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  • Writer's pictureNicole Papaioannou Lugara

How to Design Learning for Industries You Know Nothing About

When I tell people that I've designed training on subjects like aviation, where I knew absolutely NOTHING about the subject matter beforehand, they're usually surprised. How can you design training about something you're not an expert in, especially something so technical?

If you're moving from teaching to instructional design or you're trying to shift your subject matter expert into instructional design, you've probably come to see this is the big difference between roles. When I was an adjunct English professor, it was easy to shape the learning experience-- I knew my students, I knew my content, and I could adjust on the fly based on their feedback.

But as an ID, my job is to make others' ideas learnable.

In this week's blog post, I want to talk about some of the tools and strategies I use to get up to speed quickly (not a comprehensive list, but a good start).

Cultural Immersion

image of desk with coffee cup, potted succulents, some binders, and a pair of glasses on top of the binders. One binder reads "Company Culture"

First, I think of learning new subject matter like learning a new culture. You have to learn the conventions of language, the frameworks they use to think about things, the important events, and the cultural icons. The best way to do this: surround yourself with the culture-- both the culture of the industry and the culture of the organization.

Learning the Language

Start with a sweep of the organization's website. What key words do you see? Make a list. Do you know what they mean? If not, jot down their definition.

Then, go to one of the related associations or governing bodies, and do the same thing.

Look over the documents your client provides to you, and search for definitions for the words you don't know-- whether that's by Googling or by asking an SME.

And speaking of SMEs... talk to your SME. Ask them to walk you through critical terminology or to point you to a vetted resource with definitions.

Relationship Building

Relationships are critical. Think of how you've come to understand your own culture-- ethnic, racial, community-based, whatever. Odds are that you looked to the people around you to understand the norms.

The same holds true for learning the culture associated with a new field or workplace. You need to find the guides, and you need to show them their help is appreciated so that they continue to support your growth.

In this case, your guide is usually a project stakeholder or an SME. Honor their participation in the project by respecting them as humans. Ask them about their expertise. Ask them how they got into the field. And listen. Genuinely listen. Build trust.

From their stories, the responses to your questions, and their reactions, you'll begin to understand what's important. Try questions like:

  • Can you tell me about a time when....?

  • What really confuses learners when they're first learning this stuff/first applying this stuff on the job?

  • What are your favorite go-to resources on this topic?

  • How did you become successful at this?

Accepting Feedback

Jumping into a new culture can be scary. We worry we'll come across as stupid or say something accidentally offensive. But the fear of being wrong will hold you back.

Here's one example from my own work:

Remember when I said I worked on aviation content? Well, in my first full-time ID role, I was working on Airbus A320 aircraft systems training for pilots. I had a PhD English. What did I know about Airbuses?


I looked over the FAA guidelines for the content. I reviewed a CBT. I had a few chats with the SME. I read over the manual.

I kept seeing "PB" over and over again, but I was too shy to ask what it meant. I thought I'd figure it out in context or that it was a symbol in aviation that I just didn't get.

I went on like this for 2-3 weeks. I was basically just copying content from the manual and turning it into videos. Really poor instructional design, honestly.

So finally, I was having a chat with an SME one day and went "what is PB?"

"PB?" he asked.

"Yeah, I keep seeing PB everywhere."

"Oh, PB. Pushbutton. The Airbus operates on a glass cockpit. Most of the controls are literally buttons that get pushed, and then a light turns on on the button if something is abnormal."

I WAS SO EMBARASSED! PB. Pushbutton! It was so obvious once he said it.

But guess what? I learned how to use that term the right way that day and had I not just sucked up my pride, I would never have really come to understand the way the plane operated so that I could translate that into a meaningful experience for the learners.

All the lightbulbs went off in my brain at that point. Knowing that one acronym and why they were talking about pushbuttons totally changed how I thought about the experience of flying an A320.

Everyone makes mistakes when they're learning. No one can know it all. It's ok-- even expected-- as long as you seek out and accept feedback.

Practice your new "language" skills with the SME. Ask if you're using terms correctly. Listen when they say something's not quite right.

Really, if you take nothing else away from this post, remember this: it's all about active listening.

Schema Application

a system flow diagram drawn in different colors of check on a chalkboard

Learning the cultural conventions of a field can certainly help you navigate information, but at a certain point, all information falls into certain categories. Once your brain can attach that information to a structure, it makes it much easier for it to be encoded and stored in your memory.

Schemas can provide that structure. These organizational patterns can be really useful tools for learning about a new field. Here are just a few schemas I like to use:

  • chronological order

  • order of complexity

  • process order

  • micro to macro / macro to micro

  • alphabetical

  • geographical

  • Hero's Journey

Start mapping out the relationship of key terms and concepts using these schemas, and you'll find it easier to remember them and to help others make sense of them. You might even choose to sketchnote them or build a memory palace.


Honestly, sometimes, you just can't learn about a topic as deeply as you'd like within the time allotted for the project, and that's ok.

As an ID, if you understand the goal for the learning and the organization, you can still make determinations about what concepts get included in your learning products versus which end up on the cutting room floor.

Even if you don't understand what you're looking at, try asking the SME these questions:

  • What do you hope people will be able to do when they're done with this training? How will we know if we've been successful in helping them do that?

  • What are they doing now?

  • Why do you think they're doing that instead of what you want them to be able to do?

  • What's at risk if they don't learn this stuff?

Ask questions that help you understand if there's alignment or not, rather than worrying about having the same comprehension as a SME who's studied the subject for 15 years.

Based on the answers, create a target to which all other things point. Writing these goals down for everyone to agree on is a great way to keep training focused and set evaluation criteria.


Want to learn more about consulting clients and working with SMEs? Check out From Data to Design-- enrollment for the next cohort begins January 14, 2022; course starts January 24, 2022.

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1 Comment

Jan 23, 2022

Excellent post! When I first read the title, I was very curious because I did not think that it was possible to design learning for an industry that I have no experience or education about. This is something that I struggle with overall as if I do not know anything about a particular subject, topic, or job, I tend to become unmotivated to learn and focus on something that I do know. The similarities that you explained because design learning and cultural immersion were superb. When an individual becomes exposed to a new culture, it is important to take the time to explore all the avenues of understanding the culture and what it offers. This can be said for design…

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