Instructional Design is Not Interface Design

Note that neither is really about picking good colors.
Designing good interfaces is about finding elegant solutions to problems. It's about understanding what users want to accomplish so intimately that when you show them your solution the beauty goes unnoticed. It's about building an interface that lets the real work can happen unhindered. You shouldn't have to think about the interface you're using, it should get completely out of the way.

Which in educational technology is actually kind of a problem. I didn't realize it was an issue until a few years ago. I used to tell people that instructional design and interface design are at their core the same thing. That was pretty naive on my part, but it was based more on practical observations than graduate-level research, so I don't feel too bad about it. At the end of the day what I saw most instructional designers doing was helping people build learning experiences that were intuitive for learners to work through. Get rid of weird navigation, structure the content with a natural flow, don't use ugly fonts. Stuff like that. Building an intuitive, elegant workflow that doesn't trip people up and lets them focus on what they're trying to accomplish. Learning interface design.

Image searching for "instructional design" is disheartening.
The problem with this perspective didn't become apparent until I had a little more experience under my belt. We were doing a redesign of some components in Canvas, and the designers showed me their ideas, and when I objected to their designs they were legitimately baffled as to why I didn't agree with them. What they were proposing was focused so completely on streamlining the user's (learner's) experience that it was actually going to negatively impact the learning experience.

See, learning is different than learning management (don't get me started on "LMS", it's a term I've always hated but never bothered to change). If you're just managing your learning experience then yes, by all means, focus completely on optimization. Log in, get stuff done and close that browser tab as quickly as possible. But if instead you're trying to facilitate learning then you need to be concerned with more than just saving someone time. Learning requires conflict, it involves running up against differing opinions and joining unexpected discussions and trying to overlay acquired knowledge in new and possibly confusing arenas. None of that is very clean or streamlined.

Good instructional design isn't about getting to the nugget of information and then getting out without too many clicks, even if that is most of what I'd seen early-on working with schools. Really good instructional design would actually try to surface social interactions that would be beneficial for the learner to engage in -- even if they weren't intending to participate in them when they first logged in. Even if they weren't really in the mood. Even if it meant noticing the interface.

Calvin taught me a lot about learning in social settings.
It's not about forcing a learner to post at least once in the discussion board in order to get a grade, but it should be about exposing them to the experiences they mightn't pursue on their own that will help them deepen or solidify their understanding. Maybe in a perfect world all learners would see this as part of their successful learning workflow, in which case you could fall back to arguing that instructional design and interface design have the same goal, but that's not the case today. A good learning interface can't take just the learner's immediate interests into consideration, or it will miss the bigger picture completely.

Anyway, something to think about if you're ever in the business of designing educational technology.


Jared Stein said…
Brian, really interesting perspective. I've always thought about interface design as a variable of instructional design for online (but let's be honest, /any/) learning. The way I often explain it as just another kind of interaction that occurs through the learning process. Educators typically think about the main three kinds of learning interactions: learner-to-content, learner-to-teacher, and learner-to-instructor. I know I repeat this point a lot, but we can't forget that there's another kind of interaction that must occur in order to engage in any kind of these other interactions, and that's user-to-system interactions. User-to-system interactions can facilitate or impede the other kinds of interactions. Indeed, I often talk about how Canvas does a great job of *reducing unnecessary or extraneous user-to-system interactions* in order to allow for -- and even encourage -- more of the other kinds of interactions directly associated with learning.

Your post reminds me of another idea that's been on my mind lately, too: That 21c learners probably transfer their web browsing behaviors to online learning -- and not always to their benefit. To your point, "informavore" behaviors, which are very task-focused and tend to be shallow, not deep, could be encouraged by over-streamlined instructional design -- or even interface design as you describe.

This thinking is important for instructional designers that aim to immerse learners in a deep learning activities -- especially in today's era of constant connectedness and continuous partial attention :)
Michael said…
Hmm. Both Chrome and Blogger appear to have failed me in my first attempt to comment. And speaking of UX design, Captcha is a horrible solution to the comment spam problem. I don't know what options Blogger offers, but WordPress plugins have enabled us to keep e-Literate about 95% spam-free without putting anything between the users and the "publish" button.

What I was going to say is that this is a great post but I disagree with the framing. Discoverability is an important principle in UX design. Furthermore, the very best user interfaces are the ones that help us discover capabilities that we weren't looking for and either didn't know that we needed or didn't know that software could provide. There are a bazillion examples of this in game design, but the most dramatic ones tend to be in the apps that are personally transformative. For example, I have been using GMail since the Stone Age and never had any use for the Archive feature--until I started using Mailbox on my iPhone. Mailbox taught me that there actually is some hope for managing an out-of-control inbox and that the archive feature can help me do it. Now I don't know how I ever lived without that feature.

Rather than saying instructional design is not user interface design, which implies a tension between the two, I would say that bringing instructional design (and related disciplines like learning design) into the conversation pushes good UX designers to think more deeply about their role and provides them with some tools to do so. Uncovering real but latent needs is one of the most fun and satisfying aspects of UX design. Instructional design simply provides another window into the universe of latent user needs.
Unknown said…
Also, Blogger apparently doesn't like fake HTML tags. It censored my "close grump" tag after the first paragraph.
Brian Whitmer said…
Hi Michael, thanks for commenting! Someday I'll grow up and use a real blogging platform :-). I keep eyeing Ghost, but haven't had time to make the switch.

In my mind your GMail example actually argues for my point, so I must not have done the best job articulating. GMail had a feature that was fully discoverable but waited in the wings until you were ready or motivated to use it. One of our mantras for Canvas design has been that new features should be "discoverable and not required". ID is the first instance I've worked on where you can reasonably argue that there are features or interactions that the user isn't interested in which should nonetheless be... imposed? on the user.

I totally agree that the dichotomy shouldn't exist, truly *good* educational UX would incorporate ID principles. But this was a post based on real-world observations, and the UX designers I've worked with not only don't know much about ID, but they often think they don't even need to know about it because they assume it's a subset of what they already know.

In the learning process there is often a difference between what the user wants and what the user needs in order to learn effectively.
stoem said…
Hi Brian, sorry to spam your comments in this way but how can I contact you? I can't find an email for you on the site... :-/
Could you drop me a line please? stefan dot richter AT gmail dot com

Unknown said…
Fair point. Discoverability of a feature is not the same as discoverability of the utility of that feature.

There are a couple of facets to this. One, which you hint at in your post, has to do with using nudges like default paths to encourage users in one direction without forcing them. There's some interesting related thinking on this sort of thing in the literature on behavioral economics. Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, in their book Nudge (among other places), talk about "choice architecture." Do you make the 401K opt-in or opt-out? Turns out this design choice has a pretty major impact on how likely people are to save for their retirement.

Choice architecture is an important tool in the design toolbox, but it makes me a little queasy because it's so easy to slide into paternalistic design, which nobody likes (except the designer). Another approach is to think more deeply about affordances as invitations to support a user's deeper goal (as opposed to their immediate task). Mailbox doesn't push me to archive my emails. (Well, OK, it does through a suggestion prompt, but I'm talking about the interface itself.) Rather, it makes obvious why archiving would make my life better. Swipe to the right, get a green check mark, and the email DISAPPEARS. Not deleted, but magically, simply, out of my way. And I get a check mark. Good job, Michael! But the larger point is that, while I don't care about archiving, I do care very much about clearing my inbox of non-urgent but non-deletable distractions in a non-destructive way. Mailbox helped me to discover that that is what the archiving feature is *for.*

Anyway, the problem that you've put your finger on here is bi-directional. Most IDs don't understand the differences between what they do and good UX design either, and they need to. Badly. A lot of the courseware on the market today is crap precisely because IDs don't understand how important design thinking is to what they do. I actually think it's harder on average to train an ID on design thinking than it is to train a UX designer on ID (depending on the individual, of course). And the fact that there is no workforce of people trained in the intersection of these two disciplines is one of the hardest problems facing textbook publishers today as they try to figure out how to become digital companies.
Brian Whitmer said…
All good points, thanks again Michael for your thoughts. I agree this is a huge issue for publishers as they try to move more online.
Unknown said…
Nice Post! I am thankful to you for sharing this awesome blog with this helpful knowledge. instructional design process

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