Instructional Designer Role
ATD Blog

Do You Understand the Context?

Monday, July 10, 2023

Traditional instructional design places undue emphasis on dumping training content on learners through a combination of information, media, and technology. What’s missing is the context of how learning happens and the understanding that learning is a process, not a one-time event. Learning Experience Design Essentials explores how to blend content and context to elevate learning experiences through adopting user experience, user interface, and accessibility principles. In this interview with author Cara North, she discusses what readers can expect to learn.

What is learning experience design?

Learning experience design (LXD) is the perfect blend of content and context, sprinkled with a touch of human connection. It’s where knowledge meets engagement. Instructional design (ID) has a rich history, and it has morphed to leverage now-ubiquitous learning technologies. Many instructional designers fall into the trap of trying to fit existing content into the learning technologies they have access to. I argue that they should do the opposite—conduct more due diligence on the front end to determine whether the request is even an L&D problem. Especially in the last few years, it seems that training has become a universal scapegoat for organizational problems such as lack of accountability, cultural issues, and more. Many practitioners take on projects they really shouldn’t, as content alone cannot solve these problems.

I like framing ID through work by Xie, Heddy, and Greene (2019) on behavioral, cognitive, and emotional learning engagement constructs. We’re not just concerned with what people are doing or how they’re being challenged. We want to know how it makes them feel. Because let’s face it, content shouldn’t be a dull, one-size-fits-all experience. Emotional connection empowers individuals and propels their careers.

Here’s the kicker: Context matters just as much as content. It’s not enough to dump information on someone and expect them to perform like a pro. We must consider the real-life applications, work environments, and unique challenges individuals face. Michael Allen said it best when he reminded us that practice shouldn’t come only when it’s time to perform. And let’s be honest—nobody wants to get stuck in a never-ending e-learning loop, desperately trying to remember what happened three slides ago.

If we want to avoid being seen as mere transactional beings in the world of learning and development, we need to embrace Learning Experience Design. It's about creating engaging experiences that blend content and context, leaving the shiny deliverables in the dust. Because at the end of the day, it's not just about being instructed, it's about crafting an experience that inspires, challenges, and connects.

Why this book now?

I wrote this book for two main reasons. The first was that I became genuinely curious about how ID was portrayed in job descriptions. I published some academic research on the topic and found the variance in ID responsibilities from organization to organization fascinating. Further, during my formative years as an instructional designer, I was responsible for everything up to building e-learning experiences, which I would often hand off to a developer. Recently, I have struggled to find postings for what I consider true instructional designer roles, as it is common to combine both functions in one job. This is partially responsible for the rise of the learning experience designer job title, as organizations no longer see enough distinction between ID and e-learning development to keep these roles separate.

The second reason is that a new generation of learning professionals has been inundated with e-learning development information via various content creators, ID boot camps, and academies. Even those in formal graduate programs and higher education certificate programs often read materials that portray ID work as easy and linear. I’ve found it to be anything but, and I wanted to share my process for getting work done efficiently and effectively.

In Learning Experience Design Essentials, you discuss accessibility and why you care about it. Have you found it difficult to incorporate accessibility practices into your learning experiences?

My partner and I both suffer from hearing loss. Over the last two years, it has accelerated. I know what it’s like to miss information when someone insists on speaking without a microphone or doesn’t use captions on screen. I still remember the first conference where I used live AI captioning in 2018. While it’s not a perfect process, it’s a small way to make sure people have a better experience. At a 2019 conference where I presented, someone came up after my session and thanked me for using live AI captions. They said I was the only presenter there to do it.


But accessibility is more than just captions. Our work serves everyone. It goes beyond just accessible functionality and the “feel” of the content. Returning to my earlier point about learning engagement—if we design learning experiences to leverage how people will actually apply the content and tell stories in a way that really reflects modern nuances, everyone wins.

Whether the client asks for captions or not, I make them. Whether the client asks for more inclusive imagery or not, I make it. Funnily enough, a client recently said they thought my content was “too inclusive”—what a wonderful problem to have.

You dedicate a chapter to the various settings (corporate, higher education, and consulting) that you have worked in. What are some of the nuances of these settings regarding learning experience design?

I’m grateful to have worked in many settings across multiple industries. I believe it has made me a more well-rounded learning professional.

I’ll start with corporate. One of the biggest factors is where the function sits in the business. In my career, I’ve worked in learning roles in centralized, operations, HR, and even IT departments. The difference in the types of problems you are asked to solve is vast, and the difference in resources available can also be vast. In the book, I share a bit about my favorite part of the organization to sit in. Where the learning experience designer sits within an organization is not asked often enough during job interviews.

In higher education, it matters whether you serve on the academic side or support university faculty and staff. I have experience in both. One nuance of academic (student-facing) ID is that faculty often own their content; that content is their intellectual property. Some faculty have completely trusted me with their content, while others have been reluctant to show it to me or answer any questions. It is critical that we have enough information to effectively craft the best learning experiences possible. Also, the best learning experiences are created through trust and collaboration. The best programs I’ve worked on were cross-functional and supported by multiple stakeholders. That support led to more resources and enthusiasm for the projects.

Finally, as a consultant, I’ve served in roles supporting tech, finance, healthcare, and government. Regardless of the industry, I find it interesting that my expertise is sometimes more valued as an external consultant than as an internal consultant. Sometimes your perspective is more welcome when you approach a role from outside the organization.

While that may be a benefit, external consultants face challenges, too, including a lack of relational equity. Internal consultants often have stronger relationships across the enterprise and access to more internal resources, including more stakeholders. Additionally, as an external consultant, I’m often brought in for a specific piece of the learning development cycle and lack the context that’s key to project success. In those instances, I struggle more to piece the puzzle together.


There is variability in the degree of access a consultant receives to organizational resources. Some organizations provide accounts to access data and files more liberally, while at others, the consultant must make a business case or formally ask for access to databases, files, and other resources.

As a consultant, understanding the context is critical to building effective learning experiences. Sometimes organizations tell you what they think their problem is, and it is your job to verify or debunk it. While the initial welcome as an external consultant can feel refreshing and warm, you may find it challenging to really scope a learning experience appropriately.

About the Author

Cara North is an award-winning learning experience leader who has served in corporate, higher education, and consulting settings for more than 15 years. She is the founder and chief learning consultant at The Learning Camel and an adjunct faculty at Boise State University’s OPWL program. Cara is the author of Learning Experience Design Essentials, and when she is not working, she enjoys video games and Orangetheory Fitness.

About ATD Press

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is the world’s largest association dedicated to those who develop talent in organizations. ATD’s members come from more than 120 countries and work in public and private organizations in every industry sector. ATD Press publications are written by industry thought leaders and offer anyone who works with adult learners the best practices, academic theory, and guidance necessary to move the profession forward. For more information, visit

Learning Experience Design Essentials
ISBN: 9781953946423
176 Pages | Paperback

To order books from ATD Press, call 800.628.2783.

About the Author

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.

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