The process of analysis is the foundation for any instructional design project. Although it is the most often neglected aspect of ISD, analysis is not an option for the successful designer.

The harsh reality that faces many designers is that even though ISD practitioners know the importance of analysis, a majority of clients and others outside the profession have very little interest in the process and even less inclination to allocate the resources of time and money necessary to do it correctly. That being said, analysis is almost always performed and usually by any means necessary, which often involves "borrowing" from other resources to gather the data needed. In the analysis stage, instructional designers can never know too much. Curiosity is the first analysis skill that belongs in a designer's tool kit, where it will pay countless dividends. It is impossible to ask too many questions, and it is difficult to imagine starting a design project without the essential analysis completed.

Seven key questions require answers during analysis. By addressing each of these questions, instructional designers ensure that they gather all the data they are likely to need as they work their way through the ADDIE system. The questions also help designers check that they have focused on all the possible aspects of the course under consideration. In short, these questions serve as a reality check:

  1. What is the need?
  2. What is the root cause?
  3. What are the goals of the training?
  4. What information is needed, and how is it gathered?
  5. How will the training be structured and organized?
  6. How will the training be delivered?
  7. When should training be revised?

What is the need?

Need is the gatekeeper for entry into analysis. If there is no need for the course, there is no need to perform an analysis. This relationship between need and analysis holds true even if a designer has been given an assignment to design a course and has no option except completing it with only two weeks' notice. Many designers believe that training is the best solution to numerous problems in an organization. Experience shows, however, that some problems do not require training solutions. In fact, they are not training problems at all. For example, the staff at a company may not be communicating with one another. Although they send emails, blog, or tweet, these efforts are never seen by the intended people. Training will not help those employees improve their communications because the problem is not how to produce the message; it is about standardizing communication choices.

The cardinal rule of the analysis element of ISD is this: Always determine that there is a training solution before providing one. Or, to shamelessly bend the Hippocratic Oath: Never do harm.

What is the root cause?

The first task for a designer is to identify the need and determine the root cause of any problems that may exist. Sometimes the need and root cause are relatively easy to uncover. At other times, they may take some digging to reveal. Designers must listen carefully to what they hear and use their logic filter to test each potential issue.

It is important to point out that even though a need appears to be instructional in nature, it might not be. That assessment might be made on the basis of symptoms and not the root cause of the problem. Just as in medicine, treating the symptoms may initially reduce the pain, but it seldom cures the illness.

What are the goals of the training?

Anyone who is going to design a training project must know the rationale for the project. The rationale is a mission statement that clearly states the project's reason for existing. The place to start is with the sponsoring department, manager, organization, or client, who can communicate the goals to the designer. Designers need to verify or correct assumptions that may exist. It is important to ask questions such as, What does success for this project mean to you? and When will you be happy with this project?

Sometimes the goals of the sponsor and the reality of the content do not make sense, and the designer must step back and find out why. For example, it is not uncommon for an organization to want to use a new technology for training in an effort to look current with the trends in a certain industry although analysis may show that the learners do not need or want a technology-based solution. In this case, the goals of the organization and the reality of the situation do not match. On those occasions, someone may be operating under a hidden and self-interested agenda. Instructional designers must be alert to the possibility that they may discover problems like these in the populations they serve:

  • Career boosting is usually framed by someone whose real interest is in showcasing his or her contribution to management. Evidence that career boosting is at work on a project is often in design that is heavy on production values and low on instructional design values. Training designed for show can often backfire when the cost to produce unnecessary or ineffective training is discovered.
  • Getting-even training is discovered when the training goals seem to be, "We'll show them how to" or "They won't do that to us again!"
  • Propaganda training is always designed to send a message to someone. Evidence is that the message is more important than the behavioral objective.

What information is needed, and how is it gathered?

The first three questions helped instructional designers determine that training can address the need and is consistent with individual and organizational goals. Now it is necessary to obtain information in both subject matter and nonsubject matter areas. Information on both will form the basis for the design plan. The nonsubject matter information needed for the design plan includes the rationale for the course (usually described as the goals for the training), population data, course structure, and deliverables. The subject matter information eventually ends up as objectives, evaluation strategies, facilitator prerequisites, and learner prerequisites.

The Population Analysis Process

Having precise knowledge of a population of learners for a design project is most often key in making critical decisions related to objectives, delivery modalities, and evaluations as well as myriad other possible questions that can arise in the design process. Gathering data and analyzing populations of learners require skills that might seem intuitive on the surface but require countless hours of practice to perfect. The subtleties associated with populations are numerous and the variations within each population are countless.

Each population is unique, and the biggest mistake designers make in this area is to ignore this process. You must analyze the population, even if that only means verifying the data that you have been given or seeking clarification in areas that seem conflicted. Populations are complex, and every variable experienced in any individual or group of people has the potential to be present in any population analyzed.

Content Mastery

Designers must be able to determine the anticipated level of content mastery for a population at the start of a course. This is easy if there is no minimum level of mastery required for participating in a course, but that is seldom the reality. Even open enrollment or community participation courses have some expectation for mastery, even if it is a seemingly obvious element like basic language skills or literacy at a certain grade level. In some cases, it will be necessary to actually perform a skills analysis to determine content mastery in a specific population. In other situations, it may be acceptable to review general population data available through numerous sources.


We are all familiar with demographic data sets such as age, gender, and educational achievement level. There are times when more sophisticated demographic data is useful, and gathering this data requires a systematic approach to analysis. A designer needs to determine what, if any, demographic variable may affect course design. There are times when population members may consider data privileged or sensitive. When you ask about marital status, income, religious affiliation, criminal history, bankruptcy, and similar topics, you may have difficulty gathering accurate data for analysis. There are times when this data is available from other sources, but you must always honor any legal or ethical concerns and restrictions. HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) and FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) are but two of the federal laws that regulate the gathering and handling of data, and as a designer you must always honor those restrictions.

Motivation and Attitude

Determining how a population views a content area or its participation in a course is almost always invaluable information for an instructional designer. With so much training and education now considered mandatory, motivation and attitude play an increasingly larger role in course design. If a course is in a content area that is considered personal or is something that is uncomfortable for a learner, a designer needs to know how a population will react to the learning environment and the content before the course is implemented. Diversity and workplace behavior are often content areas that require an attitude scan among the population to determine underlying issues. It is much easier to design in measures to neutralize or deal with issues within a course than it is to implement a course and then leave the facilitator with the responsibility for dealing with potential problems as they arise.

Language and Culture


In today's international populations, both within the community and at places of employment, it is considered standard ISD practice to determine if language or cultural variations will affect a specific population of learners. This is also the case when programs are being designed and implemented for a language or culture different than the designer's native language and culture. Very simple, but often missed, issues related to translation and its effect on the timing of a course are examples. Simultaneous translation takes less time than consecutive translation, so a course that lasts four hours can easily take six or more hours if consecutive instead of simultaneous translation is used.

A cultural read on a population often addresses issues related to respect and familiarity for culture differences within the population. No designer wants to make a simple mistake in materials or interaction that violates cultural norms within a population. This isn't about being politically correct. It is about making sure that differences are recognized and addressed within a population to ensure that no barriers are created to interfere with a program's success.

Implementation Preferences

As every instructional designer knows, populations generally have varying views on how they want to receive instruction. Some learners want to be online while others prefer the classroom. A small minority may want to have synchronous online learning while a majority think "anytime, anyplace" better suits their available time and opt for asynchronous online learning when given an option. While some design environments are project or organizationally limited to one implementation vehicle or another, others are not, and a population analysis is generally the way to determine preferences. In some instances, analysis results defy conventional logic and provide designers with data that can literally save a project by implementing in a way that is most appealing to a majority of a population. For example, a very high-tech, corporate population was thought to prefer online learning because they worked in a high-tech environment. Delivery was relatively simple and cost-effective given the technology already in place for online course delivery. A population analysis, however, showed that this population was relatively bored with using technology for this purpose and wanted the opportunity to learn with others in a classroom environment. The end product was a traditional facilitator-led series of courses that were very well received and actually proved to be significantly less expensive to produce and implement. Without the population analysis, the project could have run into significant motivational issues that would have negated most of the potential for success.

While distance learning is making inroads into the training and education community, it is not the answer for all populations and courses. As the previous example shows, not even high-tech populations necessarily want distance learning options for training. While the ISD process doesn't have an opinion on how a course is implemented, it certainly has a role in determining what works best for a specific population and content area. The process of determining this fit starts with a population analysis that includes gathering data related to distance learning attitudes and access issues.

How to Conduct a Population Profile

It is important early in the population analysis process to establish which issues may influence the project's success. A simple rubric works fine for this step. For each element that may have an effect, the designer will say whether or not it could affect the outcome of the project, why, and whether she can do anything about it. The designer should analyze each of these issues with one question in mind: Can this element affect the outcome of this project? For each element, the designer would ask if it has the potential to cause success or failure. Motivation and incentive issues alone can sink a really well-designed training project if they have not been taken into account. If the answer is yes, it can cause success or failure, the designer must address why, and then what he or she is going to do about it. Conducting a population analysis can be a complex undertaking, but there are some very simple steps any designer can follow to ensure at least a basic profile of any population.

First, gather and review the demographics of the target population. Demographics are the nuts and bolts of a population, and there is little in the way of opinion-based data in this section of an analysis. The types of demographic data you need are based on the design, but generally they include census-like data that relates to age, gender, ethnicity, culture, income, location, education, and other related variables. Often this data is included in a survey given to the population to complete. This data is generally easily obtained, but there are times when one or more of these data areas are considered either too personal, too invasive, or unnecessary by the population and you may have to gather data either by a secondary source like organizational or regional data or by estimating as best you can. There are times when the process of gathering this data itself can be considered invasive by a population, and in the best interests of process you may decide to forgo the formal data collection process and replace it with a more observational approach.

Second, gather data related to attitudes, values, and opinions. Knowing how a population feels about a certain content area or situation is sometimes vital data in a population analysis. If you are working on a course for a troubled workforce, knowing why population members feel a certain way is key to building a course-based solution. There are design projects that will sink or swim based on this data, and being able to gather it is critical to project success. In other populations and design projects this attitudinal information has limited value. For example, do you really care if a technician enjoys replacing a part in a sophisticated piece of electronic equipment if there is no viable option for making it more enjoyable? There are various methods available to gather this information, including surveys, interviews, and focus groups. There is a tendency to find more affective-based data in the more personal and one-on-one analysis methods of interview and focus group. Surveys (usually anonymous) are of value for larger populations or where the subject is less personal or closely held.

Third, gather everything else. A pro-level instructional designer is always looking for that extra data set that will provide a key bit of information that will add value to the analysis process. Many times these moments are unexpected, unsolicited, and yet enormously important to the design process. It is not unusual for a designer to learn about something critical to a design based on an overheard conversation or quick review of an organizational newsletter or publication. Don't be afraid to gather every bit of information that comes your way and review it for hidden nuggets of data.

Fourth, consider issues of the cultural environment. If you are working on a design project for a population that is unfamiliar to you or is geographically or culturally distant from your experience, pay special attention to the environment in which the population resides. Many times these seemingly small points of data are ignored or rejected because they are not within the functional comfort zone of the designer. As an example, recently it was important to analyze differences that would not normally be an issue for designers in a Western country since the project was to be implemented in another continent and assumed knowledge of analysis needs was not enough to make this project a success.

Some of the factors designers had to consider included:

  • Religious influence: It was important that designers consider prayer times and other religious ceremonies that might conflict with training times.
  • Gender interaction: Traditional gender roles might create challenges in designing group activities, including role-play exercises.
  • Attendance and timing issues: Many countries are more polychronic (time is more fluid) than the Western monochromic attitude that expects extreme punctuality.
  • Evaluation techniques: Some populations might be hesitant to offer opinions or criticism of one another or to question a facilitator.
  • Appropriate materials: Designers must consider participants' views about how materials represent them, especially graphic representations. The manner of dress and types of activities shown in materials must be acceptable to the target population.
  • Religious/cultural schedules: In many areas of the world, the normal workweek is not Monday to Friday. Variables like this occur within the individual countries and populations represented in a typical cohort of learners. It is also important not to schedule training during religious holidays.

How Will the Training Be Structured and Organized?

Task analysis is the grandparent of all analysis methods. It involves the process of breaking down a job or assignment into each task associated with it to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to perform it. The data gathered in this process assist the designer in building the structure of the project, including instructional methods and media. They also tell how best to organize objectives and evaluations in a logical continuum from beginning to end. Task analysis is something every instructional designer does, and it can be used for a variety of situations. Jobs, skills, procedures, processes, and of course tasks are usually best analyzed in this manner. Task analysis is the first step for an instructional designer who needs to replicate anything that involves human interaction in a series of steps. An instructional designer would perform a task analysis to be sure a lesson covers every step a person needs to know in order to perform the job, skill, procedure, process, or task.

Conducting a Task Analysis

Even though it is such a fundamental tool of the instructional designer, task analysis is often done poorly or given little preparation time. In fact, it is not as simple as one might assume. Four levels of detail exist in a task analysis: job, task, skill, and subskill. Some instructional designers spend most of their professional lives working in situations that require them to follow technical task-analysis procedures. Imagine trying to perform a task analysis on a job like that of manager of an energy-producing nuclear reactor. That job involves numerous tasks that must be replicated exactly the way they are engineered because a misstep in the task analysis could put people's lives in jeopardy. Consider what would happen if a task analysis missed a key step in a safety procedure. As a result of that omission, employees might not receive training for a specific problem that might occur. No training probably means diminished effectiveness in dealing with the problem.

Several steps are vitally important in task analysis from the perspective of a designer:

  1. Define the target of the analysis: With whom are you going to work? What titles or responsibilities do you want to analyze?
  2. Choose the methodology: Will you use task analysis, focus groups, or other methods of analysis?
  3. Select the analysis subjects: Choose the best candidates for analysis. Typically these are the people who actually do the work and are considered the best at it. It helps to work with several individuals who are struggling with a task so designers can see why they are having trouble.

How Will the Training Be Delivered?

Instructional designers need to determine the distribution methods and instructional methods they will be working with early in their planning, sometimes before really starting the project. It is essential that these two elements be in place before designers get too involved with the design phase.

Instructional designers make choices that determine how learners interact with the subject matter. The designer's tool of matching innovative distribution methods and instructional methods is important. Instructional methods are techniques that designers use to link objectives with learners. Lectures, group discussions, and case studies all serve as the link between the learner and the subject matter, much the same way as a book or webpage links information with the end user. Distribution methods are the ways designers deliver the instructional methods. Proper matching of distribution and instructional methods and platforms also saves time and energy, for both the designer and the learner.


This is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of ISD from the Ground Up: A No-Nonsense Approach to Instructional Design. The ASTD Press publication can be purchased here.

Chuck Hodell is the associate director of the graduate program in ISD at the University of Maryland Baltimore County in Catonsville, Maryland as well as an affiliate assistant professor within the university's language, literacy, and culture doctoral program. He is past deputy provost of the National Labor College in Silver Spring, Maryland. He holds a doctoral degree in language, literacy, and culture and a master's degree in instructional systems development from UMBC. He resides with his family on Kent Island in Maryland's Eastern Shore; .