Header Image - 5 Habits of Effective Instructional Designers

A habit is defined as “something you do without thinking—a regular practice.” When it comes to professional development, building new habits, especially good ones, requires conscious repetition of new behaviors and new ways of thinking. Cultivating all this “new” stuff can be a little daunting. So, instead of attempting a complete professional overhaul, 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 the most effective instructional designers I know. Are any of these habits on your radar?

Habit #1: Act Like a Consultant

A very important SME asks you to turn their 100-slide PowerPoint deck into an e-learning course. What do you do?

When requests like this come your way, you might feel like you can’t afford to say no or even ask why without making yourself or your team look uncooperative. But the cost of failing to gently push back on these kinds of requests is that you can end up becoming a short-order cook, serving up a blue plate special instead of behaving like the skilled, informed business partner you want to be seen as.

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. Of course, this begs the question, What do consultants do?

For starters, consultants:

  • Build their understanding of the client’s needs and priorities by asking questions and gently probing for more information to help inform their approach to the project.
  • 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 ideas or solutions that the organization might not be ready to hear.

Habit #2: Stay Curious

Nothing signals the demise of your creativity faster than waning curiosity. Effective instructional designers are curious about the broader business world, the world their clients and learners inhabit, and how their client’s products work and who they’re designed for. Nurturing your curiosity about the world 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. No time to read? Audiobooks and podcasts are a great option, too.
  • Seeking out opportunities to connect 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 what they do.
  • Keeping a pen and paper (or the notes app on your device) handy throughout the day. Jot down questions and then make it your personal mission to find answers!

Habit #3: Build Partnerships with SMEs

Remember that very important SME with the 100-slide PowerPoint deck? By building trust and collaboration, 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. 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. It’s fascinating to learn how other people work!
  • 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.
  • Be more assertive—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 a continuous stream of fresh design ideas and best practices.

Sites like Pinterest and Dribbble are great for staying on top of user interface design, user experience design, and web and graphic design trends. Twitter and LinkedIn are excellent places to follow thought leaders in related industries as they share articles and links they’ve found helpful in their work. And E-Learning Heroes is a vibrant and resource-rich community to connect with fellow e-learning pros to learn from their challenges and solutions.

Habit #5: Define the Standards

Often, clients interpret our work as simply adding “interactivity” to their static slides. Your team knows that mindless clicking isn’t a meaningful use of your learners’ attention, but your client might not see it that way. Sometimes clients ask us to add more clicking to their courses because they don’t know what else to do with it! They may suspect that it’s too dense, dry, or maybe even unnecessary, so they feel like your job is to help them “jazz it up.”

Instead of adding more clicking, tap into your instructional design superpowers to pull together a quick mock-up or a prototype that illustrates a different way to treat their content. Sometimes it takes just a simple rewrite; other times, you might need to do a more substantial overhaul. But the goal is to help define the standard for your clients in a way that’s more meaningful and tangible to them.

As you might have guessed, there are a lot more than five habits that make someone an effective instructional designer! I’ve just highlighted five of the biggies here. What other habits are you cultivating to up your instructional design game? Share your experiences with me and the rest of the community in a comment, below.

Follow us on Twitter and come back to E-Learning Heroes regularly for more helpful advice on everything related to e-learning. If you have any comments, please share them below.

Todd Smith
Jeffrey Riley