What Does an Instructional Designer Do?

Industry Advice Education

Individuals across the globe are impacted by the work of instructional designers every day—though many don’t even know it. Anyone who has ever been taught in a classroom, watched a workplace instruction video, taken a driver’s education course, or participated in any kind of professional training, has, in fact, been exposed to instructional design.

But what exactly does the work of an instructional designer entail? Read on for an in-depth look at the key responsibilities and skill sets of these professionals, and learn how you can kick start your career in this field today.

What is Instructional Design?

Instructional design involves creating learning experiences based on the unique needs of a specific audience or topic. 

While this practice sounds simple enough on paper, Elizabeth Mahler—associate teaching professor and faculty lead for Northeastern’s Master of Professional Studies in Learning Experience Design and Technology (LXDT) program—explains that instructional design is actually “a really misunderstood profession.”

This confusion is often due, in large part, to the many different forms that the output of an instructional designer’s work can take, as well as the array of unique skill sets these individuals must possess in order to meet the needs of each situation.

For Example: An instructional designer may be tasked with creating a one-hour workshop on the health risks of smoking for an audience of teenagers one day, and a six-week-long course on grant writing for a group of mid-career, corporate professionals the next. While the unique needs of each project require a different approach, the core responsibilities of the instructional designer remain more or less the same: they must design a learning experience that will effectively engage and inform each audience in order to generate the desired learning outcomes.

Instructional designers accomplish this by expertly combining principles of art and science with an understanding of disciplines like psychology, sociology, and education. “There’s a lot of creativity involved [in the design process],” Mahler says, “but underlying that creative process is learning science. It really is an interdisciplinary foundation.”

Interested in a Career in Instructional Design?

Northeastern’s MPS in Learning Experience Design and Technology can prepare you to succeed in this evolving field.


What Does an Instructional Designer Do?

With a focus on “creating learning experiences as a whole, as opposed to just developing instruction,” Mahler explains that instructional designers may have a hand in every aspect of a design process. These professionals must be prepared to facilitate the needs of each project and build learning experiences that are applicable across age groups, demographics, and industries, while simultaneously adapting those experiences to fit the required timelines and goals. To accomplish all of this, instructional designers follow steps outlined in various design models, which break the creation process into stages. 

To properly prepare professionals to master the instructional design process, top instructional design programs, like Northeastern’s, expose students to each step of this process both in the classroom and in the real world through various experiential learning opportunities.

Below, we outline the steps of the design process that fall within the ADDIE model—one of the most well-known and traditional instructional design models—and the tasks an instructional designer must complete within each phase.

Phase 1: Analysis

Before they can start designing a learning experience, an instructional designer must conduct a needs assessment to determine the instructional goals and learning objectives for the project at hand.

A needs assessment begins by identifying and evaluating the issue to decide whether or not it is something that can be solved with instruction. “You’ve got to analyze whatever the problem is…to determine if the solution to these needs has anything to do with instruction,” Mahler says. “Sometimes people think training is the only answer, but [the solution] could be as simple as shifting a process so that people do it better.”

In order to draw these vital conclusions, instructional designers must do their research, including collecting data and conducting interviews with various stakeholders and subject matter experts (SMEs). Through this process, the designer should be able to develop a firm grasp of the situation and how instruction can be used strategically to address it.

Phase 2: Design

The design phase, some may argue, is the most robust of the instructional development process. During this phase, designers must look at the big picture of the instruction, determine the goals, and ensure that the means for reaching those goals are all set in place prior to embarking on development.

Though each of these aspects requires their own set of tasks, the results of one are often crucial to defining the next. Below, we explore three internal steps within the overall design phase.

Step 1. Set an Instructional Goal

In this step, instructional designers will work with stakeholders to review the needs assessment and establish an instructional goal based on their findings. They must determine “what it is they want the learner to be able to say, think, and feel” at the end of the experience, Mahler says. Whether the answer is cognitive, emotional or attitudinal, or even action-based, identifying these goals helps to inform how the instruction is designed. In this regard, instructional designers are “always starting with the end in mind.”

Step 2. Establish Key Learning Objectives

Once an instructional goal has been established, the next step is to break that goal into a series of learning objectives. “Figure out what it is [the learners] need to be able to do to be successful,” Mahler suggests. Then, review those needs and “chunk them into learning objectives.” An instructional designer should be able to develop strategies that align with these objectives, as well as assessments to measure their success.

Did You Know: This focus on the learner, as opposed to the value of the instruction itself, has been a recent industry-wide shift born of a need to make the learning process more flexible, adaptable, and empathetic. “We’re now looking at it from the learner’s perspective as opposed to what ‘I want to teach you’ or what ‘I think you should learn,’” Mahler says. This practice is considered the fourth generation of instructional design, and is becoming known industry-wide as “Learning Design.”

As Mahler sees it, “it’s important that you design the instruction to meet the needs that have been identified. You are the designer, and you understand how to take the content and develop something that is learner-centered from it.” 

Step 3. Work With SMEs to Identify Relevant Content

Oftentimes, while an instructional designer has “the process, the knowledge, the grounding, the theory, and the science [needed to develop that content]…they may not have the content knowledge,” Mahler says. This is why instructional designers must work directly with SMEs to decide what content will be most useful in helping learners reach their goals.

Alongside content recommendations, SMEs often have vital insights into an audience’s needs and learning style. They may also be able to inform what media and delivery modes should be used for this instruction, help weigh assessment opportunities, and more. 

Phase 3: Development

Once the framework of the instruction has been designed, the creation phase of the instructional design process begins. During development, instructional designers must make a series of crucial decisions that will shape the final product. 

One important development decision is the kinds of materials that are needed to complete the learning experience instruction. Is there a need for custom books, worksheets, handouts, or faculty guides? How will the information best be communicated to the audience? 

Keep In Mind: The instructional designer will need to make most of these decisions based, again, on the audience and instructional goals. For instance, Mahler explains that “in K-12 environments, you may have to provide something to a teacher [which tends to take the form of] a curriculum guide, so the teacher knows what to cover with their students in the classroom.” In other cases, such as the higher education sector, the use of a master course design document might help align the learning strategies and assessments with the course objectives.

The kind of technology, if any, that will be used in this instruction should also be considered during the development phase. Will the instruction be delivered via video, will it involve the use of a Learning Management System (LMS), will it require a digital assessment? These types of decisions are important across instruction projects, and in some cases, the conclusions reached at this stage also inform whether or not a technology specialist needs to be brought in.

Mahler also suggests that the designer keep a focus on how the learning will be evaluated throughout the entire design process, and begin building out that evaluation system during the development phase. “You really have to figure out, as you’re developing, how you’re going to evaluate the worthiness, the success of what you’ve designed,” Mahler says. “Then, that evaluation system should be [considered] throughout the [rest of] the process.”

The next decision that needs to be made during this phase is the method through which this design should be implemented. Will it be rolled out with a pilot version or will it go live all at once? If a pilot is utilized, how will the success of that experience be measured? Who should be included on the team to ensure it can get to that pilot stage? The conclusions reached about each of these points will be vital in getting the team from the development stage into implementation.

Phase 4: Implementation

During implementation, everything that has been planned and theorized during phases one through three is finally brought to life. Whether this happens through a pilot or full roll-out of the instruction, implementation is when tools and materials are distributed and all involved parties prepare for the live application. 

Educators and presenters are also trained during the implementation stage. The educators who will administer the instruction to the audiences will review the instructional delivery and presentation methods, any specific guidance, and, sometimes, the material itself. Similarly, the learners will be provided with the procedures to sign up or register for this learning experience and get familiar with the tools and systems they will use throughout the learning process.

Phase 5: Evaluation

Although evaluation should be considered throughout the process, it becomes the focus of an instructional designer’s work in the final phase. There are two forms of evaluation: formative evaluation and summative evaluation. 

Formative evaluation occurs during the overall instructional design process and utilizes multiple check-ins along the way. This includes reviewing internally how the design process went, both on a stage-by-stage basis and as a whole. Instructional designers use this type of assessment to hone design procedures and improve future processes. 

Teams also perform a summative evaluation, which focuses on the course as a whole. This type of evaluation reviews a learning experience’s design, materials, instructional delivery, and more. “It can be gathered in the form of data from learner assessments, or as either qualitative or quantitative data based on learner feedback,” Mahler says. This information is then used to reach an overall conclusion about the effectiveness of the designed instruction.

Preparing For a Career in Instructional Design

Individuals embark on the field of instructional design from a variety of backgrounds. Some are educators who want to take their teaching skills and apply them more broadly to the development of instruction outside of the classroom. Others come from the corporate world—in positions such as human resources or project management—and capitalize on the abilities they’ve garnered from their previous profession in a brand new industry. And others still may approach this career without any relevant background, but with a passion for “designing learning experiences that are engaging, rigorous, and of the highest quality,” Mahler says.

No matter what background they come from, however, one of the fastest and most direct routes to breaking into the field of instructional design is through the pursuit of a master’s degree or a graduate certificate from a top university like Northeastern.

Much like the practice of instructional design itself, Northeastern’s master’s in eLearning and Instructional Design has been developed with the needs of the learner in mind. The program provides a personalized approach for students looking to hone these skill sets and jump-start their careers. Participants will learn from industry professionals in the classroom, while also being presented with authentic opportunities for real-world, hands-on application of their skills through experiential learning. These opportunities allow students to graduate with a portfolio of their work in place—a key component to landing a role in this lucrative field.

Explore our program page today to learn more about how Northeastern’s MPS in Learning Experience Design and Technology can set you on a path toward success.

This article was originally published in May 2020. It has since been updated for accuracy and relevance.