Education, Human Resources, Learning, and Development – instructional designers come from just about everywhere! But what is instructional design, and why is it important? Most people haven’t ever heard of the field.
Instructional design isn’t a common undergraduate focus, so it seems to slip by unnoticed. But K-12 schools and the corporate world would come to a standstill without it.
So, what is instructional design, exactly?
As an instructional designer myself, I struggle to explain what it is that I do to my friends and family. You would think that it would be intuitive, right? I mean, the name kind of explains it all: design of instruction. But somehow, it’s never that easy!
It’s the same in corporate settings. Colleagues often don’t understand what instructional design, or training for that matter, is.
ATD has a clear definition that will give us a good starting point:
“Instructional design is the creation of learning experiences and materials in a manner that results in the acquisition and application of knowledge and skills.”
Like most definitions, you’ll find if you google “what is instructional design,” that one is still a little too technical for me. I love a good scenario, so…
…Let me break down the meaning of instructional design with a scenario.
Let’s say a company wants to introduce software to replace a paper record-keeping system. The software will cut the time employees spend on paperwork in half. Chances are, the company paid big bucks for this software. Now, they need their employees to use it correctly to reap the benefits.
So the problem was the time it takes to complete paperwork, and the solution is the software, right? Not if you look at the scenario with instructional design in mind. The problem is that employees are used to an outdated recordkeeping system. To get a good return on their investment, the company needs to help employees use the new software effectively. So the solution? Training!
Using ATDs definition, training on the new software would be the learning experience. Specifically, training might be a manual/job aid, video tutorial, online course, or even a simulation. The acquisition and application of knowledge and skills? That’s when the employees can navigate and use the new software thanks to well-designed training.
Which brings us back to instructional design. Instructional design is the process used to get that well-designed training. To understand what is instructional design, it’s essential to understand the instructional systems design model.
Let the SME develop the training, right? Wrong…
Let’s go back to our record-keeping scenario from above. Management will realize that someone needs to teach staff how to use the new software. This is when the company would reach out to their friendly neighborhood instructional designer in an ideal world. In the real world, as you know, the responsibility can fall into the hands of an employee who has never designed training before.
It isn’t uncommon that management will ask the employee (aka the subject matter expert) who has had the most experience with the software to put together a tutorial or lead a training session on the topic.
That means training can be developed by someone who has zero background in instructional design.
That also means that the training will likely fall short in engagement strategies and brain-friendly learning experiences.
Zzzzzzzz. What? Sorry, I dozed off for a second.
It may seem intuitive to management to ask a subject matter expert to develop and/or lead training, but let me tell you why that ain’t the best approach.
Undoubtedly, the SME knows the subject area inside and out! That is why they are great at their job! Unfortunately, they are not subject matter experts in the area of instructional design so they most likely are not great at your job! Thank goodness for that! Can you say job security?
Most content area subject matter experts do not have the background knowledge or skill set to develop content in a way the learner can relate to or in a way that maximizes learner retention of content or skill acquisition.
The best scenario would be to have a subject matter expert pair up with an instructional designer. Two subject-matter experts work together. Each bringing their own strengths to the partnership to develop relevant, engaging, and meaningful content.
Okay, so we’ve talked about what instructional design is and who should be involved in the development.
Now, let me introduce you to my little friend…ADDIE.
The ADDIE method is an Instructional Systems Design (ISD) model, which is a framework for creating, developing, and implementing learning.
ADDIE is one of the most common ISDs and my personal favorite because it is super easy to follow.
ADDIE is a methodology to take a training need from an idea to implementation.
In the Instructional Design Lab course and the ADDIE+ workshop, we really take a deep dive into each step of ADDIE. We analyze the instructional designer’s tasks for each phase, which really simplifies everything.
Completing the training needs analysis is the first and (in my opinion) the most important step. A thorough analysis is like the base of a pyramid. Without it, your training project may come crumbling down!
In the analysis stage, the instructional designer gathers as much information as possible from SMEs, department heads, business owners and other stakeholders. The more thorough your analysis, the better chance you have at creating a killer course that will wow the client.
Here is some essential information to uncover during the analysis stage:
- Is training really needed? Hopefully, the company or client has already figured this out. If they haven’t, the instructional design process will shed light on any unnecessary training.
- Identify business objectives.
- What are the learning objectives of the course? How do they align with the business objective?
- What are the learner’s needs?
- Determine what skills or knowledge the learner already has. What new knowledge do they need?
- What does the successful implementation of this new learning look like in the workplace?
- Is there a certain training format best suited for this learning/audience?
To become an expert in facilitating the training analysis, check out these free resources:
- Post: conducting a training needs analysis
- Post: leading a project kickoff meeting.
- Downloadable: Training Analysis template (included in the Instructional Design Starter Kit)
Here’s the stage where the phrase instructional design originates. Some people are scared off by the words design and designer. I understand! As someone who can just barely sketch out stick figures, I do not consider myself artistic.
So here’s what really happens in the design phase of instructional design, you’ll see it’s nothing to fret.
- Conduct SME interview to gather all the content to be included in the course
- Finetune the learning objectives
- Finalize the course format. Will it be face-to-face or online? How long will the session(s) be? If online, will it be video learning or housed on an LMS? Will there be participant or trainer guides that need to be developed?
- Organize and outline or storyboard the content
- Finesse content to make to ensure it is learner-friendly
- Draft knowledge checks
In your instructional design process, the development stage is where the magic happens. Here’s where all the organization and planning that’s completed in the first two stages come together. You’ll finally start to see your course take shape during development.
Here are some other things you can expect to happen during this phase:
- Finalize the tweaks to the script.
- Build screens, slides, or videos.
- Add learning activities and interactions
- Work on audio, graphics, and video. Many instructional designers work with specialists for this step. Don’t worry if you’re not an expert!
- Run through an internal quality assurance review.
- Get approval from stakeholders again!
Implementation is the launch of your course. It is where you upload the course to a learning management system or it is presented live. This is the point where the course starts delivering on the business objectives and learning objectives and people begin learning.
Some organizations will run a test or pilot audience. This gives the instructional designer the chance to return to the development phase if necessary, and make edits before the course is launched to the full audience.
You didn’t think the instructional design process ended with implementation, right? After the course has been implemented, the instructional designer should monitor the course and learners’ performance.
Once a course is implemented, there is usually some data that is collected. If your organization is NOT collecting data, make yourself look like a rockstar instructional designer by suggesting some data collection opportunities!
Possible data collection opportunities include user feedback, the number of people taking a course and completing a course (not the same thing by the way), support tickets entered, assessment performance (overall and by question), or learner behavior/performance change.
In this phase of ADDIE, you will review all the data to identify areas of improvement and measure that the training is fulfilling business objectives.
Based on the trends you are seeing in the data, you may need to return to an earlier phase to implement changes.
It may seem like a lot of work, and I won’t lie, it is! But the framework that instructional design (and specifically, models like ADDIE) provides is easy to follow.
And guess what, it is even easier when you develop the knowledge and skill and have access to easy to use free resources that support all-important instructional design activities.
Simply, download this FREE Ultimate Instructional Design Starter Kit to immediately unlock the tools you need to complete the activities described in this post.
Why Does Good Instructional Design Matter?
For whatever reason, instructional design has managed to remain a well-kept secret. Now you know the answer to the question, “what is instructional design?” Here’s why you (and everyone!) should care:
Quality, intentional instructional design ensures business goals are achieved!
Companies offer training for many different reasons. Sometimes training is offered for personal development, but usually, there is a business need that drives a training development (like my record-keeping scenario).
In addition, employee retention is influenced by training opportunities. More than 70% of job candidates are interested in advancement opportunities (MRINetwork), which means training opportunities that prepare the employee for the next level is super important.
Job seekers actively look for growth opportunities when considering a new position.
Companies that provide employees with quality learning are better at meeting their goals. Businesses that align their goals with a learning strategy are 40% more likely to see an increase in their key metrics (Brandon Hall Group).
By now, hopefully, you see a theme. Instructional design is the thread that lays the foundation for quality learning. Training opportunities that deliver on business needs, influence job candidates’ decision to accept/reject an offer, or influence an employee’s reason to stay or leave a company doesn’t just happen.
When companies build quality training with quality instructional design, they are influencing many aspects of the business.
Instructional Design Makes the World Go ‘Round
Well, not exactly, but it does make learning possible! Here’s the thing: adult education can be tricky.
If the learning experience was poorly designed or lacked instructional design altogether, the training may not stick and learners may be disengaged now, and when future learning opportunities roll out. That means that whatever resources you invested in the training are wasted. Plus, you deal with the consequences of employees not having the needed skills to perform and meet business objectives.
All this to say that instructional design is the glue that makes learning stick no matter the delivery medium.
Now, go out and create some sticky learning now that you know what instructional design is and how it boosts learning. If you found this post helpful, please share it in the comments!