5 Habits of Effective Instructional Designers

A habit is defined as “something you do without thinking—a regular practice.” When it comes to our professional development, building new habits, especially the good ones, requires conscious repetition of new behaviors and new ways of thinking. Cultivating all of this “new” stuff can be a little daunting. So, instead of a complete professional re-boot, it’s a good idea to keep your list small and focus on just a few things you can do to up your game.

Not sure where to start? Here are five habits I’ve observed in the behaviors of my most effective instructional design peers.

Habit #1: Act Like a Consultant

A very important SME asks you to turn their 88-slide PowerPoint deck into an e-learning course. What do you do?

When faced with such requests, many of us feel we can’t afford to say no, or even ask why, without making ourselves or our team look uncooperative. But the cost of failing to push back on such requests is that we end up acting like a short-order cook, serving up a blue plate special instead of behaving like the skilled, informed business partners we want to be.

So what do you do if you want to move out of a transactional role and into a more collaborative one? It’s time to act like a consultant. This begs the question, what do consultants do?

For starters, consultants:

  • Acknowledge that their value lies in gently pushing back, asking questions and clarifying information to arrive at optimal solutions.
  • Offer recommendations based on evidence, not just their past experience or gut instinct.
  • Lead trade-off conversations. When clients ask for fast, cheap, and life-changing solutions, consultants know it’s their job to help the client prioritize.
  • Accept that they may need to be the bad guy and offer up answers no one is ready to hear.

Habit #2: Stay Curious

Nothing signals the demise of your creativity faster than waning curiosity for the world around you. Effective instructional designers know that curiosity—about your business, your customers, your learners, your products, your mission—keeps you connected with your purpose and inspired by your work.

Cultivate this habit by:

  • Reading about your industry. Articles, blogs, and books can be a great way to explore your working world outside the office.
  • Seeking out opportunities to talk with peers, learners, and customers. Don’t be afraid to crash a lunch table conversation and introduce yourself to a new group of peers. People love to talk about themselves, so let them know you’re curious about their work.
  • Keeping a pen and paper in hand throughout the day. Jot down your questions and then, make it your personal mission to find answers!

Habit #3: Build Partnerships with SMEs

Remember that very important SME with the 88-slide PowerPoint deck? By building trust and collaboration, and demonstrating relevance to your conversations, over time you can nip those requests in the bud.

How do you do that? Here are a few pointers:

  • Demonstrate that you’re a pro who cares about your work. Study up ahead of meetings and come prepared with questions. Take notes, clarify key points, and then use those notes to inform your recommendations.
  • Build relationships by connecting people with other people. With that in mind, set aside some time—even if it’s just a few minutes on either side of a meeting—to get to know your SMEs, their challenges, their environment, and their perspectives.
  • Remember that you and your SMEs have the same goal: to deliver results to the business. Keep that shared goal as your touchstone, especially if the going gets rough.
  • Assert your expertise—particularly if you have a control-freak SME. SMEs are typically busy people who are constantly asked to make tough decisions on the fly. Your willingness to be decisive could be the tipping point that convinces them to let go and trust you to do your job.

Habit #4: Study Related Industry Trends

Maintaining your curiosity about your own industry is great, but what about the takeaways you can learn and apply from other industries? Studying related industry trends around user experience design, graphic design, and web design can give you fresh ideas and also best practice pointers for prototyping and sharing your ideas.

Cultivate this habit by:

  • Regularly visiting sites like Pinterest and Dribbble to stay on top of user interface, user experience, and web and graphic design trends.
  • Stay active on Twitter and LinkedIn. These are excellent resources for following thought leaders in related industries as they share articles and links they’ve found helpful in their work.

Habit #5: Define the Standards

Often, clients interpret our work as simply adding “interactivity” to their static slides. You and your team may know that mindless clicking is not a meaningful use of a learner’s attention, but your client probably doesn’t see it that way. Sometimes the client’s request to add more interactivity or engagement to their content is just a reflection of their own discomfort with the material. They may suspect that it’s too dense, dry, or perhaps even unnecessary, so they feel like we should help them “jazz it up.”

Instead of adding more clicking use your instructional design superpowers to pull together a quick mock-up or a prototype that focuses on ways of creatively transforming relevant content. Sometimes it takes just a simple rewrite; other times, you may need to do more. The bottom line is this approach defines the standards and helps you illustrate them in a way that’s meaningful and tangible to everyone.

These are just a few habits, but there are so many more. What habits are you nurturing to up your instructional design game?

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Todd Smith
Jeffrey Riley