January 21, 2021 by Niels Floor
What is the difference between learning experience design (LXD) and instructional design (ID)? That’s a question I get a lot, especially from instructional designers. There is no short answer to this question, so buckle up!
As a pioneer in the field of LXD I came across ID after several years of designing learning experiences. When I learned more about ID it became clear to me that there are fundamental differences between the perspectives, skills, methods, tools and results of LX designers and instructional designers. Let me explain some major differences one by one.
A great way to explain the general difference between LXD and ID is by comparing a scientist to an artist. ID has a more scientific perspective as an applied science while LXD has a more creative perspective as an applied art. Imagine how a scientist and an artist would separately try to solve the same problem. Their approaches and their solutions would be totally different. Both have value and one is not necessarily better than the other. The same applies to ID and LXD. Applied science and applied art are both valid approaches with different qualities and limitations.
ID comes from the field of learning and is intended to be used in the field of learning. This makes sense. I know several great instructional designers who studied ID at university and who now work as an instructional designer at universities. LXD comes from the field of design, which is radically different from the field of learning. Being a creative professional who has taught at universities for years I’ve always felt like an outsider. Being an outsider can be difficult, but it also offers a certain freedom because you tend to see and do things differently. You are not part of the system. That’s one of the reasons why LXD is appealing to some. It offers a fresh perspective that comes from outside of the world of learning.
Imagine a typical creative professional like a graphic designer. What are the skills of this type of designer? Having a sharp eye, empathising with the target audience, generating original ideas, sketching visualisations to clarify and conceptualise these ideas, creating and iterating different designs, crafting elegant and surprising ways to communicate a message. These are all essential qualities for a LX designer as well. They can be applied to present learners with an experience that is just as elegant, refreshing, and surprising as the work of a graphic designer. As you can see, the roots of LXD lie firmly in creative design disciplines.
ID has its roots in the field of learning. Learning- and educational professionals come from a different background and professional culture. They have key skills like developing content and designing curricula that fit perfectly within the academic and corporate educational systems. Or designing standardised e-learning courses effectively. This requires more analytical-, methodical and scientific skills and less artistic skills. As the name instructional design suggests, instructions play an important role. This dates back to the origin of ID in the army, where clear instructions are vital. These instructional principles enable teachers, trainers, and instructors to do their jobs and provide learners with clarity and structure.
Instructional designers have a methodical approach to design. According to the ATD webiste an instructional designer applies a systematic methodology rooted in instructional theories and models. It works with a clearly structured step by step process which is often linear. Each step builds on the next and guides you towards creating a solid, well founded design.
While the LXD process is also structured, it does provide more space to be creative and quickly come up with different ideas, designs and prototypes which can be improved through iteration. There is a level of unpredictability that designers love. You’re not sure what the end result is going to be. The creative and experimental process inspires and guides you towards finding the right shape or form. Like a sculptor turning a piece of stone into a sculpture or a painter turning a blank canvas into a painting.
Of course, both instructional designers and LX designers go through the same general steps of research, analysis, design, development, testing and implementation. At a glance, these steps may look the same. However, the way you go through the process and what you focus on during the process are actually quite different. This has a lot to do with the different perspectives and skills being used. For example, there are significant differences between scientific research and design research when applied to the field of learning. The first aims to gather comparable and quantifiable data on cognitive aspects of learning. The second aims to empathize with the people you design for and connect with them on an emotional, personal and educational level.
In general, instructional designers have an analytical mindset with a scientific approach. This enables them to find and select great options that enable learners to reach their goals. LX designers have a creative mindset with a design approach. This enables them to go beyond existing options and create completely new ways to help learners reach their goals. The ability to create something new and different is what creative professionals do on a daily basis and it helps LX designers to design learning experiences that haven’t been made before.
There are so many tools you can use to create a learning experience. Looking at the work of instructional designers I often see tools like learning management systems, e-learning authoring software, PowerPoint and web services like Kahoot! being used. LX designers tend to use design tools that enable them to make more tailored designs like Adobe software, custom apps, gaming technology, a range of web technologies and last the inevitable sticky notes and sketchbooks.
Another key difference in the work of ID and LXD is what you design. Designing an experience is not the same as designing a course, an e-learning module or a curriculum. You can ask any experience designer that this requires different methods and tools. For example, how do you prototype a learning experience? The possibilities are virtually endless. That’s why design tools like experience maps, empathy maps and personas play a crucial role in LXD when it comes to making the intangible more tangible during the creative process.
A tool is just a tool of course. Who uses the tool and how they use it determines the quality of the actual outcome. When I introduced the Learning Experience Canvas (LX Canvas) to a group of primary school teachers, they simply redistributed everything they normally did to make it fit in the LX Canvas. They concluded “it’s nothing new.” When I showed them different ways to use the LX Canvas it changed their designs and their minds. These changes take time and effort, and they are similar to the process I go through with instructional designers that I train or work with. As you become more experienced in LXD the tools become more versatile and powerful.
You can imagine that if you use different perspectives, skills, methods and tools that you will also get different results. And you’re right. I see it in the work of the people I train and in different people’s portfolios. To be clear: one is not better than the other. LXD and ID serve different clients with different needs. LXD is not always a perfect fit. In fact, the market for ID is much bigger right now. LXD is still relatively unknown and clients might prefer what they are familiar with. Clients that are attracted to LXD are open to a different approach and willing to explore new territory in the landscape of learning.
Where you come from determines in large part how you perceive LXD. Instructional designers tend to see LXD close to, or identical to ID. But the same goes for several other disciplines who feel LXD is strongly related to what they do. For example, user experience designers who swap the user for a learner. Or experience designers who see LXD as a form of experience design. Or teachers who apply design thinking and feel that they are LX designers. Or interaction designers who regard learning to be a process of taking the right actions and making the right choices to get to the desired outcome. Or cognitive psychologists who apply their expertise in a human centered way. Or neuroscientists with creative talents who know how our brains work and are able to turn that knowledge into interesting experiences. Or game designers… You get the idea.
Stating that ID is the same as user experience design or any of the other fields I’ve just mentioned would be incorrect. When you look at the origins of LXD as a creative design discipline with links to all of these and other fields, it just doesn’t make sense to say LXD and ID are identical. In fact, ID is just one of many fields that is related to LXD. ID and LXD are different and even opposites in several regards.
One more thing
I have no background or training in ID, and I have dedicated my professional life to creating, developing, applying, teaching, spreading and promoting LXD since 2007. I’ve worked with and talked many wonderful instructional designers and have experienced the fundamental differences first-hand between ID and LXD. I get positive feedback from LXD enthusiasts from all over the world. They see the difference between what they are doing and what LXD has to offer.
I will continue to move forward with LXD because I believe it can improve the way we learn and contribute to designing a wise world. To all of you who have joined me on this journey, thank you so much! Your support has been inspirational and has given me the strength to push forward. For those who see things differently, let’s talk. I’m always up for a good discussion!