online courses in higher education. In terms of ISD models for higher education, I recommend either the Dick and Cary model (http://goo.gl/pfYLsw) or the ASSURE Model (http://goo.gl/eWI06v). Beyond a general model, a process I use for course development in higher education, is described in a book called "Conquering the Content", by Robin Smith (ISBN-10: 0787994421). I use it for faculty development courses at Mission College (http://www.missioncollege.edu). Finally, Mission College librarians have developed a very collaborative approach to designing a "core" course using our LMS's learning objects repository. Contact me at curtis.pembrook@wvm.edu if you want more info and I c... Expand

Ejuana Mitchell
Joseph Roberson

I am beginning a large project updating and improving a series of learning modules. The client is the home care division of a major hospital system. This project is also part of my internship with UMBC ISD program; I have only been using Storlyine about 7 months now.I am hoping someone can suggest a design workflow regarding setting up Templates, Themes, Master Slides, and Layouts. I need to get a better handle on how to set up these organizational structures so I spend less time mucking around tweaking things to make them consistent. I have worked through the tutorials. They help with the individual topic but they don;t really help me to visualize and set up this workflow. Basically, I am combining the Metro flat grid idea with a Learning Agent character, so first I have to figure o... Expand