10 Tips for Becoming a Better Designer

A few weeks ago, when I wrote an article on 5 Habits of Effective Instructional Designers, I asked community members to weigh in with their ideas for habits. To my delight, you all sent in a bunch of fantastic responses! As I compiled your advice, it seemed like your tips fell into three major buckets, so I’m going to use those categories to frame this recap of the Community’s top ten tips to up your instructional design game.

1. Make Content Meaningful and Concise

David Tait, Nicole Legault, and Josh Stoner all agree: the ability to write succinct, meaningful content—and edit that content—is one of the key skills that sets a highly skilled instructional designer apart from a so-so designer.

Stronger, more efficient writing takes time and practice, but here are a few strategies you can use to build your writing and editing muscles:

  • Try using a more casual tone. Informality in business writing is often frowned upon, but it’s an important part of engaging people. Think about it: most of us don’t speak with stilted phrasing, free of contractions and devoid of personality. When we communicate most effectively, it’s because we’ve imbued our words with a little character and spirit—and that makes people want to listen and be part of the conversation. So next time you sit down to edit your writing, try imagining yourself in a one-on-one conversation with the learner and then use that language and tone to convey your ideas.
  • Ask SMEs to paraphrase wordy slides. Sometimes, it seems like SMEs are being paid by the word! Next time you’re faced with slide after slide full of text, ask your SMEs to explain it to you in their own words. I even asked one SME to explain his content to me as though he were explaining it to his grandparents! Not only did we both have a good chuckle, we ended up having a great, productive conversation about how to simplify complexity without diminishing the meaning or impact.
  • Ditch the superlatives. Typical business writing is riddled with superlatives like “excellence” and “quality.” But what do those words really mean? Instead of offering a wordy definition of vague or subjective concepts, use a scenario to demonstrate what those concepts look like in action.

Nicole also had this suggestion for using more scenarios: When you're handed some new content, immediately start thinking "What are the real-life opportunities to apply this content?" and "What real triggers will cause this process or information to be needed?"

  • Cut the word clutter. As you edit your writing, ask yourself: Is there a more efficient way to present this information?

    Before & After
    In this example on the left is a screen full of facts about Diabetes. But what’s the key message hidden in all those bullets? On the right is the same slide with the redundant points removed or collapsed to create an impactful list that’s a lot easier to read.

2. Be a Better Communicator

Communicating with learners is one thing; but instructional designers also need to master the art of communicating behind the scenes with SMEs, e-learning developers, managers, and peers. Communicating effectively with such a wide variety of people can prove to be its own full-time job.

Here are some tips to make the most of your communications with peers and partners:

  • Focus on managing expectations with stakeholders/SMEs. Many of us talk about setting expectations with SMEs upfront as in, “Here’s why I can’t do what you want me to do…” While it’s important to have a candid talk about what’s realistic, it’s also a good idea to set the tone for collaboration by discussing how you plan to communicate and manage expectations throughout the project.

    As you identify training gaps and come up with recommendations for filling them, bring your SMEs into the loop and give them options for building the optimal solutions given the other project constraints. This keeps them engaged in the design process, and helps make them aware of all the great things you can do with the time and resources you have.
  • Help keep everyone’s eye on the ball. When conflicts arise, keep the conversation focused on what the learner needs to do. Paris Granville summarized this point, beautifully: “...I know to always recalibrate everything I am doing against purpose. It is easy to get dragged into the weeds and lose sight of the learner.”
  • Be specific - especially when you’re storyboarding. Ashley Chiasson recommends creating a task analysis for complex branching scenarios to provide context for other members of your team.

    And for better communication with e-learning development partners, Kevin Thorn suggests: “Have a good sense of what’s involved in developing e-learning. Instead of writing "click this..." or "drag that..." in the storyboard, define the behavior for the developer, e.g. “When the learner clicks on X, Y & Z fade in slowly from the right.”

3. Keep a Balanced Perspective

Ultimately it’s up to you and your organization to define “better.” When comparing yourself or your work to someone with much more experience or with specialized training or education, try to remember that they were once in your shoes—trying to define better for themselves.

Instead of self-defeating talk:

  • Remember that your strengths grow from adversity. Bettering your skills may seem like an exercise in endurance. Daniel Brigham advises, “Be patient with yourself as you grow your skills. Unhappy clients teach you the most valuable lessons. Stay with it.”
  • Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Instead of going to tried and true solutions, try tackling a low-risk challenge from a new angle and thinking outside the box. Jennifer Barnett says, “There is no avoiding running into blockades for a project from time to time... Often, thinking of other ways to do that exact same thing that's giving you problems is the most effective and efficient solution, rather than altering your plan of action.”
  • Build a personal learning network (PLN). A community of peers with different backgrounds and levels of experience is a huge asset for helping you identify new habits to foster or new skills to develop.

    Katie Evans, a self-described “new” instruction designer has this advice for fellow newbies: “...I've found it's really important to absorb as much information as you can from your co-workers, clients, even from other IDs from this forum—but to have a goal of developing your own style and way of doing things (design docs, look and feel, displaying content, etc.).”


For more tips on becoming a better designer, check out these articles and eBooks.

Have any other tips to add? Jump into the conversation and share your ideas with us! And we’d love for you to follow us on Twitter where we post the latest and greatest news about everything e-learning.

Want to try something you learned here, but don't have Articulate software? Download a free trial, and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning.

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Jeremy Gray