Blog Post

Closing the Expectations Gap to Build Better Courses

Published: Sunday, November 4, 2018

If you’ve ever worked with stakeholders and SMEs, you will probably agree that there is an expectation gap wider than the Grand Canyon. As an instructional designer, training designer, or curriculum developer, it is your job to manage these expectations (sometimes demands) and transform them into usable learner-centric content/courses. However, based on a conflicting or incomplete set of inputs the output can sometimes miss the mark.

Keeping pace with the evolution of ISD, you may have noticed the shift in mindset from content-centric to learner-centric design, which places extreme emphasis on the learner experience.

Yes, it is all about the learner experience! The learner is the ultimate customer, our end-user, not the SME or stakeholder. So, why is the learner rarely included in the Analysis part of the A.D.D.I.E. model?

Well, that’s a question for another time, but in the meanwhile, here is what I discovered. In my work, I’ve found it easier to design learner-centric courses when I involved the learners (when available) in the Analysis process in the same way I do the SMEs and the stakeholders. This has allowed me to balance the expectations of all parties and find the best possible solution to closing knowledge gaps, changing behaviors, or upskilling learners.

If you’re familiar with the Dick & Carey model of instructional design, you may find this concept to be quite similar to the “Analyze Learners and Content” portion of the analysis phase; however, Learner Empathy Mapping goes a little deeper. 

Borrowing from the Design Thinking process, I have incorporated the use of Empathy Mapping into the Analyze phase of A.D.D.I.E.

Here is a simple Empathy Map Canvas – and this is how to use it.

Credit to

This tool was developed to help instructional designers and the like, gain a deeper understanding of their learners (especially in the corporate learning space). This will help improve the learning experience, manage and balance expectations, avoid corporate politics, and make a better learning environment.



1. Start with the GOAL section, by defining WHO will be the subject of the Empathy Map (who is the specific learner or learners) and a goal: something they need to DO. This should be framed as observable behavior.

2. Once you have clarified the goal, work your way clockwise around the canvas, until you have covered Seeing, Saying, Doing, and Hearing. The reason for this is that the process of focusing on observable phenomena (Things that they see, say, do and hear) is like walking a mile in their shoes. It gives us a chance to imagine what their experience might be like, to provide us with a sense of what it “feels like to be them.”

3. After you have made the circuit of outside elements, focus on what’s going on inside the learner’s head.

4. Once you have completed all 7 sections of the map, compare it to the information you received from both the stakeholders and SMEs and see where the gaps in expectations exist.

By completing a “Learner Empathy Map”, you can now see your course design from the perspective of the learner. This will allow you to understand what the learners wants, needs, feels, thinks, does, sees, and hears, which are all important aspects of creating learner-centric courses.

This will give you the opportunity to better manage and align expectations between each group (learner, stakeholder, and SME).

Using this process, you can build the learning experience into the design by:

  • Creating clearer outcomes that address the learners pain points.
  • Reduce content overloading by prioritizing need to know content over nice to know content.
  • Gain a deeper understanding of what your learners are feeling, thinking, and doing while participating in your course.
  • Writing better learning objectives that include the right audience, the correct behavior, the optimal condition, and the appropriate degree. 

While the goal for designing courses has been primarily focused on the development of content, the bar has been raised and the goal refined. It is time to reevaluate our approach to design and development and shift it towards a learner-centric model that focuses on the learning experience.  
#InstructionalDesign #ADDIE #DesignThinking #LearnerExperience #EmpathyMap #SME #CorporateTraining #AdultLearning #TrainingDeveloper #CurriculumDeveloper

About the Author

Aaron King is an Instructional Designer and e-learning developer in the Performance and Development Center of JM&A Group a business unit of JM Family Enterprises, Inc.

In addition, he is a professor Media Arts, and a learning & development consultant leveraging a wide variety of disciplines including adaptive learning, personalized learning, microlearning, and gamification to optimize learning experiences for adult learners.

He is a doctoral candidate in Education – Specialization in Personalized and Competency Based Instruction. He holds master’s degrees in Education, Media, Design & Technology, and Instructional Design & Technology with specializations in adult learning and organizational learning.

Prior to his current roles, he worked as a senior executive in OPM (Outsourced Program Management) higher education management, a multi-platinum music producer, music business book author, and a US Army combat medic. His mission is to impact measurable and sustainable change through disruptive innovation and learner empowerment.

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