A UX introduction to instructional design (ID)

By UserTesting | May 22, 2023
Computer screen showing the instructional design process

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

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


Although slightly different, UX and ID have a lot in common. Practitioners in 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.

What is instructional design?

Like UX designers, Instructional designers often focus on creating digital experiences, but with the goal of teaching knowledge or skills. The target users are therefore typically learners, students, or trainees.

In the same way that UX researchers need to research user wants and needs, instructional designers must deeply understand their target learners. For example, here are some things they need 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.

Instructional designers use technology for improvements in education and training. They also use their expertise in how humans think and learn. 

A classic example of instructional design

If you’re American and grew up in the late 1990s, you probably remember playing hours of Oregon Trail in the computer labs at your school.

Oregon Trail was a fun game, but it also provided an opportunity to learn. The learning experience is built on the actual history of the American westward migration during the mid-1800s.

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

A modern example of instructional design

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 Ageng 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 aging 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?

There are many similarities between ID and UX. In both fields, practitioners tackle similar human-centered 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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About the author(s)

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