Some instructional design projects begin with more clarity than others—with structure, a solid purpose, and defined objectives. Other times, it’s as if you're standing before a murky pool, with who knows what below the surface.
If you’ve ever stood before that murky pool as an instructional designer, you know the feeling of helplessness and dread. And chances are, it comes with a tight deadline, high expectations, and prominent visibility within the organization.
And what exactly is your vision for success? Maybe a certain directive makes you think there’s more below the surface that you’re not aware of. Maybe the stakeholders have conflicting agendas. Or maybe your project sponsor and SMEs are dealing with a system installation with more snags than a pair of drugstore nylons.
As you gaze into that murky pool, what do you do? You might consider throwing the traditional out the window and dive in to the solution that gives you a fighting chance at success: iterative design.
Iteration as a Guided Path
While the characteristic image of traditional design is a waterfall—majestic and cascading, with an unstoppable one-way momentum—iterative design is something else altogether. It may be a circle, a cycle, a round labyrinth for collegial meditation, or a path that may seem to be heading nowhere along which consensus is gradually made.
Perhaps most of all, it's a way to dive in and jump-start a project by rapidly moving toward an early prototype that can be seen, understood, and even tested to see how the whole might work (and where it could fail). Design steps are at least temporarily conflated (aesthetics and functionality might be addressed before the content is solidly in place), but in doing, we yield and support the hidden lessons of instructional design—that this process is recursive, like the turning of a wheel, and meshed so that design enables content just as content may suggest a certain design. Iteration entails repetition but also approximation, as we move closer to the ideal solution, even when part of this movement takes us back toward the beginning and provides another attempt to get it right.
Iterative design comes to us from the world of programming, in which cyclic processes of prototyping, testing, analyzing, and refining a product or process are common. For instance, in the Incremental Build Model, code is developed one portion at a time, with heavy testing and input along the way. Behind such approaches lurks the sea change that is Agile Movement, in which requirements and solutions evolve from collaboration between self-organizing, cross-functional teams through evolutionary development, early delivery, and continuous improvement. Considering the rapidly changing, collaborative environment we work in these days, it is easy to see why an “agile” mindset, manifested in iterative design, is increasingly essential to meet the demands of learning organizations.
As iterative IDs, we jump in, push ahead, and move back responsively as input comes in. We help the team envision what the project can be and how it and can look, feel, and live in the world. Key deliverables become the prototype, the sample, or GUI. The mental dance of iterative learning design simultaneously requires openness to change and an early commitment to some version of what the final product could be, that may also be revised even to its foundations.
Five Best Practices for Iterative IDs
It takes faith in the process and expertise at enacting it to iterate at the top of our games. How can we make it happen?
1. Take an either/and approach.
The relationship between familiar methodologies, such as ADDIE, and iterative processes is not necessarily oppositional. While certain projects may call for the use of one method over another, at other times, both can be used strategically in combination. Consider two paths—one proceeding formally with traditional development, the other using prototyping to illustrate what the final product could be.
2. Think iterative, not Iterative.
The lowercase suggests that even in the midst of the cascades of ADDIE, an iterative mindset finds opportunities to proceed more experimentally, to suggest alternatives, to see if there may just be a better product if we try something else. An instructional designer with an open attitude can loosen the mental bounds of the whole L&D team.
3. Get started despite uncertainty.
An important lesson of Agile is to “get started,” even before the planning is done or the content is clear, to give others something to react to—even when that reaction is to pull it back to the start. Recognize iteration as, above all, a chance to structure and advance a dialogue that may touch on all phases of the project.
4. Iteration is community.
Community forms around iteration. This is an opportunity for collaboration, consensus building, mutual learning, and careful listening to dissent as potentially the guide to the next, better approximation. Iteration is an opportunity to come out of the silos and take on the shared identity of the most transformative teams.
5. Call it what it is.
Use the term iteration when you are applying it. Talk to the team and client about the process and how it aligns with Agile and similar development processes. Show that there is a path, even if it is not always the well-trodden or “straight” one. Be the guide while continuing to learn about this new world of design and change-oriented mindset.
Whether you are tackling the murky waters of a challenging project or experimenting with iterative learning design out of curiosity, know that the art of iterative design has built-in opportunities for do-overs. And pssst… this practice isn’t entirely new—you are probably practicing elements of iterative learning design already!
As a learning strategist with Caveo Learning, Ashley Christian works with learning leaders to deliver tangible business value through strategic learning consulting and implementation of learning and performance solutions and technologies. Before joining Caveo’s strategy team, she was a senior instructional designer for high-profile clients in the technology, energy, and financial services fields. Ashley has experience in curriculum design, human performance improvement, change management, project management, and blended learning. She holds a degree in leadership and development from Texas A&M University and is an active member of the Austin Chapter of ATD.
Robert Davis is a former senior instructional designer for Caveo Learning, with high-profile clients in the oil & gas and waste disposal industries. Davis presented on learning curation at the 2016 ATD Utah Workplace Learning Conference, and he authored a feature story for Energy Executive magazine on the topic of developing efficient, budget-friendly training programs. Based in Louisiana, Robert holds a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University.