What you need to know about Agile instructional design

 In Agile


In today’s world we need to start creating learning in organisations quicker, faster whilst still ensuring engaging learning and business results are achieved. How do we do that? Some call it ‘quick and dirty’, others call it ‘Agile’.


Good instruction is inspiring. It captures both the power of knowledge and skills as well as the joy of being competent. Good learning experiences aren’t just about facts; they are about becoming a more proficient, capable and valuable person. Imperative characteristics for instructional events are that they should be meaningful, memorable and motivational.

Peter Allen, Leaving ADDIE for SAM

There has been a lot of talk about the new agile model of Instructional Design, but not a lot of companies using it in New Zealand. I have heard of one financial services organisation and one bank using Agile instructional design, one consultant and we are helping one ITO implement it. So there is no real evidence yet in NZ there is a benefit to it.

Except for the one case study from the financial services company. In talking to the Design manager last week she mentioned her team had implemented a ‘Savvy start’ (brainstorming session) after a piece of elearning had been requested by a business unit. With all involved, including the business unit, it became clear that the issue was not a training need. By conducting this session up front we estimated that a months worth of time and around $5000 was saved in taking this approach.

In a fast paced world any processes now need to be; inclusive of al stakeholders, goal orientated, visible and evaluated my more stakeholders, earlier than ever before.

Gone are the days where we leave sign off and evaluation the end of the process, holding bated breath when we show stakeholders our final product after months, when they signed off the concept in a word document months earlier.

Peter Allen starting talking about the Successive Approximation Model (SAM) in 2012, so it’s been around for a while ‘out there’. There are also other Agile models, which aren’t as well known, such as the A.G.I.L.E model, and I’m sure there’s more.

Although the SAM model has similarities to software development models as Agile, Extreme Programming (XP) and SCRUM using short work cycles, iteration and other techniques to produce the best possible product regardless of situational constraints, SAM is a process for efficient and flexible design and development of engaging and effective learning products.

So what about ADDIE? The model is often criticised for being too systematic, too linear, too inflexible, too constraining and even too time consuming to implement (Kruse 2009). Essentially a Waterfall design process, where one step has to be completed by the next.

There have been many variations of ADDIE where the steps are put in circles and squares with various single and double headed arrows showing direction.

According to the SAM design, we need to ‘use our knowledge to formulate our ‘best guess’ or approximation of an ideal design, and then find ways to evaluate it. We need to take smaller quicker steps so that we can receive additional guidance of evaluation before we have spent all of the projects time and resources on only one guess. Leaving evaluation to the end of a process is better than not correcting at all. But that is a risk’ Continuous evaluation and correction early as possible returns valuable rewards. Waiting til the end invites trouble’

For those of you have heard of the SAM model, did you know it is not one but two models? These are aptly named Thing1 and Thing 2, no sorry, SAM1 and SAM2

Thing1 and Thing2


The overall SAM models provides the following:

  • A clear pathway to success
  • Measurable and obtainable milestones for marking completion
  • Targeted moments to reach agreement and consensus
  • The process is clearly defined and manageable, and yet encourages creativity and experimentation
  • It reveals the design as it evolves and does so in a way that stakeholders can see and evaluate the product, early
  • It helps team members communicate, contribute and collaborate

 So what’s the difference between SAM1 and SAM2?

SAM1 is very simple. It is well suited for:

  • Smaller projects
  • Especially where individuals work alone
  • Or small teams who work in unison
  • Where specialised skills such as software programing or video production are required from ‘outside’

This model requires the process to repeat three times, starting and ending with evaluation. I see this as a combination of the Analysis and Evaluation stages of the traditional ADDIE model.


Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 8.22.36 am


The first iteration looks at the situation, the need and alternative solutions. The second returns to evaluation and is one notch up, determining the success of the first iteration, sketching new alternatives and/or refining previous ideas and developing prototypes to become more thoroughly representative of the final product.

The second iteration requires determining success of the first iteration, and sketching new alternatives. In fact the book suggests not using any of the elements from the first design!

In iteration three, the prototypes become more thoroughly representative of the final products. In the book itself, there are several very good chapters on prototyping and what each of the stages looks like.

So SAM1 is a great method for say new, short sessions, but what about large projects? That is where SAM2 comes in.

SAM2 is an elaborated and extended version of SAM1 for situations in which development cannot be fully integrated in to the design. This is particularly true where there are large amounts of content, elearning developed by programmers vs. rapid tools, or when development is outsourced.

Work in SAM2 is divided into three phases. Preparation, iterative design and iterative development.



As with SAM1, SAM2 depends on functional prototype development with design iterations. But SAM2 prescribes separate iteration cycles for design then development, but with cycles between them. (Note the arrow between Design and Development)


1.0  The Preparation Phase

 Information gathering is the phase to gather background information before attempting the first design solution. It helps set the target, identify special issues and rule out options. It narrows the focus for the next design phase. This is where the performance problem is explored in broad terms within the organisational needs, goals and outcome expectations.

The Savvy Start is a solutions brainstorming event in which the design team and key stakeholders review collected background information and generate initial design ideas. The Savvy Start is an efferent way of determining the main performance objectives whilst simultaneously dealing with the organisations hierarchy that can so easily obscure understanding of needs and goals.

Here’s a section on the Savvy Start including who should be included, and a sample agenda.

2.0  Iterative Design Phase

Unlike SAM 1, the design and development phases are separated out, however, it is still an iterative process.

Project planning is the first step, which involves quantitate assessment of the remaining project details affecting timeline and budget, including cost and quality management. It also includes communications, risk, schedule, scope and resourcing issues. There is a sample of the project plan in the book.

Additional Design refers to the fact that the Savvy Start can be fun and intense, not all design elements may have been captured in this session and a smaller design team may have to come together to capture these additional design elements.

3.0  Iterative Development

As with the Design phase, the development phase is also iterative, allowing stakeholders the means to evaluate the product, make corrections and comments within the constraints of the projects rather than waiting til the end.

Design Proof is the product of the first iteration of this stage. It is the visual, functional demonstration of the proposed solution that integrates samples of all components to test and prove viability.

The Alpha stage is the complete version of the instructional application to be validated against the design. At this stage all content and media are implemented. At this point it is assumed that no undocumented issues will be present, however that does mean they will not appear.

The Beta stage is the validation cycle from Beta, and is the modified version of the Alpha stage

Finally the Gold stage is the final phase of development; the courseware becomes fully usable within the parameters of the previously agreed project guidelines.

So that is a summary of the SAM model, both for large and small projects.

However, is your organisation up for SAM? Agile requires failing early and often. Because this drives innovation. If your organisation expects perfection first time, this may not be the model for you. Know though that perfection first, comes with costs and high risk of failure after all of the resources (time and money have been used up). Have you heard, “well yes I know I signed off the story board three months ago, but this is really not what I was expecting’!

Can you cut it as an Agile Instructional Design Leader?

Senior colleagues and I have spoken about SAM and all agree, you must know the fundamentals of instructional design first before attempting the SAM model. You can’t be perfectionist, as Agile design requires rough prototypes as a starting point. And it requires a distinct feeling of discomfort out side our usual linear way of designing. If you are not sure, take a look at this great checklist of the key skills required to be successful.

So, if you or your company are also using it I would love to hear from you in the comments below.

And here are some quick links:

  • SAM check lists
  • A great Slideshare deck
  • Register your interest in a Auckland and Wellington SAM showcase, and see who’s using it well in NZ
  • To keep up to date with more blogs and events, register for our news
  • Come and meet Nigel Paine, L&D guru and author of ‘The Learning Challenge: Dealing with Technology, Innovation and Change in Learning and Development’ at an exclusive seminar.



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