Instructional Design Demystified: What Is It, and How Do You Do It?

Think about the last time you learned how to do something. Maybe you watched a video on how to smoke a turkey or tie a tie. Maybe you took a photography class or attended a safety training at your workplace. These experiences—and so many more—are examples of instructional design. So what is instructional design?

Consider the basic instructional design definition: designing and developing learning experiences to achieve learning outcomes.

In the case of the smoked-turkey DIY, the learning experience was the video and the learning outcome was being able to smoke a turkey. But whether the learning experience is a two-minute video or a six-month course, effective instructional design is the result of an intentional, thoughtful process that intersects with all industries and takes many forms.

The many faces of instructional design

At Maestro, we love a good eLearning course, and often, that’s the final product of instruction design. We conceptualize, write, and build beautiful courses every day, whether it’s an off-the-shelf course or a customized solution for one of our world-class clients. These courses take many forms, but instructional design extends beyond learner-in-seat experiences too.

Instructional design training materials

  • Courses
  • Participant guides
  • Facilitator guides
  • Supporting activities
  • Environments and simulations
  • Internal campaigns
  • Assessments (pre- and post-learning, mid-course learning checks, and practical evaluations)
  • Job aids
  • Media

Any of these instructional-design outputs might be a standalone or part of a learning path (either ordered or a choose-your-own-adventure style), making for unending possibilities.

The range of instructional design

Learning happens in many contexts and has many variables, which is what makes customized learning solutions so valuable.

Time

Instructional design could be for a one-time event:

  • A three-minute video clip
  • A thirty-minute module
  • A three-hour training session
  • A three-day workshop

Or it could stretch over a longer period of time:

  • Three weeks
  • Three months
  • Even three years!

While there’s variance in what it takes to create a five-minute module versus a semester-long course, there are other factors to consider.

Many people think instruction and training happens primarily in a group setting. Instructional design can be used to create learning for many audience contexts:

  • Individual learners who’ll apply the learning individually
  • Individual learners who’ll apply the learning in a group context
  • Individual learners who are connected with other learners through the learning environment
  • Small groups of learners
  • Large groups of learners

ILT vs. learner-led

A major factor in determining the strategy for a learning solution is who’ll be leading the learning experience. The variety of strategies fall on a spectrum from instructor-led to learner-led.

On the instructor-led training (ILT) end of the spectrum are workshops and live trainings (in person or virtual). These often use presentation software and small-group activities and discussions.

On the other end of the spectrum are learner-led experiences, such as on-demand courses and simulations. These self-paced experiences allow learners to balance their time and the content in a way that fits their needs. Our favorite authoring tool for designing self-paced experiences is Articulate Rise.

Video-driven courses and voiceover courses fall in the middle. Video-driven courses give the learner the control of starting and stopping, but the primary content delivery still comes from an instructor.

Voiceover-driven courses still provide an instructor-led feel while keeping the reins mostly in the hands of the learner, an approach we call “self-directed” instead of “self-paced.” Our go-to tool for self-directed courses is Articulate Storyline.

Environment

From two-minute videos to semester-long courses for individuals and for groups, in both ILT and learner-led contexts, the environment component adds yet another variable: Is the learning taking place in-person or online, and if online, synchronous (live) or asynchronous (on-demand)?

Primary tasks of instructional design

Instructional designers (IDs), or those engaging in tasks within the instructional-design process, find themselves doing all sorts of tasks. The primary ones fall into these four categories:

  • Developing and redesigning courses and curriculum
  • Creating facilitator manuals and participant guides
  • Designing, applying, and revamping learning models
  • Training instructors and facilitators on delivery of learning experiences

The instructional design process

While the instructional design process contains a lot of variety, due to the many forms learning solutions can take, at a high level, the approach is somewhat standard. Similar to other design professions, instructional design starts with strategy, moves into planning, then concepting, has some form of execution, and should involve evaluation. Sometimes these components overlap or happen in tandem (think agile); other times, they’re linear (think waterfall). Different models use different names, and of course, there’s always variation, but the process essentially boils down to some form of these phases.

The make-or-break piece of the process

It might surprise you, but the make-or-break piece of the instructional design process isn’t which methodology is followed. The real game-changer in designing learning that creates change is understanding the learner. This bit is information-gold. Characteristics of the learner informs—or should inform—every step of the process.

Instructional design in education

When you think of learning and instructional design, it’s natural to think of education, in the formal and traditional sense. Instructional design definitely has many applications in education, from structuring curriculums, designing long-form courses, and creating training materials. These might be for in-person or virtual classrooms, core curriculum or enrichment design, or add-ons to make pre-made lessons more engaging.

Instructional design in training and development

Instructional design in training and development is where we at Maestro shine. We help others perform beautifully through employee training, professional development, product training, and personal development, which has application both in and out of the workplace.

The ins and outs of instructional design

Instructional design brings together the art of storytelling, the skill of writing, the beauty of visual design, the science of learning theory, and the challenge of working with constraints (platform, physical components, the learner profile, time, budget, stakeholders, and more).

Instructional design involves evaluating what exists and innovating what doesn’t.

The role of an instructional designer

It shouldn’t be surprising that instructional designers do, well, instructional design. Aside from typical instructional-design tasks, some IDs also carry the responsibilities of strategists, project managers, and/or interactive designers. At Maestro, we create best by having specialists for each of these roles so that each aspect of the project shines.

The following are key aspects of the ID role.

Understanding the subject matter

Instructional designers don’t need to have mastery of the topic ahead of time, as long as they’re working with a subject-matter expert (SME) or doing thorough research on their own. Of course, as IDs dive deep into the subject matter, building pathways for learning, their own knowledge grows.

Communicating

When creating learning experiences, instructional designers have to check in regularly with stakeholders. This might happen through review cycles, where stakeholders are giving feedback on the work in progress, but this connection happens in other ways too, like weekly status meetings and ongoing communication channels (which could involve team members other than the ID).

Synthesizing information

While becoming familiar with source content (that which informs the learning solution), IDs need to synthesize a lot of information.

Source content might be outdated training, or it might be dense technical manuals. It could be an undocumented knowledge base that lives only in a SME’s mind, or IDs and stakeholders might be creating the source content from scratch through deep dives into current and future state analysis, step-by-step procedures, pain points, and more.

Instructional designers take this information, in whatever form it is—or isn’t—in and organize it, prioritize it, and strategize about how to best deliver it, considering learner profiles and learning objectives.

Writing

Writing is a big part of what an ID does. A key trait of an instructional designer is being able to command language to account for not only grammar, punctuation, and conciseness but also tone, brand, reading level, context, and the learner profile.

Evaluating

IDs regularly evaluate (independently and alongside teammates and stakeholders) how well existing learning and designed learning is achieving desired outcomes.

Consulting

IDs often function as consultants and trainers for the instructors or facilitators, such as faculty, managers, L&D professionals, and team leaders. This might be limited only to a written facilitator guide or a short self-paced course but could extend to live training and conversations.

The power of instructional design

Instructional design can be simple or complex, but we believe every learning experience should create change and start with that powerful end in mind. Whether the application is a short how-to or a multidimensional learning path, instructional design has the potential to elevate every learner’s experience and how well they do what it is they do, at work and at play.