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What is “Instructional Design”?

The terms “instructional design” and “instructional designer” get thrown around a lot. But what do these terms really mean? Is anyone who develops training an instructional designer?

In today’s podcast, I’ll dive a little more deeply into some ways to define “instructional design”, “instructional designer”, and I’ll also walk through some pros and cons of perhaps the most well-known instructional design model: ADDIE.


Hello, everyone, and welcome once again to another episode of Train Like You Listen, a podcast about all things learning and development in bite-sized chunks. I’m Brian Washburn, I’m your host. I’m also the Co-founder of Endurance Learning. Today, we’re going to be talking about instructional design. What is it? What is an instructional designer? And then we’ll take a look at one of the most commonly used instructional design models in the field.

But before we get to any of that, I do need to let you know that today’s podcast is brought to you by Soapbox, which is an online tool that you can use for 5 or 10 minutes, and you can take care of about 50 or 60% of the work when it comes to developing live, instructor-led training. You basically go into the software, you tell the computer how long your presentation is, how many people are going to attend, whether it’s in-person or virtual, what your learning objectives are, and then Soapbox generates a training plan for you with clusters of training activities that are designed to help you accomplish your learning outcomes. If you want more information, or if you want a demo, or if you want to try it for free for two weeks, go ahead and visit

What is Instructional Design?

I'm so much into this world that I think everyone should know what instructional design is, and that's not the case.

All right. So let’s get into this idea of instructional design. And first of all, what is it? The term is used a lot. You see it on LinkedIn, you’ll see it in Twitter, “Oh, I’m an instructional designer. I do instructional design.” But let’s make sure that we’re all using that term in the same way while you listen to this podcast. A few years ago, I was the newly-minted President of our local Puget Sound Chapter of ATD (that stands for the Association for Talent Development), and I was having coffee with the President of a local chapter of a different industry group. It wasn’t training, but it was related. There was similarities, there was lots of overlap between the world of training and this industry. And I was stunned at one point when he asked, “You keep mentioning this term ‘instructional design.’ What is that?” And it dawned on me: I’m so much into this world that I think everyone should know what instructional design is, and that’s not the case.

So let’s start here, and let’s start with this idea of what is instructional design. I would say that instructional design is basically the practice of putting together a learning experience. That’s the simplest way I can explain it, especially for those who don’t have any interest in getting into the weeds of nerdy trainer speak. 

However, for anyone who might be a fan of nerdy training speak, I’ll go a little bit further with this definition. Instructional design: it’s a practice by which a learner or organizational needs are identified. And once those are identified, you can get into a solution that’s crafted, implemented, evaluated, and refined. That may seem like a mouthful, but all of those pieces are what distinguishes the practice of instructional design from simply developing a slide deck and teaching someone something.

What is an Instructional Designer?

All right, so what’s an instructional designer? There are lots of people out there who say that they do instructional design as part of their much bigger job. They probably have other duties, but they’re also asked to put together training programs. I wouldn’t necessarily call these people instructional designers.

From time to time, one of my children needs some help with their math homework or their Spanish homework, and I’ll do my best to teach them how to work through their homework, but I am definitely not a teacher. Even though teaching is one of my duties as a parent, I’m definitely not a math teacher or Spanish teacher. Math teachers, Spanish teachers – they spend years studying education theory, instruction techniques, classroom management strategies, and they’ve also spent years practicing and honing their craft in the classroom while using professional development opportunities to improve as teachers.

An instructional designer is more than someone who just puts training together from time-to-time.

Similarly, an instructional designer is more than someone who just puts training together from time-to-time. An instructional designer, in my view, is someone who spends time – possibly years or decades, maybe even an entire career – studying how to analyze needs and use effective, usually research-backed instructional strategies. They can evaluate the program and make adjustments to develop even better programs in the future. 

How Do You Become an Instructional Designer?

So if you’re listening to this and you’re thinking, “Well, if I want to be an instructional designer, where should I begin?” You know, there are master’s level programs on instructional design. There are organizations like the Association for Talent Development that offer certificate programs to help build the foundation for instructional design. There’s lots of books on Amazon that dive into instructional design. Some programs and resources are general – some focus on classroom instruction, some focus on eLearning

Instructional Designers Should Be Familiar with the ADDIE Model

The ADDIE model of instructional design.

I’d say an important place to begin though is just making sure you’re familiar with this model called ADDIE. That is A-D-D-I-E. I think models are incredibly important because they help give structure to concepts. At the same time, all models are flawed because, well, they need to give structure to things. And there’s oftentimes in life just an ebb and flow that doesn’t necessarily adhere to the structure that’s neatly on paper. And ADDIE’s no different. I find the structure valuable, especially when it’s taken with the grain of salt because after all, all models have flaws. So let’s take a look at this ADDIE model.

ADDIE is an acronym that stands for Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate. So let’s touch on each of these pieces individually. 

The “A” in ADDIE: Analyze

Let’s start with Analyze. Sometimes when someone comes to you and says, “I need a training program on a certain topic,” it is so tempting to say, “Okay, sounds like fun. I’ll get started right away.” Now an experienced instructional designer will ask some questions before they say okay, and that’s where this Analyze phase comes in. Some questions to ask to analyze the potential training program include: what is the problem we’re looking to solve? What’s the impetus for this training opportunity in the first place? Are we sure training is the right way to go? What do we know about the intended audience? What would success look like? Will the learners be all together? Will they be dispersed? If eLearning is a solution, will learners be on a laptop? Will they be on a tablet? Will they be on their phones? Do they have reliable internet? Do they even have time or an appropriate location to go through the course? So all of those would be good questions to start analyzing the situation.

The First “D” in ADDIE: Design

Assuming training’s the right answer, or at least it’s a component of the right answer, then we go to the next piece to this model and that’s Design. In previous podcasts, as well as previous blog posts, I’ve written extensively, I’ve talked extensively about a four-step design model and that’s where this fits in. Basically, when we’re designing, we want to make sure that any instruction will be engaging, and it can lead to the change that we desire, which is why we use kind of the anchor, content, application, feature use strategy. 

This is also a good place to begin to think about evaluation strategies. You know, a lot of times we wait until the end and we put together a post-training survey, or we’ll think, “Oh, we have to do some pre-test/post-testing.” But this really is the step where we should be thinking about evaluation strategies and that’s so that they can be baked into this. If we want to try to get to level three evaluation – are people using that when they leave the training environment? – maybe we can figure out a way to bake that into the design of the program from the start. It’s also a great place to put our plans in front of key stakeholders to be sure we’re all on the same page before we spend time– and time is often money – before we spend that time creating slides and materials, or before we bring an eLearning storyboard to life.

The Second “D” in ADDIE: Develop

Once we’re good there, we go on to the next piece, which is Develop. This is the stage where we bring it to life. We generate the materials or we use rapid authoring tools to create the eLearning.

The “I” in ADDIE: Implement

The next piece to that is: Implement. This is when we go live. We deliver the training program or the webinar, or we upload the eLearning files to the LMS. It’s also where we begin to deploy our evaluation strategies.

The “E” in ADDIE: Evaluate

And then the last piece is Evaluate. This is the final piece in the ADDIE model, and it’s where we take a look at all the data that’s available to us to decide if the program was effective and/or if changes need to be made. Sometimes evaluate takes place during the implementation. You’re kind of taking a look around: are people bored? Are people engaged? What might it be? Evaluation can sometimes be six months, a year after the training program if you’re looking to see if people are applying it, or if you’re looking to see what kind of results are taking place as a result of the training program.

How to Think of the Flow of the Steps in ADDIE

So, because ADDIE is an acronym and a model, it looks like it should flow neatly and orderly from one step to the next. The most successful instructional design projects that I’ve worked on have built-in reviews and opportunities for stakeholders to provide feedback and make revisions at each step along the way. Think of the ADDIE process as less of a straight line and more like a shoelace. You know, you can certainly lay that shoelace out in a straight line, but it’s generally more useful when you twist it and loop it in an intentional pattern.

Instructional Design: The Summary

Instructional design is an intentional way of going about developing a learning program where needs are analyzed and a solution is crafted, implemented, evaluated, and refined.

So let me sum this up. Instructional design is an intentional way of going about developing a learning program where needs are analyzed and a solution is crafted, implemented, evaluated, and refined. An instructional designer is someone who dedicates time to their craft. They’re following research, they’re following best practices to put together learning experiences that are engaging and lead to change. And sometimes instructional designers ask enough questions to learn that training isn’t going to solve the problem that stakeholders need to solve, and they need to be bold enough to say, “Training’s not the answer there.” In those cases where training is the solution, ADDIE is a model that can be very useful in giving structure to a training project.

That’s all I have for you today. So thank you for listening. If you’d like more information about instructional design, you can always visit my Periodic Table of Elements of Amazing Learning Experiences by going to, and click on element number 40 on that periodic table, and there you’ll find a little bit more information about instructional design. If you know someone who might find today’s topic on instructional design to be important, go ahead and pass the link to this podcast along to them. If you want to make sure that you are notified of a new podcast when it’s hot off the press, go ahead and subscribe – Apple or Spotify, wherever you listen to your podcasts. Even better would be if you were to give us a review. It’ll just take you a minute, and it would mean so much to me. If you’re interested in learning more about a broad range of learning and development strategies, you can pick up a copy of my book: What’s Your Formula? Combine Learning Elements For Impactful Training at It does include lots of information in there about instructional design. And until next time, happy training everyone.

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