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5 Traits of a Successful Instructional Designer

(As featured on E-learning Industry)

Anyone in the field of instructional design knows being a successful Instructional Designer is not a given. It is a skill that requires practice, exposure, and collaboration. I’ve outlined some traits of successful instructional designers below:

  1. An insatiable appetite for learning.

    This is twofold: Firstly, new developments in technology and research are being made all the time in instructional design and ed tech. Plus some of the practices that we swore by five or ten years ago are being called into question (I’m looking at you VARK, lol). We have to remain on top of these changes and developments to drive the best experiences for our learners.

    Secondly, just by the nature of our role, we are learners. We work with subject matter experts to create experiences. We are sometimes our own subject matter experts and have to consume and synthesize large amounts of content. We inevitably absorb some of that knowledge we obtain during the design process.
  2. An understanding of where they fit into the “big picture” to help define success.

    I’ve met IDs who are part of a client success organization (like me). Others are part of human resources; some IT, product, etc. Some are even an entire structure of their own. Our location within the overall org structure can determine resources, priorities, how success is defined, level of autonomy, and key relationships. I know that being part of a client success org means that my success is partly defined by client engagement. This means I have to prioritize client satisfaction and engagement metrics. I partner very closely with others within the CS org to keep an eye on feedback and communicate directly to clients. Someone in HR may prioritize employee performance and/or retention data. The may need to foster relationships with managers and other leadership to carry out the developmental goals of the organization.
  3. An affinity for technology.

    Although I consider technology a variable in sound instructional design, it is very difficult to build a successful learning experience without integrating technology. By technology, I am especially referring to computer-based learning, computer-based development, and web-based delivery. Especially since the beginning of the pandemic, many designers have been scrambling to find ways to reach and engage this new rush of remote learners replacing their previously face-to-face synchronous methods. Face-to-face delivery is becoming less of an option as more children are homeschooled and more adults are working and learning from home. The role of the designer is to determine the best methods for delivery and engagement given the constraints and characteristics of their learners. It is becoming increasingly prevalent that technology is the vehicle to provide the best experiences to the most people.
  4. The ability to read and adapt to the learner and the learning situation.

    Nothing ruins a learning experience more than one where the learner finds no benefit in participating. One of the key drivers for motivation is relevance (ARCS model of motivation). In order for an experience to be relevant, not only do you have to initially know your learner’s characteristics, but sometimes, you also have to be ready to pivot based on the real-time situation (especially in synchronous ILT situations). I’ve designed training workshop experiences where the outcomes were that the learner walk away with X, Y, and Z. My design defined the achievement of that based on an instructor/learner relationship. In the real-time situation, we found that peer learning provided the very best experience and retention, so that we pivoted and that was incorporated into our design moving forward.
  5. A creative mind.

    “Outside the box” thinking is an important trait of a successful designer. As learning contexts become more complex, previous solutions become less likely to provide the optimal experience. I liken an ID to a chef in this regard. The learning experiences we design are recipes that we use to create a delicious meal using the ingredients we have. There may be a certain, common way to combine all of the ingredients to create an “ok” meal, but in order to create something to satisfy a more sophisticated palate, chefs often have to think outside the box and combine those ingredients in new ways. It is the exact same thing with design. Learners can easily become less engaged when being provided the same combination of “ingredients”. It is up to us to combine those ingredients in new and engaging ways to provide a great experience for our learners.

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