Written by:

Mark Aston


June 1, 2019


Why Hire an Instructional Design Company?

There are many reasons for you to consider hiring a company that specializes in developing instructional products. For example, you need a new training or e-learning course but

  • You, and/or your organization, are new to e-learning and you aren’t sure where to start
  • You have a small team and can’t afford to add a permanent employee
  • You don’t have the time to bring together all the resources, and project manage a team of instructional designers, graphic artists, videographers, narrators, illustrators, and technical writers
  • You have a tight deadline and budget and you need the project completed on time and on budget
  • You need help to get the best product, as the training is important for your organization’s success
  • You want to get revenue from the course but you aren’t sure how best to price and market it for your target audience• Your internal resources are currently unavailable or assigned

Or, you may want someone to bring fresh perspectives and ideas. In these situations, you need the resources of an experienced instructional design company. We at Spark + Co., believe that designing good courses requires a unique set of skills and experience. As with any profession, there are good instructional design companies and not so good ones. So how do you tell the difference and choose one of the good ones?  This article provides you with 10 qualities and skills of a great instructional design company.

10 Qualities and Skills of a Great Instructional Design Company

Instructional design is part science, part art. So, there isn’t a magic formula that ranks instructional design firms from best to worst. Not to worry though. Below are 10 qualities and skills of a great instructional design company so you can find a talented company to create a great training product.

1. Well-Defined Process

As developing a training course can be quite involved, you need an established process to guide the project. This should be organized, so the project proceeds along a well thought out set of steps. You want to be confident that the design company is following a well-worn path, and isn’t making it up as they go along. Without it, you’ll likely get confused and surprised by what comes next. Yet, the instructional designer should not use it rigidly. If a step doesn’t make sense in your situation, they should be willing to alter what they do.

2. Proven Expertise – A Strong Portfolio of Clients

Whomever you decide to work with, you want to make sure they have the appropriate capabilities and experience for your project. One way to do that is to look at their list of clients and the types of projects they’ve completed. Have they worked with 5 clients or 50 clients? Have they worked with similar size organizations? Having worked with organizations in comparable industry sectors to yours is an advantage. An instructional design firm that has worked with organizations that span several industry sectors can be a big benefit. They can bring innovative knowledge, ideas, and best practices to use for your course.

3. Learner-centered Perspective

Your e-learning or training course developer should be an advocate from the learner’s perspective. They should ensure that your product is learner-centered and not instructor-centered, or organization centered. Having a finely-honed sense of what the learners needs, motivations, desires, and preferences are, is important.

Likewise, you want whomever you choose to work with to be knowledgeable about how people learn. They should be able to suggest a variety of instructional tools and techniques that support learning. That is, how easy is the content learned, remembered and applied? Also, can they differentiate between memorized information vs information for reference? Do they appreciate that some information stays constant and needs memorizing, but other information changes? In the latter case, the student needs to learn how to find the most up to date information.

Also, how does the instructional designer view assessment of a learners understanding and mastery of a topic? Hopefully, they look at assessment as more than a multiple-choice quiz at the end of a course? To change behavior, they should address timing, feedback, spaced repetition, culture, along with many other factors. People aren’t “trained” by waving a magic wand as they read a PowerPoint slide. Your instructional designer should prepare your audience throughout the course, for the time they apply the task in real life.

4. Tech-Savvy

Building learning and instructional products requires a high level of tech knowledge and experience. Thus, you need a tech-savvy instructional design company. You need a person who can explain it to you, and others in your team, in a common-sense, clear manner. You don’t want the typical tech geek. Though you do want someone who understands what’s possible, and who has access to technical experts for any challenges that come up.

In addition, you will be looking for a firm who has experience with the e-learning tool you use. If you haven’t decided on a tool to use, then you want a person who has experience across several e-learning tools (such as Articulate Storyline, Captivate, Moodle, Thinkific). That way they can give you the best advice for what to use in your specific situation.

Similarly, with Learning Management Systems (LMS). If you already have an LMS then you need to ensure your instructional designer is experienced enough to be able to work with it. If you don’t have an LMS yet, then you’ll want to work with someone experienced enough who can advise you. Firstly, do you actually need an LMS? Secondly, can they help you define what you need the LMS to do? Thirdly, can they help you select the most appropriate LMS for your organization? Being tech-savvy and having the ability to communicate with you in a common-sense, clear manner is critical.

5. Skillful Analysts

A good instructional designer will be a skillful analyst, who uses their critical thinking skills in a pragmatic way. She/he will ask lots of questions and will listen attentively while taking notes. Then, they will ask even more astute questions. They’ll take the PowerPoint file or other course content materials you provide them and put them to one side, for now. Why? Because they’re more interested in the key tasks involved so that they can figure out the instruction that will support the activity to be learned.

As well, they should be asking you what a learner needs to be able to DO after they’ve completed the course. Good instructional designers will be bold enough to challenge you. For example, why is the course required to exist? Importantly they’re interested in the learning objectives so they can create the instructional activities to achieve the desired outcome. It’s not about simply taking instructors notes and content, and putting them online. Likewise, they should ask you about mistakes that people make as a result of a lack of training. Also, they will want to understand the consequences of those mistakes. Knowing how to use training to avoid potential harm to an organization can lead to valuable learning opportunities.

6. Strategic Perspective

While creators of training products must work with project details, great instructional designers understand and apply the bigger picture too. Creating learning objectives for your new e-learning course is good. However, knowing how they tie into the organizations main business goals helps take a potentially good course and makes it great.

By understanding the business problem and performance gap, they should help you solve the problem rather than just build a course. Even if, that means telling you that a new course or training product isn’t the most effective way to go.

7. Experienced Project Manager

Making an instructional product requires managing a lot of moving parts. For example, gathering content, input from subject matter experts, creating the design and branding, integrating comments and revisions from stakeholders, coordinating graphic designers, illustrators, narrators, videographers, IT and LMS people, and communications and marketing support. Then there’s getting appropriate levels of executive sign-off. At the same time, you want a great product that meets your objectives. Plus, you also want it delivered on time and on budget.

In all likelihood too, you may have had a bit of scope creep and added in a few extra things along the way. Or, something new came out of left field and also needs inclusion. In most circumstances, a great project manager will be the difference in whether you meet your deadlines or not. They have the capability to understand what’s important and what can be done another way. Using their experience, they’ll be able to suggest a few trade-offs that keep the project on track.

8. Good Cultural Fit

Whichever firm you decide to work with, it doesn’t matter if they check all the experience and skill boxes unless they’re a good fit. Let’s say you are a small non-profit that’s been lucky enough to get a cut-price deal with a multinational design firm. If their cultural norms aren’t a fit with yours, you’re heading down a path of frustration at best, and likely wasted time and resources. At worst it might lead to the development of a product that contravenes your values and beliefs. You shouldn’t work in ways that are against your values. You want to establish a relationship of mutual trust with a partner who understands who you are and what you stand for.

9. Enhancing the Capabilities of Your Team

You want to engage an e-learning and training development company that is a trusted partner working in the best interests of your organization. One that is going to enhance the skills of your internal team. For example, you might want your team to maintain the content of the course and keep it up to date after it has launched. Likewise, you may want to have a staff member trained on how to create extra course modules. Alternatively, you may want to continue to pay the contracted company to do this so you can focus on what you do best. Either way, it’s important that you have the conversation and know the ongoing costs and needs.

10. It’s Not All About Designing and Creating the Course

Although your desired outcome may be an online course, there are aspects of creating a successful course that isn’t only about designing training on a platform such as Articulate 360. What about the marketing and communications plan, for instance? How are you going to ensure that the intended audience is motivated enough to sign up? Or what about helping the user during the course, and after completion, by offering companion workbooks, or coaching? Also, is there support documentation for those managing the course in the LMS? Similarly, have you developed a pricing model and strategy if you are selling the course? These are all aspects involved in developing a custom training product, which may not be top of mind. Yet, does the instructional design company you hire, have capabilities in these areas?


Designing good instruction for learning requires a unique set of qualities, skills, and experience. As with any profession, there are good instructional design companies and not so good ones. You will dramatically increase your chances of getting a great company by using the 10 Qualities and Skills of A Great Instructional Design Company. Your reward will be a training product you are proud of, which your employees, your customers, or your supporters, will love.

We have covered a lot in the article above. But, alas not everything. If there are important items we could or should have discussed, drop us a note and we’ll consider those for future BLOG posts. Hopefully, we’ve managed to Spark Your Interest in the topic. If you like what you’ve read then we’d appreciate hearing that, and sharing it with your network.