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ID, UX and LXD: Differences and Similarities Explained

 There's been a lot of mystery around Learning Experience Design - I see discussions on LinkedIn and in my design social circles around LXD being the same as Instructional Design in a shinier package, or User Experience design for learning. I'm grateful to have come across Niels Floor's highly informative articles on lxd.org last year - that convinced me that LXD is a specialized field with distinctive features that separate it from related domains such as ID and UX.

Differences in FOCUS

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The easiest differentiation is based on the terminology itself, that will make you say "Duh! Obviously!" : Instructional Design focuses on instruction, User Experience Design focuses on the user, and Learning Experience Design focuses on the learner. This is not to say that IDs don't care about learners, or that UX designers do not work on educational products, or that LXDs spend no time thinking about instruction or users. The difference lies in who these designers orient their process towards the most - instruction, user, learner.

Differences in DISCIPLINARY ORIGINS

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ID origins

Instructional Design emerged during World War II with the goal of training thousands of soldiers. Test-taking also emerged as a formal evaluation at the time, which is why many educators today advocate for re-thinking aggressive evaluation methods (students are not soldiers at war!). By 1950s B.F Skinner had published the famous article 'The Science of Learning and the Art of Teaching' which expanded on instructional design processes and by 1956 Benjamin Bloom created the most famous triangle in the field of Education - Bloom's Taxonomy.

In 1975 Centre for Educational Technology at Florida State University created the ADDIE Model (Analyze, Design, Development, Implement, Evaluation) for the U.S. Army - which turned out to be a very useful instructional design model even outside the Army setting. Since then, there have been several other ID models and frameworks - designed directly for education and not adapted from the war origins. ADDIE remains popular after all these years, and many job descriptions for ID positions still mention the knowledge of this framework in 'desired skills' section of the job listing.

You can read more about the history of ID at Instruction Design Central.

UX origins

Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) as a field started growing when personal computing was introduced. In the 1970s Xerox's PARC research center came up with Graphical User Interfaces and by 1984 Apple had released the first Macintosh personal computer. While the term UX wasn't introduced until many years later, in practice many designers were thinking about users in the same way - trying to make their experience easy and intuitive, thinking about technology not just in terms of the product (App/Website/Game etc) but the overall experience of the user while interacting with these products or services. In 1988, Don Norman published The Psychology of Everyday Things (updated as the The Design of Everyday Things) which has been a UX staple. Finally in 1995, Norman gave UX its name.

You can learn more about the origins of UX in this article in Career Foundary by Emily Stevens or this brief intro to HCI in Interaction Design Foundation by John Carroll. If you're curious, learn about what Don Norman thinks of UX today.

LXD origins

While I couldn't find a definitive history of LXD as a field, I could trace it back to roughly early 2000s with the work of designers like Niels Floor, who has been a pioneer in the field of LXD and talked about it way before this was a 'trend'. On lxd.org, Niels mentions that LXD primarily evolved from the Design field - but is also interdisciplinary and exchanges ideas with HCI and Education fields.

Differences in PERSPECTIVE

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Because of the origins in formal training in structured organizations such as the army (during WW II) or later with universities, ID as a field tends to be more scientific and organized, following academic frameworks to the T. ID training and testing methods commonly by universities historically are similar several years later: coursework, demonstrations, workshops, formal testing, etc. However, IDs today are wonderfully adapting to the demands of learners in better ways than their historic counterparts.

Because of the origins in HCI, cognitive psychology, design, and several related fields - UX tends to be both scientific and artistic in its approach. UX designers are informed by academic theories and frameworks, but are also flexible and artistic in finding engaging, intuitive solutions to usability issues.

Because of its primary origins in the design industry, LXD tends to be more artistic than scientific. While LX designers care about the learning process deeply though understanding of related learning theories and cognitive processes of learners, their primary focus is on designing visually stunning, useful, and engaging learning experiences. When I observe my own work and the work of other LXD designers - I notice how we do not follow any academic framework to the T, rather look at a learning goal and think in terms of what would be the best designed experience to learn this particular topic.

Differences in PRODUCTS

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To clarify - all the three fields ID, UX and LXD are complex interdisciplinary and intellectual systems and NOT just designing a product. IDs don't just design courses, UX designers don't just make apps and LXDs are not hipsters drinking home-brewed beers in mason jars and doing the exact same job as ID/UX but calling themselves these other letters.

That said, if you go on Indeed.com and look up these three job titles of ID, UX and LXD - there are certain type of products/services/outcomes that will be highlighted in the job descriptions.

IDs are typically working on products such as Courses, e-learning modules, curriculum, workshops. UX designers are typically working on products such as mobile apps, websites, digital games, software. LXDs are typically working on all these things - courses, apps, AND other forms of learning experiences which could take the form of museum exhibits, summer camps, AR interactive booklets, children's books, movies, toys and games or any other medium that can be used to generate a learning experience.

Note that for ID, UX, and LXD - the products could be digital or tangible, so it's not always about wireframing and prototyping a digital product, the design and experience can be applied to tangible objects like books, toys, DIY kits, or experiences like a therapy session, summer camp, museum exhibit, or workshop.

Differences in EMPLOYERS & JOB TITLES

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I'm going to keep this section simple and mostly self-explanatory. Let's do a quick exercise of looking up job descriptions for each of the three titles.

Indeed.com search results for Instructional Designer jobs in the US - Notice that ID jobs are mostly within universities for supporting instructors, or in corporations providing employee or customer/user training (among other duties).

Indeed.com search results for UX Designer jobs in the US - Notice that UX designers are often hired by diverse domains - from tech companies and online shopping businesses, to airlines, healthcare, banking, etc.

Indeed.com search results for LXD jobs in the US - Hello confusion! You can see how this search results in many ID and UX positions, and notice how even the rare LXD listings describe the roles almost exactly as ID/UX - so there is definitely a lot of confusion going on with the employers themselves! Some employers decided to combine terminology with titles such as Learning Designer/ Instructional Designer or with this job at Apple titled Instructional Learning Designer

This confusion is typical of any new field. Not all employers will use the LXD as a job title to describe an open position, because there is a lack of education and awareness about this field. Several years ago when UX came along, people argued that it's the same as HCI or Cognitive Psychology. And it's true that UX existed before it was called so (some enthusiastic authors even claim UX existed as an idea in 4000 BC). I'm not surprised now that LXD is trying to claim an identity, that other related fields like ID and UX may feel like this is just a repackaging of old ideas. They are right to some extent that LXD hasn't reinvented the wheel and has many overlapping interests and practices with ID and UX, however we must remember that every single field started out this way - overlapping with other existing ideas and unique in small ways at the beginning, and becoming more unique as the years go by.

Remember that LXD is still a somewhat new-ish field (20-30 years old) compared to ID which emerged during the World War or HCI/UX that has been around since personal computers were invented. Many employers will describe the work of an ID and give the job title as UX or LXD or vice versa. My strategy is to read the job description, and if there are opportunities to design creative and engaging learning experiences, then that makes one a learning experience designer regardless of their title.

Differences in TOOLS

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When I managed a small team of designers and found myself resolving issues around software usage more than the actual goals of the design, I joked that "Designers who obsess over tools - are tools. Let's not be tools, folks!". I learned over the years not to be such a tool getting lost in nuances of the software and focus more on the outcome I am trying to achieve. Technology changes so often and new softwares come around ever so often. This is why anyone who is considered well-trained in ID, UX or LXD is not trained in using a software but in using interdisciplinary knowledge to create a system.

As Seymour Papert would say, software tools are just like paintbrushes, they don't make an artist. Some popular paintbrushes for IDs are Adobe Captivate, Articulate Storyline, Brainshark. For UX designers some popular tools are Adobe XD, Sketch, Figma, Balsamiq. For LXDs everything Adobe Creative Cloud has to offer - and many other ID/UX tools as well (depending on what the experience design needs) come in handy.

Differences in POWER & ECONOMICS

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Few years ago I attended a very unexpected and insightful course taught by Dr Tanner Vea called 'Power, Politics, and Equity in Education'. This course made me think about why different job roles have a different orientation or focus. Why are IDs, UXDs and LXDs arriving at similar goals from different points of view? It is because of the power of the organizations that hire these roles. Universities and Corporations are hiring IDs to instruct and train their students/teams, so IDs are obligated to think from the point of view of the instructor first. UX designers are often working for organizations where the power of buying a product or service is in the hands of the user. That is why they spend a lot of time understanding the user, because ultimately the buying/usage decision remains in their hands. A user will download a game or an app or shop online at a particular website if their experience goes smoothly in accomplishing what they need to. LXDs are also ideally working directly for the benefit of the learner - so the power is held by the learner first.

Within a University canvas course or employee training, I as a learner don't have the power to change the learning experience directly. I do not have options (besides the few options my organizations might offer). However if I focus on the learning goal and learning experience itself, I don't have to rely on an organization, I have more choices as a learner. The power of change is with the learner. If I want to invest $5-10 in a learning experience of my choice, I could spend it on different online learning subscription services, books, games, museum visits etc. And because of this power of the learner as the individual, LXDs try harder to make learning experiences worth it. Worth the time and the money. If I see a bad design in my University's Instructional Design, I have to live with it as I won't be leaving my school or organization over this. But if I'm going after the learning experience alone, I am free to leave a bad experience and choose a better experience - for eg. If I don't like the comedy writing workshop offered by my local theatre group, I could spend the same time and money on an online Masterclass.

Similarities in the PROCESSES

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For ID, UX, and LXD, even though the terminology, abbreviations, and acronyms are different, the overall process is very similar - understand the needs of people - and then design, test, reiterate and launch the product, service, or experience that would achieve a predefined goal.

Let's take a quick look at the steps in popular frameworks in all 3 fields and notice the similarities:

For IDs, one of the popular frameworks is ADDIE: Analyze, Design, Development, Implement, Evaluation

For UX designers, a popular framework quoted often is Design Thinking: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test

For LXDs, Neils floor outlines this LXD process: Question, Research, Design, Build, Test, Improve, Launch

In all of the above processes, essentially everyone is getting at the same point from a different view - it's important to understand the person/population that you are serving with the help of research, try to narrow down the problem areas and the goals, and then try to achieve those goals with help of iterative design. Once the design is tested enough and seems successful, then it's time to launch it.

There are some differences in the process, such as in UX and LX designers often create personas, scenarios, journeys, paper prototyping etc. whereas IDs tend to follow frameworks which often do not involve this approach (not always, I'm sure there are IDs who use these interdisciplinary ideas too!)

Job titles and abbreviations can be confusing and ultimately don't matter as much

ID, UXD, LD, LXD. What the D.

Will trainee experiences in fitness industry be called FXD? Will patient experiences in the healthcare industry be called HXD? How much narrowing down of a field is necessary? These are negotiations based on the demand and supply of the workforce, and based on identities that best represent a growing group of people.

Finding your personal identity as a designer is a long journey

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The landscape of design industry is constantly shifting, and designers need to evolve to meet the need of the organizations or systems they support. Most of my friends and colleagues in the design industry have moved through multiple design disciplines such as graphic design, web design, interaction design, animation, visual effects, industrial design, architecture, etc. before pivoting into UX design. Instead of being considered as outsiders who tried to claim expertise in another discipline - I believe us pivot-ers bring interdisciplinary knowledge and are able to transfer certain core design skills from across the domains. There is always the opportunity to spend enough time on the job, interact with experts, read staple books of the field, and eventually become experts in a new specialization of design.

I personally like to use the title of Learning Experience Designer for my LinkedIn profile and Bio for any public events, because I not only create courses or e-learning modules typically designed by IDs, or mobile and web apps typically helped along by UX designers, but I also design other forms of learning experiences such as educational games, children's books, museum exhibits, short films, summer camps, AR interactive experiences, and other creative forms of learning experiences that are not traditionally part of ID or UX fields. I enjoy the interdisciplinary nature of LXD, which allows me to draw upon my diverse backgrounds from the fields of design, HCI, and education. There are many designers like me who enjoy creating unique experiences that support learning, and LXD as a field has become a nice community for likeminded folks to exchange ideas and push the boundaries of what counts as a great learning experience. I enjoy attending monthly meetings organized by lxd.org - where I get to exchange ideas with other LXD folks from across the globe.

For more information read What is LXD? and LXD vs ID written by Niels Floor at lxd.org

All illustrations are from freepik.com premium