The instructional designer explained to your grandmother

The instructional designer is a key professional figure in the process of creating an E-learning course. There are those who would say that he is "the one who decides everything," and-to be honest-that would not deviate that much from the reality of things. But who, specifically, is the training designer? How do you structure your work and what are the tools through which you think, write and implement an online training course?

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Who is the instructional designer

You know when someone asks you “what do you do?” and in answering you feel like you’re explaining SEO to your grandmother? Here, the Instructional designer often experiences this discouraging feeling. It is a relatively recent profession-or, rather, it has only recently begun to be talked about-and those who are not into the world of digital learning may struggle to understand what instructional design is.

Let’s try to explain everything in a very simple way for clarity. The design of an E-learning course falls under a very specific discipline,instructional design, and dealing with it are specific E-learning professionals: the
instructional designers
. These are true training designers, working hand in hand with the
subject matter experts
, or subject matter experts (those who put expertise on the course content), and with developers (the geeks, to be clear), to create ad hoc training paths. Therefore, those who make E-learning courses are not necessarily trainers or lecturers; in fact, very often they are not.

Instructional designers could be called the scriptwriters of the course: the basis of everything is design, guided by imagination. However, they are not only scriptwriters, and therefore writers, but also “architects” of training, because they have to learn to “design” the course on a blank sheet of paper by imagining every single brick of it, in order to have an overview and make it easily understandable to the client as well.

Ambitious or scary? In fact, some might tell you that working in the world of instructional design also has a lot to do with gaming. We will see more about why.

The instructional designer as we commonly understand him or her, thus the digital instructional designer, is basically an online training designer, and is, for all intents and purposes, the evolution of a similar figure that has always, for good or ill, existed in the corporate and educational world: the training designer. In fact, if you think of any training experience you have enjoyed in the past, you will easily understand that there was design behind it, that is, planning for the transmission of content. From the simple school lesson to the most elaborate learning experience, there is always someone behind it who, upstream, has been wondering, “how do I best convey this content?”, “how do I make sure that the user (or student) does not forget what I am conveying to them?”, “how do I make what I want to teach fun, challenging, engaging, and interesting?”

Shall we make it even simpler? Let’s think about the school. Surely you, too, remember how different from each other the teaching methods of the professors and teachers you happened to meet in the course of your education may have been; perhaps you remember with particular gratitude that teacher who was able to “bewitch” you, “involve” you, making you feel an active part of a process. To be less prosaic, we might also say: that teacher who was able to keep your eyes open with Socrates explained at eight o’clock in the morning (not an easy feat when you think about it). There, how had he done it? Perhaps with ingredients that are not so different from those that the digital learning expert, the instructional designer, uses to make a corporate training course on Law 231 enjoyable. You don’t need fireworks, you just need to step into the user’s shoes, ask yourself many questions and give yourself the right answers.

What is instructional design

Let’s try to take a step back and focus on discipline. The definition of Instructional Design is all in all simple. Wikipedia defines it as, “the science of processing multimedia devices for instruction.” Another famous definition speaks of “a systematic process that is employed to develop education and training programs in a consistent and reliable manner.” Wanting to engage a little more, we could define it as the set of activities underlying a training project deputed to determine the form, appearance, propedeuticity, definition and distribution of the content of a digital learning course.

Perhaps in hearing this expression for the first time we are diverted specifically from the term “design” (still somewhat misunderstood in Italian), which might lead us to imagine a designer struggling with paper, pencil, inspiration and flair. Not so: certainly, creativity is one component, among many, that is important, but systematicity and method are perhaps even more so.

Instructional Designer Wanted!

All clear so far? Good. Actually, there is another quality, among the many that make an instructional designer particularly capable, and it has to do with synthesis. Exactly! You have to know how to synthesize content, how to break it down into pills, microcontent that, like Mary Poppins’ sugar-sweetened pills, is “easy to swallow.” In fact, the capacity for concentration that a user is able to guarantee is increasingly reduced, and the digital instructional design expert has to deal with an attention span of really only a few minutes, some say even a few seconds. So? So if, because of the use and abuse of technologies, our cognitive performance is dramatically approaching that of a goldfish, the instructional designer must be able to “reduce to fodder” the content he or she wants to convey: dry it, synthesize it, break it up, and thus, magically, make it digest. This is referred to as microlearning, a learning methodology that articulates content in short units focusing on a single topic or skill.

But back to us. You may wonder, ultimately, how didactics and instructional design relate to each other. Very simple. Instructional design is the process of identifying and choosing the content and instructional methods on which an educational experience is typically based. Should I teach something to a class or a user? I will have to in principle define:

  • How to organize content.
  • How to convey them.
  • What language to use.
  • How long to take.
  • What media to use.

An instructional design-oriented approach facilitates the transmission of content and its reception.

Instructional design, then, despite the common Anglophone matrix, is not a synonym for educational technology. Educational technology is the set of technological solutions that, to support the educational process, aim to enhance the learning experience. Instructional design can be more or less digital: it is most often used in reference to digital learning, but can also refer to analog learning processes, and has to do with Training planning for the benefit of teaching.

What does an instructional designer do

When your grandmother tries to figure out what you do for a living, however, she wants to imagine you actually working: where, how, and with what do you work? What are you holding in your hand?

Pen and paper, perhaps, or mouse and keyboard. Certainly, to do what is asked of you well, you have to try to rustle your brain. First, the instructional designer gathers a principal’s training needs, then interviews stakeholders and, hopefully, engages with key users to get an understanding of the actual needs of those who will be taking that course. Once he has gathered all the elements, he turns to the storyboard, where, precisely, he defines the life and death of that course:

  • How long will it last?
  • Will it be divided into modules?
  • Will there be an index? How will propaedeuticity be handled?
  • What references will the graphics need to keep in mind?
  • What will it be composed of? Video? Cartoon? Slide?
  • Will there be a speaker? An actor? A content expert who will tell the content?
  • How many and what interactions will be present?
  • Will there be gamification? What kind?
  • Et cetera, et cetera.

Also included in the storyboard is the course script, in which the training expert does the actual writing of the course text, usually reworking source material that is usually made available by the subject matter expert in various forms and aspects (text files, presentations, videos, slides).

instructional designer: cosa fa

And there the “scribe” behind the designer can finally emerge (instructional designers, in fact, often have editorial backgrounds and humanities training behind them).

What happens next? In theory, the ball is in the E-learning developers’ and graphic designers’ court. It happens, not infrequently, that by the well-known art of making do, over the years training designers have also learned to juggle graphics programs, video editing, development. And that they then change their hats but continue to work on the process themselves, right up to the final testing phase of the E-learning course.

Working as an Instructional Designer: what do you need to do?

If you landed here because you are intrigued by this relatively new profession and are wondering how to go about pursuing this career, here are the answers.

What does it take to become an instructional designer? Quickly said: a high road, to be completely honest, there is no high road. It is true that for a few years now there have been study paths aimed at training this specific professionalism, especially university master’s degrees capable of transmitting skills useful for launching a career in digital learning, but it is equally true that, having worked in this field for quite some time and having over the years met dozens (or hundreds) among colleagues, competitors and collaborators, we can assure you that the vast majority of professionals have rather varied training paths behind them. As mentioned just above, those who do this work usually have a background in the humanities and a “scribe” nature, but there are those who come from education tout, those from school, those who started out as developers (so maybe they have science and engineering degrees in the drawer) and then took a step “back” in the classic course production process and landed on ID. In our house we have, just so you understand, journalists, philosophers and engineers. As in most professions, the best way to learn this job is to do it.

How much does an Instructional Designer make?

Here is one of the most burning questions, which is not at all easy to answer. According to some digital salary calculation platforms, the average annual salary of an instructional designer is between 25 thousand and 35 thousand euros a year. However, before talking about numbers, it is good to talk about grading and possibilities. There are, in fact, several ways of being an instructional designer. Let’s find out together.

Freelance or in-house instructional designer: pros and cons

We said: one profession, numerous possibilities. In fact, those who decide to pursue a career as an instructional designer, once they have acquired the tools and experience useful for putting themselves forward in the job market, may consider employment or freelancing. Let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of both routes.

If you decide to put yourself forward as a freelancer, you will have many clients, likely from a variety of industries and fields, you will take care of different projects, you will be required to be adaptable, and you will have a variety of opportunities for growth. You may work for E-learning companies, which in turn curate digital training for companies that are their clients, or you may propose yourself directly to companies and institutions that need to train their user population, to curate a digital learning project from scratch, perhaps arm in arm with other vendors (developers and graphic designers), or in support of the company’s in-house E-learning department.

If you decide to work as an employed instructional designer, you will be able to do so, again, either for E-learning companies or for corporate or institutional realities. In the first case, you will need to be able to count on an equally developed spirit of “adaptation” with respect to the variety of content, topics, languages, and referents with which to work. In case you choose instead to join a company’s workforce, to work as an instructional designer directly in the in-house E-learning office, then over time you are likely to also develop an accurate knowledge of the topics that will constitute the courses you will be asked to design, bringing you, bit by bit, closer to the figure of the SME (Subject Matter Expert). Actually, by joining a team, you may have the opportunity to explore, more or less closely, other roles as well. In fact, as already mentioned, it is not unusual for an instructional designer, to also end up developing the courses that he or she is called upon to design, learning to “juggle” a little at a time with the learning tool and with platforms, to also sometimes become the manager of the learning management system (LMS) platform. What’s the word? Making a virtue out of necessity.

In both cases, as you have seen, there are pros and cons. At the level of economic viability, it is difficult to make comparisons: certainly in the beginning a freelance instructional designer will have to give himself time to develop a network of contacts and knowledge that can generate as many job (and growth) opportunities as possible. Within a few years, however, as E-learning is an exponentially growing industry, it is likely to hope to come into contact with numerous entities and create an excellent network of opportunities.

No need to go into the advantages and disadvantages of freelance or employee jobs such as:

  • freedom vs. stability
  • versatility vs. guarantees

because those are common to all professions declined in this dual meaning.

Advice for those who want to do this work given by those who do it

Advice? Always ready. Let’s try to make a quick and more-than-ever concise list of skills, secrets and tricks that you can no longer do without if you dream of becoming the “perfect instructional designer.”

  • Use your imagination – Never stop at the first solution, explore possibilities, be creative in the truest sense of the word: invent!
  • Be versatile – Yes, we have already said that. You will happen to need to use graphics programs, authoring tools, or LMS platforms. Learn a little at a time to chew the “language of E-learning” from every angle, it will come in handy in a thousand and one situations and expand your design versatility;
  • Proactivity first – Never be afraid to be daring. If you need an escape room for security training, if you want to make the user who has to “storm” a Cyber Security course wear the pirate’s shoes, if you believe that tetris is the right solution for those who need to train their soft skills…then go for it! You have to be daring in order not to bore. Instructional designer’s word;
  • Remember to mediate – In working on each individual project, you have to step into various shoes: those of the end user (of the “speak as you eat” series) but also those of the contact person (or colleague) who commissioned you to teach the course. Therefore, you have to be able to mediate and make different needs and requirements coexist;
  • Keep up to date – Since instructional design is a relatively new and very growing world, remember to keep up to date all the time. Be curious about new authoring tools and find out what they can enable you to do in development, discover new methodologies, take courses, chat with colleagues. The result, in fact, is potential and invaluable time savings.

Jobs as instructional designer

So if you really want to try to pursue instructional design as your possible path, remember to keep the net tapped to investigate possible job opportunities. You can start with an in-house internship if you are new to the field to learn the ins and outs of instructional design work, but you can also find interesting opportunities for collaboration if you are a freelancer.

Here, for example: we are always searching!

Methodologies of instructional design

There are various methodologies that have become references for instructional design and many models. Let us look together at some of the most popular ones.

  • ADDIE – It is an acronym for the words, Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation and Evaluation, represent a dynamic and flexible guideline for implementing courses. Originating in the 1970s as a linear, “waterfall” model (for the U.S. military), it has since evolved over the years: the various phases that constitute it can be interconnected.

Let’s see in detail what is hidden, concretely, in the letters of the acronym, with some effective input.

    • A – Analyzing means asking myself who I am talking to and how I want to do it. Who needs to learn what? These sound like platitudes, but you have to start right there;
    • D – Design. Speaking of instructional design, planning means defining in advance, and in detail, how to convey my content: what to say, what media to use, what tone of voice to have;
    • Q – Here we come to the storyboard, the key tool with which the instructional designer does his or her work. The document in which the course outline is collected, and which groups its training tools, texts, quizzes, reference for graphics, videos, etc;
    • I – Implementation. Implementation is the phase in which the course is typically uploaded to an LMS for later use by training recipients;
    • E – Evaluation. How did it go? Student feedback is invaluable for improvement(to elaborate).
  • Gagné – One of the contributors to the systematic approach in instructional design is Robert Mills Gagné. In his book “The Conditions of Learning,” which came out in the fabled 1960s, the pedagogue delves into the mental conditions for learning, that is, the key steps necessary for a specific training content to be received and learned.

It consists of nine, so-called, events:

    1. Gaining attention;
    2. Sharing training objectives;
    3. Stimulating prior knowledge;
    4. Presenting the material;
    5. Providing guidance for learning;
    6. Encouraging performance;
    7. Providing feedback;
    8. Evaluating performance;
    9. Strengthening memorization and skills transfer(read more).
  • Bloom – American psychologist Bloom developed a taxonomy of educational objectives that is often held up as a model for instructional design. Bloom’s taxonomy is a cognitive framework that classifies critical reasoning to help educators improve learning goal setting. Basically, it is a pyramid that helps visualize the levels of critical thinking required by an activity.

Bloom’s taxonomy originally consisted of six categories:

    • Knowledge
    • Understanding
    • Application
    • Analysis
    • Summary
    • Evaluation

In the 2000s, however, these categories have been revisited by a group of experts who have, shall we say, “adapted” them to the way our propensity to learn has changed over time. In addition to renaming the categories, turning nouns into verbs, as if to emphasize the active approach that learning must pursue, we note that “Assessment,” originally understood as the highest cognitive work, has been replaced by “Create.” The instructional designer knows this very well, the “creative” component, in fact, also has a lot to do with how we enjoy a piece of content and, as a result, learn something. Right?

Let us step into the shoes of a user. If in order to learn something I have been called upon to find the solution to a problem, the answer to a riddle, the escape route for an avatar, or whatever, won’t I tend to be more inclined to let that concept or notion settle in my memory? Your answer.

Here are the categories of Bloom’s taxonomy revisited, which so much can help in understanding the logic behind instructional design.

    • Remember
    • Understand
    • Apply
    • Analyze
    • Assess
    • Create (for more)

As we said, there are numerous ID models to stick to when designing training, and we do not always–it must be said–refer to one model when designing and implementing a course. Undoubtedly, however, knowing the theories behind this discipline ends up facilitating the work of the instructional designer.

Storytelling, and much more gamification: not only method but also imagination

It must be said that ID can also be a very creative job. In fact, often the best way to get a concept across, facilitate memorization of content and thus facilitate learning, is to tell a story. By now we all know what storytelling is, but perhaps not everyone knows that it can be leveraged-and big time-in training design as well. If, for example, I enunciate a regulation, I may not catch your attention right away. Instead, if I tell you the unbelievable story that happened to Taldeitali who unknowingly broke that rule, maybe you will end up remembering it. Put yourself in the user’s shoes: doesn’t it?

Gamification is also a valuable and very powerful weapon in the hands of instructional design. Gamification is defined as “the use of elements borrowed from games and game design techniques in contexts outside games” (such as, for example, training). It applies to the E-learning platform, but also to the course itself. Let’s take another simple example that will allow you to frame the issue right away: if instead of a barbaric linear table of contents there is a game board like “Goose Game,” maybe you will feel more like clicking on Play and getting started, agree? If instead of a quiz there is a scavenger hunt or maybe a crossword puzzle, you almost like to do it, don’t you?

Let’s face it, keeping up the attention curve of a class is always a tough job, but if you’re dealing with a remote audience, and online training is asynchronous, then it’s really a challenge, and dealing with it can require knowledge, skills but also stratagems. Here, then, is where the shrewd instructional designer will have to remember a few things:

  • Microlearning – We break down as much as possible into training pills everything that can be isolated.
  • Attention Quizzes – Let’s not limit the use of qiuz to the end of the course or modules, to ascertain the uptake of a piece of content, but let’s also exploit them in between, to keep the attention and engage the user.
  • Diversify, diversify, diversify – Imagine an E-learning course that is the same from beginning to end. It might even be an Oscar-worthy animated film, but what a bore….

Bonus: some tricks for taking crazy courses

No, don’t imagine that there are good recipes for everyone.

To make beautiful courses, there are mistakes you should avoid and tricks you should memorize to increase the engagement of your audience, but the number one piece of advice, and the most important of all, is very simple: spend the right amount of time on planning. Too often, it is believed that at the design stage one can, on certain specific aspects, “fly high,” without delving into micro-design, but limiting oneself to the macro. This error will become apparent later in the development phase. So best to avoid it. Every extra hour spent by the instructional designer on design equals two hours saved by the developer in development. You can find it explained well here, in 10 + 10 tips.

And then finally, here are a few tips on development tools and programs that you may find useful to know to work your best, even if you are an instructional designer who is not directly involved in development, this is because it will allow you to imagine your course by reckoning with what you can actually do. Limits and potentials. Always remember, however, that ingredients alone do not make the recipe. And that to make your dish unsurpassed, it can only and only be you.

Authoring tool:

  • Articulate (Sotryline, Rise, etc.)
  • IsEazy
  • Adobe Captivate

Cartoon and animation:

  • Vyond
  • Powtton
  • Renderforest


  • Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator
  • Gimp
  • Canva

Libraries of images, icons and videos

  • Freepik and Flaticon
  • Storyset
  • Pexels

To recap

We put a lot of meat on the fire, didn’t we? So let’s get back to our much-vaunted summary of who an instructional designer is, what they do, and how they work.

The instructional designer is the designer of training, and, as it is typically understood in the world of digital learning, is the designer of online training. He is a relatively recent professional figure who works hand in hand with subject matter experts (the SME) and course developers (sometimes, it happens that he himself embodies these figures). Basically, he is the one who envisions the course, writes it, and “designs” it in detail before it is implemented. He may be internal to a company or work for an e.-learning company or as a freelancer. He is said to be the “scriptwriter” of the course; he works with what are called storyboards and does so according to known methodologies, but not only that. He uses imagination, but he is a methodical and precise professional.

In this excursus on instructional design we have tried to intrigue you (and give answers to grandma 😊), if we have succeeded but you have some ideas, doubts, questions to be answered, then
write to us
and we will have really hit the nail on the head. We have been involved in E-learning courses for 10 years, we can surely give you the answer you are looking for.

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