7 Tips To Jumpstart Your Instructional Design Career

Remember how you were once a kid, bright-eyed with wonderment - perhaps dreaming of becoming a teacher, a doctor, or even a professional WWE wrestler. What did you end up becoming? Well look at that. You're an elearning professional, aren't you?

Not surprisingly, many of us come into the world of learning and development, and namely, instructional design purely by accident. But as the industry matures and evolves, more and more of you are making an intentional choice to be involved in elearning and instructional design. The good news? Whatever your path to this field, you're not alone. Many people face the same challenges as you on this ID mission. 

So what can you do to make sure your career in elearning and instructional design thrives? Let's explore a few best tips and insights to make the most of it and find your passion along the way.  

Recognize All the Hats You Need to Wear

Years ago, Dr. Ellen Wagner, a friend and mentor, share a unique model about L&D professionals. Her model laid out four unique sectors of the industry that we're all expected to know and pursue in our practice as instructional designers. I still refer to this model and you should too!

I like to think of it as a big pie with four pieces that we should all be tasting from

  • Learning and pedagogy: How do adults learn? What's a learning objection and how do you craft a good one? What are the guiding principles of ID? How do you decide on the appropriate instructional strategy? How do you assess whether someone has learned? 
  • Creative: Elearning without a creative element is just blah and boring. Graphics and strong visuals, storytelling, video production, snappy writing - these elements are what help make elearning that people actually want to work through. 
  • Technology: Do you use authoring tools? Do you know what SCORM is? Do you know how to code? QA? You might just have to if you're a one-stop-shop instructional designer, which isn't out of the ordinary in this industry. 
  • Business: As an ID, you need to understand the needs of your business, and the requirements of the organisation, and what what you're doing supports the bottom line. You need to know how to talk to senior leaders, stakeholders, and the gentle art of persuasion - how to change hearts and minds along the way, to help education them onto a difference, better path for an elearning programme. Additionally, you may have to know how to run an elearning project, keeping budgets, time frames and quality in mind. 
For many of us, you have to do all these things - and you might be superman if you can do it flawlessly, but many of you who work as a one-person elearning shop, it's a lot of hats to wear and a lot of different skill sets to master. What can you do to round out your pie?

Know Your Sweet Spot

Do you love to write? Do you love speaking to people and performing? Can you break down something and make it simple? Maybe creativity is your sweet spot. Or maybe multi-device learning and LMS portals excites you, and you know everything there is to know about coding and SCORM. That's cool too. Most of us have one sweet spot in what we do - that aspect of the pie that really gets us excited and passionate - but then we all have our gaps. Make sure you're exploring your sweet spots and taking your practice to the next level, but don't neglect those gaps - explore those areas that you're a little less comfortable with, and find ways of increasing your fluency in those areas. 

Don't be Afraid to Ask Dumb Questions - Lots of Them!

To be an instructional designer, you need to have that innate sense of curiosity and that urge to know how things work, and be able to break it down for people. You could be working on lots of different projects in different sectors in one year: maybe one day it's a regulatory workflow for a pharmaceutical company, and the next day you're onto sales training for a major car manufacturer

That curiosity about how things work will be a great tool to help understand how things work from start to finish. Curiosity translates into asking lots of questions, and often you have to pull out the details from your SMEs and the people you're working with. Ask all the questions you want. Put yourself in the shoes of the learner and try to anticipate the questions they will have. You can't really teach curiosity but it becomes a finely honed skill that will be a useful tool as an instructional designer. 

Want to Keep That Passion? Staying Fresh is the Best Medicine

I might sound like a broken record, but the best advice I can give anyone starting in the field as an instructional designer is that you need to be open and curious about not just the subject matter you're working with, but about our field as well. Find out as much as you can about elearning and instructional design; read industry reports; see who the vendors are, read and demo what they're doing; find out who's who in the industry - read blogs, read books, read guides and tips. Get on social media like Twitter and find those bigwigs; get involved with #lrnchat or MeetUp groups, and develop that personal learning network to help you be the best you can be. 

Stay fresh with what's going on in the industry - and remember to look at all four pieces of the pie: learning, creativity, technology and business. Take a peek at design books that aren't written by IDs if you want to fuel that flame for typography of be inspired by infographic design. 

Read Harvard Business Review if you want to know about best practice performance outcomes. 

The key: be well rounded. And don't limit yourself to industry-related literature. This can keep you current and can help your organisation bring new perspectives to your learning and development initiatives, while keeping your own passion for instructional design alive and well. 

Don't Follow the Cookie Cutter Approach

This industry constantly evolves - there are new tools to enable us to create elearning, whether it's multi-device elearning like Adapt Framework, Captivate 8, Presenter Suite. Tools - that IDs like myself only dreamed of in the mid 1990's that would make course production much more efficient. 

Today we have great tools that enable almost anyone to create elearning. But the problem is many organisations are a bit stuck in the past, continuing to use PowerPoint slides with text bullets that they call elearning. So when new people enter the field (possibly by accident), they may just follow those old, out-dated models, not realising that there IS a better  way. So if you want to be intentional with your instructional design practice, you're going to be expected to explore and see that there's a better way of learning. You can push your practice to be better (and trust me, it will be) than those PowerPoints, to create a better learning experience for learners and organisations. 

To Degree or Not Degree?

The scales may tip over time, but it appears that people who are currently practicing in the field don't have degrees in instructional design. That doesn't mean you have to be complacent. You can read up on instructional design, and continually learn about the industry, making an effort to learn as much as you can. However, a degree or certificate might be the jump start to get you into the field and will give you credibility that may help you get a job. But then again, some higher education courses don't teach the skills and capabilities between the academic program and what the industry is doing. At the end of the day, it's your decision, and there are plenty of organisations and universities that do certification and degree programs, but there's also plenty of free online resources to help  you master the skills and competencies on your own. 

Be Empathetic

I've said it once and i'll say it again. Curiosity and the ability to breakdown complex subjects into simple ideas is key to being successful in this field, as are strong communication skills. But don't forget to be empathetic. Being able to look at content from a learner's perspective and to simplify and structure it in a way that they can relate to and actually do something with, will help you bring even more value to your work. Empathy should be at the heart of what you do. 

What's Next?

At the end of the day to most successful instructional designers, wear many hats, have empathy to understand their learner's needs and think outside the box. It can be challenging at times, but rewarding as well, and I wish you the very best on your journey into instructional design! Want to see  the incredible work that talented instructional designers can do? Get in touch with us to gain access to our Showcase demo site, read our case studies, or catch up on our free resources if you're looking to read more about your sweet spot.