Designing With Imperfect And Incomplete Information, With Agility


It is ideal to do a thorough needs analysis as the first step for your learning projects. However, sometimes, there is simply no time, budget, or space to do so. This article discusses practical strategies on how to approach learning design with imperfect and incomplete information.

Learning Design With Limited Needs Analysis

As humans, we are hardwired for heuristics—mental shortcuts—such as making assumptions and jumping to conclusions. After all, these shortcuts allow us to solve problems and make decisions efficiently, such as, should I eat this? Can I trust this person? Should I take this step? We use heuristics all the time; they are strategies derived from our experiences with similar situations. This is no different in our role as learning designers, for designing learning.

The world we live in is a good example of an “imperfect information game.” That is, we do not have all the information required at any point in time to make the perfect decisions. While ideal, it is simply not possible to know everything about, say, your learners, their needs, business needs, hidden stakeholder goals, and environmental factors at the start of a project. As such, heuristics and assumptions become a necessity.

Learning theorists insist on thorough needs analysis, task and gap analysis, learner persona exercises, and extensive stakeholder interviews. The goal is to get as much information upfront as possible to make well-informed decisions about learning design. And while that is desirable, at times, the management needs a learning intervention within five weeks! Scratch that, make it “yesterday”!

Tactics For Designing Agile Learning With Incomplete Information

So, how can we navigate such situations? Here are some tactics that have worked for us. The first one is to make intelligent assumptions.

  •   What do you already know about your audience? How can it be extrapolated to your current scenario?
  •   If the topic you are working on has been presented earlier, those evaluations and reviews could give you significant insights and data to make a few decisions this time around.
  •   If you are an in-house L&D employee at an organization designing learning modules for your colleagues, you already have an edge: you have direct access to your audience! Leverage your awareness and knowledge about the audience to arrive at a baseline understanding of their needs.

Next, find a few vital sources that can fill in your knowledge gaps. For example, direct supervisors know (or should know) a lot about their team members and can help fill you in about aspects, such as job requirements, motivations, and common causes of errors. What else can they tell you that could help you to design the learning for their team? Naturally, this will come tinted with the supervisor’s own assumptions, biases, and level of knowledge, and you’ll need to mitigate for that—but it is still better than going blind.

Similarly, if you are working on converting an ILT into eLearning, previous instructors may already have the background information you are looking for. They can be a treasure trove of ideas if approached skillfully and respectfully. Do remember that you’re on their turf, changing their workshop into an eLearning self-paced course, and that therefore, tact is going to be essential.

And finally, the last tactic is the most important one: build with agility in mind. Crafting your design, keeping the information gaps in mind, pays dividends over the long term. Being acutely aware of the fact that you’re assuming a few things will nudge you to be agile in your design. How can we design learning with agility as a key factor? Essentially, it involves designing the learning experience and assets in such a way that they can be adapted swiftly in a dynamic landscape.


Let’s consider an example: you’re unsure if an hour-long training can be divided into fifteen-minute nuggets. To determine this, you could develop the course in a modular fashion—perhaps with four clearly delineated sections. This can help it to be adapted in either way, as one hour or as fifteen-minute nuggets, once you gather more information.

Here’s another example: let’s say your course features a number of video snippets or story-based scenarios. Now these can be embedded in one big module, or you may choose to plan them to be standalone assets. Planning, designing, writing, and producing them as standalone assets is more agile, because then they can be used as microlearning pieces later on.


As vendor partners, we often begin to work on projects with limited information around the context and content. We aim to collaborate with clients and gather more knowledge about the blind spots during the early stages of the project. Yet, no matter how much you know, there is always more that you don’t know. An inherently agile course architecture is a good solution for these kinds of situations. So, how do you manage information gaps in your work? What kind of heuristics and assumptions do you often come across—and more importantly, are you aware of them?

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