Learning Experience Design: A Better Title Than Instructional Design?

How many times have you told people, “I’m an instructional designer,” only to be met with a blank stare? How many people are thoroughly confused about what we do for a living?
Last month, Connie Malamed proposed a new name for the field of instructional design: Learning Experience Design or LX Design. This moves the focus away from “instruction” and more to learning. Instead of focusing on the instruction or the materials, our starting point is thinking about the learners and how they will experience what we design. Connie argues this may help us focus more on learning science as well as being deliberate about designing valuable experiences.

Calling ourselves Learning Experience Designers acknowledges that we design, enable or facilitate experiences rather than courses. This gives us a broad license to empower people with the tools and information they need to do their jobs, regardless of the chosen format.

This isn’t an entirely new idea. Back in 2007, I wrote What Does An Instructional Designer Do? In that post, I used this as my definition:

What does an instructional designer do?: Design and develop learning experiences

I’m emphasizing “experiences” here deliberately, even though that isn’t always how others would describe the job. I think one of the crucial things instructional designers can (and should!) do is make sure that students have opportunities to actively practice what they are learning.

This is still the most popular post on my blog, averaging about 100 views a day. Based on the traffic, it seems there are a lot of people confused about the title instructional designer. It doesn’t immediately convey meaning. While I think learning experience design would still require explanation, I suspect that more people have an immediate positive association for the word “learning” rather than “instructional.”
Learning Experience Design or Instructional Design

Change Is Hard

Realistically, changing this in the field as a whole would be challenging, if not impossible. “Learning Architect” has a lot of advantages over “Instructional Designer,” but it never really caught on. And although we use instructional design as a generic term, actual titles in the field are quite varied. James Tyer collected a list of over 65 L&D job titles. Although that list includes training and other jobs, many of those could apply to instructional designers/LX designers too.
Besides the general challenge of rebranding a whole industry (as if that wasn’t enough), we have the added challenge of being quite varied in what we actually do for our work. Instructional design is used as an umbrella term for a wide range of skills. People who just tweak PowerPoint slides, wizards at rapid development tools with no writing skills, and fabulous designers and writers who rely on research to guide their decisions, and those who do a little of everything are all lumped into the same category. That’s another whole topic (and perhaps a post in the future), but a new title might help differentiate people who work on the entire learning experience from start to finish from those who focus solely on development. I think the field has become so varied that one title can’t cover everything, so LX Design won’t be the only solution; we need to talk about e-learning developers, multimedia developers, or other titles too.

Your Thoughts?

This topic generated some great discussion on LinkedIn, so I’m hoping for more thoughtful comments here. What do you think of this title? Would you use it? Would you recommend something else instead? Do you think we should stick with instructional design and try to reclaim the title?

62 thoughts on “Learning Experience Design: A Better Title Than Instructional Design?”

  1. Pingback: Broad and Deep Instructional Design Skills - Experiencing eLearning

  2. I see this topic is still ‘warm’ and up for discussion. Instruction and Learning are two very different words. I see instruction and an outbound flow of knowledge, whereas learning implies an inbound flow of knowledge.
    Somehow, I see it more appropriate to use Instructional Designer for someone who enables the outbound flow of knowledge.
    However, language does not work in a logical manner. All languages are created by people, and usage allows a language to evolve with time. After rationalizing a bit on this topic, people will ultimately decide what is the best word combination to use.
    For now, I keep telling people that I am an “Instructional Designer” even if it requires some explanation afterward.

    1. That’s a reasonable argument, Paulo. As long as it’s working for you, then there probably isn’t much motivation to change. 3.5 years after I wrote this post, I still see many more people using “instructional designer” rather than “learning experience designer” or other similar titles.
      “Learning” is definitely more on the inbound side of the equation than “instruction,” but I think that’s part of why it appeals to many of us. It will be interesting to me to see if the terminology in the field shifts more to learning in the next 10-15 years.

      1. I got a bit curious so I “Googled’ the terms and got the following results: (1) for Instructional Designer I got nearly 2.3M results; (2) for Learning Experience Designer I got 83,100 results. So, at least for web searching purposes the phrase ‘Instructional Designer’ is about 27x more popular than ‘Learning Experience Designer’

        1. That’s a fabulous straw man you’ve created there, Paulo. When you create straw men to knock down that it undermines your credibility for your other arguments. That’s a shame, because you started out with some good reasoning.
          Who here is arguing about popularity? Re-read my last comment where I said many more people use instructional design. I agreed with that point.
          The point isn’t that terminology should be a popularity contest. Obviously instructional designer is more popular than learning experience designer; it has decades of past use. Something like this would take years to take hold.
          The question, rather than one of popularity, is whether it’s worth it to try to fight the inertia to change to something that may be more accurate and more easily understood. I know your answer for yourself is that it isn’t worth it. That’s OK, but that doesn’t really address the question of whether other people should be pushing for that change.

  3. Instructional design puts more emphasis on the instruction, while leRning design or learning experience design pits more emphasis on the learning and the learner. As well, trIners focus on what they do, I.e. training; in contrasts, facilitators of learning focus on leRners and learning. I lead a group called Learning & Performance Improvement, which appears to be well understood and captures succinctly (we believe) what we do. design puts more emphasis on the instruction, while leRning design or learning experience design pits more emphasis on the learning and the learner. As well, trIners focus on what they do, I.e. training; in contrasts, facilitators of learning focus on leRners and learning. I lead a group called Learning & Performance Improvement, which appears to be well understood and captures succinctly (we believe) what we do. design communicates and puts more emphasis on the instruction, while learning design or learning experience design communicates and ipus more emphasis on the learning and the learner. As well, trIners focus on what they do, i.e. training; in contrast, facilitators of learning focus on learners and learning. I lead a group called Learning & Performance Improvement, which appears to be well understood and captures succinctly (we believe) what we do.

    1. Performance Improvement carries a wider meaning than just learning; it includes things like improving processes or rewards to improve performance rather than just providing training and performance support. “Learning and Performance Improvement” is a good title though, and it keeps the focus on changing behavior and improving performance.

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  6. This is so interesting! I’m coming from the other side though; I am a UX designer incorporating instructional design to the process to create engaging and valuable learning experiences. So, all in all, this to me reflects how both our disciplines are changing and merging together!

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  8. What are your challenges in engaging change through learning? Is there a design that you find in common effectiveness to generically?

  9. Pingback: Designing a learning experience, applying #UX to instructional design #LX | Spark Your Interest!

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  11. Hi Kristy. I’m sorry for jumping in on this feed months later, but I just came across your blog recently.
    I like the idea of renaming the profession. I’m a DoD employee, and each year we’re required to go through the same online training modules covering such subjects as “Ethics”, “Antiterrorism”, “Combating Human Trafficking”, and “Information Assurance” among others. Some are simple slide shows while others include interactive components and quizzes on content.
    As someone who’s new to ID, I’m now beginning to see the purpose from a different perspective. My first impression from the outside is that “instructional designer” sounds a little dated while “learning experience designer” seems more reflective of the goal of the profession.
    I think a designer who is paid and has invested time, energy, learning, and resources into a project would love for clients to experience learning–or receive something on an experiential or intellectual level. I hope not to offend anyone here, but to me the phrase “instructional design” imparts somewhat of a “Here’s what I’ve been hired to teach you, whether or not you retain the information is up to your effort as a learner.
    The phrase “learning experience designer”, while a little more cumbersome coming off the lips, for me evokes an image of someone who is more invested in the outcome, providing learners an experience that results in the content sticking with them–an effective learning experience that results in long term memory of the content.
    Having said this I wonder, as an instructional designer, do you request feedback from your corporate clients? If so, does the feedback come from the employees who experience your products or from the executives who choose to enlist your services?
    I also wanted to thank you for sharing your thoughts on this. Reading the comments and your replies opened my eyes to other pieces of your profession. The comments about the insurance and realizing that re-branding yourself with something as simple as a new title is a business risk.

    1. No apology needed, Steven. Some of my posts from 2007 still get comments. I love seeing how my posts continue to be valuable for readers months or even years later.
      You said, “…the phrase “instructional design” imparts somewhat of a “Here’s what I’ve been hired to teach you, whether or not you retain the information is up to your effort as a learner.”
      That is an excellent way of putting it. This is an example where your underlying learning theory and understanding of the mind affects your approach. If you believe the mind is a blank slate (tabula rasa) or empty bucket to be filled, you primarily worry about providing information. If you believe learning is more complex than content delivery (cognitivism or constructivism), you focus on experiences, practice with feedback, and skill development.
      For my work, I always get feedback from the people who hire me, and I sometimes get feedback from learners. Some of my clients run pilots with a small group of learners, so I get that feedback. Many clients use satisfaction surveys at the end of courses. I see those less often as a consultant than I did as an internal employee (where I read every comment), but sometimes I’m able to do that longer-term follow-up.

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  13. Elizabeth Schofield

    Dear Christy,
    I’m so happy to stumble on your blog! This post was very useful, especially as someone just starting as an instructional designer. Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts, and I think you’re absolutely right about I.D. potentially needing a bit of rebranding, especially for those who are unfamiliar with the work of instructional designers. After all, given that a main goal of my work in this field is to promote more universal understanding of new ideas, I would hope to be able to explain my role and job title with the same clarity that I use in executing that role!
    As an alternative, or perhaps a complement, to the other possible job titles proposed (Learning Architect, Learning Experience Designer), I’d like to suggest the idea of an “educational engineer.” While there are definitely some disadvantages to both of these vocabulary terms for the ideas they summon, I think they also present to me a clearer sense of what I do as an instructional designer. When I think of an architect or a designer, I imagine someone who is looking at aesthetics, flow, and overarching ideas, whereas I think of engineers as people who can help connect these ideas to a practical, workable implementation. I think there’s a lot about instructional design that’s creative, but also a lot that’s scientific or technical. As someone who works at an engineering college, at least, I’ve found that this phrase much more quickly brings faculty up to speed on the possibilities of my role than other titles or job descriptions.
    I welcome any comments on this possible alternative, and look forward to looking at this blog more in the future. Thanks for the great post!

    1. I think “educational engineer” has the same practical issue “learning architect” has: “engineer” is a protected term. You can’t legally call yourself an engineer or put that in your business name many places unless you’re licensed as an engineer.
      I agree that engineer conjures up more thoughts of hard science than architect. At an engineering college, I can see how that would be useful shorthand to explain it. I’m not sure it’s a viable alternative for the majority of people in the field though, especially with the legal problems.

  14. Christy-
    I have been thinking about this recently as well. In my organization, we divide our responsibilities among trainers and instructional designers. I am purely a trainer and my counterparts work to create all the material that I facilitate. I was very lucky to get the position I have currently since I was an internal candidate but my knowledge of instructional design is limited to what I have learned so far in my masters program (IDT). This week in class we have been exploring the ideas of learning theories, the brains contribution to learning, and information processing theory.
    Applying this to my role as a classroom trainer, I think a title such as “learning experience designer” is far more fitting than “instructional designer” since my goal and focus is primarily the learning experience and cognitive understanding of the material. In the same breath that I make that distinction, however, it’s also very apparent to me that in order for material to be successful created for my instruction I have to be able to contribute to and understand the “instructional design” side of our industry. I have to be able to suggest an appropriate design for the training based on the analysis that was conducted. I have to be able to ensure that the material they create for me is in line with the needs of the learners. I have to evaluate the effectiveness of the course and make suggestions for future training based on what was and wasn’t successful. This is where I get confused as to what my role truly is; since as a classroom trainer I still have to understand the design and development aspects of the process. Maybe calling ourselves “Instructional Learning Designers” covers both aspects of our industry. But, I digress. Titles are semantic and in the end we still work to accomplish the same goal – an informed learner.
    As someone just getting started in the industry, what is your best piece of advice when it comes to learning theories and what I can do to support and engage the learners in more of a “learning experience” as opposed to a “training”? What have been some of your best resources regarding information processing and learning?

    1. The line between instructional designer (or learning experience designer) and trainer isn’t always clear cut. The person standing in front of a classroom or talking in the web conference is definitely a trainer. Some trainers do more of the design and preparation too, while others just deliver content created by others. My work as a corporate trainer was mostly delivering from published workbooks. That’s part of why I left training and switched to ID; I missed creating materials.
      As far as engaging learners and creating learning experiences instead of just training, I like Cathy Moore’s approach. Instead of just asking what we want learners to KNOW, ask what we want them to DO. You mentioned that the goal is “an informed learner,” but in many corporate training situations, that’s not actually the goal. It’s not just whether or not they’re informed; it’s whether or not their behavior changes. I can be informed of the speed limit and still choose to drive faster, with full knowledge that I’m doing so.
      Rather than just thinking about training on content, think about how your learners can practice the skills you want them to have. You can cut just about everything else from your training if you include practice with feedback. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about classroom training, e-learning, or blended learning: the important thing is the opportunity to practice.
      Of course in the real world there is content to deliver too. But if you think first about the practice, it helps you determine what content is critical to that skill performance and what content can be cut (or at least moved to supplemental resources).

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  17. Hello Christy. I think it’s more about what you do than what you call it. I am a learning experience designer. I also teach learning experience design at university. From what I know about instructional design, it is quite different from learning experience design. Where instructional design seems to focus on cognition, content and learning from instruction, learning experience design focusses on people, outcomes and learning from experience. Instruction is only a part of a learning experience. The process of designing instruction is, as far as I know, totally different from designing a learning experience.

    1. Niels, that’s perhaps one of the problems with the name instructional design. Are you assuming by the title that we only create instructor-led training? That’s the origin of ISD, but most IDs create e-learning and blended learning. We also create job aids, mobile performance support, and other tasks. At our best, what we do is focused on people, not content.

      1. Christy, thank you for your reply. I guess LXD and ID have different origins but are becoming more alike. I am aware of the fact that ID is more than instructor-led training. However, to me it’s not so much about the medium you choose (classroom, e-learing, blended learning) but more about the your way of thinking and working. About the method you use to design. I can’t judge if this is the same for both ID’s and LXD’s. I do think it’s great that these two fields are connecting and maybe even merging. And it’s good to know that we probably have a lot in common.

  18. I would opt for a change. I think it might be beneficial for the whole industry to differentiate the peoples’ roles. It would be way easier to understand what someone is exactly doing, so you’re right Christy I agree with your opinion 😉

  19. With my focus being primarily in the classroom, I love the title “Learning Experience Designer.” I talk about creating the classroom experience a lot, and if that isn’t our mindset (as designer or facilitator) going in, then we are simply going through the motions.

    1. Some of the people who focus more on classroom learning who have seen this name feel like it doesn’t fit them at all. I’ve been wondering, based on my prior discussions, whether this fits better for people working in e-learning than those in classrooms. I’m glad to see it resonates with you though.

  20. Interesting point. I recently came across the term “instructional design leader” as an alternative to ID. I like “learning experience designer” and could also go for “learning architect”.

      1. I like the metaphor of learning architect. In practical terms, it’s problematic because “architect” is a protected term in many areas. You can’t use it for a business name, and you may have restrictions from using it professionally depending on the laws in your area. Someone in the Articulate eLearning Heroes group decided to use eLearning Architect for his business name without doing research first. Now his legal business name doesn’t match his URL and branding.

  21. I like it. The funny thing is, most people I tell that I’m taking a masters in Instructional Design do act like they know what it is! Then I explain it, and they say, “oh, ok”. So I guess they must be thinking it’s something else. I do think Learning Experience Designer is more clear…so even though I’d still go into more detail, they’d at least be thinking on the right track. Perhaps I will start calling myself this and see how it goes! 🙂

  22. Loretta DeMarais

    I really like the proposed term. I think it is much more descriptive and understandable without requiring as much additional description. I thought of changing design to developer for a split second then went right back to design. Learning Experience Design also makes it somewhat parallel to User Experience.
    I’m pondering some way of tying the term with performance management without the stigma of of the dreaded individual performance measurement/reviews. If we could connect it with overall performance at the enterprise level, we could increase the perceived value of our trade. Hmm, Six Sigma measurements, not uniquely identifiable per person, mostly soft measurements but we could capture some hard stats for Business Intelligence. I know this is somewhat of a tangent but nonetheless it is the marketing side of our trade and our title/name is part of our branding.

    1. I could see Learning Experience Developer for someone who exclusively works on the development side. You could have a partnership: the LX designer analyzes, designs, and storyboards. The LX developer builds it and creates multimedia.

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  24. Check out the stuff being done in learning design (mostly in Europe and Canada and, well, outside U.S.), such as pedagogical patterns and design tools:
    There are some U.S. masters programs that use the term “learning design”, but it is more a combination of the learning sciences and instructional design/technology.
    The only issue I see with ‘learning experience design’ is that it might suggest that learning is something that you passively ‘experience’ or ‘perceive’, instead of being something that you actively do.

    1. One argument against “learning design” is that we don’t really control someone else’s learning. We can create situations and experience that allow others to learn, but we can’t really directly design learning. That is perhaps nitpicking, but I don’t think the word “experience” can be casually dropped.
      I disagree that “experience” and “perceive” are synonyms. “Perceive” does imply passive learning, but when you experience something you are actively involved–at least mentally or emotionally, if not physically. Experiencing a great meal will leave you satisfied; merely perceiving it will leave you hungry.
      The links you shared are interesting, but not quite the kind of work most instructional designers do. They all seem to be more geared towards teachers and educators rather than people building online corporate learning. Although I do some higher ed work too, learning experience design perhaps reflects more of the corporate ID world, especially self-paced e-learning, than classroom instruction (physical or virtual).

      1. No, but our jobs are to understand learning, the different types of learning, and build that experience around it. We do drive the learning experience, and it is somewhat organic in that every learner is unique. That is part of or design intention. We really are designing the learning experience, by offering different learning methods to meet the various needs of different learners.

    2. But what is wrong with the user who learns how to do their job, the “learning” is incidental. They are actively getting the information when and where they need it and as a bonus, they learn something too…

  25. Yes. That happened to me just yesterday, with an auto insurance agent who was attempting to define whether I was eligible for a discount. Not a teacher, or an I.T. support person….Instructional Designer is a whole new concept. I do like the artistic flair of Learning Experience Designer, but think the stigma or unfamiliarity might still be an issue overall.

    1. I overpaid for professional liability insurance for two years because my work had been misclassified as primarily IT work and they put me at higher risk for “technical glitches” and loss of client data. I don’t think any title change would be so intuitive as to completely remove the need for explanation, but I’d like a title that gave people a higher chance of guessing right.

      1. Loretta DeMarais

        I almost overpaid for my insurance too. My agent asked a lot of questions and then changed me to a documentation and training category. They also asked what industries and request me to update them when I get new contracts. When working with mining, power plants and oil refineries my insurance costs were higher. Make sure that is factored into your rates if you work independently.

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  27. Learning experience designer or content designer is indeed better than instructional designer. Lately, I’ve been moving to an even broader title as human performance technologist, to say that I also offer non-training “solutions” to performance gaps. Of course, HPT is even more obscure. (I’ve been finding that clients aren’t interested in anything but training or job aids, however).

    1. The scope of HPT is broader than than LX Design, I think. I consider solutions such as redefining job responsibilities, streamlining processes, and adjusting reward mechanisms as part of HPT but not LX Design. If what you’re doing is HPT, that probably is the best title–even if you have to define it for clients.

  28. Let’s hope that we are not just designing experiences, but transformational experiences. I’m thinking of Stephen Downes here. Although I can’t remember where he said it, I believe the quote is: “The product of learning is not knowledge; the product of learning is a transformed learner”.

  29. Ken Ostermiller

    I think this name change is excellent. I’m a retired educator. When I began teaching I was always concerned about what I was going to do. Somewhere along the line I discovered that learning happened most often when I paid attention to what the learners are doing. The terminology you suggest seems just right.

    1. Ken, that says a lot coming from someone outside the e-learning/instructional design world. What it means to the people within the field is important, but I want something that says more to people outside the field of ID too.
      And yes, paying attention to the learners should really be at the heart of what we do. A title that puts learners first is a good reminder.

      1. A term I sometimes use is “learning content designer” or “learner content designer” in order to carry a more accurate message. When learning on a computer, the term instructional designer doesn’t work.
        Dr. Richard Maxfield Accelered@att.net

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      1. Loved your articles….just came across this today. I used to call myself at LinkedIn as Bespoke Training Content Consultant as with Instructional Designing Tag people used to ask me to create Website content. But I got quite inspired by you and switched to Bespoke Learning Experience Designer. 🙂

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