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Instructional Designers Are The Experts In Instructional Design But Clients Make The Final Call

Working with an expert in any industry can sometimes be challenging. That’s no different in learning and development, where there’s a blend of creativity and science. The only industry nobody’s questioning whether they’re making the right call is the medical field (physicians specifically) and perhaps rocket scientists.

Rocket science is rocket science, after all.

But when you’re working with someone in the learning and development field, a blend of creativity and science goes into the process. Something might not look exactly as the expert would like, but there’s a reason things are done a certain way if it’s good learning science. Good learning science, unfortunately, doesn’t always look good (but it’s usually pretty clean and uncluttered, at least).

A good instructional designer is well versed in learning science and learning theories which helps them make good decisions for training.

For example, sometimes people tend to put text on the screen that’s also being read so there’s something to look at or to make it look nice. The problem is that it’s not good for learning science, and when people need to learn something or change their behavior, it will harm their success.

For the most part, instructional designers are experts in learning science and the process behind creating training that helps employees perform their jobs better (rather than just learn better). Of course, not all instructional designers are the same, and there is no regulation on who can call themselves instructional designers. Just because you create a job aid or help article doesn’t make an instructional designer.

For this post, we’ll assume a professional instructional designer is knowledgeable in adult learning science. They know the process and are adamant about performing a sufficient needs analysis since that is the bedrock of good instructional design, even though needs analysis doesn’t tell you everything about employees.

But, despite the expertise of an instructional designer, business partners, subject matter experts (SMEs), and other stakeholders should always have input. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, either. It’s about striking the right balance.

This post looks at why that’s not a bad thing, and there is a good balance between saying yes and no to changes to training content. The most important thing to understand is the actual purpose of the instructional designer.

The Purpose Of The Instructional Designer

This one’s essential. Instructional designers don’t simply slap logos onto slide decks and call it good; they also don’t simply make things look pretty.

While some parts of the training process does involve more visual mediums, traditionally instructional designers do not specialize in that thought more and more it’s becoming an essential skill. They traditionally work with graphic designers, programmers, etc, to create instructional content.

That’s becoming less common, though, which means most instructional designers have skills in graphic design and visual presentation of information. How you present instruction visually is essential for content, but it’s not the only or most important skill of instructional designers.

What’s the most crucial job of the instructional designer?

To dig deep into the project’s requirements (needs analysis) to determine if training is the best solution to the problem. Also, instructional designers figure out the gap between where people are and where they need to be successful (learning gap).

Instructional designers dig deep into projects to find the right solution and help achieve the ideal outcomes.

That requires asking many questions, getting to know the audience, understanding the business environment, and lots more details that help them propose the best solution. That’s why instructional designers have ADDIE, an in-depth process that involves many steps to create effective training.

Effective training is a problem that’s nearly impossible to achieve without actually going through the ADDIE process without skipping the A or D steps, which are the most important. Only a small part of the instructional system design process involves making stuff pretty and looking good, which is the development step, the second D in ADDIE.

So, while it may seem like the job of an instructional designer is to make content pretty, that’s only true to a small degree. Many more decisions go into creating good training than just how something looks.

Keep that in mind as you read through this to understand why working with the instructional designer as an expert rather than a maker of pretty content is essential. It’s better to have the content do something than simply just be content or look pretty.

But The Client Is Essential Too

Even though skilled instructional designers are essential to the success of effective training, they can’t do it alone. Instructional designers aren’t the subject matter experts, and they shouldn’t be.

No matter how good someone is at separating themselves from their expertise, it’s impossible to see a task from the lens of a beginner. Also, once you’re an expert in a field, it’s nearly impossible to separate yourself from that expertise and simplify content to the necessary degree.

No subject matter expert can see what they know through a beginner’s lens, including an instructional designer. That’s why they should never be the experts. And that’s also why the subject matter expert, business partner, and other stakeholders are essential.

Instructional designers don’t work in a silo and can’t accomplish anything without other essential partners.

These people all know the content, the goals, and how to define the project’s success. Those are all things the instructional designer needs to create effective training successfully.

So, the instructional designer can’t decide what the ultimate goal is. That has to come from someone else. They also can’t determine what the final scope is. That requires input from other parties. The unique needs, constraints, and goals of the project always come from the client.

But, once all of this is defined and agreed upon, how to reach the endpoint is almost entirely up to the instructional designer. While it’s a collaborative process, learning science should ultimately dictate how to meet the project’s goals effectively.

And working through that process does require a lot of collaboration and working together to get something that’s effective and not overwhelming. Nothing is important if everything is important after all.

Collaboration Is Essential To Success

Working with anyone is a balance between all the partners. Everyone has their idea of how things should be done. That’s also the case when building training and working with an instructional designer.

Nobody should ever get their way 100% of the time. There will always be push and pull, and that’s good. As long as it’s done productively, collaboratively, and communication remains open and friendly, there’s no reason every training project can’t come to a happy end with successful performance outcomes.

The single most important thing when working to create a custom digital training solution is communication. The lines of communication must always be open, and nothing is done in a silo with no discussion over important decisions.

The ultimate success of a project comes from collaboration and regular communications.

Communication and collaboration in the decision-making process are essential; that’s why we always start every project with a blank slate and have regular reviews of content throughout the process. We call it our “start with nothing” process because while we gather content from you, we don’t start with it.

No content provided by business partners or subject matter experts is ever complete, ready to go, or suitable for training as-is. That’s to be expected, though. Good learning science needs to be applied to every final piece of content, and a thorough analysis must be applied to each piece of content.

The client provides the goal, requirements, scope, and content, while the instructional designer or training professional works toward the solution. That always requires a lot of walking through content, question sessions, and feedback on what the instructional designer provides. Not only that but after needs analysis, it all has to start with effective performance objectives rather than learning objectives.

That’s why collaboration is essential. No group in a project has all the answers, content, or knowledge. Effective training creation can only happen when each group works together using their strengths but not dictating the strengths of others.

But yes, the client has the ultimate say. That is, whoever is paying the bill decides whether right or wrong. That could be to the detriment of the ultimate learning or performance goals, but the instructional designer should tactfully communicate poor decisions. If everything is well-communicated (including the repercussions of a poor decision), it’s all fair game.

Benefits & Drawbacks of Client Decisions

There are benefits and drawbacks to client feedback and accepting every decision from the instructional designer. That’s a given, though. No one person is an expert on all aspects of the project.

The subject matter expert knows the content like the back of their hand but not learning science or perhaps even the goal, scope, and requirements. The business partner or other stakeholders might know the desired scope, requirements, and goal but aren’t well-versed in the subject matter or the learning science. Then there’s the instructional designer who knows the learning science and how to implement effective training but knows very little about the subject matter, goal, scope, and requirements.

That’s why everyone has to work together. It’s essential to tie everything back to the business goals and budget while helping people achieve success and getting the content correct.

No group in the project should dictate the part they aren’t the expert in. However, having eyes from each group on the project is beneficial to keep others honest.

If one party makes a decision not in their expertise, it could derail the entire project.

The subject matter expert can’t decide if they want all their knowledge and content in the project. Business partners and stakeholders can’t decide whether the training will cover some of their business goals unrelated to the project or pull the budget after the project starts. The instructional designer can’t invest in things about the training that aren’t accurate, invent or ignore goals, or change the budget halfway through.

Each group has their specific specialty of knowledge and skill. Each must play to those skills.

While each group could do those, in reality, each could derail the entire project and make training ineffective and wasteful. The bad part is that a bad decision outside their wheelhouse of expertise could have unforeseen repercussions later in the project. Failure at the end could be a mystery when it was a path that was poorly decided midway through the project.

When decisions are made within each group’s realm of expertise, then the project outcome will likely be superior. The right group making the right decision or at least considering input from the group with expertise makes for excellent outcomes in the project.

Wrap Up

Hopefully, it’s clear why each group involved in creating training programs is essential to its success. Other groups are also involved, but we outlined the core three of creating training content. Ultimately, it comes down to clients making the final decision, whether it be the subject matter expert, business partners, stakeholders, or some other group entirely.

If two particular things are abided by in every project, there’s a high likelihood of success.

  1. Communicate and collaborate openly and continuously throughout the project.
  2. Decisions should come from the group whose expertise that decision lies within.

That doesn’t mean the client should never have any input in the training content. Not every part of training content directly affects how people learn. The instructional designer should speak up if it’s an essential piece. If not, it’s always up for debate, feedback, and a meaningful resolution so all partners are happy.

The ultimate decision comes down to the client, whether that’s for the good of the project or bad. But, it’s up to the instructional designer to educate the client on their decision and if it could derail the project.

Does it sound like an interesting process working with training experts to create real training that has a real effect on your organization? Hopefully, we didn’t scare you away, and it all sounds pretty reasonable!

We’re always available for questions, and if you have a project that you think training would benefit, we’re here for you and are happy to give you a free consultation. Our expertise is custom software training and company IT training, but we’re still instructional designers and learning science nerds at our core and are happy to answer any questions.

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