What is Instructional Design: A Layman’s Guide

March 2, 2022

You know those yearly extended family gatherings with forced laughter and awkward conversations? Mine pretty much always goes like this:

Them: “So what do you do for work again?”

Me: “I’m an instructional designer!” (Polite smile.)

Them: “… I’m sorry, a what designer?” (Blank stare.) 

So! I’m here today to break down what exactly it is that we instructional designers do, and why it’s such an important skill in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

What is Instructional Design?

Instructional design is the process by which learning experiences are designed, developed, and delivered. It blends learning theory, behavioral psychology, and communication strategies to craft an effective learning experience for a target group of people. It is learner-centric, focusing on why students learn, how they learn best, and what methods of instruction will be most effective. 

In simpler terms, I personally like to describe instructional design as “consciously developing learning experiences that are effective, engaging, and results-oriented”. 

Instructional design might sound like a foreign concept, but it’s actually something that permeates all your learning experiences, regardless of whether it’s during formal education (e.g., classroom lectures) or informal learning moments (e.g., when you watch a YouTube video at 2 am in an attempt to repair a broken pipe).  

instructional design meme
Not us in the middle of the night, hopefully.
(Image source: Water cbc, Kim's Convenience)

To really illustrate the concept, let’s imagine a situation with poor instructional design: 

You’re mandated to join a professional workshop. You walk into the room and you’re bombarded with a boring trainer who spews technical jargon and complicated concepts. There’s no concern about what your prior knowledge is, what your learning objectives are, if you have any existing skill in the subject, and probably most importantly - why you’re even here. There are bored faces all around. Are you just wasting your time? Sadface. 

Enter… the instructional designer.

Suddenly, the experience becomes learner-centric. The language used is appropriate and easy to understand. Complicated subjects are broken down into logical and manageable learning blocks, with basic principles being the scaffold for progressively harder content down the line. The importance of the material and its relevance to everyday life is clearly communicated.  The method of instruction is engaging, with the perfect mix of videos, roleplay, games, group work, case studies, etc., to both challenge and stimulate you. There are regular opportunities for you to show off test your knowledge and apply the concepts you learn. 

It goes beyond that, even. The instructor is friendly, supportive, and responsive. Your fellow participants are encouraging and enthusiastic; happy to debate opinions and share their personal experiences. Your individual needs are heard and respected.

There’s a sense of fun, wonder, and achievement. You feel interested, motivated, even empowered. 

Before you know it… Hey, learning is actually fun! What’s more, you’re able to understand, apply, and retain the principles that you learn!

Building the second experience? That’s what an instructional designer does. 😎

Enter the instructional designer. Ok we're not that cool.
Enter the instructional designer. Ok we're not that cool.
(Image source: Barney Stinson Wingman, How I Met Your Mother)

Why is Instructional Design Important? 

Ok, so the instructional designer architects a learning experience that facilitates the acquisition and application of knowledge. If the dramatic scenarios above weren’t enough to convince you, let’s look at why this is so important:

  • Good instructional design makes learning effective: 

All learners want to achieve their learning goals and objectives. A good instructional designer will utilize learning frameworks (e.g., ADDIE, Bloom’s Taxonomy, Gagne’s Nine Events of Instructions, etc.) and techniques (e.g., active recall, spaced repetition, gamification, etc.) to craft a holistic experience that helps learners better understand concepts, apply them in practice, and retain the skills in the long run.  

  • Good instructional design makes learning engaging:

To put it bluntly, people drop off when the learning experience is boring. This is especially relevant with digital experiences, where it’s easy to close an application or tab to a different window. Coupled with the modern learner having busier schedules and shorter attention spans, it is increasingly vital to keep things interesting through means like gamification, social sharing, and relevant personalized content.  

  • Good instructional design keeps learning results-oriented: 

Ultimately, both individuals and organizations want results from their time, financial, and cognitive investment. Good instructional design accounts not just for knowledge transfer, but for behavior change and targeted outcomes, ensuring that learners (and organizations) get a positive return on their investment.  

As you can see, instructional design isn’t just a “nice-to-have” when it comes to training and education. It’s integral to the successful acquisition of knowledge and skills, especially so in the current age of technology and eLearning where even more learner needs and idiosyncrasies should be accounted for to achieve maximum results. In fact, as we advance in the digital age, instructional design is also evolving to cater to the specific needs of a modern learner, which includes creating content that is mobile-first, bite-sized, participatory, personalized, and social/group-based.     

Want to become a Microlearning Instructional Designer (MID)? 

If you’re reading this because you’re thinking of becoming a Microlearning Instructional Designer (MID), we have an opportunity you might be interested in! 

Award-winning mobile microlearning platform Gnowbe is giving out $10 million in scholarships to get content creators and trainers certified in next-generation instructional design. This interactive course includes the principles of instructional design and how to apply them in microlearning format for blended and/or asynchronous learning experiences. There is no commitment required to apply, with the only ask being that each recipient pays it forward by equipping others with the same future digital skills.  

If this sounds like something you’re interested in, you can learn more about the MID Certification Scholarship Program here!

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