What Instructional Designers Do: Is this a career for you?

what-is-instructional-designWhat is instructional design?

Instructional design involves the process of identifying the skills, knowledge, information and attitude gaps of a targeted audience and creating, selecting or suggesting learning experiences that close this gap, based on instructional theory and best practices from the field.

Ideally, workplace learning improves employee productivity and value and enhances self-directed learning. As social media technologies for learning become increasingly important to organizations and to individuals, instructional designers will need to focus on broad learning events and strategies that incorporate many approaches rather than on individual courses. See A Look into the Future below for more on this.

What is the instructional design process?

Although the approaches people use to design and develop online instructional events vary widely, the common denominator is that the process is systematic and iterative. The process typically starts with some type of analysis to define the requirements and specifications, goes through a design/prototyping phase, follows along with development and production and “ends” with Quality Assurance, evaluation and more fine-tuning. (It never really ends.) Generally, the instructional design process results in a set of one or more learning events or experiences.

The standard instructional design process can expanded by including design thinking. Design thinking is a process used by people who need to be creative on demand.

What does an instructional designer do?

The tasks that an eLearning designer conducts are so varied that it would be difficult to list them all. Instead, I’d like to list the Instructional Design competencies identified by the IBSPI (International Board of Standards for Training, Performance and Instruction). These competencies are brief and obviously do not include everything, but it will give you a sense of what instructional designers might do. Not every instructional designer performs all of these tasks, as some are for those who are more advanced in their career.

Professional Foundations

  1. Communicate effectively in visual, oral and written form.
  2. Apply current research and theory to the practice of instructional design.
  3. Update and improve one’s knowledge, skills and attitudes pertaining to instructional design and related fields.
  4. Apply fundamental research skills to instructional design projects.
  5. Identify and resolve ethical and legal implications of design in the workplace.

Planning and Analysis

  1. Conduct a needs assessment.
  2. Design a curriculum or program.
  3. Select and use a variety of techniques for determining instructional content.
  4. Identify and describe target population characteristics.
  5. Analyze the characteristics of the environment.
  6. Analyze the characteristics of existing and emerging technologies and their use in an instructional environment.
  7. Reflect upon the elements of a situation before finalizing design solutions and strategies.

Design and Development

  1. Select, modify, or create a design and development model appropriate for a given project.
  2. Select and use a variety of techniques to define and sequence the instructional content and strategies.
  3. Select or modify existing instructional materials.
  4. Develop instructional materials.
  5. Design instruction that reflects an understanding of the diversity of learners and groups of learners.
  6. Evaluate and assess instruction and its impact.

Implementation and Management

  1. Plan and manage instructional design projects.
  2. Promote collaboration, partnerships and relationships among the participants in a design project.
  3. Apply business skills to managing instructional design.
  4. Design instructional management systems.
  5. Provide for the effective implementation of instructional products and programs.

A Look into the Future

There is now a trend toward greater acceptance of alternative forms of learning in the workplace. Thus, the role of some instructional designers is beginning to change. In addition to creating the structured types of courses described above, instructional designers will be asked to enable learning by creating supportive environments. This might include online community management, promoting collaboration and discussion through social media technologies, curating content and teaching experts how to generate and share their own content.

Some practitioners currently think that the label, “instructional designer” is too narrow a title. Rather, they describe themselves as “learning experience designers” or “learning architects.” Instructional designers who keep up with the rapid pace of change have an exciting career to look forward to.

12 Lesson eCourse on Breaking Into Instructional Design

If you’re interested in learning more about a career in instructional design, grab my free eCourse at Breaking into Instructional Design. You’ll get two lessons a week explaining what instructional designers do, whether you need a degree, the best places to network online and in person, and instructional design books to read.

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  1. says

    Hi Connie! Great post, as usual. The field is open for social learning instructional design. The broad type design you mention may need to take some cues from serious games, particularly scaffolded tasks (group and individual quests) within boundaries (“you are now leaving the battlefield” is my fav example from Star Wars PS2 game). This type of design almost requires that students learn from/with each other and develop critical thinking skills along the way. Your thoughts?

    Take care,


  2. says

    Hi April,
    I think you bring up a good point. I’d like to see the game you’re referring to but I can see how some structure, some boundaries could be needed when thinking in terms of broad strategies. The idea of designers setting up scenarios where people NEED to learn from each other to proceed, possibly through a social technology or a real-time game, sounds like an infinitely exciting approach to learning (at least for some people). Thanks for your insightful comment.

    p.s. Congrats on moving your blog to a new space. I like that you said “instructional design” is too bland to describe what you do. We do need a more exciting term, don’t we?


  3. says

    Hi Connie!

    You mentioned: setting up scenarios where people NEED to learn from each other to proceed…

    Are there situations where people do not need to learn from one another? Feedback and discussion is an integral part of learning as is leveraging prior knowledge. I’m not saying that all ID needs to be story-based but I think that social learning definitely has its merits. Thoughts?

    Take care,

    PS I was thinking we could rename ourselves SuperDesigners and capes would be part of the uniform.


  4. says

    Dear SuperDesigner with cape,
    Oh yes, feedback and discussion is such an important part of elaborating on and refining concepts. All of this will help people construct more accurate schemas. And this can be implemented through social technologies as well as other approaches. I was just kind of excited about the idea of creating scenarios where people need info from each other. But that’s because I live a boring life.


  5. Cathy Tencza says

    Love your one-sentence definition of ID–simple yet not simplistic:

    Instructional design is the process of identifying the skills, knowledge, information and attitude gaps of a targeted audience and creating or selecting learning experiences that close this gap, based on instructional theory and best practices from the field.


  6. Jann says

    Connie ~
    Great post! I am new to your fabulous site (just got the App too).

    I am relatively new to instructional design and my employer asked me to now focus on eLearning. Very cool! I’ve been asked to assist in the creation of my new job description. My old job description never had anything about design in it.

    As they say timing is everything! Your detailed explanation will be so helpful as I help define the job responsibilities.
    Thank you!Thank you!


    Connie Malamed Reply:

    Hi Jann,
    Great that you can use this to describe your new job. Don’t forget to keep things wide open for future changes, such as that you’ll support and enable informal learning through a variety of technologies. This will leave your job wide open to experimentation. Good luck and thanks very much for your comment.


  7. says

    Hi Connie,

    Always great to to get your insights on the changing demands on instructional designers and e-learning professionals. We’ve been trying to address these issues through changes in our graduate curriculum. Keith Hopper has a recent article in Intercom that discusses the need for more interdisciplinary cross-overs between the worlds of information design and instructional design, for example. I think what you’re saying here is spot on!



    Connie Malamed Reply:

    Thanks for the link. I’ve reviewed your program and it does look very interdisciplinary.


  8. Tom Richard says

    As a professor of mine in the discipline distributed on the first day of class … “To pursue the career of an instructional designer, the first thing to accept is the burden you will carry of being right nearly all the time in a world that all too often won’t listen.” Of course, being naive, we thought he was only joking!


    Connie Malamed Reply:

    Hi Tom,
    Love what your professor said. Thanks for sharing. It’s not easy to be right so often (especially when I’m often wrong at home :-)


  9. Syed Asif Basha says

    According to me Instructional Design is all about arranging the given instructions (subject matter) in a meaningful way to the target audiences to meet their real world goals and objectives.

    We should design or arrange instructions in such a way that learners should get motivation towards learning by using different tools and techniques i.e. strategies to impart correct education or knowledge transfer.


    Connie Malamed Reply:

    Thanks for adding your definition, Syed. I like it.


    Zuber Ahmed Reply:

    Hi Connie,

    I agree to the above definitions mentioned and my understanding are somewhat at the same page as others. But as ID in India it only means to do Story boarding and support IDs globally. As concept of ID is very much new in India, we don’t have a proper ID program to value add our skills. I don’t think so ID in India are made by will, they are made by accident. I too have a computer science background but I have landed up in such a creative world which I never thought, I would be. I agree to your point above that labeling it as ID of what exactly we do at our workplace is just limited.


    Connie Malamed Reply:

    Hi Zuber,
    Thank you so much for letting us know how ID is commonly understood in India in your experience. I also think there are some workplaces that are similar to how it is done in the U.S.too. Can others from India share their experiences?


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