Analysis: Explaining the Role of an Instructional Designer


An ID working for a copy machines manufacture has identified a major problem in the way field service technicians repair broken copiers. To help with the project, the most respected design engineer in the company has been assigned to serve as the subject matter expert. During the first meeting the ID briefly explains the need for a training program to resolve the identified perforamnce gap. Upon hearing this the subject matter expert curtly explains that there is no need for the ID to be involved in such a project because she and her team of fellow engineers can develop the training without any help and would do a much better job. It’s clear she has no desire to work with the ID and does not see any value in his role.

Now, consider the following:

  • What preconceived notions and misconceptions might the subject matter expert have about her role and about the role of the ID?
  • What is the best approach for informing the subject matter expert about the ID role and the value that he will bring to the training project?
  • How should the ID proceed with the project given the objections that he’s encountered——

What preconceived notions and misconceptions might the subject matter expert have about her role and about the role of the ID?

The attitude of the SME in this scenario is not surprising; in fact, it is more likely par for the course considering both education’s and the public’s long-standing opinion that content experts are also expert teachers. This opinion is based on post hoc and hasty generalization fallacies, respectively ( Declaring that becoming a content expert will automatically result in a person becoming an expert teacher is clearly untrue. Some content experts have absolutely no idea how to teach, have poor communication skills, interpersonal skills, or have other issues preventing them from becoming expert teachers. It is also untrue that just because there happens to be a few content experts who are expert teachers that ALL content experts are expert teachers.

Ellen Wagner states instructional design “is a profession that is virtually invisible because there is no consistency in what it is called” (Wagner, 2009, p. 1). She further states that “when you are unnamed, you’re at risk of being excluded because nobody really knows where you are or what you do” (Wagner, 2009, p. 1). It would seem she is correct. There are multiple definitions regarding instructional design and theories regarding what we do. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage, respectively; instructional designers have a plethora of opportunity to specialize in different areas; however, without a unified name, definition, vision or motto, it can be difficult to explain to the lay person what instructional designers actually do. As instructional designers it is understood that adult learners have a need to understand what is in it for them in any type of learning environment (Ormrod, 2008). This principle would apply to seemingly ambiguous positions and/or titles such as “instructional designer.”

Further, the authors’ of our course text prepare instructional designers for misperceptions such as “the designer’s role is limited to assisting with media production” (Morrison, Ross, Kalman, & Kemp, 2011, p. 442) or, if we are more fortunate, “as a consulting partner who can provide suggestions and advice concerning instructional strategies” (Morrison et al., 2011, p. 442).

Lastly, it is possible that the SME does not believe anyone without subject matter expertise could adequately design an instructional program effectively.

What is the best approach for informing the subject matter expert about the ID role and the value that he will bring to the training project?

First and foremost, direct communication with the SME regarding the role of the ID is clearly in order. This SME has clearly not had previous experience working with an ID, and has not been educated as to what an ID does. A factual, brief synopsis of what instructional design is and what an instructional designer does is recommended. Our text provides a wonderful short, positive description stating the goal of instructional design “is to make learning more efficient and effective and less difficult. Often well-designed instruction saves time and money” (Morrison et al., 2011, p. 2). The example in the text regarding the AT&T training being redesigned to save the company $37 million over a 5 year period would also be supportive.

Second, it would also be important to tactfully address some of the subject matter expert’s possible insecurities: the training will not solve the problem, the information will be incorrect, the engineer will be responsible for the project, etc. Our text also provides a nice description in the differences in the roles of subject matter expert versus instructional designer: “A SME often approaches the design of a course from a content perspective, that is, what to cover. An ID approaches the task by first defining the problem and then determining what knowledge and skills are needed to solv3e the instructional problem” hence, the focus is on “needs to know” instead of “nice to know” (Morrison et al., 2011, p. 2). As the subject matter expert it is their responsibility “to provide accurate information during the task analysis and verify the accuracy of the instructional deliverables” (Morrison et al., 2011, p. 442) and as such, are an integral necessity for the success of the project.

Third, it would also be advantageous to remind the subject matter expert that it is their expertise in their position that makes them the content expert and an invaluable engineer. Similarly, it is the ID’s expertise in designing instruction to maximize human performance, requiring a solid background in learning theory, instructional design, analysis, human resources, as well as the legalities involved in employee training. A gentle reminder of some of these differences could help this SME realize that there is a difference between knowing content and teaching content.

Lastly, it was the instructional designer who identified the performance gap, implying the ID has done a thorough needs analysis. Presentation of this data/information in a confident, direct, logical and factual fashion will help alleviate the SME’s concerns that the ID does not understand what is involved.

How should the ID proceed with the project given the objections that he’s encountered?

Once the ID has spoken with the SME and clarified both their roles, necessary for the project’s success, the next step would be to move forward with scheduling interviews and gathering more information to begin designing the program. Any other action on the part of the ID would be seen as proof that they do not have a plan or know what they are doing.

Lynn Munoz


Morrison, G. R., Ross, S. M., Kalman, H. K., & Kemp, J. E. (2011). Designing effective instruction (6th Ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Ormrod, J. (2008). Human Learning (5th ed.). New Jersey, NY: Pearson Education, Inc.

Wagner, E. (2009, June 3). Why it matters what they call us [Web log message]. Retrieved from–learning-technologists-and-instructional-designers-touch-virtually-every–school-every-business-t.html


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