Have you ever spent weeks or even months designing a beautiful training program, only to find out that the client really wanted something else entirely? This is what happens when we fail to conduct a thorough analysis of the project, but we’ve all been there. We know better, but somehow, we think that this time is the exception to the rule. No matter how small, urgent, or seemingly simple your project is, skipping Analysis is never a realistic option.


The truth is, taking the time to conduct an analysis before you start your learning design will:

  • Prevent mistakes, rework, and unhappy clients
  • Save you time and stress
  • Make it easier to produce an engaging learning experience that gets results
  • Establish your credibility as a valued advisor

In your analysis you will explore multiple facets of the project, including:

  • Current state (what are they doing now?)
  • Desired state (what do learners need to do differently?)
  • Obstacles or challenges between the current and desired state (what gaps are holding them back?)
  • Existing resources, content, and experience that can help close the gap between the current and desired state


compass brain

As an instructional designer, you are at the center of our process:

  • You manage portions of the project plan, in collaboration with the other members of the team.
  • You identify the solution and present your findings to the client.
  • You move your project from Analysis to Evaluation, ensuring a positive and effective learning experience that is on time, under budget, and exceeds expectations.

For most of the time, you will be the “face” of the project to the client, managing communication, scheduling meetings, and sharing your work with the client for input and approval. Throughout this process, you have many opportunities to:

  • Strengthen your relationship with the client
  • Open a dialog to identify new opportunities beyond the scope of the current project

Most clients expect you to take a leadership role and guide them through the process, so this is your opportunity to shine.



The Analysis process has five major steps:

  1. Identify Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)
  2. Develop Questions
  3. Orient SMEs
  4. Collect Data
  5. Validate Findings

While many people consider Analysis to be a linear process, a skilled consultant never stops uncovering client needs and identifying opportunities to add value. These additional opportunities may be recommendations for more advanced courses, reinforcement activities, periodic content updates, knowledge repositories or other solutions.

Identify subject matter experts

Your SMEs will make or break your project. It is critical that you are talking to the right people and that they understand what you need from them. Before you begin your analysis, talk with your client about SME selection. It may be tempting to rely on a small number of people to make the data collection process easier, but this approach may cause you to miss key information that isn’t available from those few people.


You also run the risk of becoming too dependent on a single resource, putting your ability to get the right information at risk.

A best practice is to identify key domains or topics that will be needed for your project and work with your client to match the right group of SMEs for each domain. Be sure to discuss possible differences in location, division, experience level, client base, and other factors that may color the information provided by each SME.

It is important to establish a realistic time commitment for SMEs. Typically, the same people who participate in the Analysis phase will review your work for accuracy and completeness later in the process. Try to select people who:

  • Have the knowledge you need
  • Have the time to work with you
  • Realize that working with you is a priority

It is an added benefit if your SMEs have supported training initiatives before and were considered helpful by previous designers. However, we often don’t get to pick our SMEs. It is up to us to work with them, not the other way around.

It is best to ask your client to select the SMEs, but you will want to set the parameters by explaining how you plan to work with your SMEs and what you will need from them.

Develop questions

questions colorful

The second most important part of Analysis is asking the right questions. (The most important part is to listen to the answers.) Work with your client to develop the questions before your first session with a SME. If you have this list available for the kickoff meeting, you may want to share it at that time, so your SMEs will have time to suggest modifications to the list and be prepared for their role in the process.

The list of questions provided below will get you started. You may need to add more specific questions related to the project or the client.

Questions About the Company/Department

  • What is the primary mission of this company/department?
  • How does this mission bring value to the company overall?
  • Who are the senior leaders of the organization?
  • What challenges are you facing right now?
  • What accomplishments are you most proud of? Why?
  • Describe your ideal state five years from now.
  • Are you on track to achieve this vision? Why/why not?
  • What is standing in the way of reaching your vision of the future?
  • How do people in the company/department communicate with each other?
  • How are you structured and organized?
  • What else do I need to know about your company/department?

Questions About the Learning Audience

  • Who needs to be trained?
  • Can you describe them for me?
    • Career level (Beginner, mid-career, senior)
    • Tenure in role/company/department
    • Demographics
    • Locations/distribution
  • What are their training preferences (What has worked well in the past?)
  • Where do they seem to struggle the most with this subject?
  • How much time is available to attend training?

Questions About the Performance Gap

  • What do your employees need to do differently or better? Why?
  • What is preventing them from achieving this goal?
  • What are the benefits to the company/department of achieving this goal?
  • What are the benefits to the employees for achieving this goal?
  • Have you tried to change this behavior before? If so, what happened?
  • If this training is successful, how will things be different?
  • What will happen if the training isn’t successful?
  • What are some ways that this project could fail?
  • What else do I need to know about the gap between where we are today and where we need to go?

Questions About Time

  • When does this project need to be implemented?
  • Tell me about the review and approval process:
  • Who is involved?
  • How much turnaround time is reasonable?
  • Will there be legal or other institutional reviews?
  • Are there formal standards with which we need to comply?
  • Are there periods of time when employees will not be able to complete the training?
  • What else do I need to know about the timing of this solution?

Questions About Knowledge and Content

  • What will most participants already know about this subject/process?
  • What information do they need to understand the course content?
  • Is everyone at about the same level of understanding/performance or does it vary?
  • What suggestions to you have for bringing everyone to a common baseline of knowledge?
  • Where will we find the biggest gaps?
  • Will the training need to include any IT systems, software, or processes? If so, where can we get the information we need for those components of the training?
  • What existing resources (internal/external) are available for developing content?
  • What is the best order or sequence to cover key topics?
  • Do you have any examples, case studies, screen shots, etc. that we can use?

Questions About Measurement and Evaluation

  • What are your personal Key Performance Indicators? (KPIs) What are you measured on?
  • What is the best method of assessing if a participant has truly learned what they need to learn?
  • How can we measure a change in on-the-job performance? What indicators will we use?
  • What questions would you want to ask participants about their learning experience?
  • How do you typically evaluate training programs today?
  • Do you think this method will be appropriate for this project? Why/why not?
  • What else do I need to know about measuring the success of this project?


Methods of collecting data

There are many ways to collect date for your Analysis. Consider these options in addition to or instead of SME interviews:

  • Focus groups
  • Job observations
  • Performance reviews, customer surveys, and other performance-related documentation
  • Surveys
  • Email (With a follow-up interview as needed)


Orient Subject Matter Experts

travel map plan.jpg

Once you have identified the SMEs and identified the key questions, it is time to orient the SMEs. I like to conduct a kickoff call specifically for the SMEs. Keep in mind that you may need to conduct several calls to accommodate work schedules across multiple time zones. The kickoff call should be brief and to the point. It is your first chance to show the SMEs that:

  • You know what you are doing
  • You value their time
  • You are flexible and will respect their preferences

This is also the time to establish expectations, share the timeline, and address any concerns or questions. Be sure to ask each SME how he/she prefers to collaborate. Some SMEs prefer to answer your questions in writing, while others will want to share existing documents or walk you through key concepts. You should also find out when each SME is available and identify any blocks of time when someone might not be able to contribute, due to competing projects, vacations, or other planned absences.

Analyze the data

data tablet

Since you will be working with inputs from multiple SMEs, you will need an easy method to organize the information you collect.  I like to use a spreadsheet, but you may have another tool that works for you. The important thing to remember is that you want to be able to scan across a summary of the information you collect, so that you can spot discrepancies and trends across all SME inputs, without having to read each line of your interview notes.

Present and validate findings


As you conduct your Analysis, you should begin to develop a clear picture of your learning audience:

  • Who needs to be trained?
  • What do they need to know/do? (Future state)
  • What do they know now? (Current state)
  • What is the best way to close the gap between the current and future states?
  • What other needs did you uncover that are outside the scope of this project? How do you recommend addressing them?

Remember that you are telling the client a story. Try to summarize your findings as succinctly as possible, using action verbs. Do not overwhelm your client with raw data. They are expecting you to collate the data and find meaning in it. It is your job to make it simple for the client to commit to your plan.

Never email your findings to the client. Always review your Analysis in a meeting with the client and any key stakeholders, including the SMEs. You want to be sure that your findings and recommendations pass the “reality test” and gain buy-in from all the key stakeholders on the project. It is too easy for the client to ignore or dismiss your findings via email, and you may never know if you’ve achieved your purpose.

Seek new opportunities

Be aware that your findings may reveal new opportunities for additional revenue. By bringing these up as part of your Analysis, you are demonstrating your ability to go beyond expectations and give your client the comprehensive solution that they deserve.

They are a needy bunch – but that is such a good thing for you!