Let’s get rid of the instructional designers!

That’s the view of some user-oriented design proponents.

It’s something I remembered while writing my last blog post about user-generated content. Whereas that post explored the role of the learner in the content development process, how about their role in the broader instructional design process?

I wrote a short (1000 word) assignment on the latter at uni several years ago – in the form of a review of a chapter written by Alison Carr-Chellman and Michael Savoy – and it’s a concept that has resonated with me ever since.

Here I shall share with you that review, unadulterated from its original form, except for the graphic of the user empowerment continuum and the hyperlink to the reference, both of which I have added for this post.

Whether or not the more “progressive” design philosophies resonate with you, at the very least I hope they provoke your thinking…

Colleagues collaborating around a table with sticky notes


Carr-Chellman & Savoy (2004) provide a broad overview of user design. They define the term user design, compare it against other methodologies of user-oriented design, identify obstacles to its successful implementation, and finally make recommendations for the direction of further research.


According to Carr-Chellman & Savoy (2004), traditional instructional design methodologies disenfranchise the user from the design process. In a corporate organisation, for example, the leaders will typically initiate the instructional design project, an expert designer will then analyse the situation and create a design, and finally, the leaders will review the design and either approve it or reject it. The role of the user, then, is simply to use the system (or perhaps circumvent it).

In contrast to traditional instructional design methodologies, user design enables the users to participate in the design process. Instead of just using the system, they are involved in its design. Furthermore, their role is more than just providing input; they are active participants in the decision-making process.

Comparison against other methodologies

Carr-Chellman & Savoy (2004) carefully distinguish user design from other methodologies of user-oriented design, namely user-centered design and emancipatory design.

User empowerment continuum, featuring traditional instructional design at the lowest extremity, then user-centered design, then user design, then emancipatory design at the highest extremity.

User-centered design

According to Carr-Chellman & Savoy (2004), user-centered design methodologies consider the needs of the user during the design process. In educational situations, for example, the expert designer may analyse the target audience, identify their preferred learning styles, and perhaps run a pretest. In tool usage situations, he or she may distribute user surveys or conduct usability testing. The goal of these activities is to obtain extra information to assist the designer in creating a better system for the users.

The key difference between user-centered design and user design is the level of participation of the users in the design process. Under a user-centered design model, the designer considers the needs of the users, but ultimately makes the design decisions on their behalf.

Under a user design model, however, the needs of the users go beyond mere food for thought. The users are empowered to make their own design decisions and thereby assume an active role in the design process.

Emancipatory design

If traditional design occupies the lowest extremity of the user empowerment continuum, and user-centered design occupies a step up from that position, then emancipatory design occupies the opposite extremity.

Emancipatory design dispenses with the role of the expert designer and elevates the role of the users, so that in effect they are the designers. This methodology charges the users with full responsibility over all facets of the design process, from initiation, through analysis, design, review, to approval. Instead of having a system imposed on them, the users have truly designed it for themselves, according to their own, independent design decisions.

Emancipatory design is founded on issues of conflict and harmony in the disciplines of social economics and industrial relations. Carr-Chellman & Savoy (2004) recognise that the goal of emancipatory design is “more to create change and vest the users and frontline workers in organisational outcomes than it is actually to create a working instructional system”. Hence, emancipatory design may not be a universal instructional design methodology.

User design

User design fits between the extremes of the user empowerment continuum. Whereas traditional design and user-centered design remove the user from the active design process, and conversely, emancipatory design removes the expert designer from the process, user design merges the roles into the shared role of “co-designer”. It strikes a balance between the two perspectives by including contributions from both parties.

Arguably, user design is a universal instructional design methodology. Whereas traditional design and user-centered design devalue the role of the users in the active design process, emancipatory design devalues the role of the expert designer.

User design, however, values both roles. It recognises the necessity of the active involvement of users, because they are the experts in their domain and will be the ones operating the system. However, users can not be expected to understand the science of design. The active involvement of an expert designer is critical in guiding the design process and driving the work towards an efficient and effective outcome.


Carr-Chellman & Savoy (2004) identify numerous obstacles to the successful implementation of user design, including the reluctance of designers and leaders to share their decision-making powers with users, the inclusion of users too late in the design process, the tendency to categorise users into a homogenous group, and the lack of user motivation to participate in design activities.

Further Research

Carr-Chellman & Savoy (2004) claim that research specific to user design within instruction systems is scarce, and much of the research into other user-oriented design methodologies lacks scientific rigour. Therefore, they recommend the following actions for the research community:

  1. To create a standardised language to define user design and to distinguish it from other user-oriented design methodologies,
  2. To study the implementation of user design across different variables, such as user profile, subject area and mode of delivery, and
  3. To communicate the success of user design in terms of “traditional measures of effectiveness” for the purpose of influencing policymakers.

Furthermore, Carr-Chellman & Savoy (2004) recommend that researchers adopt the participatory action research (PAR) method of inquiry. They argue that PAR democratises the research process and, consequently, is ideologically aligned with the principles of user design.

It can be argued, therefore, that Carr-Chellman & Savoy (2004) promote both user design and user research. Their vision for users is not only to assume the role of “co-designer”, but also of “co-researcher”.


Carr-Chellman, A. & Savoy, M. (2004). User-design research, in Handbook of Research on Educational Communication and Technology, 2nd ed, D. H. Jonassen (Ed), pp. 701-716, New Jersey, USA: Lawrence Erlbaum.

19 thoughts on “Let’s get rid of the instructional designers!

  1. Interesting thoughts! User-created content is here to stay. Millenials are digitally literate and grew up in a culture where “there’s an app for that” could have been, just as easily, “there’s a training video for it on Youtube”. Instructional designers can have a role as a shepherd and curator to ensure that students are still getting the bang for their buck when consuming user-created content.

  2. I think having the way IDs and ELD’s think will be best served, ditch ADDIE which is outdated to WBT, and focus on real world scenarios is what will work, even with Millenials

  3. @ jg602 – I agree, Jyoti. The users are the subject matter and operational experts, while the instructional designers are the learning experts, so they both have important expertise to contribute.

    @ Craig Weiss – I don’t necessarily agree with ditching ADDIE (to me it depends on *how* it’s used), but I whole-heartedly agree with using real-world scenarios!

  4. Ryan, would you like to do a position statement similar to this for a book we’re doing on classic dialogues in the field? Your post made me think this woudl be a good idea. Email me at aac3@psu.edu if you’re interested/willing?

  5. What is somehow disappointing to note is that the people who need to read such articles or opinions never see or read these!
    The rest of the text + comments is music to my ears!

  6. @ Ali – I’ll get my people to speak to your people.

    @ Michel – What a lovely thing to say, Michel, thank you. Indeed it is up to us, the ones who desire change, to make the change happen. Please feel free to distribute this article to all who need to read it!

  7. I disagree that Instructional Designers don’t do user design. The A part of ADDIE is all about analyzing the target audience and their needs. The problem is not ADDIE, but that most organizations skip the A part of ADDIE and dictate from the top.This makes Instructional Designers into order-takers, instead of the true role they should play (human performance solutions). In my opinion, the problem is that too many IDs accept the role of an order-taker and don’t do proper audience analysis.

  8. I tend to agree with the past comment. Take a good long look at Jerry Kemp’s ISD model to see the true interface between student, designer, teacher, environment, and myriads of other elements, all of which go to make for a content rich, informed user basis for learning. Kemp puts the learner in the middle/heart of his model, and woe be unto the designer than forgets that condition!

  9. The essential concept here is end users need to be directly involved in the design process, as they always should be. ADDIE does not, by doctrine, exclude end users. “Good” instructional designers go to end users during Analysis to understand their needs and situation for a variety of reasons and continue that relationship through the entire process. “Good” IDs are more efficient and effective than non-professionals throughout this process, or, they have no reason to exist.

  10. When facing the days when work is work, I’ve sometimes commented to colleagues “If they could get someone to do it for free, they would.” As an instructional designer, the rigor and processes of ISD work are not incompatible with Emancipatory [sic] design as you describe it. How are decisions are made in this design methodology. Are they moderated like a wiki or moderated blog? If so isn’t that just an illusion of emancipation? In the end someone has to decide what to train, and focus the instructional solution. Finally, there are other aspects like 508 compliance and SCORM considerations that require expertise. I do not feel that my job is the slightest bit threatened, although it may evolve slightly into the role of a moderator or technical consultant.

  11. Have to agree with bluestreaklearning and later posts – if you’re not doing a good Analysis, then you’re not doing ADDIE and you are not an instructional designer (you may be an e-learning developer). A good analysis will steer a project towards emancipatory design wherever it makes sense throughout DDI and E (and away from it where it doesn’t)

  12. Thanks bluestreaklearning, Dick, Don, Colby and Al for your comments.

    I think we agree that ADDIE is not the problem in and of itself (though some of our peers would disagree), but rather that neglecting a proper analysis of the learner’s needs will result in an ineffective outcome. Without the A, the D won’t be user oriented.

  13. What a coincidence, David, I was just reading your article this morning.

  14. lol, thanks Ryan. In part three of my article series, I’ll talk a lot about human and algorithmically generated content and how they might form part of a blended value chain that can actually keep up with human learning. I agree with your emancipatory design idea. I also think that software can support learners as teachers by adding pedagogical and ontological rigour to their efforts.

  15. I’ve been working in ID in higher ed for 15 years and while I see the value in user design, I can’t imagine faculty agreeing to allow the students to have this much control of their own learning.

  16. Indeed Cathy. That’s what we in the corporate sector would call “business reality” ;0)

    I too can’t imagine faculty agreeing to allow the students to have this much control over their own learning… but I suppose that begs question: should they?

  17. the point of having a “course” is to reduce time to performance. to go find my own learning would increase my time to performance.

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