Instructional Designers Are Content Neutral

Apparently, it’s difficult for some people to understand that instructional designers can work with any type of content. If you haven’t come across that puzzled and doubting look yet, you probably will.  It happens when internal or external clients are sizing up whether you can handle a job if you’re not familiar with their subject matter. It’s tough for them to see that instructional designers are content neutral. I may soon tattoo this on my forehead.

I may soon tattoo this on my forehead

Although working with the same content for years can turn you into a mini-SME, most instructional designers are not specialists in one field. We have ways to wrap our arms around all types of content. Here are some approaches I use.

Working with Preexisting Content

Many clients provide preexisting content that’s already been organized for a previous course or manual. There is often a common structure that underlies preexisting material, even when its poorly written and produced. There are basic skills one would need to learn first and knowledge to support those skills. After mastering the prerequisites, the content usually offers higher level skills.

The first thing I do is look at the end point—where do we want to go? I’ll see if the current course organization will enable a learner to reach the final goal. Almost certainly, reorganization is required, as well as removing superfluous material and filling in gaps. In most cases, however, a preexisting course will shed enough light on the content to get a sense of it. That’s one of the ways an instructional designer works with an unfamiliar subject.

Instructional Analysis

If the content is dysfunctional or unfamiliar, I conduct an instructional analysis. This refers to a procedure that identifies the learning steps required to reach an instructional goal. The outcome of an instructional analysis is a learning map showing the subordinate skills and knowledge necessary to achieve a new performance capability. It basically identifies the primary and secondary skills and knowledge of the course. This is another way instructional designers analyze and work with content that’s unfamliar.

Task Analysis for Specific Workplace Skills

In addition to an instructional analysis, a task analysis is often necessary to analyze the tasks to be learned. A task analysis examines these specific work activities and identifies the actions and behaviors used to accomplish a goal. Typically, the outcome includes job and task descriptions and an inventory of subtasks or observable steps. Task analysis is a commonly used procedure to help instructional designers develop courses for a wide range of workplace skills.


There will be times when no content is provided. At these times I will research the subject through a variety of means. Books written on a subject will frequently be organized in a helpful way to indicate an appropriate structure or at least a framework. Information from academic and trade journals can provide the latest approaches to a subject, including trends and an idea of what’s pertinent today.

One might also use blogs, industry and vendor websites, professional associations and social media searches for more information or links to valuable content. Of course, checking that the sources are reliable and respected is a condition for use. This is one more way instructional designers manage working with unfamiliar subjects.

Interviews with Experts

In my experience, most clients provide a busy subject matter expert (SME) with their project. This is a key person to interview for an overview of the material, the knowledge required for performing tasks and for otherwise filling in the gaps. If I know the SME has many projects going on, as is typical, I’ll try to get familiar with things on my own first. This way, I can ask intelligent and necessary questions and won’t have to contact the person too often.

If a SME is not provided, it’s possible to hire one or to request interviews with professors, industry experts and those with mid-level experience to get a broad range of perspectives. Interviews are another tool in the instructional designer’s toolbox for gathering content on topics we don’t know about.

Spread the Word

Spread the word. Instructional designers work in the neutral zone and are capable of designing and developing content, instructional strategies, interactions and visuals for any subject. Come on, I dare you to give me a course on nuclear physics.

What’s your experience been? Comment below.

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Other Articles about Instructional Designers:
If Instructional Designers Ran The World
Motivating The Instructional Designer
35 More Qualities Of The Ideal Instructional Designer

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  1. Jeff Goldman says

    Great post! So often in the corporate sector I have convinced SMEs that my not knowing the subject matter, at least at the onset, is an advantage. Not knowing the content makes me the common denominator. Thus, by identifying what I don’t know is usually very similar to what the company newbies don’t know. FYI: Company newbie is often the level we often need to teach to.

    Here is a simple example. When I was in banking, I had to create a course about cash management services. The audience where branch staff. In a SME interview, my SME referred to a service and said “just tell them it’s a sweep account.” I said, will the 19 year old teller know what a sweep account is because I don’t?” He smiled and said “I think we need to teach them what a sweep account is.”

  2. Chase Sinsuan says

    A lot of designers and learning specialists underestimate the value of doing instructional and task analyses. These activities provide immense benefits when working with a highly complex or technical curriculum and saves you from having to re-write or re-formulate objectives, activities, and assessments (especially when working with challenging clients that don’t know what they want).

    I use a TKSGR chart for my analysis and this has been my most beloved tool.

  3. Connie Malamed says

    Thanks for making that important point. There are many advantages to not knowing the content because you have “beginner’s mind.” There aren’t too many fields where ignorance is an asset. =D

  4. Andrea says

    I agree with you as well Connie. I did a project with someone in an area that had been my expertise area before I became a learning designer. So I took control, and it became my course not his. So he never had buy-in and never used what was done. I learnt the lesson the hard way- that it is their training, and they are in charge, we are there to support and provide just-in-time training for them to learn new ways to train.

  5. Jeff Hurt says


    Amen, amen, amen! I’ve carved out a unique niche for myself as a professional educator, instrusctional designer and meeting/event professional. I’ve written curriculum and educational programs on a variety of subjects and being ignorant of the subject matter is definitely a plus. Who would have thought that I would write about alternative fuels, garbage, air, water, recycling, insurance, highways, roadside wildflowers, etc., etc. Thankfully, instructional strategies apply to a vareity of subjects!

  6. Susil Maduwage says

    Your topic on ‘Instructional Designers are Content Neutral’ is agreeable because I believe, even without knowing the content good instructional designers can develop better learning material.

    The points you have mentioned are very important to me as these days, I learn about instructional design.

    I can see the points you have mentioned under the instructional analysis is sometimes similar with conventional curriculum development. As you conduct an instructional analysis for unfamiliar content, we as curriculum developers usually think about the learning outcomes of the course or a module. As I deal with k-12 education, we usually consider the knowledge, attitudes, skills and practice (KASP). This exercise will lead us to frame the required content even without having subject knowledge. As you mention we can seek outside assistance for the relevant subject matter.
    As you conduct a task analysis in addition to the instructional analysis, we also list the competencies required for the curriculum. These competencies are then divided into two types such as essential learning competencies (ELC) and desired learning competencies (DLC). Activities are then designed to achieve these competencies.
    As a curriculum developer, I do appreciate your saying “where do we want to go?” It is clear that without knowing a destination we cannot achieve our goal. I think this is true for any environment not only in instructional design.

  7. Andrea says

    Excellent post! I really wish the HR recruiters would read it. They seem to think if the instructional designer does not have experience in the field in which they are hiring, then they cannot hire the candidate.

  8. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Chase,
    Thanks for your input. It does seem that with rapid development on the rise, instructional analysis and task analysis are underutilized. But as you said, they are valuable tools when working with deep material and complex situations.

  9. Richard Drummond says

    Hi, Connie.
    I’ve obviously come across your website late in the day but just want to add my appreciation. As an instructional designer, i wear different hats: teacher’s mentor (in helping structure a learning experience); diplomatic facilitator, in ensuring buy-in from all the players; and, yes, the village idiot – if I don’t understand it, then the naive learner will also have problems. In fact, if I work on a subject area too long, I have to move away from it, as I begin to assume knowledge that the learner may not have. So it’s rather lovely to be paid for being a professional ‘know-nothing’, in one aspect of the job at least.

  10. Connie Malamed says

    Hi Richard,
    It’s never too late to find this site, as far as I’m concerned :-) There is so much great information out there. Regarding being content neutral, yes, it’s awesome being in a position where ignorance is something helpful. I find it fascinating that if you work on a subject area too long, it becomes a detriment. I understand what you mean, but haven’t heard anyone say they will move away from it. Very noble of you!

  11. Richard Drummond says

    It was hard – especially when it was in the fascinating area of early childhood education. But once I was in a position to teach the subject, it was hard to put myself into the shoes of a learner. :-(

    However, for higher-level courses, some rudimentary content knowledge is essential. For something like physics, for example, you have to know at least the basics so that you are not dazzled by the science, but then you must ensure that tutors are writing for new students and not just writing to impress their peers. An interesting balance.


  1. […] Designer career is that we have the opportunity to serve in any industry.  I loved this article, Instructional Designers Are Content Neutral, by Connie Malamed on the eLearningcoach site.  The site is abundant with Instructional Design […]

  2. […] Designer career is that we have the opportunity to serve in any industry.  I loved this article, Instructional Designers Are Content Neutral, by Connie Malamed on the eLearningcoach site.  The site is abundant with Instructional Design […]

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