<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none;" alt="" src="https://px.ads.linkedin.com/collect/?pid=63941&amp;fmt=gif">
Instructional Design Principles

Learner-Focused Instructional Design Principles.

Discover more about the academic research
behind better work instructions.

Bad work instructions are expensive and hard to use.

Confusing. Hard to use. Poorly written. Work instructions on the shop floor present a number of problems that can cost your business millions in the form of waste and inefficiency.

This is not a new problem.

Instructions have been cumbersome for decades, and many researchers have dedicated their careers to making them better, more intelligent, and more human-centric.

But Industry 4.0 is poised to create a multitude of new challenges for manufacturers. Unfortunately, many of these may prove insurmountable if the way we capture and deliver knowledge is not scaled to meet these complex new demands.



What is instructional design?

Instructional design can be defined as the process of methodically designing, creating,  and sharing instructional materials, including work instructions, one-point-lessons, standard operating procedures, and educational courses. The goal of instructional design is to offer user-friendly and effective knowledge acquisition to the end-user. Good instructional design can take a number of forms in practice.


"Who writes work instructions?" you might wonder. Instructional designers are traditionally the experts on writing work instructions. However, with a user-friendly work instruction software (like SwipeGuide), anyone can write work instructions without any previous knowledge of instructional design. However, we strongly recommend using an instructional designer at least for reviewing and evaluating purposes. 


The most famous framework for instructional designers is the "ADDIE model" (pictured below), which is also very applicable to how the SwipeGuide instruction software has been set up:  

ADDIE model design

The ADDIE model consists of the following steps: 

  • Analyze: who is the learner and what goal do they want to achieve? 

  • Design: How should I structure and design this instruction and its steps so the learner can achieve their goal in the most effortless way possible? What content should I use? 

  • Develop: How should I create the content of these instructions? What text, visuals, illustrations, videos, and gifs should I include? What tools should I create my instructions in? What tags and badges should I use for optimal accessibility? SwipeGuide is ideal for procedural knowledge for work instructions and standard operating procedures. 

  • Implement: How should I share this instruction with the end-user: QR code, NFC, direct link, embed? On what devices can it be used? Should it be available both online and offline? Should there be an access restriction implemented? Make sure you're using the best tool to implement at scale.

  • Evaluate: How can this instruction be continuously improved? How does the end-user actually use the instruction? How does the end-user like the instruction and is s/he able to perform the desired task right the first time? 


The Agile Instruction Design Model.

Another great instructional design model is "The Agile Instruction Design Model". This model consists of 3 parts:

1. Iterate.
Deliver value in increments and make sure to learn and improve in every step. 

2. Pair.
We suggest pairing up an expert with a novice employee and letting the novice create the instructions by shadowing and questioning the expert. 

3. Crowdsource.
We like to see instructions as living documents. In SwipeGuide, frontline workers can actively contribute to the continuous improvement of their knowledge base.

agile instructional design



Research leads to better instructions.

As a SaaS company dedicated to providing manufacturers with the best and most state-of-the-art work instructions, we rely on scientific research on instructional design to deliver a solution that taps into how humans really learn.

Particularly influential has been Principles and Heuristics for Designing Minimalist Instruction, written by Hans van der Meij and John Carrol in 1995. This is a landmark bit of research - a practical paper that outlines a research-based foundation for minimalist instruction that still proves effective 25 years later.

In the pages below, we'll identify the key points of effective instructional design principles and explain how they shaped the fundamental structure of minimalist digital work instructions and the SwipeGuide platform.

Background pillar header-2


Choose an action-oriented approach.

Downtime, errors, and waste on the shop floor are often caused by either the wrong action being performed or - more likely - the correct action not being performed. This is when an operator needs to perform an action and, for a number of reasons, cannot.

Every second matters in manufacturing. A delay or minutes can translate to thousands or wasted dollars. 

One of the most common reasons for these delays is a lack of knowledge at the right time.

The most frequent cause of this? Ineffective work instructions on the shop floor. 


action oriented instructions


Provide an immediate opportunity to act.

As we mentioned above, learners are hungry for things that matter. 

Often, traditional forms or instruction serve as an immediate and unavoidable barrier to this critical need. They:

  • Require users to locate the proper instructions. Either buried in a lengthy paper manual or located in a remote (and sometimes nonexistent) location. 
  • Provide non-relevant information that only serves as a distraction to a learner and doer. 
  • Are poorly written and organized. Complex language, inconvenient structure, and poor quality images all serve as practical barriers to action.


"Minimalist instruction is always action oriented" and "lifts these barriers to enable learners to perform meaningful activities at the earliest possible opportunities."

Your work instructions need to facilitate immediate and meaningful action on the shop floor. When done right, It's a win-win situation: teams accomplish meaningful work more quickly and also gain a more concrete and confidence-inspiring learning experience.


Instructional design to encourage and support innovation.

Sometimes, doing means changing. A foundational aspect of both lean manufacturing and minimalist instruction is providing the necessary structure to bolster innovation and change in knowledge that is delivered or practiced.

This fact is evident in the teachings of lean manufacturing. These philosophies center around the idea of ​​systematically listening to and implementing the feedback and suggestions of workers on the shop floor.

Successful design of minimalist instruction needs to foster innovation and give users the tools to express their ideas and deliver feedback.


Give people the opportunity to contribute in the moment they are performing the task. The brilliant thing about a digital work instruction platform is that workers on the shop have the ability to deliver immediate feedback on the very process they are performing.

Your teams often know their work best and they have ideas about how it can be done better. Give them a button. They'll use it, and thus engage the continuous improvement mandated by the founders of lean philosophy.



Respect the integrity of the user's activity.

Think about our heroes of minimalism: Steve Jobs with the iPhone and the iMac, or Marie Kando revolutionizing the way we organize our lives. What do their products and approaches have in common?

They move out of the way. They remove objects and obstructions and "offer help without imposing on the users."  The designs value the activity of the user about potentially distracting and obtrusive information surrounding the activity.

This principle applies equally as well on the factory floor.

Example: an operator must change out a piece of bottling equipment. He rarely performs this task, so he probably needs to consult a work instruction to make sure he has the knowledge to do it correctly. 

It might be tempting for the author of this instruction to include a lot of information about why this task is necessary, about similar tasks, or to give the operator background information about the work. But it's "critically important for designers to keep in mind that the moment-to-moment goal of the user may be much less sophisticated and more short term."

Critically, in order "to respect the integrity of users' activities, designers must often step aside a bit." 

Provide only the necessary information for a user to complete their work and move successfully to the next step.


minimalist manufacturing

Background pillar header-2


Anchor the tool in the task domain.

In the same line of thinking - the design of the tool with which we deliver instructions must reflect the structure and content of the task itself. Users do not want abstraction. Both the designers or an instruction platform and the authors of the instructions themselves must remember that "the tool is merely a means; it is almost never an end in itself."

There are two distinct strategies with which this can be accomplished:



Give users real tasks.

It might seem obvious, but it's beneficial to avoid training for training's sake. Rather, anchor the tasks or the work instruction in those things that they will do on a daily basis. This helps make instructions more effective and promotes deep learning .

Because of their action-oriented approach, well-designed digital work instructions automatically make learning synonymous with doing. Because of this, and because knowledge is provided immediately in the moment of need, instructions delivered in this way can always be about the real tasks in front of the workers.


work instructions learning



Components of the instruction should reflect the task structure.

If users are indeed working through procedural, step-by-step work instructions and performing operation-critical tasks at the same time as they are receiving the necessary knowledge, then it follows logically that the steps and procedures described in the work instructions and standards must be structured and organized to match that of the tasks.

In an effective digital system - resources like tags, badges, and other markers can be used to provide organization and structure.

Why are titles so important on the shop floor? In part, because they can and "should be crafted to convey deliberately and clearly the major procedural elements in instructional tasks."  In line with our second point above, these titles need to be simple and should clearly define only the task that needs to be accomplished.

Here's an example of how instruction titles can be presented in a minimalist digital instruction platform:


instructional design manufacturing

Background pillar header-2


Support error recognition and recovery.

Mistakes happen in manufacturing. Even with the most advanced measures in place (work instructions, monitoring, training, etc.) it's inevitable that something will go wrong on the shop floor.

When this does occur, it is absolutely critical to operating margins that these errors are corrected as quickly as possible.



Prevent mistakes wherever possible.


The right information at the right time.

Employees engaging in manufacturing workflows need to have the right instructions at key moments in their daily work. The unfortunately truth is that often, when presented with a lack of information, machine operators will simply “do their best.” This kind of improvisation on the shop floor leads to more errors. More errors means lower-quality products, high costs, and wasted time.


knowledge access frontline


Often, mistakes can be avoided by ensuring that the operators have access to simple information about the task at hand:

  • Where to be
  • What to do
  • Which tools and materials are needed

Instructions that are delivered immediately to mobile devices and activated with QR codes are a perfect way to deliver this information at the optimum time in a workflow. Understanding that "The best place to prevent errors is ... in the program itself" is the first step to stopping errors before they happen.


Use clear language and quality images.

People have a hard time completing their tasks correctly if instructions are unclear, confusing, or poorly written. Misinformation leads to mistakes. It may seem simple or obvious, but clear instructions are an incredibly important part of preventing errors on the shop floor.

It's been proven that a combination of simple, descriptive text and high-quality visuals helps learners process instructions more quickly, and reduces ambiguity in digital work instructions.


Revise for continuous improvement.

We know that "some errors can be prevented by using the results from user tests to rewrite certain sections."

This principle still applies to most tasks in our lives - from riding a bicycle, studying for a calculus exam, or performing your work according to instructions on the shop floor. Analyzing mistakes and adjusting our approach is integral to the learning process.

That's why we've combined the first principle - giving the immediate opportunity to act - with the concept for revision. With the feedback button, operators on the shop have the immediate option to contribute learnings, improvements, and fixes directly into the instruction they are working through. This is crucial to enacting a truly efficient system or continuous improvement on the shop floor.


instructional design feedback



Provide error information when actions are error-prone or when correction is difficult.

Sometimes, we already know where mistakes will happen. Despite our best efforts, there will always be certain tasks that are more complex, harder to teach, or simply present a larger margin or error on the shop floor.


How do we predict these error-prone tasks?

It is often interesting to read cutting edge research from 25 years ago. When Principles and Heuristics for Designing Minimalist Instruction was published, locating these moments of likely user error required hundreds of user tests over a significant amount of time. In manufacturing, time is incredibly valuable. The more time saved, the more money saved.

Modern instruction platforms provide data and analytics in real time. Supervisors can review data (time spent on a task, user effort score, specific feedback, etc.) to locate exactly where and when errors occur the most, and adjust learning strategies accordingly.



Difficult correction.

In most learning environments, immediate correction is non-critical. Yes, it's an important part of the learning process and is essential for growth and any mastery or any tool. But if you mess up a few lines in a drawing, correcting your error is a simple matter or grabbing an eraser.

But in the world of manufacturing, every error and subsequent correction represents a critical loss or expensive time and resources. Therefore, efficient troubleshooting and error correction should be a top priority.



Provide on-the-spot information.

Principles and Heuristics for Designing Minimalist Instruction was written before the advent of the smartphone, tablet, practical laptop, or any other high-powered and efficient mobile technology. In 1995, providing on-the-spot information to a learner was a monument task. It meant a painstakingly precise structure for instructional design (impractical for busy and realistic people) or cumbersome and impractical electronic manuals. Usually a mixture or both. 

But in our age of mobile tech, this principle becomes simple to execute anywhere, including the shop floor. As long as they are supported by an intelligent, well-designed, and scalable digital solution, instructions can be delivered anywhere directly into the hands of the worker.

Example: An operator needs to know how to operate a particular machine. She opens her smartphone and scans a QR code placed directly on the machine. Instantly, the up-to-date digital work instructions are displayed on the mobile device.

Background pillar header-2


Support reading to do, study, and locate.

Ever try to "flip through" a traditional user manual? How did it go?

We thought so.

The traditional design of user manuals and work instructions does not support users in finding information on the go, or simply finding the right information. Inevitably, "users do not systematically process their manuals from the beginning to the end. Instead, their behavior is more flexible."

Users need information that supports the way they work, learn, and read on the shop floor.



Be brief, don't spell out everything.

If this point seems to be reiterated throughout this article, it's because minimalism is so incredibly important in every aspect of a good instruction. Supporting the way learners physically read through and process an instruction is no exception. Keep things simple and easy to understand and learners will have no trouble finding what they are looking for.

Check out the example below to see how a digital work instruction platform supports the easy creation minimalist text and visuals. If the authors of instructions are a tool that encourages minimalist design, efficiency will be that much easier to achieve.


create work instructions



Provide closure for chapters.

Make sure each section of the instruction limits the dependence on other sections and depends on as little outside knowledge as possible. In manufacturing, each discrete step should bring a process from its initial state to its desired state. Make sure that each step starts with a fresh initial state, and ends with a complete desired state.

Always remember that the users or your instructions are living, breathing people who learn in a way very similar to how you learn. Think about what you would like to see in an ideal work instruction, and imagine a platform that can make that reality.

Background pillar header-2


Instructions are changing. Humans, not so much.

How do you make sure people are creating good work instructions? Give them a platform that makes it difficult to create bad work by utilizing these fundamental principles - and make sure that it's optimized for your changing workforce.

It's amazing to read a paper from 20 years ago that still carries so much significance in today's rapidly digitizing world. How? Because despite the incredible advances in technology, this research taps into the fundamental ways in which humans learn.

From here, it's only a matter of extending and adapting these very clear principles for a digital age and a manufacturing application. As long as people are still people, these points will hold true on the shop floor and help the world's top manufacturers reduce waste and increase efficiency.



Van der Meij, Hans, and John M. Carroll. "Principles and Heuristics for Designing Minimalist Instruction." Technical Communication , 1995, pp. 243–258.