What Does An Instructional Designer Do?

When I tell people that my job title is instructional designer, I am often met with a “Huh? What’s that?”, “What kind of design?” or “What do instructional designers do, anyways?”. I really don’t blame them, because a few short years ago, I would have said the same thing. I’ve since come to realize that what instructional designers do is instrumental in ensuring organizations have the best trained workforce. Instructional design is a booming field to be in; the technological and Internet revolution have created an increased need for instructionally designed online training. Read on to find out what the typical instructional designer does on a daily basis.

Analyze and Assess Training Needs

Here is the scenario: Bob is the manager of a busy call center. Bob needs to decrease how long it takes his customer service representatives to complete a telephone order. Currently, it takes them seven minutes, but Bob thinks that realistically, his employees should be able to complete an order in five minutes. In order to find out why it’s taking seven minutes to complete calls, and to find out what kind of training would be required to fill that knowledge gap and bring the calls down to five minutes, Bob needs an instructional designer.

An ID’s first duties usually include interviewing stakeholders, employees and management, as well as reviewing existing training materials and documentation, to assess if training is really needed. Bob is smart, so he has hired Stacey, an instructional designer. Stacey interviews the call center employees and observes them doing their job. She comes to find out that the computer system they use takes two minutes to load the order screen. This two-minute delay contributes to the total time it takes to process orders, and in effect makes calls last seven minutes instead of five. In this case, training might not be the answer, perhaps a faster computer system would be. Stacey’s job as ID is to determine if training is needed, and if so, what training is needed. The ID also assesses the training audience, to determine their average education, age, background, etc. to develop training that is appropriate and that will reach the largest possible audience.

Work with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

The instructional designer does not necessarily have any knowledge or expertise in the subject that individuals actually need to be trained on. Instructional designers are experts in ID, and they can’t be experts in everything after all! That job actually belongs to the appropriately titled Subject Matter Expert. The SME is an “expert” in his or her domain; the ID works with him or her to extract the knowledge and information that needs to be imparted to others. Working with SME’s involves having meetings, demonstrations and walk throughs as they show the ID how a process is done, or what they need to know.

For example, Stacey is developing a course on how to use Adobe Photoshop for 20 employees. In order to determine what her 20 learners need to know, and how to use Adobe Photoshop, Stacey works with Andrew, who is currently the only employee using Photoshop. He knows the program in and out, and he knows how and why the company is using it. He will work with Stacey, walking her through the processes used in Photoshop to complete his duties, step by step. Stacey will gather the information provided, and develop the most effective plan for training others on how to do those tasks.

Develop Training Plans and Materials

The average instructional designer is actually also part project manager and thus creates a lot of paperwork. IDs apply instructional design methodologies (the ADDIE model, Blooms Taxonomy, Adult Learning Principles) to write training development plans, timelines, learning objectives, needs analysis, audience analysis, storyboards and more. On top of that, instructional designers create the training materials. Whether it be a PowerPoint presentation, a training guide developed in Word, on an online learning module created in Flash, instructional designers make the actual training content.

Keeping with the previous example, after Stacey has conducted her analysis and her work with the SME, she will write a training plan and create a storyboard or template to share with stakeholders. Once this has been reviewed and approved, she will develop the training materials. She may create a step-by-step training guide in Word of how to go through tasks, or she might use Captivate to develop a software simulation of Photoshop. This all depends on her background and experience, and on what authoring software the organization has requested be used.

Implement Training Evaluation Strategies

One of the most important aspects of the instructional designers job is evaluating the effectiveness of training. How can an organization measure its’ ROI, or analyze the costs and benefits, without evaluation? More importantly, there needs to be measure of what was learned. The instructional designer needs to identify if the knowledge gap was filled. Instructional designers use principles such as Kirkpatrick’s Levels of Evaluation and Keller’s ARCS Model to measure training effectiveness. Common methods of evaluation used by instructional designers include feedback forms, pre- and post-training interviews, as well as observation of learners.

Once again using the previous example, after Stacey’s 20 learners have completed their Photoshop training, she could distribute evaluation forms to get their input as to how much they learned, if they thought the training was valuable, what they liked and didn’t like, etc. She could also observe them, or have their supervisors observe them, completing some of the tasks they were trained on, and measure how quickly and effectively they can complete the processes.


3 thoughts on “What Does An Instructional Designer Do?

  1. Bob Byrne says:

    Hey Nicole – thanks for this succinct summary of the ID role. I’ve sent it to my parents so that they can quit asking me 😉

    I come from the public post-secondary world, specifically online learning, and in my experience the “development” tasks are split between the ID and various technical staff (web designer, multimedia developer, graphic artist, technical writer). To be effective, the ID must be very familiar with the technologies that are used to create the learning environment, so that they can converse fluently with technical staff. Their role as “project manager” is emphasized because of the number of people they are dealing with and the (usually) large scope of their projects (I realize that in the private world it’s often necessary for the ID to be the master of all tasks).

    In case any of your readers are interested, Athabasca University has released a free eBook (.pdf format) with a great chapter on developing online learning: http://www.aupress.ca/index.php/books/120146


    • @nicole_legault says:

      Thanks for the great points Bob! You’re right that often (usually??) the development is split amongst different roles…. I guess I was just thinking of myself (so selfish!) and the role I do… which is all emcompassing, because, as you mentioned, IDs who work for small companies tend to do all the tasks.

      Also, another really good point you make is the one about the ID being familiar with the technologies used… So true. This definitely helps the ID understand the degree of effort involved, time, complexity… etc, etc, when they won’t be the ones doing the development.

      Thanks for commenting, glad you enjoyed it!

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