Driving success through instructional design stuff


Project Type




Product Consultants at Automattic (internally, “Happiness Engineers”) partner directly with users of Automattic’s products to identify and achieve their goals. Depending on the user, this work ranges from providing simple how-tos, sales, and billing help, all the way to engaging in complex troubleshooting, bug reporting, collaboration with product teams, writing custom code, etc. Given the breadth of these expectations, and the various tools involved throughout the course of their work, new hires to the Product Consultant division require significant support and guidance to ensure they have the greatest possible impact on user experiences quickly and efficiently.


After considering a variety of options (splitting existing lessons into smaller chunks, adding more practical assessments, adjusting when different lessons were taken, etc.), I proposed a fundamental reorganization of all of the Product Consultant training materials around the competencies (knowledge, behaviors, or tendencies that lead an individual to be successful in a given activity) Product Consultants were expected to have rather than broad topics as they were at the time.

This option addressed both problem statements. Reorganizing the content around competencies would make the training more focused and practical as requested by Onboardees (by chunking information by competency, and encouraging clear application), and also create a much more flexible pathway through the materials—avoiding duplication and other existing structural issues—and allowing for direct mapping to evaluation based on the actual expectations set out for Product Consultants at Automattic.

This plan was pitched using visual maps and outlines I created (examples above), along with specific data points, and estimations of the work required. After clarification and discussion, it was approved by all stakeholders.

The first step in reorganizing the programs around competencies was to determine the exact competencies expected of our Product Consultants. I took a combined approach to this, interviewing team leads in charge of managing the performance of Product Consultants, and building on my initial audit of our existing onboarding programs to directly synthesize competencies we expected based on what was covered in the existing materials. In addition to laying the foundation for our work, this approach allowed us to quickly perform gap analysis to see where our current materials were lacking, and also where they were out of scope.

This was divided into categories, and “leveled” based on the expected progression of skills. For example, the broad competency area “Troubleshooting” was broken into “Basic Troubleshooting,” and “Advanced Troubleshooting,” and then into specific competencies across a few levels of increasing difficulty.

This inventory formed the basic information architecture of our new onboarding programs, and was opened up to feedback from stakeholders to ensure alignment with our needs.

Phase 2

After incorporating feedback from stakeholders, we moved on to lesson development—pulling from existing content where possible. The majority of our lesson developers were not experts in instructional design (or design processes more generally), so I worked with another instructional designer to ideate on common lesson elements we expected to use. Based on this, I designed a series of reusable lesson templates and lesson elements to guide the lesson planning and review process. Combined with frequent design review, this allowed lesson developers to focus primarily on writing the content itself while ensuring we maintained high quality and design consistency across the project.

Given the needs of the project and the business, we sourced icons from existing libraries to build a visual language that scaffolded the learning process, and matched choices made in other internal training materials.

Additional design choices in this phase of the project were constrained by established styling on the site used for Automattic’s internal learning management system (powered by WordPress and Sensei LMS—a plugin for WordPress developed by Automattic). Given more time, I would have liked to complete a full refresh of the site’s styles, and pull more color into our lesson elements. However, working directly with the Sensei LMS development team, we were able to request and take advantage of many incremental updates over the course of the project to improve the general layout and flow of lesson content.

In the span of about 6 months, we created over 100 hours of training content across roughly 500 bite-size lessons that could be remixed, adapted, and used across product areas. From this, I was able to design custom paths through the available content for Product Consultants in each product area—giving onboardees the content they need when they need it, and blending it with shadowing and feedback from mentors to further scaffold the onboarding process.

Because we created much more focused and purposeful lessons, we were also able to fill in gaps in the onboardee experience. For example, we more than doubled the amount of time spent on core skills without adding to the time it took to onboard a Product Consultant, and ensured onboardees were supported to demonstrate the things they struggled with most.

  1. a significantly improved onboardee experience (through more focused and practical onboarding materials);
  2. training materials that are much more flexible and adaptive to the needs of the entire business; and
  3. an increased connection between the training Product Consultants receive to their evaluation and overall performance.