Differences between instructional design and technical writing

Subject: Differences between instructional design and technical writing
From: David Orr <dorr -at- ORRNET -dot- com>
To: "TECHWR-L (E-mail)" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Tue, 30 Nov 1999 09:59:27 -0600

Instructional design and technical writing are closer in approach now
than they were fifteen years ago when I first started writing.. I think
there has been a fair amount of learning by technical writers of basic
ID principles--particularly the emphasis on front-end analysis of
audience and job tasks. As one who has worked with and hired both
professions, I think these are some of the differences:

* ID people tend to be more front-end focused, that is, they spend
much more time on analysis and design, and have more sophisticated tools
for analysis. For example, a technical writer's audience analysis may
only include asking a product manager or technical person who will be
using the product. The answer is usually fairly brief. An ID person may
conduct extensive user interviews and supervisor interviews to get a
much more detailed picture of who uses the product, what tasks they use
it for, and under what physical and political circumstances they use it.

* ID task analysis tends to be more sophisticated than tech writer
analysis. A tech writer may work out a content outline that is
task-oriented. An ID person often create a matrix that ranks tasks by
most critical, most used and relates them to specific job titles. Often
there is a careful selection of which tasks to apply to which level of
* ID people have to specify learning objectives that are
measurable. For example, "When the trainee completes this lesson, she
will be able to enter an order in five minutes with no mistakes."
Objectives tie ID success to performance, to measurable things.
* ID people almost always test their product before
implementation. IDs conduct pilot tests of training materials to be sure
that the training works for both instructors and trainees.
* ID people have several levels of measurement of the success of
their product, which they call "evaluation." These range from subjective
evaluations of trainees, to testing to measure learning, to job
evaluation to measure changes in performance, to enterprise-wide
evaluation to measure changes in business parameters like profit,
reduced turnover, etc.
* Technical writers may be isolated from users. ID people tend to
have greater access to users, if for no other reason than that they
often deliver training to users.
* Technical writers, in my experience tend to be better writers,
than ID people.
* Technical writers may be more technologically savvy than ID
people, though not always.
* Technical writers tend to be more middle-process
oriented--cranking it out--than many IDs, who start to get bored with
* Both disciplines benefit from a good left-right brain balance.

As a technical writer myself, I feel I have learned immensely from the
ID discipline.

M. David Orr
Orr & Associates/The Usability Group

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