Prioritizing Instructional Design When Resources Are Limited


Even if you don’t have a ton of time or access to a lot of money, you can still produce an effective learning experience based on sound educational theory and adult learning principles. A new ATD Press book, Instructional Design on a Shoestring, offers talent development professionals some guidance, quick tips, and shortcuts for designing a range of training modalities, including in-person, virtual and asynchronous, and self-guided e-learning.

In this Q&A, author Brian Washburn shares a few key insights as wellas what readers can expect to learn from the book.

1. How do you define instructional design in this book?

Instructional design is a common term but one that L&D professionals often use in their own unique, personal ways. Some people equate instructional design with activities such as training design, e-learning design, or lesson planning. I’ve heard others use the term to encompass all activities pertaining to a specific training project.

While I don’t feel strongly about any one definition of the term, it’s important that everyone is on the same page and uses the term in the same way when they’re having a conversation. For the purposes of this volume, I define instructional design as a practice by which learner or organizational needs are identified and then a learning solution is crafted, implemented, evaluated, and refined as needed.

2. There are a lot of instructional design models out there—ADDIE, SAM, LLAMA, to name a few. Which one is the best?

A lot of these models serve the same purpose. They provide intention and structure to help guide the development of a learning solution. ADDIE (analyze, design, develop, implement, evaluate) dates to the 1970s. While there have been several newer models for instructional design proposed since then, they all seem to be inspired by the original ADDIE model.

In Instructional Design on a Shoestring, I decided to develop my content around the ADDIE model because it’s the one I’ve seen most commonly used and, therefore, it’s the most relatable. One criticism of ADDIE is that it’s sometimes perceived as a sequential, static model where an instructional designer must proceed through each step before moving on to the next.

As the saying goes: “All models are wrong; some models are useful.” Every model is envisioned for use in an ideal state. But when put to use in the real world, a model is often messy, and the state is not ideal. I see ADDIE more as a fluid to-do list for instructional designers. Ensuring, for example, that program evaluation (the E in ADDIE) is baked in from the design step (the first D in ADDIE) is not only acceptable, but a necessary way to develop a learning intervention. That said, before you design a program, you need to analyze and assess learning needs. Before you develop anything, you’ll want to make sure there is a design in place first. And so on. ADDIE, like all models, is wrong . . . but it’s also quite useful.

3. What does it mean to engage in instructional design “on a shoestring”?

Instructional design on a shoestring goes to the idea that training programs often need to be developed with less than the ideal resources—money, time, or people.

Working with limited resources, training professionals must constantly decide if they have the time, skills, and abilities to build a learning program from scratch, if they can borrow resources and inspiration from others, or if they can pay for technology, content, or extra personnel that could make the development of a program more efficient.

Given significant restraints on time, money, and other resources, some may say a poor training program is better than no training program at all. I don’t believe it has to be that way. Limited resources simply mean instructional designers will need to work smarter. When someone requests training, it’s important to ask whether a formal learning solution is indeed the answer, or whether a job aid or short instructional video or some other resource could do the trick. If training is the answer, would an existing, off-the-shelf solution suffice, or does it need to be customized?

At the end of the day, instructional design on a shoestring is the confluence of asking the right questions, ruthlessly prioritizing potential solutions, and being mindful of the resources available.

4. Are free and low-cost automation or AI tools (like ChatGPT) sufficient for those who need to design learning programs with few resources?

While there are indeed a lot of efficiencies to be gained through technologies such as automation tools, artificial intelligence (AI), and large language model tools such as ChatGPT, they won’t be enough to create effective learning programs (yet). A tool like ChatGPT can be very helpful in completing certain concrete, well-defined tasks. You can ask ChatGPT to create a lesson on how to sell a specific brand of tire, for example, and it will give you a basic, step-by-step lesson plan. It won’t, however, perform your needs assessment to make sure training is the right solution in the first place. It won’t provide you a wide variety of options for activities suitable to your specific audience and topic. You may need another AI-powered tool to generate slides, handouts, and other instructional materials, and even those resources may or may not accomplish what you’re looking for or capture your voice. I used a parenthetical
yet in the first sentence of this answer because there may come a time in the not-so-distant future where AI-powered tools can do all of this. But for now, a tool like ChatGPT may be a helpful starting point, but it could also cost you more time proofreading, refining, and correcting outright errors in what it provided you.

5. What knowledge, skills, and abilities does the most effective instructional designer need to demonstrate?

The best instructional designers have a firm understanding of and can apply principles of adult learning to the instructional design model of their choice. They understand how to craft well-designed learning objectives and can organize content in a way that’s easy for their learners to understand.

They’re also curious, ask a lot of questions, and are willing to challenge assumptions such as “we need training” or “formal training, such as instructor-led or e-learning, is always the answer.”

The practice of instructional design has major overlaps with project management, so the most effective instructional designers are also organized, methodical, and versed in concepts of project management.

The most effective instructional designers can also build relationships and engage subject matter experts (SMEs) in conversations to identify the most important content and skills that need to be taught. They can engage managers and supervisors to identify skills gaps. They can identify champions of learning across the organization—especially among those who do not have “training” in their job titles.

6. There are a ton of books out there on instructional design. Why does the world need this one?

This book is not meant to supersede any of the other amazing books on instructional design. Think of this book as more of a field guide.

Whether there is an economic downturn this year or next year or in two years, anyone in the L&D field needs to be prepared to have their budgets reduced and to show results with fewer resources. Instructional Design on a Shoestring offers training professionals a guidebook on how to build, borrow, or buy key elements of a learning program, with more than 40 job aids, checklists, tables, and other resources that can be used immediately while building out a learning program.

Whether you don’t typically work on training projects but have just been assigned one, you’re new to the world of training and instructional design, or you’re an experienced professional, think of this book as a sort of easy button or cheat code. This book can serve as a quick reference guide for intractable instructional design challenges, such as:

  • What key questions should be asked of stakeholders during each phase of the ADDIE process?
  • What are the primary reasons learners don’t apply what they’ve learned? And how can these be addressed through more effective instructional design?
  • How can you ruthlessly prioritize your approach to instructional design when working with limited resources?
  • What are 23 informal learning alternatives to developing a full training course?
  • How do you identify the appropriate SME to work on a training project?
  • How can supervisors be more involved to help ensure transfer of training to the job?
  • What criteria should be used to select a vendor or contractor to serve as an extra set of hands?

About the Author

Brian Washburn is the co-founder and CEO of Endurance Learning, a boutique instructional design firm specializing in creative and unique instructor-led or e-learning programs for clients ranging from nonprofit organizations to major Fortune 500 companies. Prior to launching Endurance Learning, Brian led training teams that have been charged with world-changing missions ranging from ensuring every foster child has a safe and permanent home to eliminating corneal blindness around the globe.

Immersed in learning and development, teaching, and corporate training for more than 20 years, his love for instructional design began as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, where he discovered the joys of finding ways to engage participants and using flipcharts to generate dynamic visual aids. The author of What’s Your Formula? Combine Learning Elements for Impactful Training, he was named a Top Young Trainer by Training magazine, is a former president of the ATD Puget Sound chapter, and can be found through his Train Like You Listen podcast. He lives in Seattle, Washington, with his wife, two children and one extremely cute dog.

About ATD and ATD Press

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is the world’s largest association dedicated to those who develop talent in organizations. ATD’s members come from more than 120 countries and work in public and private organizations in every industry sector. ATD Press publications are written by industry thought leaders and offer anyone who works with adult learners the best practices, academic theory, and guidance necessary to move the profession forward. For more information, visit

Instructional Design on a Shoestring
ISBN: 9781953946959 | 208 Pages | Paperback

To order books from ATD Press, call 800.628.2783.

To schedule an interview with Brian Washburn, please contact Kay Hechler, ATD Press senior marketing manager, at [email protected] or 703.683.8178.


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