At its core, Instructional Design is about helping people and organizations achieve their goals through learning. Simply put, it's your job to create training that helps people to gain knowledge and skills to improve their performance and change their behavior.
What problems will you solve?
You're going to help solve business problems.
"Business problems are current or long term challenges and issues faced by a business. These may prevent a business from executing strategy and achieving goals." Simplicable.com
Notice I said "help solve". An intricacy of the Instructional Design process is identifying when training is the answer to a problem and when it isn't. More on that later.
Example problems include:
You are the learning expert, not the [insert topic] expert
You will work with other team members and experts at your organization to get the content you need to develop your learning activities. These individuals are called Subject Matter Experts (SMEs).
For example, if you're working on developing software training you'll be paired with a subject matter expert (SME) on the application. If it's a new application, this might be someone who is actively developing it. For existing applications, you'll be paired with a SME who's an expert at using it. You will meet with them to gather screenshots, step by step instructions, and any details necessary for you to create your training.
As an Instructional Designer you are the resident learning expert at your organization. When you design training you will combine empathy, advocacy, science, technology, and design to create engaging, effective, and efficient learning experiences. These experiences can come in the form of videos, reference materials, interactive self-paced courses, instructor led training (virtual or in person), and more.
How does that work?
To start you must have empathy for your learner. It's necessary to understand their feelings and needs so you can create a learning experience that works for them. You will identify their needs by shadowing, interviewing, surveying, and running working sessions with them to understand their point of view.
It's not enough to just identify the feelings and needs of your learner. Advocacy is required in order to incorporate these needs into your learning experiences. You will combine their needs along with adult learning theory, Instructional Design methodology, and the neuroscience of learning best practices to create learning experiences that provide value for your organization and your learner. The application of this knowledge helps to ensure the effectiveness of your work and sets you apart from other employees that may develop training at your organization.
You will develop and implement the experiences you design using a combination of learning technology and tools. Examples of this technology include elearning authoring tools (Storyline, Captivate, Camtasia, etc.), graphic design applications, Learning Management Systems (LMS), social media, survey applications, and good old Microsoft Word, Excel, and Power Point.
Even the best technology can't make up for a lack of good design principals. That's why it's helpful for Instructional Designers to have a basic understanding of graphic and web design. This knowledge will help you to create materials that are engaging, easy to use, and understand.
When do you use learning technology?
Think of applications like Articulate Storyline and Adobe Photoshop as tools in your Instructional Designer toolkit. You use them to help you create your learning activities. Each of them has strengths and weakness that you'll need to learn so that you can use them at the right time. Just like a carpenter knows when to use a hammer, sledge hammer, or nail gun to complete a task.
Let's continue the software training example from above. You have decided that the training should consist of a demonstration of someone using the program and a job aid for reference as they apply this new skill on the job. You might use Articulate Storyline to record the demo and then a combination of Microsoft Word and a screen capture tool like Snagit to create the job aid. Word would be used to create the document and Snagit would be used for any application screenshots you included in it.
Sample tools and technology
The following authoring and video editing tools are examples of the technology that you'll use to create training. Many offer free trials that you can use to build your skills.
Learning Management and Experience Systems:
Organizations need a place to store, assign, and report out on all of the training available to their employees. The following list includes links to some of the more well known Learning Management Systems as well as some of the newer Learning Experience Systems.
Are you a Graphic Designer?
No, however the training you develop will be more effective if you apply design principles when creating it. There are plenty of books and online resources to help you learn the basics. For example, when writing this blog post I made deliberate decisions to bold and increase the font size of section headers, left align my text, and remove borders from any images.
You'll make similar decisions when creating your own materials. Don't worry, many organizations have a brand guide to help you understand the types of fonts, colors, and imagery to use in your training. If they don't, that's an awesome opportunity for you to help create one!
What about the science and theory?
Earlier I mentioned the neuroscience fo learning, adult learning theory, and Instructional Design methodology. These terms can sound pretty intimidating but in reality they're just more tools in your ID toolbox to help you create great learning experiences. Let's look at each of them and how they apply to your ID work.
Neuroscience of Learning:
"The science of learning is an interdisciplinary field of study that examines how people learn and how the learning and development (L&D) field can improve talent management, performance improvement, organizational learning, training, and instructional design." - td.org
Knowing how the brain learns and retains information can help you to create better training. It's a simple as that. You can use this information to understand how to space your training activities to promote recollection and the value of adding time for learners to reflect on what they've learned.
Adult Learning Theory:
"Developed by Malcolm Knowles in 1968, Adult Learning Theory or andragogy is the concept or study of how adults learn and how it differs from children...Over the years, the theory has been added to and adapted." Learnupon.com
It's important for you to understand how adults learn. Typically they want to know why they're investing their valuable time to take your training and the value it will provide them. Here's a relevant example, you're probably reading this article because you want to see if a career in Instructional Design is right for you, not because your teacher assigned it.
This is the model that you'll use to develop your training. For the purposes of this article we'll focus on the ADDIE model. This is the standard model that many organizations use.
ADDIE stands for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation. By completing each step in the process you can create training that helps to solve a business problem.
Let's walk through each step and then we'll break down how it works as part of a typical project.
Analysis: During the analysis phase you'll collect information to gain insights into how things are done today, the results generated from these efforts, and how training can help change these results. This is accomplished by reviewing existing processes, data, attitudes of employees, the work environment, etc. You can gather this data by shadowing employees, running focus groups, interviewing high and low performers, creating and sending surveys, and gathering existing employee and performance data.
Sometimes after reviewing all of this information you may find that training is only part of the solution to the problem. Maybe the technology is inefficient, the process to complete a task is cumbersome, or the environment isn't conducive to achieving expectations. You can use this opportunity to advocate to change these roadblocks, increasing the effectiveness of any learning experience you develop.
Design: During this phase you'll use the insights gained from your analysis to develop the high level flow and strategy for your learning experience. As part of this process you'll need to write down measurable performance objectives that serve as foundation for the training. This is where you get to combine your knowledge of learner needs, adult learning theory, and neuroscience of learning best practices to create an amazing learning experience.
Most of this work will be done using MS Office tools (Word, PPT, Excel). For example, your design presentation might be a 10 slide PPT deck that includes the goal, your analysis results, performance objectives to achieve the goal, high level overview of the activities necessary to achieve your goal, a short breakdown of each activity, a timeline, communication plan, and status.
The goal is to get as much feedback and input as possible so that when you start development of your training materials, everyone is on board with your proposed experience. It's much easier and cheaper to edit a PPT or word document than it is to re-design your learning materials.
Development: Once you've received approval of your design, it's time to develop the activities and materials. This is where your authoring systems such as Articulate Storyline 360, Adobe Captivate, & Camtasia come into play. You'll spend most of your time as an Instructional Designer in this phase.
As you create your materials they'll typically need to be reviewed and approved. This may take a few rounds as you incorporate their feedback (if it helps to achieve the goal of the program), update your materials, and then send it back for approval. If you're short on time, one round of review may be all that's needed.
Implementation: Now it's time to launch your program! This can be complex process that includes scheduling webinars and/or classroom sessions, setting up a registration site, prepping facilitators (or prepping to facilitate the session yourself), and organizing guest speakers. Or it might be as simple as sending out a communication about your training and assigning a series of micro-learnings through your Learning Management System. It depends on the program that you've designed.
Evaluation: Once you've launched your program, it's time to start evaluating your outcomes to see If your training has achieved its intended impact. You can collect this data via test scores, surveys, observation, focus groups, and any data available (performance data, customer satisfaction, NPS, etc.).
A sample project
Let's take everything we've learned so far and break it down as part of a sample project using ADDIE. As the Instructional Designer assigned to the project you'll be expected to navigate the project team through the process of implementing the learning experience.
Training request: Your organization is adding a new process to their software platform. They want you to create training to support the implementation.
Analysis: Meeting with your stakeholder you first identify the business need for the training. Remember, you solve business problems! If there isn't a business problem there probably isn't a need for training.
Business problem: They are adding a process to their customer relationship management application to track offers of an existing service. The tracking is expected to improve reporting on sales of the service. Additionally you identify the audience that needs to be trained on this new process, the timing of the rollout, who your SMEs are, and when the new content will be available for you to review.
Design: Taking everything that you've learned so far you decide the technology process is simple enough that it only requires a video and job aid for reference. However, per your analysis the expectations are not clear to leaders or employees on when and how the offer should be made to a customer. You feel that a script, clear guidance within the system, QA review, and coaching from leadership will improve the success of the project.
You put this into a PPT presentation that includes the following information:
Note that you may have to go back and forth a few times with edits before achieving final approval. That doesn't mean you stop all work until sign off. Typically you'll move forward with approved portions of the content as you work with your project team to finalize any remaining details.
Development: Once your design is approved by your stakeholder, you start development.
In this case you'll use Articulate Storyline to create the demonstration and knowledge check. MS Office to write a script for the leader who will endorse the training. You'll ask the leader to record a video of themself using Zoom (virtual conferencing tool) and will edit it with Camtasia. Microsoft Office and Snagit will be used to create the job aid and coaching guide.
Your stakeholder and SME(s) will provide feedback and review and approve each of these items as you develop them. After two rounds of review you are ready to go! The course is uploaded to your LMS and the job aid is posted to the knowledge bank.
Implementation: With your work complete (or almost complete) it's time to start implementing the program.
Evaluation: Two - three weeks after assignment you review your test scores and the survey to see how you did. One month later you check the performance data to understand if learners are correctly completing the new process. You use this information to generate a report that you share with your team, leader, and stakeholders. This way you can see how you did but also if additional training or support is needed.
Typically you will manage your own project timelines and have a decent amount of dedicated time to focus on getting your work done.
You might be working on two or three smaller projects, like the one above, at the same time. Each of them will go through the ADDIE phases at their own pace. For example, you might have one project in the analysis phase while another is in development or evaluation. As you get into the development phase your time dedicated to each project will increase.
If you are working on a larger more complex project, like a multi-week onboarding program, then that might be the only project in your pipeline.
What happens after you complete a project?
If it's a one time project, like our software example, you might wrap it up and move on to the next one. If this is a program that's meant to be run continuously, then you'll more than likely spend time reviewing your evaluation data and using it to make improvements.
For example, you might find that some of your test questions need to be updated. Maybe an activity didn't run as planned so you want edit or replace it. This is typically where you can also find efficiencies in terms of changes that can shorten the overall timeline of your program or reduce the amount of resources necessary to achieve it.
You can do this
When I started my career in L&D I'm what you would have called an incidental Instructional Designer. I had zero experience in the L&D field.
I had my first taste of Instructional Design when I was asked to create and facilitate training for new customers off the side of my desk. I wrote a few scripts and ran those virtual sessions multiple times per day, five days a week, for months. The same content over and over again. The process quickly became stale. I knew there had to be a better way.
That's when I learned about Instructional design and technology. Working together with my leader, we created and populated a learning university site. Filling it with short video clips (the term micro-learning wasn't a thing at the time) based off of my original scripts and articles to support new customers. Our customers loved it and I freed myself from the daily dreaded webinar.
That process ignited my passion for Instructional Design. I consumed every resource that I could get my hands on. My research, and continued work on the site, eventually resulted in landing a job as an Instructional Designer. I distinctly remember sitting in the lobby of GMAC Mortgage preparing for my interview by memorizing the ADDIE model. Eventually I went back to school and obtained my Masters degree in Instructional Technology from Bloomsburg University.
If you have a growth mindset, put in the time and effort it takes to learn about Instructional design, and apply what you learn, you can be successful.
Just in case you're wondering, the average salary (per payscale.com) in 2020 for an Instructional Designer in the United States is:
Hopefully after all of this you are just as interested, if not more, about becoming an Instructional Designer. It's a career that offers the ability to solve tough challenges, be innovative, and add value to the lives of those you train and the business you support. If you are still interested in Instructional Design, here are four resources to help you continue down that path.
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