Training the invisible person

Regardless whether you subscribe to ADDIE, SAM, Kemp, rapid prototyping, or all-of-the-above instructional design methodologies, you probably approach a new training project the same way: who is the audience, and what are their needs? But what do you do when your audience is invisible – either too large and diverse to adequately characterize, or unavailable to you?

No, that cannot happen, you say. Modern training is targeted to the specific needs of our audience. Really? What about the company who has been training the same group of people for 10 years, updating their training every year for new technology, but never checking to see whether their people have changed? Or the development firm developing or updating a system for another client, giving you (the subcontractor) no access to the ultimate audience? Or maybe, just maybe, you find yourself working with an IT department head who says (as a client of mine a few years back did) “the users will take whatever we give them”.

We all know why we do audience analyses. Learning is more effective when it is targeted to the needs, preferences, and capabilities of those being trained. By learning who the primary and secondary audience(s) are, what their demographics look like, how much they already know about the subject being trained, how they are most effectively taught, their technology experience, and their expectations about the training, we can make a picture of the “current state” of the audience.

We then create the “future state snapshot” – what the audience should look like if your training is successful – from the project vision and requirements. The difference between the two is the change you are training. Regardless whether it’s an updated computer system, new processes, or a wholesale reorganization of the enterprise, it’s always a change.

But sometimes all you have is the future state. Think about the last software you got from Microsoft, Oracle, or Apple. Their training has to be adequate for anybody, anywhere. The only common denominator is that they have MS-Word (for example) and have to know how to use it. Now we’re in the world of training the invisible person.

Is it important? Commercial product companies make assumptions about their products all the time. Yet when someone is making the investment in training, hitting the wrong mark can be costly and even counter-productive.

The truth is that even when you have no direct access to the audience, information is not completely unavailable:

  • Read any background material you can lay your hands on (specs, scoping documents, strategy documents, etc.). Sometimes someone has done a stakeholder analysis or made a list of assumptions about the audience.
  • Identify assumptions made about the project. Why the change is needed tells you something about how things are now. And it will tell you a whole lot about the expectations for the future.
  • Review the results of the last big change made. What went right, and what went wrong? What can you learn about your audience from this?
  • Look for larger trends. For example, 10 years ago, a 3rd-year accountant would have been spending a lot of time supervising the actions of younger accountants, who were collecting and categorizing information. Today, many large accounting firms outsource this first step, so the 3rd-year and younger accountants are doing more analytical work, and need to be trained accordingly.
  • Talk to your team. They may be more helpful than you expect.

With imperfect data about the audience and its needs, you can still create excellent training. The key is to emphasize what you do know, not what you don’t know.

  • Establish a voice and an image. Create a mental image of your audience or user, and keep that image in mind while you’re designing. It may at first be a hazy image, but use it to guide your work.
  • Be consistent. Your audience image may be hazy, but you need to write as though that audience were reviewing your every word.
  • Work backwards from your known future state to establish principles and competencies. When you don’t know what your audience has, figure out what they need, and apologize to those who already have it. Even experts need to brush up on skills occasionally, and when you find you have such an expert, turn them into an ally who can reinforce (or even help deliver) the training.
  • Keep it simple.

So even if you cannot do a formal audience needs analysis, you can successfully create training. What tips do you have for training the invisible audience? Share them with us in the comments, and happy training!


Memorable Learning was founded after almost 30 years of telling the stories of people passionate about what they are doing. It began as writing laboratory reports to support a method of protecting a third-world farmer’s hard-won harvest from rats, but soon expanded. Whether it’s explaining a new software product to users, teaching engineers how to share data with international counterparts through an enterprise-wide system, or bringing accountants up to date on new developments in their fields, I’ve been privileged to work with some of the most passionate people in the world.

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