What is Instructional Design?

To answer this question simply, instructional design, or sometimes referred to as instructional systems design in more academic settings, is the process of applying learning technologies or media, all based on learning science, to produce a formal or informal learning experience to meet a business need. Regardless of the model of training delivery – self-paced resource, informal, on-the-job training, classroom ILT (Instructor-Led Training) training, virtual classroom (VILT (Virtual Instructor-Led Training) training, virtual asynchronous training, simulation (AR/VR), or a blend/hybrid - the core instructional design process is the same.

The Instructional Design Process

Designing a training program, course or any learning experience usually takes three phases: planning, development, and evaluation and revision. Typically, the decision to develop new training comes from the implementation of something new, like new equipment or software, changes in a process or procedure, as a result of a performance deficiency, or from the desire to improve average performance.

Phase One, planning, begins with an evaluation of performance usually including interviews, observations and perhaps a review of the job descriptions/job standards. Following the evaluation of performance, complete the following tasks:

  • Develop a task analysis to describe the best way to complete the task.
  • Write a target population analysis to identify what is known about the group and what else needs to be learned about them.
  • Write course/intervention objectives and decide whether there are prerequisites to completing the course and how you’ll determine if participants meet these prerequisites.
  • Determine the best delivery system for the intervention (ILT, VILT, blended, etc.).
  • Create a strategy to determine how you will evaluate if course objectives are met and if the course/intervention will meet the business need that was the catalyst for course development.
  • Summarize all of the planning information in a training plan document for review with the client/stakeholders.

Phase Two, development, begins with writing a broad content outline of the key elements that will help the learner meet the course objectives. With the outline in place, complete the following tasks:

  • Identify the appropriate sequence of content elements.
  • Flush out and refine the content and identify learning methods that are appropriate for the target population and objectives.
  • Determine the best sequence and pacing of learning methods.
  • Develop the learning activities, exercises, tests and handout materials and visual support.
  • Write a script, if appropriate, for supporting materials and/or a lesson plan.
  • Pilot the course to determine whether the learning objectives and therefore the business need, will be met from the course.


Phase Three, evaluation and revision, uses at a minimum the four-level model created by Dr. Donald Kirkpatrick (1998): assess the reactions of the learners to the course; decide whether the learning objectives have been met through new knowledge, skills and attitudes; identify whether new learning transferred to the job, and check whether bottom-line results are met.

The foundations of instructional design have remained the same over the decades. What has changed is the expanding array of methods of delivery provided by new and exciting technologies. It is almost impossible to master all of the technologies now available and applicable to instructional design, so we are seeing the emergence of instructional design generalists or producers who tap into technicians in one or more specialty areas such as asynchronous design to help complete a design project.

So what does the product of a well-designed program look like when crafted by a trained course designer?

Well, to start, it doesn’t look like:

  • a copy of the slide deck,
  • an outline of the course,
  • a copy of pages from an operations manual.

What it does look like is:

  • a facilitator or leader’s guide that outlines the instructional strategy,
  • a comprehensive participant workbook or handout with exercises and activities that help the learner discover and practice the concepts,
  • job aids, if appropriate,
  • audiovisuals (which may include a slide deck) that complement the instruction, not drive it.


Instructional Design Skills: What every instructional designer generalist must do…

Although instructional design jobs vary in focus, there are 32 key competencies most skilled instructional designers use to craft their projects:

  1. Sort out training and non-training issues
  2. Use target population analysis to identify critical elements about the intended participants
  3. Conduct a “needs versus wants” analysis to identify common needs of a specific target population
  4. Conduct a job analysis to identify critical job success elements
  5. Conduct a task analysis to break down a task into its teachable parts
  6. Create a skill hierarchy to identify supporting skills and course prerequisites
  7. Write terminal and enabling learning objectives that meet four criteria
  8. Interpret survey data
  9. Identify training issues and how they relate to a request for training
  10. Create a training plan that states the outcome, results, and objectives of the training
  11. Create a training plan that states the performance deficiency and its causes
  12. Create a training plan that identifies or establishes performance standards
  13. Create a training plan that identifies the target population
  14. Create a training plan that establishes criteria to evaluate the training
  15. Create a training plan that describes the proposed intervention
  16. Estimate the cost of the training plan
  17. Build a partnership with management to ensure the success of the training plan
  18. Propose a schedule for training as part of a training plan
  19. Create a broad content outline
  20. Identify sources for course content
  21. Select appropriate training methods
  22. Sequence training methods
  23. Ensure a variety of pacing for training methods
  24. Identify how much practice is required to learn a new skill
  25. Create training activities
  26. Identify the appropriate type of lesson plan for a specific course
  27. Write a lesson plan
  28. Conduct a pilot workshop and making appropriate revisions to a new course
  29. Design a reaction sheet to get feedback from participants
  30. Write a test to measure learning
  31. Create a skill performance checklist to measure the transfer of learning to the workplace
  32. Create a return on investment analysis to identify results

How many of these skills do you use when designing learning? Which could you add to make your design projects more effective?

Make your instructional design count!

Training developers and instructional design generalists call upon a wide range of skills and techniques to craft a learning solution to a performance issue. They are experts in, and champions of, adult learning and performance. Each learning experience designer will express a personal style and approach while following solid instructional design principles.

Why is all of this important? If you want your learners to achieve the desired performance you need to have a well-designed training program. Instructional design is the foundation of any training program or performance intervention.

If all of this is brand new or relatively new, we are here to help! We have our Training Essentials Virtual Minis, public/open and on-site workshops, and certifications and also offer instructional design consulting services.

Reach out – anytime. We are all on this journey together! 


Melissa & Maria




*Adapted from workshops designed and facilitated by The Training Clinic