How long does it take to develop a quality learning experience?

Katrina Mitchell
Good Thinking
Published in
7 min readJun 1, 2022


We love learning experience design projects, particularly those that support adults in applying new skills, changing long-held beliefs, and opening up to new ideas or opportunities that might ease work or life.

As designers, we enjoy learning ourselves, and each new project brings with it the delight of diving into new subject matter and opening up whole worlds of technical ideas to play with. Ralph Koster, game designer, reminds us, “fun is just another word for learning.” And indeed, the work of learning design is fun, rich, and varied. It invites us to bring our whole selves toward distilling and crafting meaningful experiences along with the tools, materials, and guidance to deliver them to others.

Our clients share our desire to develop quality learning experiences. They, too, want to support facilitators and learners with materials that are well crafted and meet learners’ specific needs.

However, learning projects often come with challenges beyond those we expect in the creative process. We start projects excited with purpose, only to enter into the scoping phase to find that the project doesn’t have the resources or time to get from where it is to what is truly needed.

Due to structural pressures, projects are more often scoped by the time and money available rather than learners’ needs. This often leads to a compressed timeline and an understanding of the work that has no margin for error, let alone for added creativity, learning-design expertise, or embedding well-established principles of adult learning.

We all know that experiential learning is most effective with activities that allow learners to take in, apply, and practice using new concepts. We agree that most contexts and content require hands-on and highly participatory approaches.

But, it feels like we are racing toward these expectations against erosion on a slippery pavement with a narrowing path.

A common scenario might sound like this:

Development of a “curriculum” (or training materials) for a 9-month program delivered across fifteen 3-hour sessions in a group format in a context where learners require a highly participatory approach. A request for proposal lists the effort allocated for this work as 30 days, inclusive of work planning, desk review, client and team collaboration, lesson planning, learning design, and development of the facilitation guide (and sometimes even more!).

At first glance, 30 days seems like a reasonable amount of time. That’s two full days to develop each session. That should be enough, right? Let’s look further.

According to the Chapman Alliance, an instructional design consultancy, when thinking about instructor-led learning, every hour of content delivery takes at least 22 hours of design time to move from existing content (the ideas to convey) to basic instruction (a ratio of 1:22). This does not mean designing the kind of experiential, hands-on, activity-based learning that is needed. That ratio, Chapman estimates, is closer to 82 hours of design time for every hour of learning (1:82).

Learning designer Karl Kapp, known for his work in gamification of instruction, puts that ratio closer to 185 hours of design work for every hour of learning or instruction (1:185). When developing for asynchronous delivery, such as on a digital platform, these estimates can easily be multiplied by 10. These ratios do not come out of thin air. They are based on both research and lived experience, coming from the practice of hundreds of instructional designers.

A project that is 15 sessions of 3 hours each represents 45 hours of learning. Using the lowest of Chapman’s ratios, that would equate to 990 hours (approximately 125 days) of design time just to arrive at a basic, well-crafted but mostly didactic (lecture-style) experience. That’s 4 times the amount of effort budgeted in our example.

Developing and delivering the learning experience needed for behavior change and the uptake of complex, novel information, tools, or technologies in challenging learning contexts is more like that 1:85 ratio, which would be 3,825 hours or 478 days!

The time it takes to develop great learning experiences is hardly surprising to instructional designers and may not be surprising to anyone who has developed a participatory workshop or training session. However, the preparation that goes into designing these experiences is too often unseen and, therefore, unpaid labor. We see and experience the participatory and engaging nature of design, but it is still procured within a system that favors quantity and cost over quality. Timelines and budgets shrink, but the desire for the deliverable remains.

We rarely see anything more than a 1:4 (learning to design) ratio, only 5% of the time needed. No wonder we feel like the road is crumbling beneath us.

Image shows broken boulders from a hill alongside a road

There is a beautiful peak to get to, but the road is out, and there’s not enough fuel. When projects are not adequately scoped or resourced, we not only can’t get all the way to the destination, but we also find the process so challenging we feel defeated. It feels like we can’t give a project the love that it deserves to realize even a good outcome, let alone the full potential we imagined at the outset. It is difficult to keep centered on the people (learners and facilitators) when you are pulled by the gravity of these roadblocks.

You can see the challenge of delivering high-quality learning — the kind of experience needed to motivate and support people around complex and often seemingly intractable issues like nutrition, agriculture, health, gender, environment, or household finance, for example — when only a fraction of the effort required has been budgeted. According to Understood UK, some of the aspects that contribute to even longer timeframes and level of effort include the level of contextualization, scope creep during development, the availability of stakeholders and subject matter experts, and the requirements around materials and delivery mode.

Imagine how much more effective programs could be if the core tools for delivering change were given enough resources and time to be well designed!

Image shows a scenic view of a winding road along mountains.

What if we could move through projects by harnessing creative momentum and not expend so many resources addressing the obstacles in our way? What if we could take the scenic route, taking in the twists and turns that are the normal work of a learning design project as they offer different views and insights? What if we could re-center learners and relationships as the priority and guidepost for learning experiences? What if we could even arrive at a 1:22 ratio of instruction time to design time? Having that much time to do our work and share our specific expertise would feel spacious and allow for a better experience — one that has a real chance at supporting the change we want to see.

We know that moving people to apply new ideas, skills, and practices in their lives is not only something that can be done, it is something worthy of our love and attention. We have shaped learning materials and support for developing practical knowledge and skills toward postpartum health for moms, financial inclusion for women, cooperative development, health and nutrition for women and children, rural livelihoods and family economic stability, women and nutrition in agriculture, countries scaling up strategies to protect children, or managing the health and stability of HIV+ families. The people using these materials deserve learning experiences that will help them address the challenges they face and support them in achieving their goals.

There is a growing body of knowledge to draw on around the phases and process of learning design. We are constantly expanding our own understanding of how best to work with the challenges clients bring our way. We are actively thinking about the phases and nature of designing learning experiences in the hopes that they will support thoughtful and meaningful projects. Most importantly, we are eager to find and encourage a greater number of practitioners willing to explore the more scenic route to this work. We assure you the journey and view from the top will be well worth your time.

Picture Impact is a women-owned company working at the crossroads of evaluation, strategy, and design. Our approach is complexity-aware, people-centered, and utilization-focused. Our work is wide-ranging in subject matter and spans a range of contexts, subjects, and purposes, most often in service of change at the individual and community level.

This article is written by:

Katrina Mitchell, Designer, Urban Planner, Strategist, Maker, relentless seeker of beauty, and co-founder of Picture Impact.

Jennifer Compton, Evaluator, Experiential Education Designer, Writer, lover of learning who delights in finding “aha” moments, and senior associate at Picture Impact.

Swetha Dandapani, Writer, Content Creator, Traveler, and Communications Associate at Picture Impact



Katrina Mitchell
Good Thinking

Designer, Planner, Strategist, Maker. Relentless seeker of beauty. Senior Technical Advisor in Applied Design @Jhpiego. Co-founder of Picture Impact.