Everything you need to know about instructional design, plus its benefits

Cydnie Smith
Smiling woman with long dark hair in a black shirt.
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Imagine you're in a baking class and your teacher instructs you to make a chocolate soufflé with a crème anglaise (is anyone else's mouth-watering right now? YUM)!

Obviously, you want everything to be just right – the flavor, the texture, the presentation. But to maximize your chances for success, you must follow your teacher's instructions to the tee.

If the recipe is clear, concise, and straightforward, you'll likely enjoy a seamless baking experience and achieve your desired results.

But what if the instructions are confusing and hard to follow? 

Well, unless you suddenly develop Martha Stewart-level baking skills, your finished product will probably fall flat… literally.

Now I know baking and corporate training may not seem like the most natural pairing, but hear me out!

The same principle actually applies to your corporate workforce.

Like a recipe a baker follows, learners require clear and concise instructions from their training courses

While a well-structured, intuitive, and user-friendly eLearning program can boost employee engagement and knowledge retention for greater organizational success, poorly-designed courses can overwhelm and frustrate your learners, rendering the entire training experience ineffective. 

And who wants that? Ineffective training means losing time, money, and valuable resources (which could significantly impact your bottom line).

So how do you mitigate this risk and maximize the success of your corporate eLearning programs? Well, that's where instructional design comes in. Across this article, we will review:

But first, let’s explore our baking metaphor and how instructional design, and those who practice it, are similar.

What is instructional design?

If your eLearning program is a soufflé, instructional design is the recipe for engaging, effective, and (dare I say) enjoyable online training courses for your workforce! 

At its core, instructional design is a systematic process that involves analyzing learning needs, developing instructional materials, and assessing learning outcomes. With baking, a baker follows a specific set of instructions to create delicious treats. However, they also understand baking principles, fundamentals, and theories to guide decisions. 

This draws direct similarities to how an instructional designer operates within the realm of instructional design. Guided by instructional design principles, making use of instructional design models, and applying their own expertise all shape the outcome of an eLearning program or curriculum. Much like a baker, instructional designers must:

Plan and prepare

The same way you must pre-heat the oven before baking your soufflé; instructional design requires a clear understanding of the learner. What do your employees already know? What are their learning goals? For the best results, an instructional designer must gather all of this information to create a recipe that fits the unique needs of your learners.­­

Gather the right ingredients

Instead of flour, sugar, and eggs, instructional design requires ingredients like training content, assessments, multimedia, activities, and learning objectives.

Complete measurements

Instructional designers evaluate learning “ingredients” and data to find a delivery method that strikes the perfect balance between content and interaction. 

Too much content too quickly, your learners will get overwhelmed and frustrated.
Too little interaction with unclear focus and structure, your learners will get bored.

Mix eLearning components

An effective online training program is appealing to a learner. So, an instructional designer must organize training content in a logical and accessible way, include activities that are relevant and engaging, and ensure that assessments align with learning goals.

Serve a 5-star final product

After meticulously measuring and mixing, you want your cake to look and taste delicious, right? Well, the same rules apply to instructional design. An instructional designer must consider the design and interface of the eLearning course, making sure it’s visually appealing, intuitive, and user-friendly for your less tech-savvy employees.

The end goal of instructional design is to take the complex parts of the eLearning experience (subject matter, processes, learner limitations, employee needs, business objectives, etc.) and present them to your learners in a manner they want to consume.

The result? A satisfying eLearning experience that will leave your employees asking for more!

How is instructional design useful in a practical sense?

Alright, now that we've broken down exactly what instructional design is, let's look at some practical ways you can apply this process to your organization. Consider the following scenarios:

Align eLearning with adult learning theory to promote more productive employees

One of the driving principles of adult learning theory is the understanding that adults have unique learning styles, motivations, and preferences. Instructional designers create training programs informed by this theory to produce the most effective learning outcomes.

Use case #1: With this in mind, let's say you have a machine operator that must complete a mandatory safety course on how to clean dangerous equipment. The problem is he has 20 years of experience and no time to complete a eLearning module on a subject he already knows. 

An instructional designer might gamify the course to meet compliance requirements and combat employee resistance. In addition, the designer would likely incorporate real-world scenarios, hands-on exercises, and adult learning principles like problem-based learning to improve the effectiveness of the training program for your adult learner.

Streamlines project management 

Use case #2: Imagine your sales team consistently needs help meeting its quarterly goals. Your C-suite team asks you to coordinate learning and development to help boost their soft skills and improve employee performance. Sounds reasonable enough – except the quarter is almost complete, you still need to complete a training needs assessment and needs analysis, and the budget is extremely tight. Essentially you need an eLearning program that can be implemented quickly, within the budget, that yields measurable results. How hard can that be? (yikes).

Luckily, instructional design involves a systematic and organized approach to designing and developing instructional materials, including defining project scope, setting milestones and deadlines, and assigning responsibilities to team members. Following project management principles, the instructional design process ensures that the instructional materials are completed on time and within budget while meeting the desired quality standards. Ultimately this process helps minimize delays and cost overages and ensures that your training program meets your learners' needs.

Informs (and improves) training program development

Use case #3: Phew! You've met your organization's learning and development requirements for the year. But how do you know if your efforts were successful? 

Instructional design requires you to outline both the needs of your employees and your overall business objectives. Before building your training program, you must first complete a training needs analysis and ask important questions like

  • What business outcomes would I like to achieve this year?
  • Who actually needs training?
  • What are the most prominent learning or performance gaps within my organization?
  • What level of performance do I expect from my employees?

A clearly defined and measurable baseline allows you to evaluate the impact of your eLearning programs (what worked and what didn't), then make necessary adjustments to improve their effectiveness for the future. 

In a nutshell, instructional design helps create the most seamless learning experiences, including planning, building, and evaluating, for you (on an implementation level) and your employees (on a process level). 

Three blocks with definitions for Plan, Build, Evaluation. From left-to-right: Plan (icon of a recipe book) - Systematic approach to develop learning rooted in principles and theory; Build (icon of a spoon in a bowl) - Put theory, frameworks, and models into action with interactivity and creativity; Evaluate (icon of a cupcake with a bite mark) - Gather learning analytics, feedback, & other metrics to inform future decisions.

Speaking of the process level...

How does instructional design assist with the learning process?

Let's face it – a poorly designed training program can quickly lead to disengaged employees who don't see the value in corporate learning.  But with instructional design, companies can ensure that their employees receive the training they need to perform their jobs effectively and in a manageable way. 

Instructional designers use various techniques, such as multimedia elements, gamification, scenario-based learning, and interactive simulations, to make learning exciting, memorable, and less of a chore.

Ultimately, this leads to better knowledge retention, which leads to a more productive workforce, which in turn, helps to drive the success of your business.

And isn’t that the point of your eLearning program – to develop better-skilled, higher-performing employees to improve your training outcomes?

How can instructional design help improve your training outcomes?

Whether you're focused on upskilling or reskilling employees (or both), effective instructional design ensures that training materials align with learning objectives and support your desired learning outcomes. This process can lead to various organizational benefits, including

Increased employee engagement

When learners are engaged, they're more likely to retain information and enjoy the learning experience. Instructional designers use a variety of interactive elements and knowledge checks (like quizzes and games) to keep learners interested and involved, making it easier for them to retain the information and apply it in real-life situations.

Improved knowledge retention and recall

By breaking down complex concepts into smaller, manageable chunks, learners can better understand and remember the information. After all, who wants to spend time learning something that they'll forget in a week? (Have you heard about the Forgetting Curve? It’s a real thing!)

Better in-role application

One of the biggest training challenges is ensuring that the knowledge and skills acquired transfer to the workplace.  Instructional design helps bridge this gap by incorporating real-life scenarios and practical applications into the training content – making it easier for learners to apply the knowledge and skills they've acquired in their day-to-day work, resulting in increased productivity.

Greater Return On Investment (ROI)

Investing in instructional design can have a major impact on your bottom line. Higher-skilled employees mean more productive employees. More productive employees can lead to a 25% increase in revenue. And since instructional design is a cost-effective way to improve employee skills and knowledge, you'll see greater ROI for your training efforts.

Of course, my main goal is to help you make the most informed decisions about your training strategy.  So, I’ll be honest.

While instructional design can transform your eLearning programs, these benefits wholly rely on the principles guiding the instructional design process.

Let me explain.

What are the instructional design principles?

You don’t simply want to apply the instructional design process to eLearning. You want to employ an effective instructional design process. That means some design principles are simply indispensable if you want an effective training program. 

I want to spare you the headache of navigating through a minefield of instructional design components, so to make things easy, I've gathered the five main principles you need to guide your design process.

Capture attention

You know it, and I know it. Employees just don't want to sit through an irrelevant, unfocused, poorly structured eLearning program. And since the success of your corporate training relies on learners, keeping your employees engaged should be at the top of your priority list. So, instead of just bombarding your learners with information, give them a chance to see the concepts in action. Use interactive simulations with branching sequences, videos that include interactivity like clickable hotspots, gamification that pulls on intrinsic and extrinsic motivators, and practical, real-situation case studies to bring content to life. The objective is to grab the learner's attention and create a positive learning experience.

Provide clear learning objectives

Before you can improve learning outcomes, you need to know what you're trying to achieve. Cue: learning objectives. Your training goals provide a roadmap for the learning process and help learners understand what they should expect from the experience.

Keep it simple

You know the age-old adage: less is more? In the case of eLearning, this couldn't ring truer. A vital component of the instructional design process is presenting content to your learners in a way that is easy to understand and retain. Simplifying your learning program involves:

  • Using clear and concise language.
  • Breaking the content into smaller pieces – i.e. microlearning.
  • Using multimedia elements to help illustrate the information.

The learner should also be able to access the information at their own pace, allowing them to review and revisit the material as needed.

Evaluate learner performance

Knowledge checks including quizzes, tests, or other activities in your training program allows learners to demonstrate their understanding of the material. Your assessments should align with the learning objectives and measure skill and knowledge mastery upon course completion to accurately evaluate their progress.

Offer meaningful feedback

Feedback is a crucial component of learning. It helps learners know what they're doing right and shows them the areas they need to improve. So be sure to provide clear, concise, and timely feedback to your learners. (Oh – and don't forget to make it a two-way street by allowing learners to give you feedback, too!)

Now, I know I've thrown a lot of information at you. So I completely understand if you're thinking: "How on earth do I make sure my courses check all these boxes?" 

The good news is: You don’t have to! That’s a job for your instructional designer.

What are some of the instructional design processes that designers have in their toolkits?

Instructional designers are well-equipped with a whole arsenal of tools to make your program creation effective. If fact, how about a sneak peek at some of the most common processes they have in their design toolkits? 

A pyramid stack of 6 blocks, with the title, "Instructional design processes." From left-to-right, bottom row: knowledge checks/mapping (icon of a brain), quizzes & tests (icon on a multiple choice question), performance metrics & analytics (icon of a bar graph). Middle row:  audits (icon of a file with an eye on it), persona (icon of a person). Top row: needs assessment & analysis (icon of a magnifying glass with a checkmark).

(You know, just in case you’d like a baseline for evaluating potential instructional designers.)

Training needs assessment

A training needs assessment (TNA) is an organizational assessment that determines what training is necessary to address specific performance problems or meet organizational goals.

Learning needs analysis

Once you complete a TNA and conclude that training is required, a learning needs analysis closely examines a learner’s knowledge gaps to establish the skills and abilities they need to succeed within their roles.

Training audits

You know what they say: you can’t fix a problem if you don’t know there is a problem. A training audit examines your existing eLearning programs to identify areas for improvement and ensure that they meet the organization's goals and objectives.

Learner personas

A learner persona is a detailed representation of the typical learner, including demographics, goals, motivations, and learning preferences.

Knowledge checks and mapping

An effective training strategy requires data about your learners. Knowledge checks and mapping help collect that data by assessing what learners already know, what they need to learn, and how their existing knowledge relates to new course material.

Quizzes and tests

From multiple choice to short answer questions, these assessments are implemented within an eLearning program to measure learner comprehension and mastery of the material.

Performance metrics and learning analytics

One of the most important aspects of a training program is results (particularly for your C-Suite and leadership teams). The use of data and metrics, known as learning analytics, assess the effectiveness of instructional materials and identify areas for improvement.

Okay, now is an excellent time for a recap! We've defined instructional design, reviewed its many organizational benefits, and discussed the essential principles of the instructional design process.

That means you're probably ready to implement instructional design into your training strategy. But before you do, there are a few more things you need to narrow down first, namely, which instructional design model is best for your organization.

What are some of the more popular instructional design models?

At the beginning of this article, we talked about baking (or at least attempting to) a soufflé – one single dessert in a sea of options. Just like the dessert world, there are a variety of instructional design models to choose from to fit your organizational needs, goals, and budget. 

But instead of giving you just another list, I decided to take a more interactive approach! So please humor me as we explore popular instructional design models using this dessert-themed personality assessment! 

Which Instructional Design Model Are You: The Great Bake Edition

Your favorite type of cake can reveal a lot about who you are – including what kind of instructional design model is right for your team. So choose a dessert to see which popular model may align best with your organization.

A bakery display case, with a lineup of 4 types of baked goods. From left-to-right: a two-layer frosted cake labelled "ADDIE model, classic yellow cake"; two dotted muffins labelled "SAM model, blueberry muffin"; a two-layer frosted cake topped with raspberries labelled "Bloom's Taxonomy, chocolate raspberry truffle cake"; two cupcakes with cherries on top labelled "Kirkpatrick model, delicious frosting".

Ideal instructional design model: The ADDIE model

Classic yellow cake

Simple, delicious, and a crowd favorite. Just like a timeless yellow cake, the ADDIE model is tried and true. It stands for Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation – the five key steps to creating a successful course.

Ideal instructional design model: The Simple Assessment Model (SAM)

Blueberry muffin

Think of SAM as the muffin of instructional design models. It's simple, straightforward, and gets the job done. No fluff, no fuss, just results!

Ideal instructional design model: Bloom's Taxonomy

Tiered chocolate raspberry truffle cake

If ADDIE is a yellow cake, then Bloom's Taxonomy is a triple-layer cake. It's more complex and requires layers and layers of learner understanding, but the result is well worth it. This model helps instructional designers think critically about their content and how learners will receive it.

Ideal instructional design model: Kirkpatrick model

Delicious frosting

Sometimes, the best part of a dessert is the frosting. The Kirkpatrick model is like the icing on the cake. It's the final touch that ties everything together, helping you measure and evaluate the success of your instructional materials.

Obviously, this little test is just fun and games! There's no "right" answer when determining which instructional design model is best – what matters is which one is best for you and your organization. And whichever option you choose, they're all guaranteed to help you design effective and engaging instructional materials that will make the learning experience much sweeter.

As training evolves, instructional design faces many challenges – here are some to watch out for

Of course, no good thing comes without a few challenges. As L&D training continues to evolve, the growing use of technology and the rise of new learning modalities like gamification, microlearning, and virtual reality can make it challenging for instructional designers to keep up with the latest trends and technologies. Additionally, the increasing demand for personalized and adaptive learning experiences can pressure instructional designers to create more customized and flexible learning solutions.

To overcome these challenges, instructional designers must continuously expand their knowledge and skills and find new and effective ways to engage learners and support their learning.

So what does that mean for instructional design in your organization? Is it still worth the investment?

The short answer is: absolutely!

Where is instructional design going in the future?

Based on its current trajectory, I believe instructional design will only evolve and improve!  The trend toward more personalized and adaptive learning experiences is likely to continue, and we expect technology to play a more prominent role in instructional design. Virtual and augmented reality, for example, may become more widely used to create immersive learning experiences. Additionally, the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning may become more widespread, allowing instructional designers to develop more sophisticated and effective learning solutions – leading to better eLearning experiences for your team!

But before we get too caught up in the future, let’s focus on the present. Here is what you can start doing today to make tomorrow’s training program more successful.

What instructional design takeaways should you start with?

As you begin the instructional design process, there are a few key takeaways that you should keep in mind when designing effective corporate eLearning programs.

  • Know your employees: Before designing, take the time to understand your employees. What are their needs and learning styles? How do they prefer to learn? Understanding your audience will help you tailor your eLearning content to meet their needs.
  • Keep material simple: Just like a good baker knows that sometimes less is more, the same goes for instructional design. Avoid information overload and stick to the essentials. Your material needs to be concise, relevant, up-to-date, informative, and practical so your learning audience will see the value in their assigned eLearning.
  • Make courses interactive: Passive learning is a thing of the past. Encourage your employees to interact with the content by incorporating quizzes, games, and other interactive elements into your custom eLearning courses. However,  don’t add interactivity if it gets in the way of learning objectives. Interactive components should only enhance the learning experience, not detract from it.
  • Be consistent: Consistency is vital to instructional design. Use the same design elements, fonts, and color schemes throughout your eLearning program to create a cohesive experience for your employees. Don’t underestimate the voice, tone, narrative, and storytelling impact that branded eLearning can have on your learners.
  • Make your eLearning program accessible: The best training programs are accessible to all employees, regardless of their abilities or disabilities. Consider elements like font size, color contrast, and captioning for audio and video elements to ensure a seamless eLearning experience for all users. 

By focusing on these critical elements, you'll be well on your way to creating learning experiences that meet the needs of your employees and help your organization reach its goals.

Use instructional design as your recipe for success!

So, there you have it! 

Whether you’re implementing a training program for the first time or revitalizing existing courses, instructional design is the recipe for eLearning success within your organization.

Not only will it help you create the best corporate training programs for your employees, but sound instructional design is the key to improving learning outcomes, increasing workplace productivity, knowledge retention, and engagement­­­­, and ultimately driving business success. 

(You never know, implementing instructional design into your learning strategy may actually be easier than mastering the soufflé!) 

If you're ready to create better training programs for your business, head back to our Learning Hub to continue your exploration of all things related to custom eLearning development. Our Hub contains articles to help you choose an instructional designer, understand instructional design models, and navigate any other part of your eLearning journey.

Smiling woman with long dark hair in a black shirt.
Cydnie Smith

Cydnie is an experienced writer, editor, and blogger who believes that accessibility plus a dash of creative storytelling is essential to cultivating a memorable learning experience.

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