eLearning Leadership Blog

Join our growing community of more than 13,000 learning professionals!


Four Questions that Shift You into Design Success

4Questions(Title)by Ann Iverson, instructional designer | @iverson_ann


“Question everything!”Albert Einstein

As an instructional designer, I think the most important part of my job occurs in the design phase of a project. Not only am I building relationships and setting the stage, I’m working to create the blueprint for the entire learning experience. Essential design activities: include identifying the learner audience, what learners need to do to be successful, and what the main challenges are and how those challenges cause performance gaps. And the best way to get all that information, and more, is to facilitate a design meeting or, as we call it at Allen Interactions, a Savvy Start.

In the Design Thinking for the Instructional Designer guide, Angel Green defines the Savvy Start as a “solutions brainstorming event in which the design team, including key stakeholders, review collected background information and generate initial design solutions.” She goes on to say, “During the Savvy Start, we work to define, ideate, prototype, and test initial design solutions.”

One of the activities Angel suggests is to brainstorm a list of questions with the Savvy team, identifying those that dig deeper than, “What should the learner be able to do?” For example, the performance goal of a new retail employee is to provide exceptional service to every customer. Additional questions help stakeholders categorize that broad performance goal into specific activities, for example, how employees should greet customers, follow the return policy, or respond to customers when an item is out of stock.

Questions are the key to success in the design phase, and having a Question Thinking (QT) mindset is essential. In her book Change Your Questions, Change Your Life, Marilee Adams defines QT as a system of tools for transforming thinking, action, and results through skillful question asking—questions we ask ourselves as well as those we ask others. She discusses the power of questions to direct our thinking, and therefore our actions. It’s about asking the right questions to move forward and drive results.


The right questions drive design sessions, and the entire project outcome. In fact, I believe that as an instructional designer, I’m only as strong as my weakest question. If I can be mindful of how I’m asking something, and reshape the question so it’s more focused, positive and/or open-ended, then I can shift the team’s perspectives and move us toward fresh ways of looking at things. Ms. Adams gives an example in her book of the impact of changing a question:

Questions have even changed the course of history. Think about this. Long ago, nomadic societies were driven by the implicit question, “How do we get ourselves to water?” Yet look what happened when their implicit question changed to, “How do we get water to come to us?” That new question initiated one of humanity’s most significant paradigm shifts.

Awareness and intention are key here. Ms. Adams describes two types of mindsets—the Learner and the Judger—and, with awareness, we can choose to be in either one. But, as you can guess, the Learner mindset is more productive and positive. The goal at the Savvy Start is to take on a Learner mindset and create a Learner team: high performers focused on collaborative inquiry. You can do both by asking yourself the right questions. Let’s take a look at four questions you can ask to shift into Learner mode for a successful design outcome.

Instead of this…

How can I prove this is the right way?

Try this…

What other ways could we get learners to the same result?

The goal of the Savvy Start is to land on a few ideas for design that you really like, which you can then prototype. But hold off on getting fixed on one particular solution early on. If you’re attached to a design, you believe there’s already an answer and you may ask leading questions to confirm your ideas. The brainstorming basically ends there. If you continue to ask open-ended questions, you’ll keep searching for new possibilities. You may ask questions like, “What assumptions are we making?” or “How can we build on this idea?”

Instead of this…

How can we drive toward a solution?

Try this…

What are we missing or avoiding?

It’s easy to become solution-oriented during design. There’s a lot to do and a lot of ground to cover, and you may notice yourself slipping into high gear. You may also pick up on a can-we-speed-things-up energy within the group. But rushing steals the fun and purpose from the Savvy Start, and the curiosity from all contributors. Work to slow things down and be open to new possibilities. You may ask questions like, “What else is possible?” or “What would the learners want to tell us about this?”

Instead of this…

How can we avoid making mistakes?

Try this… 

How can we learn from mistakes?

At Allen Interactions, we believe it is important to allow learners to make mistakes in safe environments. Constructive failure is essential to real learning and can be our best teacher if we take the time to ask what went wrong. The key to staying in Learner mode is welcoming risk-taking and the likely mistakes from it, and then spending time connecting the dots to successful performance. This may play out on a design team when someone makes a comment about learner mistakes. Rather than discussing how those errors can be avoided in the future, spend time talking through how to transform those missteps into learning situations. You may ask questions like, “What are the toughest obstacles?” or “What can be valuable here?” 

Instead of this…

Why aren’t the learners more successful?

Try this…

What would we like to see happen that isn’t happening now?

This question set provides an example of rephrasing from the negative to something more positive. Sometimes just shifting to a more optimistic lens can help you see things in a new way, inviting a more focused and creative approach. Negative questions tend to keep us in a rut, leading us to keep looking for answers and solutions. But, in the words of Ms. Adams, “when you’re stuck, you create blocks instead of openings.”

The results you achieve are driven by the questions you ask. If you’re looking for better results, observe your questioning technique and see if you’ve got a QT mindset. If not, try refining your questions. The QT system can literally put focused and effective action into your thinking. It’s a great way to create a foundation for making better design choices, and shift you into design success.

Want to share this post? Here are some ready made tweets:

Click to Tweet: As #instructionaldesigners, we only as strong as our weakest question | 4 Questions for Design Success http://hubs.ly/y0nd6N0

Click to Tweet: Constructive #failure is essential to real #learning | 4 Questions that Shift You into #Design Success http://hubs.ly/y0nd6N0

Webinar: Design Thinking for the Instructional Designer Subscribe to the e-Learning Leadership Blog