Plenty of us working in learning and development like to ask our SMEs “What does good look like?” The answer helps us work out where we’re going and where to start. But sometimes we can overlook what good instructional design looks like because it has become almost instinctive. That can make it difficult to pass on our knowledge to newcomers and to stakeholders who need to understand what we’re doing.

So, in this post, I’ll outline some of the most vital elements of instructional design so that, whether you need a refresher or a primer, you can be confident you’re focusing on the fundamentals. 


Good instructional design leads to change

If you read my last blog post, you will have come across my views on training that doesn’t lead to change. You probably share them. After all, training that doesn’t help anyone isn’t just a waste of learners’ time, it also leaves them in the same situation they were in to begin with. That is a waste of instructional designers’ time – and the manager still has to deal with the initial problem. There’s a great tool my previous post that is designed to help you work out whether training is really needed.

Cathy Moore tackles this issue from a wider angle in her book Map It, in which she outlines her approach to learning design. If you are familiar with this, you will know that her first response to the dreaded “We need training!” request is “What’s the goal?” Put another way, the first step is about establishing the objective – what is going to be different as a result of this training and what will it look like?

If you are an instructional designer who is seen as a trusted adviser (or, as Cathy Moore puts it, as a problem solver), it is up to you to help SMEs (subject matter experts) establish what will change and how the change will be measured.

Be sure to link it to organisational goals

Cathy Moore builds on this point in her approach, too. After all, there is no point in developing training/support if it is not going to take the organisation in the right direction. So, what’s the link between the change needed and the organisation’s goals? Even if you and your SMEs are clear that something needs to change, do you all agree that this is the most important change?

Your discussions with SMEs could reveal other priorities, making those discussions – and your status as a problem solver – all the more important.


Good instructional design is efficient

It’s not just learners whose time is wasted when instructional design is not managed well, it’s also that of SMEs. Processes aren’t always popular, but the best instructional design harnesses them to make the most of stakeholders’ time and expertise. The successive approximation model is one example of an efficient process: it brings together learning designers and SMEs at the optimum points within the development process and gives them clear roles.


Be learner-centred

Instructional design starts with a focus on goals but ultimately needs to be centred around learners. After all, if they’re not engaged in their learning, can’t access it or feel excluded by it, they are not going to achieve what you and your SMEs intended.

User experience design experts have come up with a range of tools and approaches to prompt focus on end users’ needs. These include developing user profiles or personas, building in opportunities for prototyping and user feedback, and user journey mapping. 

Behind the tools lies a mindset and the ability to put yourself in your learners’ lives. How would you feel if you were given a job aid you couldn’t understand because the language was too complex? What about if case studies in a course didn’t depict anyone from your background or didn’t address any of your day-to-day challenges? Or if you couldn’t complete an online module because it didn’t work with your screen-reading software? 

Profiles and prototyping will help you explore learners’ viewpoints, but they’re no substitute for listening to your learners – through channels such as surveys, focus groups and feedback – and challenging your assumptions.

Good instructional design supports learners

A learner focus includes respecting their time and their priorities. Getting to know your learners doesn’t just give you insights into their perspectives, it also helps you understand what’s important to them – essential information for an instructional designer. 

A detailed learning needs analysis is your friend here: it will help you identify not just what people need to do and why, but also how they want to receive this guidance. Just-in-time support is often the right approach for busy people who may also be working remotely, but when you understand your learners’ working styles and preferences you can be confident you are giving them every chance to succeed in their roles.


Good instructional design doesn’t end

Performance support doesn’t end when materials are uploaded to the LMS or a course/job aid is delivered; it continues to develop in response to feedback. As an instructional designer, it’s up to you to evaluate the learning material you have created and to make sure your development processes give you opportunities to act on this. That way, learners continue to benefit from learning and you continue to learn – about them, their needs and their preferences. The best instructional design is a learning experience for all.