Does this stuff help anyone learn anything?

A primer on the whys and hows of Instructional Design

When you’ve been doing something for a while, it can be hard to see where newbies get tripped up.

That gap — between beginner and expert — can lead to some serious problems, like flat engagement and churn.

I call this the Fog of Expertise. How do I spot a Foggy problem?

Well, here’s a sample of real complaints I’ve heard from experts in the past few years:

  • “We’re public infrastructure for money.”
  • “People buy our kits, but then are have no idea what to do with them.”
  • “Our users are stuck on how to get started with our tool in the classroom.”

Jargon, steep learning curves, no relatable examples. Hallmarks of the Fog of Expertise.

All of these clients hired me to close the gap between beginner and expert, because these are Instructional Design problems.

Pedagogy + design = helping users succeed

Simply put, an Instructional Designer helps you users do great things.

The end-result can take a variety of forms, depending on who uses your product. Maybe it’s an online course so users can learn from likeminded folks. Perhaps it’s printed directions to assemble a new crib for your baby’s bedroom. Heck, it could be the recipe on the back of a cereal box.

Your goal is the same: help users feel comfortable outside of their comfort zone so they accomplish their task.

Acorns is perfect for beginner investors: limited choices, progress bars walking through what to expect, signs the user will recognize. You’ll see Vanguard’s design speaks to investors with more expertise: acronyms, more choices, ability to compare and reference across multiple data points.

What does an Instructional Designer do?

Heres what an Instructional Designer delivers on the regular:

  • Identify goals: What users should be able to do once they are masters?
  • Showcase stories from successful users and experts as onramps.
  • Relate new ideas to existing knowledge.
  • Present material in multiple ways (visual maps, podcasts, articles).
  • Ensure content + activities are relevant to the user.
  • Deliver appropriate content “just in time” when the user needs it to complete a task.
  • Test the appeal, comprehension, and usability of the experience.
  • Design a way to find out if users have mastered the material (a.k.a. “assessment”).
An Instructional Designer plans for each step of the journey from novice to master. (Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition)

Want to Find Out More? Get a Little “Planet Money + IDEO” in Your Inbox

If you signup for my new mailing list, you’ll get a full design teardown of the products we use everyday — specifically, financial applications — and insights from the learning sciences to improve them.

You will master the nuts and bolts of financial products, and also how to improve retention and engagement in your product.