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Understanding Learning Experience Design (LXD): Three learning leader perspectives

By Les Howles / February 2024

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The notion that learning can be enhanced by designing engaging, meaningful, and impactful experiences has been an ideal for many education and training professionals for decades. Educational reformers like Dewey [1], Montessori [2], Kolb [3], and numerous others seem to have been inspired, at least in part, by this ideal. In today’s evolving field of learning design and technology (LDT), the ability to create engaging and immersive learning experiences has risen to greater prominence and lies at the heart of what is referred to as learning experience design (LXD).

The emergence of LXD is a relatively recent phenomenon. In their literature review, Schmidt et., al. found that the LXD term began appearing in professional publications in the early 2000s [4]. Niels Floor, working in the field of human-computer interactions (HCI), began developing LXD as a distinct practice around 2007 by adapting user-centered design and experience design principles when creating instructional programs[5]. Since its inception, usage of the LXD term has continued to grow. Schmidt noted a sharp increase in references to LXD in professional literature beginning in 2015 [4]. However, despite its assimilation into the LDT nomenclature, Schmidt and colleagues conclude that LXD is still in a formative stage of development currently lacking an agreed-upon definition and a common core set of practices. This lack of clarity has confounded certain learning professionals who see LXD as just another name for what skilled instructional designers have been doing all along [6]. 

This article aims to address the need for greater conceptual clarity surrounding the current state of LXD. During a 2023 national learning and development conference [7], I interviewed three prominent thought leaders: Michael Allen, David Kelly, and Megan Torrance, each of whom shared their unique perspectives on LXD in the context of adult professional learning. This article includes condensed excerpts from these interviews hoping the ideas expressed by these thought leaders will provide deeper insights into LXD as a concept and practice. I conclude the article with a synthesis of the interviews and offer suggestions for approaching LXD within the broader context of digital transformation as an emergent, new form of learning design.

Michael Allen: LXD Differs from Traditional Instructional Design

Michael Allen is the founder and chairman of Allen Interactions, an international award-winning eLearning development company. With more than 40 years of experience in the LDT field, Allen is often regarded as one of the grandfathers of eLearning. Through his writings and presentations, he differentiates LXD from traditional instructional design, providing new approaches for making the design of eLearning more engaging and impactful [8, 9]. Several years ago, Allen changed the titles of his instructional design team to “learning experience designers” reflecting this emphasis:

For me, LXD is a critical concept in creating effective learning because we learn from experiences far more than just watching or listening or reading. But developing experiences is different from traditional instructional design. Most instructional design starts with a focus on content, whereas learning experience design starts with a focus on the learner and how can we have them experience a meaningful, memorable, and motivational experience (3Ms). I think those three words are just absolutely essential. Meaningful is critical, as is it your ability to remember it. If it doesn’t stick with you, it's not going to modify your future behavior.

To craft learning experiences that embody these 3Ms, Allen’s design teams apply what he calls the CCAF structure, which stands for context, challenge, action, and feedback:

The key for me is a fallback on the CCAF structure. Putting people in a context. Imagine that you're in this situation and this thing has happened. What are you going to do? That sets up an experience right away. You [the learner] may be thinking about what you know, but you're anticipating that you're going to take action, focusing on having to make a decision and thinking about the consequences. We love to show learning through consequences. We want consequences to be both positive and negative when and where appropriate.

Allen shares an additional LXD strategy to ensure that learning experiences are both learner and task-entered:

One of the things that helps me keep my designers focused on experience rather than content presentation is that I asked them to design the final learning experience first. Most people want to start with the basics in the beginning and build up to the end. I say, what do you want your learners doing at the end of the course that demonstrates proficiency. And so that's going to be likely the most authentic, most open-ended learning event that you're going to have in this stream of events. And so, you build this [open-ended event] so that there's the most opportunity for mistakes, usually multi-step activities. By building that [event] first, you then can take elements of that and build a preceding experience that would help with that particular skill. Working backwards has made a huge difference. If you're looking at that final activity, making it authentic, making the feedback based on consequences rather than judgment you now have components that you can make separate little learning modules. And it's all experience-based rather than here's the 10 things, or the 10 principles you need to learn going one at a time.

David Kelly: LXD Must Become More Than a Buzzword

From his vantage point as CEO of The Learning Guild with more than 30 years in the learning and development field, David Kelly is an astute observer of industry trends. Repeatedly he has witnessed the overhyping of emerging technology approaches and brings a much-needed reality check perspective to LXD. He challenges learning professionals to pause and recognize that much work is needed to bring LXD into actualization, as he explains:

At its heart, I would define LXD as a buzzword, a term whose usage has spread faster than its understanding. For me, what it is at this stage is more of an ideal than a skill set. It is more of a visionary idea of where we could take things in the future than anything that is practical. I see people being hired for learning experienced designers, and I think it's more aspirational than practical, as it is today.

Kelly describes the current state of learning experience design and what it must become:

We're developing things that are more than just courses these days with the instructional designer role more than it used to be. And I think that's where the learning experience design idea has come from. But for me, it's [LXD] more about a mindset, at least at this stage. It's more about reframing how you look at the work that you do as an instructional designer. Looking at it less as a process and a template. Flipping it over and looking at it more from the learning and learner’s perspective. What is their experience is the big part of it, and I think that it's a great thing for our field. If we don't find a way to make it [LXD] a skill set that's unique from instructional design, we'll just be describing ourselves as learning experience designers without necessarily changing the skill set or the process attached to it.

Over time if we're able to harness this potential and as the skill set of an LXD designer emerges as different from the instructional designer, we’ll get there. But those questions that we need to pose to ourselves to get us to look at it differently are going to help bring that skill set to life.

Megan Torrance: LXD is a Holistic Learner-Centered Approach

Practitioners of LXD often describe it as a holistic and learner-centered design process that borrows from other design disciplines [5]. This is what Megan Torrance, CEO and founder of Torrance Learning, emphasizes in her approach to LXD. As an author and popular workshop facilitator, Torrance’s work focuses on the processes and project management aspects of learning design, incorporating agile methods used in computer software development into the LXD process [10]. For her, LXD involves focusing on the entire learner journey, as she clarifies:

For me, learning experience design is a holistic look at how an individual or groups of individuals connect through a learning experience. It's not just the event, it's not just the course. It's how they find out about it [the learning opportunity], come into it, and how they navigate to it. Then what happens after the learning event and any kind of related performance support, coaching, or whatever happens afterward. So, I see it as a holistic look at things.

Torrance explains how LXD and instructional design integrate:

A big question then, is around how LXD differs from instructional design. I see instructional design as a key component of it. It's a part of a larger experience when you think about it. You have the instructional design of the learning intervention, and you have the instructional design of the follow-on performance support and the pre-work. But learning experience design also captures the platform ecosystem, the marketing, the communications, the evaluation process, and the connection with managers.

Torrance emphasizes the learner-centered aspect of LXD through monitoring and gathering data about how learners respond to various learning designs:

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about data and analytics and how we use that from a formative perspective to figure out what we need to do and what does an individual learner need to do using data throughout the learning experience. We have amazing power and reach, and in the design of a learning experience, we need to make sure that we are looking holistically at the audience and how they’re going to connect in.

If we don’t appreciate the situation or the context that other people might have and what they might bring from their own lived experience, then I’m not designing a very good learning experience. So, it actually is really very integral to everything we do.

Synthesis of LXD Perspectives

So how might we assimilate the diverse ideas shared by these LDT thought leaders to gain a clearer understanding of LXD? As a starting point, I suggest framing LXD within the broader context of digital transformation. Over the last few decades, this unfolding technological renaissance has affected nearly every organization, forcing innovative changes in professional practices. Learning professionals in higher education [11] and workplace training [12] have been challenged to think differently in developing new ways of designing and delivering learning within evolving digital learning environments. Digital transformation is often viewed through an ecological lens, reflected in the use of terms such as digital learning ecosystems, emergence, and holistic approaches to learning. In particular, the concept of emergence, referring to the often-unanticipated appearance of new forms, comes into play in nearly every complex ecosystem undergoing rapid change [13]. During these times of proliferating technological advances, old paradigms and classification structures break down, and established professional practices call out for rejuvenation [14]. Often accompanying these shifts is an emergence of new terms, phrases, and buzzwords within professional lexicons. For example, over the last two decades, there has been a steady rise in the usage of terms like learning experience and learner experience in the LDT nomenclature [4]. LXD, as I have come to view it, is an emergent phenomenon [4], an inherent outgrowth of digital transformation. The term represents an emerging hybrid form of learning design, taking shape within the matrix of today’s evolving and interconnected digital learning ecosystems.

One hang-up is the tendency to view LXD through the lens of an older instructional paradigm heavily rooted in knowledge transmission. This is often coupled with a bias toward approaching learning from a reductive cognitive perspective. Much of Michael Allen’s work has involved a “seeing off the premises” of many traditional instructional design conventions [9]. Allen argues that too much instructional design practice is not only heavily content-centric but also weak on strategies for crafting interactive, emotive, and engaging learning as experiences. He and his design teams have developed frameworks and strategies, such as the CCAF structure, that skillfully integrate cognitive, behavioral, social, and especially affective elements, which constitute the core ingredients for engaging learning experiences [15].

Like Allen, Megan Torrance is a practitioner of LXD, approaching it from a broader project management perspective. Torrance emphasizes the holistic, learner-centered, and transdisciplinary aspects of LXD where instructional design becomes part of a more inclusive learning design process. For her, the scope of LXD encompasses the entire learner journey from the preparation for a learning interaction all the way through to follow-up practice and coaching activities. Torrance’s LXD methodology is also transdisciplinary, incorporating design strategies from software development and data analytics. This transdisciplinary character is common in most current LXD models. Not only does LXD draw from instructional design [16], it also incorporates practices from numerous other design fields. These include user experience design (UXD) [17, 18], game design [19], design thinking [20], architecture [21], immersive learning [22], and learning engineering [23] to mention a few. The unifying cornerstone within this amalgam of design practices is an emphasis on improving learning design by drawing upon learning theory [24] and learning science [25]. This confluence of design practices, central to LXD, perhaps may be one reason why it has been so challenging to define and operationalize.

This brings us to David Kelly’s crucial message, which I have deliberately saved to last. His reality check perspective of “how it is right now” with LXD should be of utmost concern for LXD proponents and practitioners. LXD has indeed cast its shadow before becoming fully manifest. As Kelly indicates, its current nebulous state can be seen in numerous articles, presentations, and job descriptions where LXD too often comes across as a surface rebranding of instructional design [6]. Kelly, however, remains optimistic that in time LXD will eventually find its place within the learning design discipline. But for now, there is much work to be done collectively to better define and operationalize its practice. Yet, it is encouraging to note that significant work is already underway, as can be gleaned from this article’s numerous LXD references.

In conclusion, it is only fitting to offer at least some kind of provisional descriptive definition of LXD in its current formative state. Synthesizing prevailing diverse definitions, we can reasonably say that LXD is an emergent transdisciplinary and learner-centered approach to learning design grounded in learning theory and learning science. From a design standpoint, LXD involves the skillful holistic integration of the cognitive, affective, behavioral, and social dimensions of learning with an emphasis on the often-neglected emotional dimension [26], a catalytic element for learner engagement [27]. Schmidt describes a big challenge for practicing LXD as requiring “an extensive repertoire of knowledge, skills, and abilities across a range of disciplines” [4], several of which have been mentioned.

In the end, how LXD becomes actualized in specific learning design contexts to provide qualitatively superior learning outcomes compared with traditional instructional design methods, is the crucial factor for operationalizing LXD as a distinct professional practice. Granted, many highly skilled learning designers likely have been doing LXD to various degrees but have yet to or may not want to adopt the label. Whether LXD becomes absorbed into mainstream instructional design practices, as a kind of operating system upgrade, or whether it becomes its own specialty skill set within the overarching field of learning design, remains uncertain at this time. Call it what you wish, but keep in mind that for those who understand and practice LXD, like Michael Allen, Megan Torrance, and many others, it involves a different kind of design experience and, as David Kelly adds, a different mindset. So, for now, let’s give it time to mature and continue the dialogue and see what emerges.

For extended podcast versions of the three learning leader interviews, visit the Learning Exchange Virtual Community blog.


[1] Dewey, J. Experience and Education. Macmillan, New York, 1954.

[2]  Montessori, M. Education for a New World. Kalakshetra Publications, Adyar, India, 1959.

[3] Kolb, D. A.  Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Pearson FT Press, 2014.

[4] Schmidt, M. and Haung, R. Defining learning experience design: Voices from the field of learning design & technology. TechTrends, 66, 2 (2022), 141–158.

[5] Floor, N. This is Learning Experience Design: What it is, how it works, and why it matters. New Riders, 2023.

[6] Bozarth, J.  Less Content, More Learner: An overview of learning experience design. Research report. The Learning Guild. 2020.

[7] Howles, L. Shining the Light on Learning: A recap of Training Magazine's 2023 conference and expo. eLearn Magazine 2023, 5.

[8] Allen, M. W. Leaving ADDIE for SAM: An Agile Model for Developing the Best Learning Experiences. ASTD Press, Alexandria, 2012.

[9] Allen, M. W. Designing Successful e-learning: Forget What You Know About Instructional Design and Do Something Interesting (Vol. 2). John Wiley & Sons, 2011.

[10] Torrance, M. Agile for Instructional Designers: Iterative Project Management to Achieve Results. ATD Press, Alexandria, 2019.

[11] Grajek, S. and Reinitz, B. Getting ready for digital transformation: Change your culture, workforce, and technology. Educause Review. July 8, 2019.

[12] Seufert, S. and Meier, C. From eLearning to digital transformation: A framework and implications for L&D. International Journal of Advanced Corporate Learning, 9, 2 (2016).

[13] de Haan, J. How emergence arises. Ecological Complexity 3, 4 (2006), 293–301.

[14] Kumar, R. and Pande, N. Technology-mediated learning paradigm and the blended learning ecosystem: What works for working professionals? Procedia Computer Science 122, (2017), 1114–1123.

[15] Conceição, S. and Howles, L. Designing the Online Learning Experience: Evidence-based Principles and Strategies. Taylor & Francis, 2021.

[16] Fink, L. D. Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

[17] Schmidt, M., Tawfik, A., Jahnke, I., and Earnshaw, Y. Learner and User Experience Research: An Introduction for the Field of Learning Design & Technology (1st ed.). EdTech Books, 2020.

[18] Peters, D. Interface Design for Learning: Design Strategies for Learning Experiences. Pearson Education, 2014.

[19] Quinn, C. N. Make It Meaningful: Taking Learning Design from Instructional to Transformational. LDA Press, 2022.

[20] Boller, S. and Fletcher, L. Design Thinking for Training and Development: Creating Learning Journeys That Get Results. ATD Press, Alexandria, 2020.

[21] Gibbons, A., S. An Architectural Approach to Instructional Design. Routledge, 2013.

[22] Pagano, K. O. Immersive learning. American Society for Training and Development, 2013.

[23] Dede, C., Richards, J., and Saxberg, B. (Eds.). Learning Engineering for Online Education: Theoretical Contexts and Design-based Examples. Routledge, 2018.

[24] Clark, D. Learning Experience Design: How to Create Effective Learning that Works. Kogan Page Publishers, 2021.

[25] Quinn, C. N. Learning Science for Instructional Designers: From Cognition to Application. American Society for Training and Development, 2021.

[26] Calvo, R. A. and D'Mello, S. K. (Eds.). New Perspectives on Affect and Learning Technologies (Vol. 3). Springer Science & Business Media, 2011.

[27] Shackleton-Jones, N. How People Learn: Designing Education and Training that Works to Improve Performance. Kogan Page Publishers, 2019.

About the Author

Les Howles is an emeritus faculty associate and former director of Distance Education Professional Development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He has over 40 years of experience working in higher education, corporate training, government, health care, and as an independent learning design consultant. His current area of interest is helping learning and development professionals upgrade their instructional design practices by adopting a learning experience design (LXD) methodology emphasizing design thinking, evidence-based research, and innovative application of digital learning technologies.

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