Instructional design writer’s block syndrome

August 26, 2011 by Bill Wade in IT Courseware

You know the dreaded writer’s block scene: An author sits in front of a blank white page and suddenly freaks out and shrieks something like: “I HAVE NOTHING TO SAY!” (OK, some authors don’t shriek, they simply shrink from the empty page and feel the familiar stomach ache coming on). Well, instructional designers (IDs) experience this too. I call it the “ID writer’s block syndrome” or IDWBS. There’s nothing worse than looking at section after section of blank template pages with nary a word written on them, and seemingly little hope of getting information to complete them. Let alone enough information to fill a five day course consisting of 15 modules.


In a perfect world, an instructional designer is given content to work with and develop. But sometimes (or all too often) the content is not available because either the subject matter expert (SME) has been too busy to locate it, or the content is simply not available because the product is still in development. Regardless of the reason, without any content it’s very difficult to start the instructional design process.

The following are some examples of why content can be unavailable:

  • The SME is so involved in developing complicated and time-consuming labs that there hasn’t been time to locate source content.
  • The SME does not have or hasn’t had time to locate useful links to possible content.
  • The cutting edge project is so new that there isn’t any formally developed content.


Technical communication is essential to any project. It provides a connection between IT systems and the people who use them. Without it, the user often doesn’t know how to use the product. Having informative, clear documentation can often mean the difference between the success and failure of a project. Given this, how do you start the courseware development process without the needed source material?

Research, research, research

There is a lot of useful content on the web about Microsoft technologies. You just have to know where to find it. Some of the most common resources include: The corporate website, Microsoft Research, Microsoft TechNet, and various MSDN sites, such as MSDN Library and MSDN Forums. The Microsoft website has a large amount of valuable information. In the site’s search box, just type in the subject or application name to pull up a vast array of both very technical and less technical information. Microsoft Research is useful because it focuses on more than 55 areas of computing  and collaborates with leading academic, government, and industry researchers. Microsoft TechNet includes resources for IT pros, including downloads, an extensive library system, Microsoft Learning, forums, and so on. MSDN Library is an essential source of information for developers using Microsoft tools, technologies, and services. MSDN Forums offers various forums for software developers about multiple Microsoft products.

Locate product documentation

The product usually includes a wide variety of information, ranging from highly technical documentation, such as the Help .chm file or .pdf files to marketing information, such as “what is” information about the product. Whether either highly technical or seemingly fluff, all this information is valuable in writing courseware. The product website is usually the best site for locating this type of information.

Schedule time with the SME

Sometimes SMEs haven’t had the time to provide content or point to resources. This is when you should schedule an appointment with them to gain a lead on it. Try to meet face-to-face and have your questions ready. Ask questions such as “who is the audience?” for the content and “what are two or three overarching points to make about the product?” These points will often serve as lesson titles as you develop the courseware material. After the SME provides the major points to be made, ask for a topic to be diagrammed. The diagram will provide more details about the topics and clarify what the SME wants and doesn’t want in the courseware. Finally, verbalize what you think you heard the SME say and diagram to ensure that your understanding of the content to seek is correct. For more information, see the Wadeware blog “How to Interview a Subject Matter Expert.”

Find a SME with product expertise

If your lead SME is unavailable, sometimes it’s useful to go to the project manager and ask if that person knows someone who has expertise on the subject. You can then contact this person to ask if they have the time to help point you to useful content. Sometimes SMEs on other projects can provide valuable links or information that you need. Be tenacious. If you don’t get a response initially, keep sending the contact e-mail and calling the resource.

From the information that these sources provide, you can write a rough draft of the courseware. And at this point, your stomach ache has long waned, and the content is ready for a SME review to ensure its technical accuracy. Now that you’ve done all this detective work, you also have something to show your stakeholder, which will encourage them to talk about content that is missing or content that shouldn’t be included, which, in turn, provides you with additional information. After this first review, the remainder of the content development cycle can occur. For additional information related to this topic, see the Wadeware blog “5 Instructional Design Best Practices” and the blog titled “How to Discover Your Business Requirements.”

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