There are plenty of instructional design models to choose from, so why should you bother with this one? In my travels, I’ve found that many of my fellow learning professionals have difficulty demonstrating their value and the effort required to create effective learning experiences.


Unfortunately, the models currently available are too complex and difficult to explain. It’s too cumbersome to demonstrate in a moment why a microlearning program isn’t the right answer to someone who isn’t a learning matter expert (LME). Additionally, it’s not uncommon for the LME to have been thrust into learning by being a great subject matter expert (SME). “Hey – you know a lot about this “stuff,” go teach it!” So, our SME in LME clothing says, “Yeah, a quick microlearning should get it done!” Translation: “Sweet, I have some budget. Let’s make a video.”

These two scenarios are repeated ad nauseam daily, and contribute largely to corporate learning being undervalued versus a fulcrum point for strategic success. If the model you use is working for your learning team and your SMEs, and it allows you to demonstrate results to your organization – read no more. If you’re one of those struggling to get your leadership to say “Yes,” or your SMEs to build effective learning experiences, then I encourage you to read on. 


What is 4D? It is a streamlined model that deconstructs the design/development process so that learning professionals, subject matter experts, stakeholders and anyone else involved in constructing learning experiences can easily understand it. It is based on sound learning principles, and is scalable to a single learning experience, or an entire curriculum.


  • Schema: Shared language.
  • Reduces cognitive load: Easy to explain and remember.
  • Strategic planning: Ensures alignment between LMEs, stakeholders and SMEs.
  • Managed expectations: Clarifies roles and responsibilities between LMEs, stakeholders and SMEs.
  • Avoids scope creep: Empowers the LME to hold SMEs accountable (gently) when the plan deviates.
  • ROI: The stakes and impacts are clear from the beginning.
  • The proverbial “seat at the table”: Elevates the learning professional’s role as a trusted advisor.

Where is evaluation?

If the model were expressed as a formula, it would be 4De = LE (learning experience). Evaluation is assumed to be omnipresent. To keep the conversation simple, the formative and summative evaluation strategies are discussions held throughout the process. SMEs will experience formative evaluation, for example, as a review and approval checkpoint before moving to the next phase. Do you remember the difference between formative and summative evaluation? As Robert Stake explains it, “When the cook tastes the soup, that’s formative; When the guests taste the soup, that’s summative.”

How does it work?

When you decide that you are going to build a house, the first thing you do is envision what you need and want your house to have. Will it have two stories? Granite counter tops? How many people are going to live there? How long do you plan to own the house? Building the wrong house is just as expensive as building the wrong learning solution.

Defining the learning vision is the first step in the process. Who are your learners? What will the learners do differently because of the course? How will you measure learning (aka guests tasting the soup)? What will you need from your SMEs? When do you need to get this information out? Can you build the course in that amount of time?

TOOLS: Conversation, Post-Its, Sharpies, Socratic Method, Microsoft Word or Bamboo Paper App 

F1e OUTPUT: An approved outline listing the objectives, learner, high-level course flow/map and summative evaluation strategy after launch. (F1= Formative evaluation checkpoint 1)

After you have defined what you need and want in your house, you and your architect then meet to design and map out the specifications in a blueprint. In learning, this is the detailed design document (DDD). This step aligns the objectives to the content, and the content to engagement and strategy. It is blueprinted out regardless of the type of house you are building. You can build houses and learning all day without these blueprints. However, the process is smoother and the product is better when this part of the process is not ignored. Whether your “house” is e-learning, video-based learning (VBL), materials such as infographics, instructor-led or virtual instructor led (ILT/VILT), it needs a blueprint. Many get so excited that they just jump straight to building the house. What happens when you put the plumbing in without consideration of the electrical work? A potentially shocking experience.

Be an architect. Review the blueprint and ask focused questions to close any gaps. Blueprints are hard to read. Your SMEs and stakeholders won’t understand your “drawings,” so don’t throw it over the wall. Discuss reasoning, requirements and thinking, relating all conversation back to the wants and needs. If they agree, then move on. If they disagree, then ask questions to determine how this strays from the original vision. You may resolve their concerns, or you may need to change the design.

TOOLS: Patience, research, source documentation and SME discussions to close gaps revealed in the DDD. 

F2e OUTPUT: An approved DDD that maps out the solution and its intended results.

Now the real fun starts. Break ground and start to develop/build your house. This is where your tools and skills deviate based on the medium. Are you developing your “house” using an array of e-learning tools? Microsoft Suite for ILT/VILT? Adobe Suite (VBL)? It is important to use your blueprint when building to preserve the alignment to the originally defined vision; remember what you will be evaluating throughout and after you move into your house. If the first two phases were done thoroughly, you can be creative and focus on the visual and engaging aspects of your course.

The process deviates slightly once the learning experience is built, depending on if it is synchronous (together) or asynchronous (individual). There is usually an alpha and beta review, but how they are conducted varies.

For ILT/VILT, you may wish to meet with your SMEs to walk them through the materials to get a 3D perspective of what the course will look, feel and sound like to a learner. They can then provide just-in-time feedback (this is the same as an e-learning alpha review). Make the initial edits and then send the activity guide, media and facilitator guide to them to thoroughly review the activities and answers for accuracy. The beta review is when you receive and incorporate those edits, and then send it back out for the final glance over and approval. What does that step look like for e-learning?

TOOLS: Fun, creative and using your tools of choice to build the course (Articulate, Captivate, Microsoft Office, Adobe Cloud, GoAnimate, etc.).

F3e OUTPUT: Usually through two review cycles (alpha and beta) – an approved learning experience.

We are almost done! Now you are ready to move into your house, or deploy your course. If your house is built and no one moves in, what was the point? Again, this step varies slightly depending on the type of house. Deploying an ILT/VILT may involve facilitating pilot runs with a sample group of learners and train-the-trainer (and possibly train-the-producer for VILT) sessions. It may also involve ensuring the courses and sessions get mapped out and inputted into the LMS correctly. For asynchronous experiences, have SCORM wrapping and quality assurance testing in your LMS, recoding where necessary. Ensure that these courses are all mapped in a curriculum correctly (parent-child relationships are correct, testing is captured correctly, setting up your evaluations at the right spot, etc.).

This step is best served with a debrief checkpoint to see how things went, what can be improved and confirm everyone knows how, when and who will follow-through on the summative evaluation strategy. Proper deployment ensures that you gain efficiencies when you circle back to define your next project.

TOOLS: Fortitude, following your defined plan, LMS and a Course QA Checklist.

F4e OUTPUT: Learners can access and take their learning experience effortlessly. You or your client will know how to measure success.

In sum, all models are only as effective as their application. This model is another tool that might make more sense to you, or it may provide additional clarity to the model you are currently using. There is no right or wrong model, so long as all the lightbulbs in the houses you build turn on and shine brightly.