Instructional Design Versus Technical Communication

Today I was trying to learn more about elearning when I stumbled across Tom Kulman’s Rapid eLearning Blog and was sucked into the content for the next fifteen minutes. The visuals on his blog are intriguing. They’re the kind of visuals I wish I had on my blog. They remind me a little of the visual artistry on The Oatmeal.

Even more genius, he promises a 47 page ebook on elearning if you sign up for email delivery of his posts. And here’s the shocker: he has 64,243 readers, though he only posts about once a week, it appears. His site is a good model of how to design a successful blog, but c’mon, 64,000 elearning readers? Really? I don’t even have 3,000 readers, and I have been blogging nearly five years. I doubt that there are thousands more technical writers surfing around the Internet looking for content but just not finding me. Search for practically anything tech comm related and you’re bound to stumble into my blog sooner or later.

Which leads me to wonder, are there thousands upon thousands more instructional designers out there than technical writers?

Is this the ratio of instructional designers to technical writers?

Is this the ratio of instructional designers to technical writers?

Maybe instructional designers include the whole gamut of teachers who want to include an online component in their courses, or something.

At any rate, I brought this question up in a team meeting, and my trusty colleague Derek said he had an observation about elearning. Derek said,

From what I’ve seen, most people in elearning have degrees in instructional design. They have some kind of official training in their field, whereas the same isn’t true for tech comm. Tech comm has much more diversity with backgrounds.

In other words, the difference (somewhat exaggerated) of paths leading to instructional design versus paths leading to technical writing looks like this:

Paths to elearning versus paths to technical communication

Paths to elearning versus paths to technical communication

This poses an intriguing question: Why do most instructional designers have degrees in elearning, whereas most tech writers lack degrees in tech writing? I asked the question on Twitter and was swamped by the responses:

techwriterkai @tomjohnson Coming to TW from different venues, backing into the job and loving it – aka I found my dream job while parking :-)

2moroDocs @tomjohnson Wow. Interesting responses. We’re as varied as the topics abt which we write. I have BA in Eng/Tech Comm, from way back in ’82.

cseftekhar @tomjohnson I got into #techcomm //because// of the degree offered at @ECUEnglish. Probably would be teaching now instead. :)

kirstyt @tomjohnson IDs all wanted to go into learning/ed/teaching?? Come from teacher ranks? TWs more diverse background, no one path to #techcomm

rjhoughton @MNTechWriter @tomjohnson My degree too – English Language & Literature BA, professional/technical writing minor.

paharvey @tomjohnson I think practical experience trumps education in #techcomm. Specific degree is icing, but not the cake.

JohnHedtke @kemulholland @EdMarshall @tomjohnson I’ll bet! Sharon Burton’s ABD in anthro and Spanish herself and does great questions similarly.

JohnHedtke @tomjohnson I think because we came to tech writing from many different venues, frequently backing into the job and discovering we loved it.

RayGallon @tomjohnson France has many programs at master level. Most in linguistics departments.

MNTechWriter @tomjohnson my BA is in English with an emphasis in tech writing. Dept. Chair was progressive.

techykate @tomjohnson  like others, i came into techcomm by accident.  I have a BA/MA in American Studies.

RayGallon @tomjohnson #techcomm is an eclectic profession. Most of us are humanists, not technologists. That’s why specific degree is difficult.

John_Ellam @tomjohnson @dfarb My Accounting degree taught me I didn’t want to be an Accountant & I ended up doing #TechComm for Accounting Software Co.

kemulholland @EdMarshall @tomjohnson one of the best #techcomm folks I know majored in anthropology & minored in Spanish. He asks great questions!

walterhanig @tomjohnson There wasn’t a TC curriculum way back when. Fell into TC based on skills honed in other careers (SW design, pgm mgt)

mycowz @tomjohnson Most people don’t aspire to be tech writers, they typically end up as one, needing only the ability to “write well.”

dekkere @tomjohnson When deciding on grad school, I found many more instructional design programs than #techcomm. An ID degree is more available.

PattyBlount2 @tomjohnson Even TWs can’t agree on what should be taught in degree programs (i.e., debates on TECHWR-l) #techcomm

alanbowman @tomjohnson My degree is in culinary arts. #techcomm is my 3rd career, after 15yrs cooking and 12yrs UNIX systems admin.

dfarb @EdMarshall @kemulholland @tomjohnson my BA is in English Literature, my MA (many, many years later!) is in #techcomm

dfarb @tomjohnson also in some places, such as the UK, there is a lack of specific university level education in #techcomm

dfarb @tomjohnson many reasons: many tech writers are in their 2nd careers; many employers still think “anyone can write”; #techcomm

dmnguys @tomjohnson Most of us seem to slide sideways into TC. Getting a degree or certificate in the field is often (not always) a second thought

EdMarshall @kemulholland @tomjohnson Anecdotally most exp. tw I’ve met in NE have other degrees than techcomm. Mine is in Music Ed!

kemulholland @tomjohnson Can’t speak for others, but I didn’t plan to enter #techcomm. My degree is in electronics. This is my 2nd career.

markfidelman @tomjohnson Great question. Only recently did Tech Comm have certification so maybe evolution into tech comm degrees?

larry_kunz @tomjohnson Many tech writers come into the field from other walks of life — probably more so than in instructional design.

Interesting. I had no idea so many people followed my sporadic tweets, but this must have hit a special note with technical communicators. The trend in the answers is that no one sets out to be a tech writer, you just fall into it. And even if you wanted to be a tech writer, there are few degree programs in tech comm. And even if there are degrees in tech comm, you probably already have writing skills, so why do you need to get a degree in what you already know?

If this is the case — that any background can lead to tech writing — then it’s no wonder that many people today feel that “anyone can write,” and so marginalize the value of technical writing.

Maybe certification will push us more into a common path to the profession. Still, I don’t think that technical writing will ever be a career young students aspire to embrace. Writers usually start out as dreamy English majors, and eventually come around to technical writing when they need money.

Thoughts on eLearning

I taught writing at the university level for four years, so I have some experience with teaching, but I’m new to elearning. From what I could gather reading Kulman’s blog, the basics of instructional design are fairly intuitive. Create active versus passive learning, give the user control, help the user apply the learning while he or she is learning, select content using the 80/20 rule — these are my immediate takeways. Not sure I would need a PhD in instructional design for this, but surely the same could be said of tech comm.

One thing is for sure, I don’t spend nearly enough time thinking about how my users will learn the material I create. I spend too much time gathering and organizing and refining the information, and then complaining that people don’t read the manual. They don’t read the manual because most people don’t learn by reading manuals. They learn through visual illustrations, through exploration and experimentation, and by having friends explain the application in friendly ways. This gap — overlooking how people learn — is my biggest deficiency as a technical writer.

I’m not sure why instructional design and technical communication are separate (though related) disciplines. Both need each other. The instructional designer needs access to the content that users need to learn. The technical communicator needs to present the content in a way that users can learn it.

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By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

  • Julio Vazquez

    Great post, Tom. Again, you’ve come up with some great food for thought.

    My personal path to tech comm went through a fairly convoluted path, too. My A.A.S is in Electrical Technology (how I learned research skills) but my B.S. is in Computers and Information Systems (a fairly diverse Comp. Sci. degree). However, my career went from doing comp. operations, to teaching comp. operations, to support programming to tech comm. (a couple times). I think that most tech comm. professionals have a desire to instruct but feel their writing skills are stronger than their presentational skills.

    A suggestion that I’d make to everyone who is looking at developing instructional materials is to get a copy of “Preparing Instructional Objectives by Robert Mager ( This is a book that I think is extremely useful for anyone considering building any instructional material.

    Hope this helps.

  • Patty Blount

    I have an instructional design background (and certification, thought not degree). I agree; both need each other.

    I was taught ADDIE: Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation and Evaluation. I apply that basic tenet to my tech-comm work as much as possible.

    I often debate content like this with my teams: “Explore the Interface”, “Understand How Feature X Works”…

    They’re bogus tasks. When was the last time a manager said, “Tom, why don’t you show me how to “explore the interface”? A manager is more likely to direct you to “Submit a time sheet” or “Back up a Volume”. I try hard not to weigh down the doc with meaningless tasks and instead, embed foundational information in real tasks, providing just enough instruction to complete the target task.

    You’re dead on target with this: Users don’t learn by reading a manual. Adults learn in many different ways. Some are visual, some learn best by doing. Believe it or not, the best way to learn something new is to teach it to someone else. I try to consider all learning styles in my work which is why I am a proponent of screencasts/videos and illustrations even though they’re difficult to manage in info sets.

  • Anne Sandstrom

    Very interesting post. To be honest, when I was between jobs a couple of years ago, I decided that I wanted to be an Instructional Designer. (I started my career as a teacher and loved it.) I interviewed for a few positions, but salary seemed to be the blocking factor. TWs earn about 20% more than IDs. The companies wher I interviewd assumed I wouldn’t take the pay cut. So I’m a TW, still.

    The TWs at my company feed info directly to the trainers, who then use it in live classes, and now in elearning. (They’re generous in giving us credit, which is very nice of them.)

    As for getting a degree, I think IDs have and use a lot more info about learning theory. I’d like to see the two career paths converge more in the future. As a profession, I think tech writing could use a big dose of that learning theory to really reach our audience in a meaningful way that’s relevant. So far, the deep technical knowledge required to create accurate reference type material is valued more (at least in salary) than the difficult to master ‘soft’ skill of being a good teacher.

    • Tom Johnson

      Anne, your comment about the salary discrepancy between TW and ID made me think a lot about this. It’s interesting.

      Re learning theory, this is something I want to emphasize more in my tech writing materials. Can you recommend a good read on learning theory?

  • Ben Hardesty

    Having worked for a few years on a team that provided both instructional design and technical writing, I got to see both sides of the equation, so to speak. I’ve come to see ID and TW as two different ways to present similar information to users. ID generally appeals to visual and classroom-based learners, while TW tends to be effective for book learners.

    Really, I think ID and TW go hand-in-hand in providing the full continuum of learning to the end-users. Training gets your users over the initial “knowledge gap” hump so that they can start using the product. The documentation supports them as they use it so that they can quickly access the information they need.

  • Eddie VanArsdall

    Great post, Tom! This is a subject of great interest to me.

    I earned a degree in Music Education many years ago, and the curriculum included a number of required core education courses leading to a state teacher certification in Virginia. I never taught in the school system but ended up developing business and technical training long before I was ever did pure technical writing. I guess my experience was the reverse of many TCs.

    The core subjects I studied still seem to be part of a core education curriculum, including Philosophy of Education, Learning Theory, Instructional Design, and Educational Media. Of those, Educational Media has obviously changed the most. Instructional Design was geared toward developing school curricula, and over the years business training departments have adapted it to meet their needs.

    I consider classroom teaching to be the best experience for understanding how people learn. I recommend that technical communicators aspiring to focus on training development and elearning spend some time teaching, tutoring, and mentoring. You’re a born teacher, Tom, as is evident by your posts.

    I also recommend these books:
    * Rapid Instructional Design by George Piskurich. At a time when everything we do is Agile, the book is certainly relevant.

    * William Horton’s eLearning By Design. It’s worlds better than anything I’ve read on the subject.

    Thanks for making us think!


    • Tom Johnson

      Eddie, thanks for the book recommends. I already ordered Horton’s book, as multiple people have also recommended it.

      Re teaching as the best experience for understanding how users learn, I think that idea has a lot of merit. When I was a graduate instructor for writing courses in college, we were told to teach using the Socratic method, which basically meant you had to ask students the questions and force them to think more deeply about topics. The idea was to teach critical thinking and analysis.

      In my tech comm materials, I’ve never been able to implement a similar tactic, and even when I’m teaching technical how-to material for an application to a group of users, I run into the same issues — there is little engagement because the Socratic method that I once learned doesn’t quite apply. But I’m sure many other teaching techniques would carry over. Certainly teachers understand that just telling students information doesn’t mean they absorb any of it. You have to give students assignments so that they learn. I rarely give assignments in my manuals, but I should.

  • Joe W

    I agree that there is some confusion with employers understanding the difference between TW and ID.

    I am a student going to school for a degree in TW. The department I currently work in employs over 100 people spread over three different locations, and there is basically no documentation of work processes, or any help material.

    When I tried to sell them on why they need a technical writer and what a technical writer does, they kept giving responses like, “So a technical writer is basically a training position, then?” or “I’d be great if you could make the training materials, and then also present them.”

    Not exactly what I had in mind, but any way to squeeze in some on-the-job experience is great. If i’m lucky, you’ll be looking at a brand new Technical Writer/Information Designer/Trainer! How’s that for a job title? Now it’s up to the Gods of corporate budget to decide over the next few months if it will ever come to pass…

    but I digress. Great post Tom! keep ’em coming!

    • Tom Johnson

      I would like to discover the term used for the role that bridges the gap between technical writing and training. Is it information designer, as you suggested it might be in your comment? In my organization, we call it “user education,” which seems to fit more or less, but isn’t a very exciting term.

    • Mike Frasciello


      Here’s a resource that might interest you: “Content and Complexity: Information Design in Technical Communication” Edited by Michael Albers and Beth Mazur (Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003).

      Last year we used a number of essays in a doctoral studies course at Syracuse University. You posted a series of reviews/comments at(

      I hope this is helpful.

  • Craig

    Great post. ID reminds me of brain surgery, or maybe the army. You have to sign up for it and commit to it. TW is more of a catch-all. You can slip into TW through a sidedoor from most any other occupation and learn on the job. I dig the sketch underneath TW. That totally matches how my mind functions!

    • Tom Johnson

      Craig, I always love your comments. I never thought of ID as brain surgery or the army, but it’s an interesting comparison. Thanks.

  • Gina Burchard

    The comments so far have touched on some of the high-level differences between technical writing and instructional design. It’s especially good that Julio mentions Mager, whose work is the starting point for anyone trying to figure out what ID is about. I have about 35 years of professional experience, with parallel tracks in TW and ID, and they intersect at times, but they are different. Not mutually exclusive–it’s pretty hard to be a good instructional designer if you can’t write. Here are some key aspects of instructional design that I am rarely called on to use in a TD role:
    *Identifying the business requirement underlying a performance need
    *Identifying the level of performance required to meet the business requirement
    *Breaking the performance into its component tasks
    *Determining how to measure the required level of performance for each component task
    *Identifying the best instructional method to enable the learning of each component task
    *Identifying the best delivery method for communicating with and enabline learners (writing a procedure would be ONE such delivery method)
    *Enabling the learners to perform the task, given your analysis of their “performance drivers” (preconceptions, existing knowledge and experience, organizational environment, technical environment, motivation, etc.)
    *Measuring the resulting performance (at multiple levels and intervals)
    *Analyzing the impact of the resulting performance on the original business requirement

    ADDIE is a part of this. ADDIE has had many incarnations and many names, but it’s basically the sequence that Patty describes.

    This is a 30,000-feet-high view of what goes into instructional design. With e-learning, we have a whole universe of tools to use to accomplish performance goals: text, graphics, visual space, audio, and all the varieties of interaction afforded by the Internet.

    While technical writing tasks can and should incorporate a level of analysis comparable to what I’ve described, as a technical writer I rarely have the opportunity to implement a methodology, and certainly don’t get to discuss with a client how a reader’s performance of a task is elicited, improved, or measured. I’m lucky to get an SME’s answer to the question: “How is the reader going to use this information?” I do try to bring as much reasoned analysis to the process as I can, and ID principles do help me in technical writing. But I don’t see them as part of the TW canon, at least not yet.

  • Tammy

    You summed it up well for me:
    “Writers usually start out as dreamy English majors, and eventually come around to technical writing when they need money.”

    Sigh. Of course, for me, that happened while I was still in college and decided not to get a teaching degree. That’s when I picked up the tech writing minor with my English major. But after I got out of college I still looked for that publishing job some of us dream of before settling down to tech writing. Not that I haven’t enjoyed it quite a bit since then…

  • Ellis Pratt

    It could as Tom K’s site is packed with references to e-learning, people are coming across the site when they search on that phrase (and I bet a lot of people search on that term).

  • Irene

    I too love Mager’s books including the one named. I also highly recommend Ruth Colvin Clark and her books (often with others) on graphics and elearning. They are sooooo good.

    As an experienced tech communicator I have not been very impressed with the quality of writing I have been exposed to. Many basic comms standards are ignored eg all caps and the break up, information architecture is often weak.

    I graduated with an economics degree and worked with a govt statistical body where I eventually was asked to edit and publish. I later worked with legal and financial documents.

    I have developed my skills through attending courses, networking, joining chat rooms and groups, looking at other people’s work and lots and lots of reading of journals, books and online.

  • Rengaraman

    Started my career as a CS lecturer and transformed into an ID. Now I am a happy TW. Salary is also a crucial point for many people choosing tw path.

  • Rose Craig

    Hi Tom

    I’ve worked in both areas. Previously I was in IT Training and did some Instructional Design but now I’m in Technical Communications.

    Yes there are similarities between the two fields. They overlap too especially when talking about e-learning and screencasting.

    One thing that I see that is different between the two fields is that ID focusses on learning but TC doesn’t. For example, take online help. People need to know it’s there and will refer to it when they are stuck but they don’t use it to learn.

    • Tom Johnson

      Thanks Rose. I agree that the emphasis on learning distinguishes the two.

  • Mike Frasciello


    It’s been my experience that instructional designers will find themselves “doing” technical communication at some point during their careers. What’s always interested me is the intersection between Technical Communication and Instructional Design disciplines. As noted in a few of the posts above, there is a fair amount of cross-over among the theories that serve both practices.

    What’s troubling is that nearly all instructional designers I’ve ever worked with fail to recognize the “writerly” and rhetorical aspects of what they do. The writing is secondary, which is often a fundamental disservice to the users of their instructional products.

    I wrote a short (immature) unpublished academic article on this topic a few years ago. The online version can be found at

  • Karen

    Have you thought about contacting the IDL SIG for more comments and insights? It’s the Instructional Design and Learning SIG in STC.

    • Tom Johnson

      That’s a good idea. I am going to read Horton’s classic eLearning by Design book too.