What does an instructional designer do?

What does an instructional designer do 

An instructional designer designs learning experiences that are a combination of interactive activities and supporting resources.

I've partly stolen the title of this blog from Clint Smith, one of the instructional designers who works with Sprout Labs. He’s currently planning a guide on instructional design that he’s calling ‘What does an instructional designer do?’

There is confusion around the role for many reasons. Anyone who’s involved in teaching is involved in instructional design in some way. Often, expert teachers go on to become an instructional designer. Their instructional design approach is often copied subconsciously from how they were taught.

The problem with digital learning is the focus on content

One of the greatest issues that digital learning faces is the focus on content. Content is passive text, video and sometimes audio. We spend most of our time online consuming content and sharing. Learning is a process where people are actively practising, exploring, reflecting, and planning action. This often means a shift because learning is associated with knowledge and information. I’m not saying that content is not important, but it isn’t the core of learning and certainly not what instructional designers should be focused on.

Instructional designers are not writers

I've often heard instructional designers being called ‘the writer’. Certainly, one of the outputs an instructional designer delivers is a storyboard – usually a written document – and an instructional designer needs great writing and communication skills. But a written storyboard is the outcome of a process. The real work in being an instructional designer is doing the performance analysis and designing the learning interactions. In actual fact, if an instructional designer doesn't like writing this can be positive because it means the learning experience might have fewer words and be more visual.

The rise of the elearning superhumans

A big trend in digital learning has been the rise of what I call the elearning superhuman. They are someone who both designs and builds learning experiences. In larger teams, and before the introduction of rapid elearning development tools, an instructional designer’s job was only to develop the storyboard. The actual learning experience was built by an elearning developer. The reason for this was that in the past the technologies we used to build elearning were complex. Now, rapid development software makes the build process easier, which means that instructional designers can work directly with the software.

This means that an instructional designer might:

  • design the learning experiences
  • design the images and do other graphic design work
  • produce and edit video and sound
  • assemble the learning experience in Storyline, Captivate or Glasshouse.

It also means that an instructional designer needs to know how people learn, understand how elearning software works, and be a visual designer and media producer. These last two are where the real challenge is, because these are highly-specialised disciplines.

Many of the quality problems we find in non-engaging digital learning occur because it's easy to use the software, but the creative talent is harder to find.

What are the core things an instructional designer does?

An instructional designer – designs learning and performance measurements

A good instructional designer begins by looking at what the business outcomes for a learning experience are, and figuring out how this is going to be measured. This means looking at real business metrics, not just end-of-course feedback sheets. Focusing on learning and performance measurement gives the instructional designer guidance around how learners are going to be assessed and what the focus of the learning experience needs to be, e.g. if they are designing an induction program, the measurable outcome might be time to competency or long-term retention of staff in the organisation.

An instructional designer – designs learning activities

Learning doesn't just happen when someone reads content, watches a video or hears a voiceover. Learning really happens when someone practises new behaviours and reflects. The core activity an instructional designer does is build interactive experiences that help a learner to practise and reflect.

An instructional designer – plans the sequence of learning activities

An expert synthesises a huge amount of knowledge and practice. The instructional designer therefore needs to break apart this expertise and figure out how a novice might gain that experience. One of Sprout Labs’ instructional designers speaks often about a key to his role is the ability to see that knowledge and skill from the viewpoint of the novice. Once the expertise is broken down, then the instructional designer needs to figure out the sequence of activities and what knowledge a learner needs in order to be able to complete the activities. Instructional designers call this process scaffolding the learning.

An instructional designer – designs explanations in text and media

This is the role people most often associate with instructional design, because we associate learning with knowledge and information. Learning is an active process. Just because you read something doesn't mean you're going to change your behaviour. (Which is why designing learning activities is higher up in the list of what an instructional designer does.) Instructional designers do have a role in designing explanations and they are often great communicators who think creatively and find engaging ways to present information. This is often about removing details, increasing clarity and focusing on key points.

An instructional designer – designs the interface for learning experiences

Especially if an instructional designer is working in the mode of being a superhuman, one of their roles is designing the navigation of the learning experience. The interface design of a learning experience is strongly linked to the learning experience itself.

A useful interactive design strategy used by instructional designers is metaphor, e.g. a module on time management might be based around navigating a calendar. The interface becomes a core part of the learning experience.

An instructional designer – designs job aids and performance supports

While I’ve said that instructional designers don't just design and write content, there are times in the analysis and understanding phase of a project that we discover that employees don't have access to the right information. This isn’t a behavioral problem. In this case the instructional designer writes and designs job aids, guides or other performance supports that an employee needs to be able to do the task.

What skills does an instructional designer need?

I'm often asked by people getting started in elearning about the skills one needs. My response is, ‘a couple of postgraduate degrees’. The team at Sprout Labs is made up of specialists; our instructional designers have masters degrees, and our visual designers are usually specialists in sub-areas of design, for instance interface design or illustration.

Instructional design is sometimes called a Renaissance skill. It’s a role that involves being an expert in many areas. This is even more the case if you're an elearning superhuman.

The core skill of an instructional designer now is improving people’s performance. This might be designing learning experiences, or designing a system or information. A secondary skill is being a great communicator with words, visuals and media.

You might get a different response from others when it comes to the question of what an instructional designer does, but Sprout Labs’ approach is that learning is about performance improvement and real behavioural change. It’s why we focus on interactive learning experiences.

This blog post is based on a section of Sprout Labs’ Instructional Design 101 webinar.


You can watch the webinar on-demand.