Of late, there’s been considerable discussion of the term learning experience design, both positive and negative. As with all such buzz phrases, it’s worthwhile examining what the promises and perils are. Ultimately, it’s about whether there’s value to be found in the concept.

The complaints center around whether it’s really a necessary term. Why do we need aught but instructional design? Is there anything new? There should be something different for us to consider it.


So, what is learning experience design? The main claim is that it integrates learning science with engagement. And both are important. We need learning science; it’s not being seen enough in much of what passes as elearning. When we’re seeing bullet points and knowledge test, we’re not seeing enough.

This is the whole reason I joined with my colleagues— eLearning maestro extraordinaire Michael Allen, Design for How People Learn author Julie Dirksen, and renown research translator Will Thalheimer—in generating the Serious eLearning Manifesto. We contrasted eight values of traditional eLearning with what we termed Serious eLearning (taking inspiration from ‘serious games’). These were bolstered by 22 design principles based upon research across decades around the globe.

To be fair, this isn’t inherently a flaw of instructional design. Good instructional design doesn’t countenance information presentation in lieu of meaningful practice. Instructional design, properly executed, does include learning science. Here it’s the implementation that is flawed. There are so-called ‘accidental’ instructional designers, who with rapid authoring tools can transform PDFs and PPTs into onscreen content and add a quiz. Which is one source of the problem. You can do good learning design on top of these tools, but it takes knowledge and skills.

Another benefit is thinking through the extension of the experience. Again, this isn’t inherently an instructional design problem, but the phrase ‘instruction’ makes it easy to think only of the formal learning aspect. Learning extends beyond ‘the course’, through spaced practice and coaching, but it’s easy for that to be missed.

A true indictment of instructional design, however, can be laid at the lack of engagement. Only one instructional design researcher has focused on the emotional aspect, and Keller’s ARCS model (Attention, Relevance, Confidence, and Satisfaction) isn’t sufficiently well known or applied.

It’s this focus on emotional aspect that, to me, is the real benefit of the label. It helps put the emphasis on considering the emotional trajectory of the learner as part of the design. There’s increasing evidence on the importance of emotional engagement for effective learning, and the label assists in keeping that element in focus.

Instruction is a probabilistic game. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, “you can lead a learner to learning, but you can’t make them think.” The emphasis on learning and experience, to me, make the phrase a useful way to frame it over the notion of ‘instruction’.


How does learning experience design look different from instructional design? On principle, the difference in one sense comes from designing the learner’s mental transitions, both cognitive and emotional. What does this mean in practice?

The alignment I found in research on learning and engagement gives us a handle. The elements that make learning happen—goals, challenge, contexts, novelty, and more—are mimicked in what makes experiences engaging. Game designer Raph Koster, in his A Theory of Fun, made the case that what makes a game fun is that it’s about learning! And we need to put those elements into the learning experience systematically.

One significant aspect is finding out more about the learner. It’s no longer just enough to consider what they know (a critical element, for sure), but also what motivates them. It also is important to find out what makes the content interesting inherently. You work differently with SMEs to get this information.

Considering how to connect to the learner is important as well. What will make this meaningful? How do we meld the interests of the learner with the inherent importance of the learning to choose contexts for practice? This ends up being about story: characters, settings, themes, goals and more.

One of the issues in making experiences is tapping into creativity. And, we know that creativity is facilitated by collaboration, tapping into diversity. So, finding the inflection points where social will add benefits is a valuable component.

Note that to create experiences, you are likely to invoke a variety of media and delivery across devices and situations. Consequent expertise in those component skills will be an important success factor. It’s always been the case that these skills shouldn’t be short-changed, but the focus on experience adds emphasis. The new technology capabilities, however, are likely a new area for exploration and incorporation in solutions.

Overall, however, the changes have to be made under pragmatic constraints. And that’s where we need to get strategic. How do we make the minimal changes that will yield the maximum benefit? While a total overhaul might be worthwhile, in many instances small changes will allow the core processes to be augmented and yield the necessary outcomes.


Strategy requires thinking of process, resources, and steps forward. How do you get to where you want to be? That, of course, depends on where you are.

There are a variety of tradeoffs to be considered. Will you have dedicated resources for development teams and projects, or a centralized resource pool? For things like media production—video, audio, graphic design, etc.—it may make sense to have centralized resources, but the skillsets and team member roles will make that determination. Another tradeoff is whether to have a team carry design through development, or have a handoff. A related issue is project management; within the team, or as a matrixed role. And, of course, shifting to an Agile approach is a potential consideration.

There are a number of inflection points where small changes can have a big impact. One is where you have individuals come together to be creative, and how you use that time together. Another one is how you work with subject matter experts. The interim representations you use to capture design, the tools you use to ensure consideration of the important factors, and how you handle development of the component parts and the technology all can play a role. Finally, how you measure your efforts and how you review and refine your efforts are important.

Whether you call it learning experience design or not, getting these factors right are important components of creating learning that will have an impact. The elegant integration of learning science and engagement are critical to creating outcome that will persist. It can be done, and should. Make it so!

Editor’s note

On October 22, 2019, prior to The eLearning Guild’s DevLearn Conference & Expo in Las Vegas, Clark Quinn will be presenting a pre-conference workshop, P16: Learning Experience Design: Integrating Engagement and Learning Science.