Instructional design survival tips

A while back, my colleague Mary and I were asked to give some “real world” instructional design survival tips. It’s a nifty little list, so I thought I’d share it with you. Mary’s tips incorporate aspects of project

management (which often goes hand-in-hand with instructional design), while mine are focused on the design and production side.

Mary’s Tips

  • “Measure twice, cut once.” If it takes a bit more time to flush out details, better to do it at the front end of the project than when things are underway or even worse, complete!
  • ID isn’t all glitz and glam … you have to decide if you are willing and able to actually manage projects … budget, scope, clients, internal processes.  There’s a lot of problem-solving.
  • The best laid plans inevitably get waylaid.   Refer to the previous statement. :-)
  • Theory and practice go hand-in-hand and [you need to] recognize that not everyone is going to have the benefit of theory.  Use what you’re learning as a foundation but recognize that it will need to be translated into the vernacular and applied subtly.  (I actually keep a binder with major learning theories and learning outcomes that I reference pretty regularly).
  • Take advantage of learning projects that allow you to apply what you’re learning.  It’ll give that exposure to project management.
  • Stay current on trends so you can help educate non-learning professionals.   ID really is a profession so it helps to be able to speak intelligently on trends and explain why you recommend certain approaches (see previous comment!)
  • If your employer has an annual learning stipend, use it!

My Tips

  • Keep documentation and notes on everything – It’s great reference for you for later, for anyone else who might need it, and a good way to make sure you’re “covered.”
  • If you’re not sure about something, ask about it sooner rather than later – Trying to guess will eat up your time and require more revisions or rework down the road than if you get what you need up front.
  • Be consistent – Consistency is a key ingredient of quality and even if you do something incorrectly it’s a lot easier to fix the same basic mistake multiple times than it is to keep fixing a bunch of different ones.
  • The sooner you learn to give and receive constructive feedback the better – Not only will it help you get better at your work, or whatever else you do, it makes the revision process easier. There are few things as frustrating as getting back vague feedback/comments like, “I don’t like this. Can we do something else?” Don’t be one of those people.
  • Don’t design by yourself – Two heads are better than one. Many hands make light work. Having someone to bounce ideas off of is great. Getting feedback from even one test user gives you a wealth of knowledge and suggestions you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
  • Fail early and often – One and done design doesn’t work in this day and age. Plan to have multiple iterations/versions from the get go. If you can do more refining in the “pre-production” phase it usually decreases the amount of work that needs to be done later on.
  • Let the learners embrace failure – Learning through mistakes is a powerful thing that a lot of organizations have forgotten. They’re so focused on completion rates that it often leads to unremarkable, forgettable final products that no one really remembers anything from. Let them make mistakes so they can learn from them.
  • Remember that learners forget – The forgetting curve is a real thing. Memory boosters, spaced practice, microlearning, and other similar tactics that spread out learning over time and “jog” learners’ memories help long-term retention.
  • Don’t just learn instructional theory – This is twofold. 1) Learn about related things like motivation, memory, basic graphic design, etc. 2) Don’t just learn/read – do! There’s a lot to be said for applied practice and project based learning. If you only learn about something from an academic standpoint you’ll be missing out on the real world considerations.
  • Context is critical – The best information in the world isn’t helpful if someone has no idea what it’s for, how it applies to them, or when to use it.
  • ID has a lot of moving parts – You’re probably going to wear a lot of hats as an instructional designer. Just know that going in.
  • People think in terms of stories – Embracing storytelling can be incredibly powerful, be that on a big scale or a small one.
  • Remember that at the end of the day you’re helping people – It’s a good feeling. There’s a point to what you do. It does matter.

Whether you’re a one-person design team or part of a group, sometimes it’s good to go back to the basics and realities of your work. Instructional design takes a lot of time and effort. But in the end, you’re helping create something that other people will use to help improve their careers and/or lives. And that’s something special.

If you’d like to read more about training, learning, and instructional design check out the rest of this author’s blogs.

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