Getting into Instructional Design

Door ajar with question mark on it

I’ve spent a few years in roles related to “Instructional Design” (ID) focusing on designing and developing learning experiences and materials for education and professional development. I’ve only recently had the title of ‘Instructional Designer’ on a project for the first time but even then I don’t believe what I was doing was accurately labelled as Instructional Design. Here are some thoughts on the time I’ve spent trying to learn about the corporate L&D field, related to instructional design roles.

Job title bingo

In terms of job titles and potential roles, it’s actually a bit of confusing space, but I think I’ve got my head around it now. In reality, the Instructional Designer role should involve part of the analysis of the learning experience: what do people need to learn? How will it be done? And how can learning outcomes be measured?

Note that in L&D, good practice suggests this should usually involve is measuring performance in the workplace, not a simple knowledge assessment.

For me, if you have no part of this or a very limited part, but you’re creating the content, i.e. writing, choosing images, creating questions or assessment content, or developing what’s usually known as “e-learning” (a term I really dislike, as well as the tedious ‘Click next’ content with horrible graphics that is often the result – the thing is, this is part of ‘the game’: if that’s what the client wants, etc…) then that’s content development.

This content is usually developed in an authoring tool like Articulate Storyline, so it should really be called “Learning Content Development”. That’s what I was doing on my recent project with EdApp/SafetyCulture. I was taking content from pre-prepared PowerPoints and scripts from Word and creating microlearning modules using EdApp.

Other related roles in L&D include, but are not limited to 😕 … Learning Consultant, Learning Designer, Learning Technologist and Learning Experience Designer (never mind other roles like L&D Coordinator, Manager, Consultant, or Chief Learning Officer! Related, but different.).

It is absolutely possible to be an Instructional Designer who does the analysis, design and the development (the full ADDIE as I like to call it (ADDIE is the most commonly cited framework for ID), which I think should possibly be called a “Full-stack Instructional Designer”, or similar, borrowing from the programming field.

Leverage your learning background

If you’re looking towards a career in instructional design from a background in teaching or training and therefore have knowledge and skills in learning science and pedagogy, it makes sense to focus on that side of things. Many instructional designers seem to have fallen into it from working in an L&D team in an HR department or have entered the field from a background in graphic design or web design. If you’ve got knowledge of LEARNING, then leverage it.

Sometimes it feels as though recruiters have failed to notice this. Maybe they have. As well as many who call themselves instructional designers. You’ll see fancy interactive content in portfolios, developed in Storyline, with a limited about of pedagogy behind it. My favourite being pointless TV game show-style quizzes. Sorry guys, not my thing. If you were in the staffroom, you’d be looking at a teacher who’d created a fancy worksheet or PowerPoint to fulfil their own creative desires rather than it being driven by any real focus on the learners.

A caveat I would like to add here is that there does seem to be some difference between how the roles are viewed in the US compared to Europe, but I haven’t really figured this out yet.

For some time, I thought my lack of experience and demonstrable skills in Storyline, Captivate, Gomo, or whatever, was going to block me from getting anywhere. Only recently, during the past couple of months, have I spoken with new clients and potential new clients who are actively looking for people ‘like me’, who have a background in learning. This has been a RELIEF, I can tell you! If you look at many contract offers and job adverts, the focus on proven ability with a specific tech tool trumps learning knowledge and experience a lot of the time. It’s madness, I tell ya!

It is, however, quite easy to find training for these tools via YouTube, LinkedIn learning and other online courses, and you can get a free trial for a few weeks; Articulate is 60 days! Plenty of time to learn the basics at least and knock up some good stuff for a portfolio.

Anyway, all of a sudden things seem to be coming together, but my fingers remain crossed and I’m ready for more peaks and troughs before I get a consistent amount of work with a solid client base. Let’s see.

Be wary of a market transformation

(in which Richard tries to speculate on the future of work in the field of ID)

A general thought I’ve had, relevant to the learning design vs development side of things, is that it’s the creative problem-solving and design side of learning experiences that will be increasingly desirable in the future, not the technology or graphic design skills. There’s going to be a lot of reskilling and upskilling going on and people in all areas of the working world are going to need support.

I have a feeling that the development/production roles, like it or not, are roles that can be and are being moved ‘off-shore’, e.g. to India, so if you’re based in the UK, Europe, US this isn’t a positive thing. It’s partly my experience of this happening in the world of publishing that makes this a gut feeling.

Various publishing projects I’ve worked on have had the digital QA, video development and data input done by teams in India – in fact, when I was at CUP I went to Hyderabad to train a new editorial team to take on a series of basic digital publishing tasks. I heard that the team of 6 earned about as much as 1 or 2 UK-based editors, but their salaries were way above the local average, so this was considered a fairly prestigious role. Off-shoring happened in programming (there’s a book about this), so why not content development as well?

I’ve noticed that there are a number of very good learning design and content development agencies based in India. When the bottom line matters, if their rates are cheaper, who’s going to get the work? Admittedly, I don’t know the financial situation related to learning content development in detail, but in publishing, it was/is definitely cheaper.

On one of my projects, our client was in San José, the learning agency in Europe, and the video content developers in Chennai. It’s true that this off-shoring may be an issue for designers as well as developers, but people often want these roles in-house or closer to home. This might change, of course.

There’s also the gig economy side of things. If you can create a digital course but just need one or two small sections of complex, or stylish elements, or other things that just need a small amount of specific, skilled work, you can go to, or Fiverr to get something done rapidly, for a reasonable fee.

Hopefully this isn’t all going to result in a race to the bottom, but in the business world, who knows?

Meanwhile, the graphic design side of things can be relatively easily supported and expensive pros ‘replaced’ by good quality tools (e.g. Canva or Figma). Experts might be needed for some fancy stuff, or for more complex CSS programming, but their costly time can be saved by using Canva. This is exactly what has been happening on one of my recent projects – the graphics team checked, upgraded and handled designs in CSS, but I was choosing, editing and adding images and using Canva, which is integrated with EdApp, to create designs.

Note also that Nocode stuff like Bubble is becoming increasingly common and robust and offers people who can’t code the ability to build apps by selecting and organising ‘blocks’. Think WordPress or Wix with the power to create a fully functioning platform, such as a private social network platform. In fact, in a nice crossover of gig economy and Nocode, the freelancer marketplace platform Goodgigs was built using Bubble.

A no-code platform is a development platform that uses a visual development environment to allow layman users to create apps, through methods such as drag-and-drop, adding application components to create a complete application. With no-code, users don’t need prior coding knowledge to create apps.


Who’s to say that more complex content development ‘authoring tools’, such as Articulate Storyline, won’t become so easy to learn that anyone can use them, so specialising in one or two becomes pointless? Seems to me that they’re all more or less the same and pretty easy already, to be honest, although I may be wrong.

There’s also the lurking ‘danger’ of automation! In related content development roles you can see copy editing and proofreading getting marginalised by tools like Grammarly, or voice over artists by text to speech tools and admin-type roles like transcription services, e.g. Rev, using AI; see also, Otter.

What I’ve found useful

I’m still finding my way around the L&D side of things – the corporate learning space – so I thought my recent experience of this might help anyone who’s also thinking of making a move from education to corporate training or looking to expand your options. In the current workspace, it feels like a diverse set of skills is a good way to go, especially for freelancers.

Even if, ahem, I do say so myself, I’m a bit of an expert in online professional networking (busy in online PLNs since 2009), personal learning environments and self-directed professional development, which alongside a deliberate approach to career development provide a framework for how to develop your career or make a transition from one field to another. As a result, many of the tips below are relevant and applicable to any career development activity.

15 things you can do that I’ve done to make progress

So, to get further into the instructional design space, my advice would be (not in a set order)…

  1. Follow Connie Malamed’s website, sign up to her newsletter, do some of her courses, listen to her podcast. 
  2. Subscribe to job alerts and take note of the required skills. Which do you feel you need to gain or upgrade? Find ways of learning the skills.
  3. Find a connection between what you do now and the role you want, the “career capital” (ref: Cal Newport) that will have a positive impression on potential clients or employers, seek to exploit that.
  4. Don’t give up what you’re doing now until you’ve either got something to go to or you’ve developed a portfolio you can use to get work. Get free trials to popular authoring tools and have a go.
  5. Consider whether you want to be freelance or employed and seek out specific advice.
  6. Decide if you want to focus on the learning experience design, i.e. analysis and storyboarding, OR do you want to develop the content. As I’ve said, it seems possible to do either or both, but I suggest finding a niche and seeking out roles that suit you. If you’re coming from a teaching background then you have a lot of crossover skills in designing learning experiences, especially if you’ve taught older teens and adults.
  7. Figure out what the jargon means. The terminology used in L&D tends to be different, e.g. in many ways creating a “storyboard” is “lesson planning” to a teacher, or “curriculum planning” if it’s over a longer period of time. It’s just that you’re giving instructions to someone else to create or deliver the materials. Also akin to doing development editing for coursebooks and including the references to images and artwork elements with design guidance.
  8. Seek out and follow people on LinkedIn who seem to have the kind of role you want – analyse their roles, what do they do? Look at their career history, qualifications and skills. Reach out and ask questions about how they got to where they are.
  9. Work and learn out loud online. Do some of these things: share useful and interesting content you find, ask questions, write comments, write a blog, show your work if you make stuff – start a portfolio – advice here.
  10. While seeking to learn about the field, don’t just look for ‘Instructional Design’ stuff – look into learning (experience) design (LXD), performance consulting/support, educational/learning technology.
  11. Read the ‘3-star Learning Experiences‘ blog and get the ‘Evidence-Informed Learning Design‘ book.
  12. Check out Nick Shackleton-Jones’ book ‘How People Learn‘.
  13. Learn about Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping framework for needs analysis.
  14. Follow Clark Quinn’s blog, and Jane Hart’s website to get some wider understanding of the L&D field
  15. Read other people’s intros to the field such as Devlin Peck

Hope that’s useful! Good for me to analyse what I’ve been doing recently as well. Best of luck with it!

Digital discovery

This time it’s a re-discovery of sorts as I’ve paid for an annual subscription to Blinkist for the first time in a few years. There seems to be a lot of new books on there now that I’d like to read. I know some people are a bit sniffy about Blinkist’s book summary content (“it isn’t like reading a real book” 🤔), but there are dozens of books I’ve come across that I’d like to read and there’s not enough time in my life to read them all in full!

I also tend to find that a lot of non-fiction books are based on a main overall message, supported by about 4-6 key points and padded out with stories that ‘prove’ those points. So, actually, a 10-15 minute summary gets the main messages over just fine.

I’ve got a lot of blinks lined up and I’m aiming to listen to about 4-5 per week for the next few months! I usually listen to the books, then skip through the text again and highlight key points. An integration with Evernote means that all these highlights are automatically collated within a single note per book within a folder called ‘Blinkist’. Very tidy. 😊

I’ll be writing a few notes of my own about things I can learn and apply from those key points and I’ll (as usual) be connecting those ideas to join the dots in my knowledge.

Thanks for reading! If you’ve got any thoughts on this post, I’d love to read them. Let me know below.

Featured image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

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