A UX introduction to instructional design (ID)

UX and ID have a lot in common, besides having exciting careers that are difficult to describe at dinner parties.

Under the broad umbrella of human-centred design, user experience design (UXD) and instruction design (ID) are two titans with surprisingly little awareness of each other.

Whereas UX designers might work on highly varied types of products — like ecommerce, marketing, healthcare or countless others — instructional designers specifically create education and training materials for things like software, websites, videos, intelligent tutoring systems, games and other instruction-based technology.

Wowzers is an example of a personalized learning system designed to teach math skills to young learners.

UX and ID have a lot in common though. Besides having exciting careers that are difficult to describe at dinner parties, practitioners in both UX and ID:

  • Work in fields that evolved from cognitive psychology, behavioral psychology, and human-computer interaction
  • Use research to understand how people accomplish tasks and goals
  • Design visually-appealing interfaces, while aiming to reduce extra distraction or ‘cognitive load’ for users
  • Test and evaluate digital products to make iterative design improvements
  • Understand that design is oh-so-much more than picking out colors; it’s a holistic strategy for a successful product

There’s even a term for the combination of UX and ID: Learning Experience Design. LX Design!

And okay, we all understand that terminology in the UX field is confusing enough already — so let’s break it down.

What is instructional design?

Like UX designers, Instructional designers often focus on creating useful and usable digital experiences, but toward a goal of teaching knowledge or skills. The target users in ID are therefore typically learners, students, or trainees.

And just the way UXers need to research user wants and needs, instructional designers must deeply understand their target learners. For example, here are some things to understand when creating an instructional experience:

  • What knowledge or skills does the learner need? This information is used to create the learning objectives, to guide the rest of the content.
  • How can we help the learner accomplish those learning objectives? These are the lessons, activities, and assessments.
  • How do we keep the learner motivated? The learning experience needs to be challenging enough that it’s not boring, but not so challenging that it is frustrating and overwhelming.

So, the sum of it is this: instructional designers utilize technology for improvements in education and training. They also use their expertise in how humans think and learn. That’s awfully similar to what many UX designers do, wouldn’t you say?

A classic example of instructional design

I often explain ID using a singular example, after which people usually say, “Oh! I get it!” So here we go: if you’re American and somewhere around age 30, you probably remember playing hours of Oregon Trail in the computer labs at your school (or, the single computer in your classroom, as it were).

Guess what, pals? That launch of a thousand dysentery memes was an instructional game meant to teach us history lessons. The learning experience is built on the actual history of the American westward migration during the mid 1800s.

How much did Oregon Trail teach us 90s kids? Well, I still know what it means to ford a river, and I recall that it’s a good way to accidentally drown your oxen. This is an example of Instructional Design done remarkably well.

Instructional designers create games and experiences like Oregon Trail, but for all kinds of learners: early readers, medical students, learners with disabilities… you name it.

A modern example of instructional design

My friend and colleague Dr. Enilda Romero-Hall is an Assistant Professor of Instructional Design and Technology at the University of Tampa in Florida. She is currently co-creating ERAS: An Experiential Role-Playing Ageing Simulation. It’s a game for grown-ups, but its purpose is not purely fun and play. ERAS has learning objectives, carefully-designed experiences to support those learning objectives, and it nudges for learners to reflect on what they’ve learned.

Learners are expected to come away from this ERAS experience with improved understanding of common misconceptions about older adults, and increased empathy for how ageing individuals cope with societal challenges.

Good learning experiences are built on a foundation of research. The way that instructional designers create experiences, including ERAS, is based on a scientific understanding of how people learn things — as well as a deep understanding of the instructional content and the learners themselves.

How does instructional design relate to user experience design?

I mentioned above that there are many similarities between ID and UXD, because learners are a specific type of user requiring the design of specific experiences. In both fields, practitioners tackle similar human-centred research and design processes.

There are still, of course, some differences from which everyone can learn! UX Designers can take a cue from ID resources when creating directions, manuals, onboarding, or other instructional materials to make sure that designs accommodate learners. And at the same time, Instructional Designers might follow UX guidelines about visual design and best practices for interaction details. As a team, we can create technology that fits how people learn, and how people want to use it.

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