The Full Stack Instructional Designer

Recently, several people I’ve met asked for advice about getting started in instructional design. This has had me thinking about the skills and knowledge that I’ve developed over the past six years. I hope this might serve as a useful guide to help direct the learning of those thinking of becoming an Instructional Designer (ID).

This article isn’t about designing effective learning. Rather it sets out some of the skills and knowledge required to create successful learning experiences. I will be basing this list off of three things:

  1. A combination of common contemporary computing skills
  2. Personal experience from six years in the industry
  3. Stories and feedback from my colleagues and peers

The Guide

A full-stack ID can work on all aspects of a learning solution. Learning solutions mix different media to communicate information and assess learning. Some examples of media used could be e-learning, text-books, or simulations. Being a full stack ID doesn’t mean that you have mastered everything. It means that you are able to work on all aspects in some capacity and understand how it fits together.

If you’d like to work towards becoming a full stack ID, below is my reference guide. I hope you find it useful.

Read up on the following:

Bloom’s Taxonomy

Bloom’s taxonomy is a well-established model consisting of three hierarchies. You use it to classify learning objectives into levels of complexity and specificity. It consists of the cognitive, affective and sensory domains.

Though it is unlikely that you will spend your time considering them all, it’s worth looking at. Though I won’t go into detail for brevity’s sake, here are the three domains:

  1. The Cognitive Domain (knowledge-based):
    - Comprehension
    - Application
    - Analysis
    - Synthesis
    - Evaluation.
  2. The Affective Domain (emotion-based):
    - Responding
    - Valuing
    - Organising
    - Characterising.
  3. The Psychomotor Domain (action-based):
    - Set
    - Guided Response
    - Mechanism
    - Complex Overt Response
    - Adaptation
    - Origination.

For many IDs, you may not venture beyond the Cognitive Domain. Your task as an ID is to take information, digest it and turn it into a form that helps the education of your audience. You will be, for the most part, conveying semantic information; that of facts, theory, and rules. You will be encouraging your audience to learn so they are successful in their later assessments.

The Affective Domain and the Psychomotor Domain are more appropriate for instructor-led classes. That is not to say that you shouldn’t review these domains and use where appropriate.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

You can use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in many different disciplines such as education, sociology, and economics. It was first proposed by Abraham Maslow as “A Theory of Human Motivation”. It serves as an excellent metric by which to assess the change you are creating in your audience:

  1. Self-actualisation:
    Becoming the person you want to be: finding a partner, having children, using your skills and talents, achieving goals, and happiness.
  2. Esteem:
    A sense of ego or confidence in oneself: self-esteem, self-respect, mastery, status, and independence.
  3. Social/Community:
    Relationships with others: friendships, intimacy, and family
  4. Safety:
    A sense of security: personal, emotional, financial, health and wellbeing.
    Physiological: The basics: food, water, sleep, shelter, stability, and sex.


ADDIE is the most used instructional design project model. It works very well with both the Waterfall and Agile project management methodologies. Its principles are easy to grasp, but you must practise to master them, much like anything else. When you’re first starting out, review it often to ensure that you have a firm grip of the process from start to finish.

  1. Analysis:
    You discuss with your client the learning needs of the audience. Discover what knowledge or skills are lacking. Determine what they need to learn to fill the skills/knowledge gap.
  2. Design:
    When you know what needs teaching, you must now decide the means of development and delivery. You must agree on graphic, artistic and writing styles. Scope out the technology required to deliver the learning. Be prepared to push back on the customer’s ideas. Grand designs need grand solutions. Keep in mind finance and time budgets.
  3. Development:
    Partnering with Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) and media developers, you make the content teachable. You create content to the styles agreed in the design stage. When working in an Agile environment, expect many revisions as requirements change. In Waterfall or Prince2 changes will occur, but should be less radical. You must check for quality: spelling, grammar, punctuation, styles, and functionality. You should resolve all known issues before implementation.
  4. Implementation:
    Time for testing. Functionality testing should first take place on the LMS. The customer and/or audience access the content via the LMS. The customer and/or audience must report meaningful feedback. Analysis of assessment data should take place if possible.
  5. Evaluation:
    Once implemented, the reports that follow should highlight successes and failures. Where did they occur? What changes must you make? What new problems have arisen? Are they wants or needs? The evaluative conclusions become the foundations of the next Analysis stage.

User Interface Design (UI) and User eXperience Design (UX)

UI and UX go hand in glove with one another.

User interfaces allow humans and computers can interact with each other. You should develop an understanding of what makes, innovative, intuitive and effective UI. These days it is easy to see great examples of this in our day to day lives. There are examples on every piece of smart technology that you use. Check out the apps on your phone.

Ensure that access to navigable areas is easy. It should take as few steps as possible. Avoid creating confusing situations. Use appropriate, unambiguous symbology. Show it to your peers and ask for feedback.

UX focuses on developing an experience. This could be through the use of and tone of language, style guidelines, media, or themes. Make sure that the experience matches the expectations of the audience. The experience that you would create for a child audience will differ to the one you would make for an adult.

When considering UX you must have the mindset that you are creating a journey for the person viewing your content. If the journey takes the person down a potholed dirt track with multiple dead ends and signposts that are illegible or pointing in the wrong direction, the person isn’t going to enjoy it. If the journey takes them down a freshly laid, super-smooth highway, at 100 mph with no traffic jams on clearly signposted roads and beautiful scenic views, the person on the journey is likely to enjoy it so much more.

It’s important to have an understanding of UX. Modern technology allows us more sophisticated means of creating learning experiences. Computer, mobile, and tablet currently dominate learning tech. In the future, Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), Mixed Reality (MR) will come the fore. Conversational User Interfaces (CUIs) such as Alexa are also growing in popularity.

Experience design is among the most creative aspects of instructional design.

Psychology, Neuroscience and Cognitive Science

Think of instructional design as communicating information to a naive or ignorant audience. They may or may not be willing participants. For this reason, you must consider how you engage with them.

Understanding the mind helps us to understand the best means to communicate. Research how humans respond to different stimuli and learn from them. Knowing quirks of the mind can help to emphasise key bits of information. Use of memes or mnemonics can help reinforce information and aid recall.


SCORM is a protocol which allows a Shareable Content Object (SCO), to report to the Learning Management System (LMS).

SCORM stands for Shareable Content Object Reference Model. For the foreseeable future, it is what you’re most likely to encounter as a lesson tracking protocol.

Shareable Content Objects (SCOs) are reusable, self-contained packages. They can be lessons, modules, or courses. They are compatible with any LMS using the same version of SCORM. Ideally, these should be individual lessons, i.e. the lowest tier on the nav tree in the LMS.

It’s worth checking out the website to get a better understanding of how it all works.

SCORM is not the only protocol that you will encounter in e-learning though, there are others such as AICC and xAPI, but they are not as well supported. It is worth pointing out that xAPI is considered to be the spiritual successor to SCORM. xAPI is much more versatile in its means of tracking learning content, but its adoption has been slow.

Agile PM

Agile is one of the project management models that you are likely to encounter when working as an instructional designer. Agile works on the principle of rapid delivery of increasingly better software. Development takes place over a series of “sprints” which can last around two weeks.

At the start of a sprint, you are provided with a “story” from the customer. This acts as a brief for the next version. Once the new version satisfies the request, it is redelivered, implemented and reassessed. The results of the assessment provide the basis for the next story.

This continues usually for a pre-agreed number of cycles. Large projects can have many cycles, sometimes continuing into sustainment contracts.


Waterfall is another typical software project management model. It is a more natural fit for the ADDIE life cycle and in fact, mirrors it in many ways. They can generally be summed up by these five steps:

  1. Analysis of requirements
  2. Design
  3. Development
  4. Implementation
  5. Testing & evaluation

As you can see the parallels to ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Develop, Implementation and Evaluation) is pretty clear.

Get to grips with the following:

Authoring Tools

Authoring tools are the workhorse of the instructional designer. Developing skills in the following programs would be time well spent:

You will likely be spending a lot of time creating content in one of these authoring tools. There are plenty of tutorials out there explaining how they all work.


Not necessary, but useful. HTML5 is the current standard for web content. Understanding of web technologies can provide insight into technical possibilities and impossibilities. Greater proficiency can provide greater autonomy in your content design and creation.

Microsoft Office

If you think you know enough, teach yourself more! Office is a powerful suite which is seldom used to its full capacity. Become familiar with the use of Styles, References and Review features. Experiment with the Developer features. Learn how to create content controlled templates. If you’re feeling particularly daring, try learning some VBA. You’d be surprised by what you can do.

The Adobe Creative Cloud

Adobe leads the industry in terms of creative software. You can get a subscription to the whole suite for around £49 p/m ($50 p/m) which will give you:

  • Photoshop: Photo editing, art-working, digital art
  • Illustrator: Graphics, illustration, vectors
  • InDesign: Digital and print publishing, layouts, typography
  • Animate: Web animation and interaction design and development
  • Audition: Audio editing
  • Premiere Pro: Video editing
  • After Effects: Video post-production, SFX
  • Media Encoder: Renders and converts media, usually from Premiere Pro or After Effects to a user-defined format (mp4, mov, avi, etc.).

These are a must if you’re creating rich content.

Learning Management Systems

There are many Learning Management Systems (LMS). Possibly the most well-known is Moodle. Moodle is an open source LMS, has lots of support, is well documented, and generally regarded as one of best LMSs.

Installing a local sandbox is easy. Doing so will help you get to grips with LMS design and management. It can also be used to experiment with and test SCOs outside of your live LMS.

Project Management Tools

Atlassian creates a multitude of browser-based project tools. They are designed to improve efficiency and maintain clear communication. They allow for easy project tracking, documenting and configuration control. They help to raise and fix problems, monitor progress and risks, and manage workloads and resources.

Some tools that you are likely to encounter are:

  • Jira: Design workflows, assign work, analyse project metrics, raise issues, create dashboards. Jira has plugins available, allowing you to customise your interface, e.g. Kanban boards.
  • Confluence: Acts as a wiki site for your project. All project documentation and decision points can reside here for easy reference.
  • Git: Both Github and Bitbucket use Git which allows for the easy version control of a project.
  • Trello: Trello is effectively a Kanban board and allows teams to create and move cards between different stacks in order to update task statuses. It can work in conjunction with Jira for metrics and analysis and Slack for team communication.
  • Slack: Slack is a team communication tool. It allows you to create multiple channels in which the team can chat in real-time, pin important messages and attach relevant resources.

Monitor the Following:

Learning Technology and Research

Keep an eye on websites such as eLearning Industry, Learning News, Learning Light and the Association for Learning Technology to see what other people are currently doing. Try to keep awareness of new and emerging technologies and imagine what learning value they might have in the future.

Contemporary Graphic Design, Illustration and Typography

Make your work stand out. Make it look current, in terms of both interface and the journey. Be aware of what constitutes both good and bad design. Check out sites like Behance, Dribbble, Abduzeedo, and Colossal to find out what’s going on in the design world.


Ultimately this is just a brief outline of knowledge, skills, and tools that I’ve found to be extremely useful in the 6 years that I’ve been working in the e-learning industry. No one will expect you to exhibit everything listed here all the time, however being aware of their existence is the first step towards being able to feel confident in taking advantage of them as a solution.

Take advantage of the many free trials that are on offer for different bits of software. Form small breakout groups with your colleagues to play around with new tools to see if they can add value to your processes, workflows and end product.

Don’t be afraid if things don’t work out. You’ll have a better idea of what to do next time. You may well find that a failed solution for one problem, might be the ideal solution for another.

Be adventurous!



Learning and Development Specialist; E-learning Technologist; Aerospace, Space and Defence. All opinions are my own.

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Curtis J. Anderson

Learning and Development Specialist; E-learning Technologist; Aerospace, Space and Defence. All opinions are my own.