Efficiency: The Trap of Modern Design

We live in a culture, and work in a field, that prizes and demands efficiency. A million things always need to be done immediately, and at least a thousand projects needed launch yesterday. We make endless to-do lists, debate time tracking and performance metrics, hire project managers by the truckload, and do everything in our power to wring every last drop of “efficiency” out of our daily lives.

And often, we’re making a mistake.

Well, more than one really, but we’ll get to that in a moment.

Efficiency vs. Effectiveness

I’m sure you’ve heard this saying before: “there’s no sense in being efficient if you’re not being effective.” What’s the distinction? Even if you do something to a high degree of quality—and do it very quickly—it won’t help your learners if it’s the wrong thing.

You could build an intricate, interactive 3D model of a piano, but it won’t much help your learners understand the playful nature of Mozart’s Piano Sonata 16 in C Major. You’re much better off just having them listen to the piece (you know you want to).

That’s obviously an exaggerated example to make a point. It’s critical however, before you start doing a thing, to make sure you’re doing the right thing. Know your learning outcomes, and pick the right tool for the job, not just the new flashy thing.

It sounds incredibly simple and straightforward—we think, “there’s no way I’d ever not think about what I’m doing first!” But course development timelines are a harsh master, and it becomes easy to slip into comfortable territory without ever really taking the time to understand if we are making the most effective pedagogical choice—no matter how quickly we can get the work done.

Don’t work fast just to do a thing. You’ll just have to do it over again. Or worse, be stuck with an ineffectual piece of learning content that doesn’t really accomplish its goals.

Efficiency for the sake of efficiency is inefficient.

Put off Efficiency until You’re Ready

As instructional designers, we often exist on the front end of the adoption curve for a lot of new technologies. We (sometimes to our detriment) are always exploring new technologies and innovations in an attempt to engage our learners on a deeper, more fundamental level.

Don’t get me wrong, technological integration and new tools can be great when integrated appropriately and aligned with learning outcomes. But, using those tools without evaluation comes at a cost, in terms of monetary resources; cognitive load for the student and instructor; and your time and energy as a designer.

Let’s face it; learning new tools and instructional applications takes precious time and gray matter. As much as we might wish it, no one wakes up and is overnight a master of building interactive VR experiences.

Now, we still should use new technology where appropriate (see above), but be aware of the cost. Don’t try to be an expert immediately. In order to utilize learning to use the tool to its fullest will take time. So, let efficiency take a back seat while you are learning.

The other day, I listened to a podcast that shared what I thought was a good way of looking at the process of learning something new. Ask yourself these questions, and only move to the next one once you can competently do the previous item.

Learn Something New: A Process, in Four Steps

1) Can I [DO THE THING]?

Say you want to start creating infographics to help reinforce concepts in a series of courses you are designing. The first step is to see if you can actually do it. Assemble the tools. Do you have a computer, graphic design software, and the content you need to translate to a graphic? Maybe some video tutorials for basic software functionality? Perfect, you are capable of creating an infographic. Do it, but don’t stress about doing everything perfectly, because we all know the first time we create anything it will be crap.


Now, as you’re growing and moving into your 2nd and future infographics, you’re taking your time to improve the quality. You’re more comfortable with the tools, so you can fix smaller issues here and there. Dialing in color palates. Picking complementary typography. Finding higher-quality data sources. You’re focusing on the details and taking as much time as you need to make sure you Get It Right.


You’ve published a great infographic, but there are still more to go—you’re doing this for a whole program worth of courses after all. Now that you’re aware of all the subtleties that go into it, you’re mindful of the pitfalls. You’re not making mistakes, and you can churn out high quality graphics consistently, without error. You’re comfortable experimenting with different styles and techniques. Note, it could take a long time to get to this step, and quality improvement is never-ending process. But you’ve proven that your one good thing isn’t a fluke.


Ahh, now we’ve arrived at the time where you truly get to focus on being efficient. Throughout your learning process, you’ve likely picked up a few keyboard shortcuts here and there, learned a few tips, and even found some excellent, go-to sources for quick data. But here’s where you really get to focus on making your infographic-churning process as svelte as possible. Create templates for common styles. Learn advanced graphic design techniques that can save you time. Build up a library of reusable typography and icons. Create multiple graphics using an ‘assembly-line’ process if you’re repeating the same steps for multiple pieces. Make macros to combine common tasks into short keystrokes. In short, GO NUTS!

Now you can start saving both time and money. Each faction of time you can cut off your process makes the whole thing more streamlined—you’ve earned that efficiency.

Back to the Beginning

But stop and take a moment to reflect. Imagine how hard it would be to build all of this if you were trying to do it all while first learning how to draw a square in Adobe Illustrator. You’d be hopelessly lost in the weeds. Large gains in efficiency can only really come after you’re proficient. Efficiency, applied at the incorrect time, interferes with the learning process.

I’m curious as to your thoughts here—as someone (relatively) new to instructional design, the learning curve and picking the times to try and be efficient can be a difficult balance to strike. What are your strategies for learning new skills, developing yourselves professionally, and giving learners access to modern learning experiences without crashing headlong into deadlines?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments below or on twitter @modelelearning.

Author: Dave Zokvic, Assistant Instructional Designer

Dave helps Model eLearning forge narrative and gamified eLearning and side-hustles as a writer and designer for Northward Compass. Off the clock, he’s likely eating sushi, wandering around a bookstore, playing tabletop games, or picking up his next ‘digital native’ skill.

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