Human brains are amazing things. They’re power-hungry biological machines that consume 20 to 30 percent of the blood’s glucose while being only two to three percent of the overall mass of the body. As complex engines for our cognition, it’s no surprise that we need people who are specifically focused on the tuning of these powerful engines. Those specialists are learning designers, also called instructional designers. These brain mechanics have a set of tools in their internal toolbox that allows them to identify how to improve the brain’s performance in new and novel areas.

This series on the actors in training development explores how the various roles in the training development process work together to create training that reduces the effort it takes for a student to learn a new skill. The learning designer is the central actor in making a subject easier to learn.

What Is a Learning Designer?

A learning designer is someone who uses his or her knowledge of how brains work and how people work to make the learning process easier. Learning designers turn the leaps from one topic to the next into small steps that anyone can easily take. Their job is often to reduce the cognitive load on the student by sequencing topics, simplification and elimination of extraneous information.

Learning designers typically have training in psychology, neurology and learning theories. At their best, they’re Sherpas guiding the rest of the team up to the pinnacle of improving human performance.

What Is Expected of the Learning Designer?

The learning designer is responsible for converting the complicated into the simple. Learning designers are always living by Albert Einstein’s maxim: “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” They make the training accessible to everyone.

The learning designer is expected to keep up to date on the latest research on the tools, techniques and approaches that are effective in improving learning retention and application on the job. Learning designers are learners themselves and maintain their compassion for the difficulty and rewards of learning.

What Is not Expected of the Learning Designer?

Learning designers aren’t expected to know what will work best. Instead, they should know, based on research, what factors will impact learning. They realize that learning is necessarily a complex activity for which there will be no right answer and that the “best” answer will typically be illusive.

Alexander Pope said, “Where is the man who counsel can bestow, Still pleased to teach, and yet not proud to know?” This humble attitude is expected of learning designers, rather than a belief that they’re somehow better or above the process.

Where’s the Role Going?

While learning designers’ expertise is sorely needed in a variety of high-impact situations, learning designers need to learn to continue to work well with their team to ensure good results.

It’s too easy to “throw something against the wall” to see if it sticks. Our agile software development mindset makes us believe that we’re able to test something and just try again when it doesn’t work. This is unfortunately not true when we influence the way that people see our training attempts. Too many failed attempts, and people become jaded.

As what, 20 years ago, we called “new media” becomes more mainstream and more practical for delivery, there’s more pressure to have instructional designers behind projects when they’re able to be a part of a larger team.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Every role has its good and its bad. Here are a few of the highlights for this critical role:

  • Good: The learning designer is a key role that can deliver solid value.
  • Good: Highly effective people can expect to be highly compensated.
  • Bad: Learning designers are often called on too late on a project that’s already running.
  • Bad: Sometimes, learning designers have difficulty convincing their organizations that additional time or work is necessary for successful results.
  • Ugly: Learning designers’ effort to pursue training quality can be misinterpreted as arrogance or a focus on perfection.
  • Ugly: Conflicting research can make it difficult to determine the best training approach.