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What Do Instructional Designers Do? | 2023 Guide

by | Apr 10, 2019

New to instructional design? You’re in the right place!

This is a simple guide to help you learn all about the profession, including career tips and guidance.

Let’s start with the basics.

What is instructional design?

Instructional design is the process of designing, developing, and delivering learning experiences.

It often involves the development of effective instructional content, materials, activities, assessments, and strategies which can be used in a teaching environment.

You’ve probably experienced the outputs of the instructional design process.

Have you ever sat in a classroom? Watched a video tutorial? Taken a mandatory compliance training at your company?

All of these examples can be referred to as ‘learning experiences.’

Before a trainer stands up to teach 500+ employees how to use a new software system, they need to have prepared. They need a carefully crafted plan, activities, and learning materials.

Whether it’s an instructor-led training, an online course, or a video tutorial series, creating any type of learning experience begins with a plan.

From analyzing audience needs to developing materials, the instructional design process helps improve the reliability and consistency of a learning experience.

Using principles and theories of human psychology, the goal of instructional design is to successfully transfer desired skills and knowledge to individuals.

It’s helpful to think of instructional design as a holistic system. One that is guided by specific objectives and combines a mix of psychology, creativity, and innovation to solve problems.

What does an instructional designer do?

Instructional designers plan, design, and develop educational experiences to maximize learner success. They ensure learners have all the tools and materials needed to easily understand, comprehend, and achieve a learning outcome.

It sounds simple, but there is confusion around instructional designers and their roles and responsibilities.

Instructional designers understand how people learn best. In their roles, they search for knowledge gaps. Then develop creative solutions to close those gaps.

Rather than dumping a sea of text onto a training Powerpoint, an instructional designer would design a much more calculated plan for learning.

Before creating training materials, an instructional designer begins with planning. They begin understanding the audience, meeting with SMEs, setting learning objectives, and formulating a broader plan to make sure these objectives are achieved.

This could include developing course objectives, distilling content into easy-to-understand chunks, identifying useful activities to enhance learning, and structuring curriculums.

Once all the bones are set and approved, we are ready to begin developing the final end-user learning materials. This could mean creating an eLearning in Storyline or Captivate. Or it could mean creating an in-person training deck with supporting job aids.

At this point in the process, sometimes the instructional designer will pass the responsibility to a Training or eLearning Developer to develop the final end-user learning content. But these days, many Instructional Designers have to double up and do the development work themselves. It all depends on the team, the role, and the goals of the project they are working on.

At the end of a project, an Instructional Designer would have taken a substantial amount of unorganized information and shaped it into a clear, concise, understandable format for an audience to learn from.

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Does an instructional designer train people?


Most often, an Instructional Designer is responsible for designing and developing the training materials that led up to the training. The instructional designer works with a Subject Matter Expert (or SME) within the organization. They listen and try to fully understand the SME to determine the optimal way to package that knowledge into a training for a broader audience.

Once the training materials were fully designed and developed, the instructional designer would pass the materials on to a trainer, who would then be responsible for presenting the information to the audience.

That being said, many instructional designers do have experience leading trainings. Since every role and project differs, an instructional designer should be prepared and ready to train an audience if the need should arise.

    Does an Instructional Designer Create eLearning Courses?

    Yes, but that’s not all they do.

    Traditionally, instructional designers were only responsible for designing the course: conducting the needs analysis, meeting with SMEs, designing the curriculum. From here, they would pass the information over to a Training Developer or eLearning Developer to actually create the final end-user learning content.

    These days though, instructional designers are typically expected to create end-user learning content as well. This could mean creating anything from eLearning programs, job aids, videos, PowerPoints, and more.

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      Key Skills For Instructional Designers:

      To create effective learning experiences, Instructional designers require a variety of key skills. If you’re looking to become an Instructional Designer or hire a contract Instructional Designer, here are essential skills to look for:

      • Understanding of learning models
      • Above-average communication style
      • Detailed project management skills
      • Technologically savvy
      • Understanding of eLearning tools and LMS systems
      • Creativity and visual design skills
      • Understanding of current technology and educational landscape
      • Clear assessment development
      • In-depth, analytical research skills
      • Diverse skillset in instructional multimedia tools
      • Quality technical writing
      • Above average business acumen
      • Passion for knowledge and learning
      • Flexibility and resourcefulness

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      Models of Instructional Design

      Remember that instructional design is all based upon learning models developed by learning scientists in the 21st century. There are hundreds of learning models upon which to explore. And each model has its own strengths and weaknesses depending on the audience, environment, and desired outcomes.

      There is no right or wrong model to use. For now, it’s best to familiarize yourself with a few of the most basic and popular learning models:

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      eLearning Software Suggestions

      Selecting eLearning software often depends on many factors: your organization’s budget, their LMS requirements, type of functionality required, etc.

      If you’re just getting started in Instructional Design, the two most popular eLearning authoring tools are Articulate Storyline 360 and Adobe Captivate. In our experience, we’ve found that around 65% of eLearning development projects can be completed using either one of these tools.

          • Articulate Storyline 360 comes with a series of dynamic eLearning tools that helps make course development easy, simple, and quick. They have a wonderful support team and thousands of online articles to help guide you through any issues that arise. As of writing, Articulate Storyline is only available for PC.
          • Adobe Captivate is a powerful eLearning authoring tool that syncs well with the full Adobe Software Suite. Extremely responsive with countless customization features, Captivate is a slightly lower cost option that is 100% SCORM compliant. Another bonus is that it is available on both Mac and PC. 
          • Elucidat is built to create digital learning at large-scale. Fully cloud-based and meant for larger, enterprise-wide customers. With a library of templates, its simple to create beautiful, engaging learning experiences.
          • Lectora Online is one of the original eLearning authoring tools available. They recently released a cloud-based version which features pre-built templates and a responsive course design. A great option for mobile learning.
          • iSpring is most similar to designing a PowerPoint presentation. If you’re familiar with Microsoft PowerPoint, iSpring is a breeze to skill up quickly. With a straightforward interface, iSpring also features interactive quizzes, videos, and simulations.
          • Gomo Learning is a fully online authoring tool, allowing for all eLearning courses to be hosted on their website or Gomo app. While the platform offers modern templates, Gomo lacks full customization. A great option if you’re looking for eLearning that is interactive, and doesn’t require too much customizing.

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      Organizations That Need Instructional Designers

      Instructional Designers are employed in many different organizations, most often including mid to large-sized companies and educational institutions.

      Educational institutions use Instructional Designers to help create and refresh their learning curriculums. As the educational landscape continues to change, Instructional Designers are critical to helping create powerful academic learning experiences.

      Mid to large sized companies often employ Instructional Designers to help identify and develop internal employee training programs. Whether it’s deploying a new supply chain process or developing onboarding content, there are constant needs within any organization to help employees get up to speed. These learning experiences, created by Instructional Designers, help employees be prepared for job-related competencies.

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      Example of Instructional Design In Action:

      Let’s say your company has a very experienced Finance Director. Let’s call her Susan.

      With 25+ years of experience, Susan is certainly what we refer to as a Subject Matter Expert (or SME) within the field of Finance.

      Susan knows an extraordinary amount of information about Finance. And she wants her team to also know this same information. But Susan doesn’t have the time or background to build her own training course on Finance.

      Even if she did, Susan may not be the best at teaching the information. Often we find that the individuals most knowledgeable on a subject aren’t always the best teachers. Susan is so far down the expert path of Finance that these skills and information come to her instantly. And in a learning environment, that can be very frustrating for Susan if her team doesn’t understand the information right away.

      That’s where the Instructional Designer comes in. Susan hires a contract Instructional Designer to work with her to design and develop a Finance course she can share with her employees.

      The Instructional Designer would listen intently, take diligent notes, and begin organizing all of Susan’s thoughts, ideas, and knowledge into an output that her team can easily understand and comprehend.

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      Certifications and courses

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      About the Author:

      Andrew DeBell is a learning experience strategist and content developer on the customer education team at Atlassian. Connect with him on LinkedIn for more.