Backwards Design

I just started working with an instructional design team on developing a new course.

It’s interesting to be introduced to another discipline’s design process, particularly when you work in a field with a fairly well defined process of its own. At yesterday’s Akron UX Meetup we talked about the tension that can exist between IA and marketing given the overlap of focus (“ownership*”) on “the customer” / “the user.”  Someone made the observation that marketing excels at understanding customers by knowing a lot about their perceptions and opinions whereas UX focuses on their behaviors–and that both knowledge points are important. I think instructional designers would say that they know  a lot about how people learn–which both is and isn’t behavior.

The process they follow is called “Backwards Design” where you start by defining the desired learning outcomes and then back into the course structure, assignments, and materials. It is definitely a different approach from my previous course development experience where I basically visualized the semester broken into two halves by spring break and then further broken down into weeks and lectures. I had some clear objectives I wanted my students to achieve, but I probably left them to their own devices in terms of connecting the dots between what I was saying and what they were doing with what they were ideally supposed to be learning.

This process begins by having the instructor pose “essential questions” or “eternal philosophical questions,” which initially sounds pretentious and like the worst kind of academic navel gazing when it comes to the terminal master’s degree, which is by its nature a practical endeavor that may not even belong in the academy in the first place (and wound up there more from the absence of alternatives (and the insatiable demand for income universities are beset by now that the state has  abdicated any real funding role)). I digress…

Anyway, despite my initial reaction, it turns out to be great fun to attempt to define eternal philosophical questions facing Information Architecture as a discipline. My rough draft start is as follows:

  • Can information architecture be defined? Is it important/necessary to DTDT**?
  • Is IA art, science, or craft? (Does it matter?)
  • Information overload has become a fact of life and only appears to be increasing (we’re no longer dealing with information scarcity)–what is the role of IA in alleviating information overload?
  • Will we still need IA after the algorithms have all been perfected? (I think this is the parallel to the claim made very few years that libraries are on the verge of becoming extinct)
  • How can we most effectively bridge the inherent gaps that exist between the people who are disseminating information and the people who are consuming that information?

What do you think–are there other more pertinent questions I’ve missed?



* Just today I got an email from a colleague noting “I’m trying to locate an article/blog post/interview I read at least a few years ago. I’m going to paraphrase some points I remember from it:

– the designer/UX doesn’t own the design
– design is a process/methodology, not a thing to own

Surely that is true of our customers/clients/users as well!


**DTDT=Defining The Damn Thing

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