O Designer, Look in the Mirror

Matt Barclay, Ph.D
Tuesday, October 31, 2017
A laptop held in front of a mirror, whose reflection shows a soup can labeled "Good Ole Designer's Boredom" on top.

What chef ever made a meal that he or she would not be happy to eat or was doubtful the paying customer would relish? It may happen but it is likely rare. People in the profession of cooking and creating excellent meals take pride in their work to satisfy their customers. They strive for the joy of those they serve.

Of course, some customers are easier to please than others. It is similar in education. Some learners are much more motivated than their peers (Allen, 2016). Self-motivated people will learn in most any circumstance, even in the face of poor instruction (Allen, 2016). They will “eat it up” and likely find their own ingredients to make it palatable in the process – just to get the nutrients and strength out of it – so to speak. Others need much more help to find the motivation needed to learn (Allen, 2016) and become lifelong learners. Michael Allen (see Caceres, 2015) declared that the best universities typically admit self-motivated learners. He went on to make the bold assertion that:

[Top schools] can brag about their entrance examinations and I think all they are saying is ‘We have the easiest task in the world [be]cause we only admit students who don’t need us very much. They can learn on their own.’ But the institutions that really have expertise are the ones that can help each individual, perhaps those that need a lot help.

Allen is, of course, one of the pioneers of the elearning industry and a current leader in the field of instructional design. His thinking fits with what we often see in Research I universities: an emphasis on research and publication rather than on teaching. At Research I universities, graduate students commonly do the teaching so that professors can further investigate problems, win funding, and publish results. However, even at institutions that have the mission to teach students, priorities beyond research and publications can be just as disruptive to good instructional design.

Allen has coined the phrase “meaningful, memorable and motivational” with respect to what makes instruction excellent (Allen, 2016). The attribute of motivation is the key to the formula of great instruction (Allen, 2016).

Allen (2016) also shared, among other things, seven strategies for successful instruction. I find all seven to be highly enlightening. His first strategy, however, is particularly refreshing. Allen offers a challenge for designers to always ask: “Would you like to learn from this?” (Allen, 2016). That is, would you enjoy learning the material with the design you created? Or, is your design motivational to you? What a great self-check! Yet, how often do we really examine our work in this way? If we ask this question of ourselves and answer honestly, we will help our learners significantly.

We are quick to call out subject matter experts or others we work with when they seek to drive course development with content rather than skills the learners are to master. We also chastise the thought of students just trying to get through a course to check it off their list of requirements rather than really learn. However, we must continuously call ourselves out if we let deadlines or factors other than good instruction drive our design. Certainly, we must respect deadlines and work within their parameters. In some cases, we must make concessions where we have to get a course out the door sooner than we might like. However, even in those cases, if we start out by putting ourselves in the position of the learner by asking whether we would like to take the course we are creating, we will do much to improve our work.

So, I pass along the challenge from Michael Allen:  “Would you like to learn from [your design]?” Ask it from the outset of your work. Ask it often, answer honestly, and make adjustments as needed. Your offerings will likely be more palatable and your paying customers will be much more satisfied. You may even spark the desire for lifelong learning in some of them.


Allen, M. W. (2016). Michael Allen’s guide to elearning (2nd ed.) Hoboken, NJ: Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Caceres, R. (Producer). (2015, March 23). October Obsession. Michael Allen Engaging eLearning. Video retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yDbv0Ae2Gg0

Image References

Best Gear. (2017). The 5 best laptop headphone [Online image]. Retrieved from http://bestgear.org/the-5-best-laptop-headphones/

Inbound Logistics. (2015). Restaurant logistics: Serving up the perfect meal [Online image]. Retrieved from http://www.inboundlogistics.com/cms/article/restaurant-logistics-serving...

Wise Geek. (2017). A generic brand is often cheaper than the name brand [Online image]. Retrieved from http://www.wisegeek.org/what-are-the-pros-and-cons-of-buying-generic-bra...

Blog Category: 
Instructional Design



I loved this post. It really triggered a desire to think and look a little further. I initially interpreted Allen's challenge of "would you (the designer) want to learn from this?" as flawed in that it seemed to focus the design perspective from the designer's own point of view. However after reading the full text of Allen's 1st strategy, I see that he is consistently framing his case from the perspective of the intended learner. I might also add that the learner perspective includes environmental factors such as time budgeted vs time expended vs personal objectives met and what sorts of intrinsic motivation the learner is driven by.

This is a good point, Rick. The learning environment and the perspective that the learner brings has a profound impact on student learning. I have always considered that an instructional designer and a teacher or trainer's goal should be to create a learning environment that is most likely to help people learn. At some point, though, the learner must take personal responsibility for their own learning.

I agree, Rick. Looking back on my own education, my favorite professors were those who were passionate about the subject matter. However, that passion must be balanced with attention to the students' own perspectives and with good design specific to the learning environment. By taking Allen's advice and constantly placing ourselves in the students' shoes, we can strive toward achieving that balance.
barclaym's picture

Thanks for the post, Rick. And yes, this is just a snippet of Allen's work. His book entitled Michael Allen's Guide to eLearning is excellent and covers what you are talking about.

This is actually a very important though, Matt. Sometimes I will create instruction based on a set of prescribed principles that are research-based. I think this is a good approach, but I might miss out on some of the more engaging, motivating strategies that can be applied. I had the thought that perhaps I should create my own personal set of guidelines based on this principle. Is this something you've done? Thanks, Matt!
barclaym's picture

A good question, Joel. As I think about it, I don't recall a specific set of guidelines I have created other than principles from authors I agree with. I think the list resides in my head...

I really enjoyed this article and think that the question "would you like to learn from this" can also apply to so many other parts of our lives, both personally and professionally. For example, next time I give a presentation, I'm going to think "would I like to listen to this presentation?" Or when I design a graphic or try to plan a party even - would I personally like to view the graphic I designed or attend the party I planned? Matt, have you ever asked yourself this question when developing instruction and, as a result, changed your design mid-way through the process?
barclaym's picture

Thanks for your comments, Carolyn. I agree with you. And another good question. I know I have asked myself this question and changed some components but I don't think I have done it as deliberately as I would like. I enjoyed Michael Allen's book Leaving ADDIE for SAM wherein he encourages designers to scrap or shelf their initial design and start over. But it is definitely something I am going to do more of.

Something I have realized in my recent years, and more so since my time here at Franklin as a student and an emerging instructional designer, is that the best education one can get is where the pupil is not only achieving outcomes and understanding content, but where he/she is also growing into an independent learner. It is like the saying, "sage on the stage" vs. "guide on the side." The best instructors and course designs allow the learner to take responsibility for their own learning and create space for growth. If the course design and the instructor give the student all the pieces of the puzzle, what's left for them to solve? The skills I have developed as an autodidact have propelled me as a human being on my lifelong journey of learning. I will remember this in my future path of instructional design and ask myself, "Would I like to learn from this?" and "Will the student be able to grow from this?"
barclaym's picture

That's another great thing about Allen's approach - letting people explore when they want rather than give dump knowledge on them. Allen is all about designing for people to explore, and make mistakes in safe environments and learn from them. He abhors the pure lecture then test method...

About the Author

Matt Barclay, Ph.D.

Dr. Matt Barclay is a member of the Instructional Design Faculty at Franklin.