Learning Experience Design vs. Instructional Design

Published on 
December 10, 2020
Updated on 
December 13, 2020
Learning Experience Designer vs. Instructional Designer Article Cover Photo

Learning experience design (LXD) is a relatively new term that has been floating around in the spheres of instructional design (ID) and online learning.

If you’ve come across the term, then the question has probably come to mind: “How is learning experience design different from instructional design?”

Also, if you’ve looked for answers to that question, then you may have found that everyone seems to have a different response.

In this article, I explore the real difference between learning experience design and instructional design.

Read on to get that sweet, sweet clarity.

What is Learning Experience Design?

Before we talk about the differences between LXD and ID, let’s define LXD.

Niels Floor, the person who claims to have coined the term in 2007, explains on lxd.org that LXD is “the process of creating learning experiences that enable the learner to achieve the desired learning outcome in a human centered and goal oriented way.”

This definition puts the emphasis on designing a human-centered, goal-oriented learning experience.

LXD is also often referred to as a blend of learning science and user experience design.

For example, Dawna Gravley and Hankun He of WGU Labs use an LXD approach that incorporates learning science, design thinking, and social emotional learning. 

All of the definitions that you can find usually have one thread in common — they focus on designing for the “user” first and foremost. 

Essentially, LXD puts the person who will complete the learning experience at the center of the process. What are their needs? What are their goals? What barriers are in their way?

Answering these questions leads you to create a more helpful, engaging experience for the audience.

LXD vs. Instructional Design

Despite the user-oriented nature of learning experience design, there is not a clear distinction between LXD and instructional design.

For example, let’s consider The origin of learning experience design, a page on lxd.org. 

This page attempts to define LXD as a new field, stating that “LX design is an interdisciplinary field of expertise. It incorporates elements of different disciplines like interaction design, neuroscience, cognitive psychology and teaching. It merges them into a completely new design discipline.”

Putting it even more succinctly, the article says that “LX design is a combination of two domains: design and learning.”

If this sounds familiar, that’s because it probably is. You can swap “LX design” with “instructional design” and the sentences would still hold true.

Instructional design, which is a field that can be traced back to the 1940s and 1950s, incorporates all of the elements of learning experience design.

Breaking it Down Further

“The origin of learning experience design” article that I mentioned earlier dives deeper into LXD. Let’s consider each element and look at its instructional design counterpart.

Human-centered Design

The article mentions that LXD’s human-centered design approach “enables you to offer an experience that people can relate to and that really works for them.” 

Learner analysis, or “target audience analysis,” is a type of analysis that instructional designers use to better understand the audiences that they’re serving. 

Learner analysis aligns well with user experience (UX) interviews from the UX domain, and IDs may use the same techniques that UX designers use to learn more about their audiences and create learner personas.

Therefore, human-centered design is a key part of any well-rounded instructional designer’s toolkit. 

Goal-oriented Design

As defined from this LXD perspective, goal-oriented design states that “the products we use to facilitate or enhance a learning experience should have both practical and appealing features.”

The field of instructional design arose from the need to improve human performance by teaching people new knowledge and skills, so the field is goal-oriented and practical by nature.

IDs identify appropriate practical interventions via needs assessments, and these interventions may even include non-learning solutions.

How “appealing” an intervention is depends on how well the instructional designer knows their audience, but good instructional designers should put the learning and / or business goal first and foremost.

Instructional designers would also determine how appealing and effective their solution is during evaluation, especially if they’re following the well-known Kirkpatrick Model of Evaluation.

Overall, since good instructional designers would consider non-learning solutions AND learning solutions while conducting their analysis, instructional design is arguably more goal-oriented than this definition of LXD.

Theory of Learning

For the theory of learning, this article mentions that “an LX designer needs to comprehend how human cognition works and how we learn from experience.”

The instructional design discipline draws heavily on the science of learning.

Instructional designers apply learning science on a regular basis to help people achieve learning and performance goals, and these theories are broken down in many of the most common instructional design books.

Therefore, learning theory is a key underpinning of any instructional design education. 

Learning put into Practice

Finally, the article states that “having both a theoretical and practical understanding of learning is essential.” 

Nearly every instructional designer would wholeheartedly agree that it’s necessary to have a practical understanding of how people learn. 

IDs’ entire jobs are focused on helping other people learn, and IDs often self-teach to keep up-to-date with the new concepts and tools.

Overall, conducting learner analysis, designing with clear goals in mind, recognizing how people learn, and putting theory into practice are all within the realm of instructional design.

LXD as a “Brand” of Instructional Design

If all of the elements of an LXD’s toolkit are also part of an instructional designer’s toolkit, then why make the distinction?

Because most instructional designers don’t conduct analysis, don’t pay a ton of heed to the science, and don’t push the boundaries when it comes to the learning experiences that they design.

Part of this may be because they fell into the role without getting trained as an ID, and an even bigger part may be the organizational pressure to churn out information-heavy training without regard for analysis.

There are a host of reasons why IDs often design for off-target goals or skip analysis (I explore this issue further in a different article), but instructional designers have been writing and teaching about the “right” way to do things for decades. 

So, here we are — much of corporate training and eLearning has devolved into glorified PowerPoints, and designers well-versed in the modern web come along and see the state of things.

They use design thinking to think about how learning could look, and they rebrand “good” instructional design as a completely new design discipline. 

It’s easy to see how this happens when you cannot find many examples of good instructional design in the real world.

Therefore, it seems that LXD arose as a backlash against the PowerPoint-style eLearning courses that are so common in the business world and beyond. 

Instructional designers started to hop on board with the new term to differentiate themselves from their more traditional peers, and the term has been in steady use ever since.

So, while LXD tasks are still considered ID tasks, LXDs brand themselves as such to appear more user-focused and progressive with the technologies they use.

Learning as an Experience

One of the biggest benefits associated with the LXD term and title is the emphasis on “experience.” 

Many IDs are locked into slide-based authoring tools and are pressured to churn out eLearning courses at a rapid pace.

If instructional designers think about how they can use all of the tools at their disposal to create impactful learning experiences, then we would likely move away from the PowerPoint-esque era that the industry seems to be stuck in at the moment. 

Instructional designers do not have to create eLearning experiences in a tool like Storyline or Captivate. We can use the full power of the interactive web to create meaningful experiences that meet our audiences where they’re at. This is the main takeaway from LXD.

For example, Cath Ellis created a multiple award-winning web experience called The Fallout. It’s a podcast that teaches employees about fraud and corruption, and it likely would have been a standard slide-based eLearning course if it were not for Cath’s creative vision.

So, while Cath brands herself as an eLearning designer and instructional designer across her website, she moves beyond the boundaries of traditional tools to create learning experiences.

Popular Usage of the Terms

Let’s consider how LXD and ID are used in the real world. 

Search Data

When we look at the Google Trends worldwide search data from the last decade, we can see that “instructional design” is a much more popular search term than “learning experience design.”

Learning experience design vs instructional design google trends data

This is why Cath Ellis, me, and other SEO-minded learning designers refer to ourselves as instructional designers or eLearning developers instead of LXDs (even though we still think of designing experiences as opposed to courses).

This is because people use the term “instructional designer” when they’re looking for someone who can design experiences that help people learn. 

If someone wants a more innovative solution than a typical eLearning course, then a search for LXD may yield better results. 

However, there is no guarantee that self-proclaimed LXDs would produce anything beyond eLearning courses in traditional authoring tools.

Likewise, there are many instructional designers who have been designing innovative learning experiences for years.

Job Posts

When we look at job posts, we see that LXD is often used to mean ID.

For example, consider this job listing for a Senior Learning Experience Designer at Amazon.

Sr Learning Experience Designer Job Post for Amazon

The listing mentions designing and developing course content, interviewing SMEs, and using popular ID models like ADDIE, SAM, and Kirkpatrick.

This job listing goes on to mention many other textbook ID tasks.

Similarly, look at these job responsibilities for an LXD at Envestnet Asset Management, Inc.

LXD role responsibilities at Envestnet Asset Management

The first responsibility is to build engaging eLearning courses, and the LXD will not have any role in the user experience design process. 

Instead, they are there to develop the scripts and storyboards that they receive from instructional designers. These are tasks traditionally assigned to eLearning developers.

Finally, consider this Senior LXD position with Reddit.

Senior Learning Experience Designer Position Responsibilities at Reddit

This one is the closest to our LXD definition in that it allows the LXD to be the “primary thought leader on learning experiences” and “experiment [with] trending technologies.” 

However, the focus for this role is still on creating “interactive and responsive online courses”...the same online courses that LXDs seem to have been reacting against.

Therefore, despite the concepts typically associated with LXD, many of those concepts do not translate into the real-world tasks that people with LXD titles perform.

For every LXD job post that I’ve looked at while writing this article, the title could have been “Instructional Designer,” or in some cases “eLearning Developer,” and the job tasks would have been 100% accurate.

Conclusion

In conclusion, there is no significant difference between instructional design and learning experience design. LXD is a marketing term to refer to a specific “brand” of instructional design, but the concepts from that brand often do not translate into real-world practice.

IDs sometimes opt for the LXD title to distinguish themselves from traditional IDs. They seek to use the full power of the web to design engaging experiences, and they often aim to move away from information-heavy, slide-based eLearning.

So, while it is nice to think about learning as an experience as opposed to a course, this shift in thought likely did not warrant a new title.

ID titles are not exactly mainstream, so diluting them further only confuses people both within and outside of our industry.

Moving forward, let’s push the boundaries with the work that we do, not the titles that we use.

Finally, if you would like to join a community of instructional designers & eLearning pros, then join us in my Slack community and keep the conversation going. 

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