It takes a lot to plan, design, and create instructional content. It requires an exceptionally learner-focused personality. Great organizational skills. Someone knowledgeable in learning theory and principles. A high storytelling aptitude. But exceptional instructional design (ID) also relies on a keen eye for detail and a penchant for data-driven design decision-making. While everyone in the profession aspires to be an exceptional instructional system designer, what sets the “great” ones apart from the “others” is an efficient, proven, and repeatable process that they follow for every ID project.

Whether you are new to designing instructional content, or whether you’ve already had a few projects under your belt – this Ultimate Guide to Instructional Design will introduce you to instructional design best practices, and provide you with all the information you need to plan, design, and implement successful ID projects every time! 

What Is Instructional Design?

The objective of providing instructions to learners is to ensure that, upon receiving and understanding those instructions, they (learners) acquire the necessary skills and knowledge covered by such instructions. Furthermore, the purpose of equipping learners with those skills is so they might apply what they’ve learned in the workplace. 

In most cases, it’s unlikely that Learning and Development (L&D) professionals will accomplish the above objectives by simply providing verbal or written instructions. For example, knowledge transference and application won’t happen from bullet-point text or check lists. Success depends on the thoughtful design of instructions that target specific learning outcomes.

So, what is instructional design, and how does it further the objectives of knowledge transference and workplace application? 

ID, also sometimes referred to as Instructional systems design (ISD), is a deliberate, data-driven, time-tested, and proven approach to producing learning materials and learner experiences. This systems-based approach helps the instructional designer assess the instructional needs of a target audience, customize a process to design appropriate content, follow best practices when developing and delivering that content, and then evaluate the effectiveness of the instructions delivered.   

In short, instructional design is a systematic process that governs the delivery of effective learning – from concept to implementation. 

Why Instructional Design? 

Without the aid of a well-defined instructional design system, the process of producing effective learning content relies on randomly executed tasks and steps.  Often, trainers and instructors may think they know what to teach their audience; but in fact, that may not be what learners wish to learn!  Even when L&D teams deal with well-understood training/learning objectives, an instructional designer, who does not embrace a proven ID process, risks creating ineffective instructional content.  

  • What’s developed and delivered may not meet business goals or corporate instructional objectives 
  • The content may not help with knowledge retention
  • It may not keep learners engaged throughout the duration of a course/study session
  • Learner and user experience design might not be helpful in achieving specific learning objectives
  • Subsequently, learners might require enhanced levels of remedial instruction because course developers did not follow ID best practices initially

So, what is instructional design capable of accomplishing in the context of the workplace?  Well, L&D professionals, who do follow ID best practices, will see the fruits of their efforts translated into measurable employee performance improvements. It’ll also show up in the form of changed learner behavior, which also results in organization-wide productivity and competitiveness gains. 

Benefits Of Instructional Design

Clearly,include ID professionals have a lot to gain from using industry best practices when designing and developing instructional content. Some of those benefits included:

Tried & Tested Methodologies

In a manner of speaking, because of these best practices, the instructional systems designer doesn’t constantly reinvent the ID wheel! Those that follow a proven process, won’t spend time testing and “perfecting” their approach to designing and developing learning content. Because the basic tenets and principles of the process aren’t new, the designer is confident that they’ll work.

Repeatable Processes

No organization likes having “unique” learning processes at every location, department, branch, or subsidiary. That’s exactly what ad hoc instructional systems design processes encourage.  Following a proven instructional content, development methodology means the content, as well as its implementation and evaluation, follow a standardized approach that’s replicable across the org.

Results Driven Approach

One of the great advantages of using proven instructional system design techniques, anchored around best practices, is that they are a data-dependent, research-based process, that focus on producing result-oriented learning outcomes. The methodology helps L&D professionals design and develop content based on measurable and desired goals and objectives.

Cost-Effective Solutions

Using tried and tested, repeatable, instructional design approaches eliminate the trial and error associated with ad hoc learning design. This not only saves time and effort but is also a cost-effective, budget-friendly way for all organizations to design and develop corporate instructional content.  

Learning Is Engaging 

A central pillar of mainstream ID processes is knowing who the target audience is, and what their learning styles are. The process informs and guides the instructional systems designer into making data-informed, evidence-based decisions about user interfaces, course features and functionality, and the most appropriate learning experiences to deliver. These decisions are critical to ensuring learner engagement. 

Improved ROI

Producing engaging content, and using a proven and repeatable ID process, ensures a greater segment of the workforce embraces training, and that L&D professionals can use standardized metrics to evaluate the effectiveness of their training. Improved learning metrics, such as enhanced enrollment levels, a higher percentage of course completion, fewer dropouts, smaller course repeat volumes, and better knowledge transfer into the workplace, also translate to improved return on learning investment.

Finally, one often overlooked benefit of using instructional design, to develop learning content, is that the process remains flexible and responsive. So, although the proven processes encourage a cookie-cutter approach to standardizing org-wide learning, there’s ample room for personalizing learning content to meet local, regional, and other business-specific learning needs – down to delivering learner-specific content. 

Instructional Design Models

Over the years, there have been many evolutions in ID models – some of which are more popular than others. As an instructional system design professional, you’re likely to come across some of those models as you work with clients and employers. It, therefore, helps to have a working understanding of some of them. Some of the more renowned ones include:

Merrill’s Principles of Instruction (MPI)

Educator, researcher, and instructional technologist, David Merrill, advocated a simple instructional design model that acknowledges problem-solving as the root of effective learning experiences.  MPI focuses on five core principles – problem-centric, activation, demonstration, application, and integration – to guide ID professionals in their instructional systems design efforts. MPI-based learning delivers value to the organization because learners don’t just gain knowledge, they also learn how to apply it to solve workplace problems. 


Analyze, Design, Develop, Implement, and Evaluate (or ADDIE, in common instructional systems designer parlance) is one of the more commonly used ID models.  

3d render of addie model flow chart

The ADDIE process is based on a sequential flow – from conception to roll-out and evaluation – that L&D professionals follow when designing and implementing corporate educational programs. Designed in the 1970s for the U.S. Army, by the Center for Educational Technology at Florida State University, ADDIE follows a logical sequence of steps by which instructional systems design produces purpose-focused learning content. 

Following several iterative changes to ADDIE, the final step, Evaluation, became a milestone repeated after every other step (e.g., Evaluate your Analysis, Evaluate your Design…etc.). The U.S. Navy also customized its own version of ADDIE, by introducing a Planning phase at the beginning of each ADDIE cycle, and appending an ongoing Maintenance (or content review, update, and upgrade) phase at the end.  They called it their PADDIE+M model. 

Bloom’s Taxonomy

In 1956, as part of a group of educational psychologists, Benjamin Bloom and associates developed a six-level hierarchical classification of learning behavior. The intellectual scale of learners ranged from Knowledge (lowest level) to Evaluation (the highest level of learning attainment). Bloom’s Taxonomy of learning was born!  Guided by a series of action verbs, associated with each level of the cognitive pyramid, the taxonomy has served as a cornerstone of instructional design theory and practice since. 

In the 1990s, a student of Bloom, Lorin Anderson, then updated the taxonomy to make it relevant to the 21st century – producing Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy. The taxonomy acts as a tiered roadmap for designing instructional content – learners mastering Analyzing are deemed to have also gained proficiency in lower-level skills (Applying, Understanding, Remembering).   

Gagne’s Nine Events of Instructions

Gagne’s instructional system design framework is modeled on how the human mind processes information. Gagne’s Conditions of Learning Theory is based on nine instructional events:

  • gain attention
  • inform learners of objectives
  • stimulate recall of prior learning
  • present stimulus
  • provide learner guidance
  • elicit performance
  • provide feedback
  • assess performance, and 
  • enhance retention and transfer

This framework provides instructional designers with a systematic approach to designing, delivering, evaluating, and assessing the effectiveness of instructional content. For L&D professionals looking for a holistic view of instructional design, Gagne’s model might be worth evaluating.

Dick and Carey Model

High-quality instruction promotes effective knowledge transference and facilitates the application of knowledge to the workplace. The Dick and Carey model portray the ID process as a curvilinear flow using one-way arrows. It considers the entire learning ecosystem when designing learning content, including aspects such as the instructor, learners, learning materials, instructional activities, delivery system, and the learning and performance environment. This depiction makes it easier for the instructional systems designer, upon which to model their own ID initiatives. 

Other contemporary models include the Successive Approximation Model (SAM), Cathy Moore’s Action Mapping, and rapid prototyping models such as Agile. The hallmark of these newer models is their iterative approach to instructional design.

Instructional Design Components 

While each of the models discussed has some unique components to them, they all share some basic design elements. These include:

Needs Analysis

A training needs analysis (TNA) is the cornerstone to any successful instructional design because instructional content must meet specific needs, and not the other way around – i.e., you don’t adapt your organizational needs to available learning content! A TNA considers the business needs that the instruction must address, as well as individual learner needs, training goals, learning objectives, and modes of training delivery. 

Design & Development

What is instructional design and development? It applies the TNA to the physical and logical design of instructional content, as well as the design of the delivery methods used. The testing of these elements and artifacts is also a critical aspect of this component. The deliverables might include presentations, slides, workbooks, lesson plans, job aids, user interfaces, screen layouts, storyboards, and other instructional materials.


The implementation, or rollout, component entails delivering all content and materials (from the Design & Development phase) to trainers, for delivery to a targeted audience of learners. This component of the instructional systems design model also involves providing required training to instructors, trainers, and coaches, on how to use the content most effectively.


Once delivered, it’s important to evaluate the effectiveness of the instructional system design in meeting its defined objectives. L&D teams must assess whether their efforts led to measurable learner behavioral change, and if so, whether such modified behavior has translated into job performance impacts. Popular evaluation models include:

  • Philips ROI Methodology
  • Kirkpatrick’s Four Levels of Training Evaluation
  • Learning-Transfer Evaluation Model (LTEM)
  • Brinkerhoff’s Success Case Method

While the four components highlighted above act as central pillars to all the previously discussed ID models, as an instructional systems designer, it is your job to personalize them to meet the unique needs of your own projects. For example, some professionals include an optional “Continuous Improvement” component following the Evaluation phase.  Others choose to add a Quality Assurance component following each of the four components discussed here. 

Wrapping Up

So, what is instructional design, and how does it help designers and developers of instructional content? In summary, it is a tried and tested framework used to assess training needs, and produce optimal learning content that addresses those needs.

This Ultimate Guide to instructional design has highlighted several benefits of using the framework and discussed alternate ID models that you can work with to create highly engaging and effective corporate training. Need help developing your own training program? Learn about our Instructional Design Consulting Services.