10 Tips for Becoming a Better Designer
The E-Learning Heroes community is a goldmine for insight into course development … and career development. I love how openly folks share their career experiences and advice, so I’ve rounded up some of the most helpful community tips for growing your skills and furthering your career as an e-learning/instructional designer. Generally, these tips fall into three buckets: working with content, improving communication skills with SMEs, and maintaining a balanced perspective. So let’s dig in and explore all three categories.
Working with Content
The ability to write succinct, helpful content—and to edit that content—sets a strong instructional designer apart from the rest. Better writing is writing that’s warm and human as well as clear and succinct. The following tips offer up a few things you can do to help build your writing skills.
Write in a conversational tone. Think about it: most of us don’t speak with stilted phrasing, free of contractions and devoid of personality. Instead, we imbue our words with a little character and spirit—and that, in turn, makes people want to listen and engage. So next time you sit down to write, instead of sticking with safe, dry, and spiritless business writing, try imagining yourself in a friendly one-on-one conversation with the learner and then use that language to convey your ideas.
- Ask SMEs to paraphrase wordy slides. Sometimes it seems as if Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) are being paid by the word! Next time you’re faced with slide after slide of text, ask your SMEs to paraphrase the content to you in their own words. I once asked an SME to explain his content to me as though he were pitching it to his grandparents! Not only did we both enjoy 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 hyperbole and jargon. But what do words like “excellence” and “quality” even mean? Instead of offering wordy definitions of such broad and vague concepts, consider using real-life scenarios to demonstrate concepts in action.
- Cut the word clutter. As you edit your writing, ask yourself: Is there a better way to present this information? For instance, in the image below, on the left is an example of a screen full of shocking facts about diabetes in the United States. But what’s the key message hidden in all those bullets? On the right is the same slide with all of the redundant points removed or collapsed into a more succinct list that packs a punch—and is a lot easier to read and comprehend.
Improving Communication SMEs
Communicating with learners is one thing, but instructional designers also need to master the art of communicating behind the scenes with SMEs, managers, and project stakeholders. Communicating effectively with such a wide array of people can be its own full-time job!
What follows are tips for making the most of your communications with peers and partners.
- Manage 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 good to set the tone for collaboration by discussing how you plan to actually 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.
- Keep everyone’s eye on the ball. When conflicts arise, keep the conversation focused on what the learner needs to do. Paris Granville summarizes this point beautifully: “... I know to always recalibrate everything I’m doing against purpose. It’s easy to get dragged into the weeds and lose sight of the learner.”
- Be specific. Ashley Chiasson recommends creating a task analysis for complex branching scenarios to provide context for other members of your team.
For better communication with e-learning development partners, Kevin Thorn recommends the following: “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, e.g. “When the learner clicks on X, Y & Z fade in slowly from the right.”
Maintaining a Balanced Perspective
Ultimately it’s up to you and your organization to define “better” when comparing your work to that of someone with more (or different) experience. If you find yourself indulging in self-defeating mind chatter, try these tips instead:
- Remember, you’ll grow from adversity. When growing your skills seems like an exercise in endurance, Super Hero Daniel Brigham says, “Be patient with yourself .... Unhappy clients teach you the most valuable lessons. Stay with it.”
- Push yourself out of your comfort zone. Instead of going with tried-and-true solutions, try tackling a low-risk challenge from a new angle. Jennifer Barnett suggests, “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.”
- Show your work. One of the best ways to grow is to build a network of trusted peers that you can rely on for feedback and ideas. A good way to do that is by sharing what you’re working on, what you’re learning, and how you’re growing. Whether you call it “working out loud” or “sharing your work,” showing others what you’re doing and how is an instant icebreaker and a great way to connect. One approach is to follow the lead of an e-learning pro like Johnathan Hill, who’s been blogging about what he’s learning from completing 52 weeks of E-Learning Challenges. Another is to simply jump into one of the weekly challenges and see what it’s like for yourself!
Did you find these tips helpful? We’ve got lots more for you! Here are some resources you might want to add to your reading list:
- 5 Habits of Effective Instructional Designers
- Top Writing Tips for E-Learning
- The Essential Guide to Working with Subject Matter Experts
Have any other tips to add? Share your ideas with me in a comment or strike up a conversation in our Building Better Courses forum.
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 questions, please share them in the comments.