Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The 4 Passions of an Instructional Designer

A couple of days back I posted a presentation on Visual Design Basics. What was really the result of work between breaks from being the host for RubyConf India, turned out to be a fairly popular presentation on Slideshare with over 2000 views and counting! I'm sorry again that the presentation doesn't have too many notes for you to glean the narrative in the background. I've gone ahead and put up a narrated version of the talk here. I'm actually quite pleasantly surprised that there's such a huge interest in design skills.

In fact, this is something I think about all the time and if you've been on this blog for long enough, you'll remember me saying that instructional designers need more skills than just writing. I also remember having some strong views on my friend Rupa's blogpost about a hello world approach to instructional design. Somehow the word 'designer' evokes all sorts of thoughts in my head and I can't stay shut when the disciplinary skills of instructional design become separate from the meta of instructional design. As I gain experience in this trade, I feel that while the skills for instructional design are important, there are a few personality characteristics that instructional designers just can't do without. I call these the four passions of an instructional designer. Let me explain what these are.

The Passion for Embracing Constraints

All of us work under some constraints or the other. I would love to have a budget of a million dollars for every course, the best tools at my disposal; a really skilled set of developers and just have an unlimited set of resources. Unfortunately, none of this is true for my situation. The fact is that I love it! I believe that the best designers are the ones that embrace their constraints and still come up with stuff that's of the highest quality. I am a sucker for doing more with less and I've tried my own hand to illustrate this in my blog posts. If you have to create quality elearning, I strongly believe that the tools don't matter and you should use your creativity. I also believe you can do elearning on a shoestring -- your budget constraints should only motivate, not deter you. I'll go ahead and also say that constraints inspire creativity -- don't believe me, just look at the number of cool ideas that the 'humble' rapid-elearning community has come up with! Look at the ways that people are pushing the boundaries -- Bryan Jones' eLearningart.com (the source for characters on this post) is a prime example of how cool rapid elearning can be once you have the right hustle behind the muscle!

The Passion for Simplicity

"Making the simple complicated is commonplace; making the complicated awesomely simple - that's creativity." - Charles Mingus

I've spent ages in conversations that circle around, "But they need to know ______ as well!" and "Oh, but we should include ______ because that's how it is in reality." Unfortunately, people can't know everything in one go. Also, if people were ready for reality they wouldn't be in your classroom or going through your elearning. As an instructional designer you need to have an undying passion for simplicity and the natural ability to break down a complicated concept and explain it in simple chunks. As I always say, simplicity is not about being 'simplistic'. It's about making things easy to understand; this takes a huge amount of creativity and if you can't do this, I'm sorry - you're not an instructional designer. Here's an example where I've tried to explain a fairly complicated process in a fairly simple manner.

The Passion for Learning

We're all busy people and it's very easy to get stuck in the rigmarole of daily work and stop learning from the world around us. As a start, it's important to start getting connected in the community. Over the last couple of years I've had the opportunity to interact and learn from a number of my colleagues around the world. There's so much cool stuff happening in the realms of traditional elearning, virtual worlds, enterprise 2.0 and social media, that being stuck to your office seat and your specialist mode of learning is nothing but a recipe for being stuck in the dark ages. But then again, instructional designers need to have the passion to learn from different sources to just make their lives easier. If you believe you have the passion then a good place to start are some of the industry blogs. I've gone ahead and packaged my favourite blogs into two Google Reader bundles. Please feel free to subscribe to them if you like:
While I don't get the time to participate on #lrnchat, I always follow the transcripts and that's a great place to learn about the who's who of learning innovation in the world. Take some time to participate in #lrnchat and I'm sure you'll find a lot of inspiration.

I'm also going to say that you need to look at other people's work and be able to gather inspiration. I keep aggregating elearning examples here, so that should be a good place to 'watch and learn'.

The last point I'll make about this is that you've got to be able to learn from unconventional sources. Look at billboards for inspiration on visual design; watch news shows to learn how you can make information interesting; read different kinds of books to develop your lateral thinking and ideation abilities; learn the art of story-telling from movies -- I could just keep going on and on.

The Passion for Excellence

Last but absolutely not the least -- you need to have a passion for excellence! If an instructional designer doesn't constantly iterate through his work and isn't passionate about putting out excellent stuff, then I get really concerned. Instructional design requires a lot of attention to detail. You need to be fussy about every little element that eventually adds polish to your course. You need to set the bar really high; your bar can't be Sumeet (because I'm quite average) -- instead look at someone like Tom Kuhlmann as your role model. There are a lot of people I've learned from including but not limited to: David Anderson, Stephanie Harnett, Tracy Hamilton and Jeanette Brooks and if you follow these guys, you'll notice that there's heaps you can do in order to drive excellence in your course design. So learn, iterate, fuss and optimise your work until you stop dreaming about it at night!

We have an instructional designer position open at ThoughtWorks and I in particular actively evaluate candidates not just on their abilities and past experience but also their passion for the four things I've mentioned above. What do you think? Am I being very hard by placing these requirements? Or do you think I'm setting the bar too low? I'd love to hear what you look for when hiring an instructional designer. Let me know what you think, by posting your thoughts in the comments section. And BTW, if you liked this article, please also read Garr Reynolds' 10 tips on how to think like a designer -- it's great inspiration!


Sahana said...

Sumeet, a great post. I have always been of the opinion that writing and editing skills are pre-requisites to being an ID, not a qualifier.

Passion for excellence is the key qualifier. This passion will drive the rest, and I have listed some of my thoughts below. I had expressed these earlier too...

1. Have a questioning mind--ask about the learners, the need for the course, the organization's need, about the content, about anything and everything that is remotely connected to the training...to the creation of an experience...ask and keep asking...

2. Be observant--learn to see the underlying meaning and hear the unsaid, unstated needs when talking to learners, client, project managers...

3. Be analytical--when going through content, needs analysis, organization's goals and business needs...

4. Be empathetic--think from the other person's standpoint...be it the learner, the VD or GD, Project Manager, and most importantly, the client who is seeking to resolve a business need...

5. Be meticulous and diligent--capture and reflect all observations and analysis...

6. Be willing to learn and change...be committed to learning yourself...

7. Learn to think not only in "words"--most IDs come from a literature background with a focus on the text as the medium of communication. They need to train themselves to think in terms of images, to learn to use "multimedia" as means of communication.

I strongly recommend John Berger's:
Ways of Seeing | http://www.amazon.com/Ways-Seeing-Based-BBC-Television/dp/0140135154/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1269577851&sr=1-1

Another Way of Telling | http://www.amazon.com/Another-Way-Telling-John-Berger/dp/0679737243/ref=pd_sim_b_4

Joe Deegan said...

Great post Sumeet and follow up by Sahana. I especially like how you placed "The passion for embracing constraints" high on your list. Don't think of a brutal dead line as a deal breaker; think of it as an opportunity to overcome a challenge. With a little experience I have learned that a little creativity goes a long way in overcoming constraints in instructional design projects. Also, thanks for the links to great resources.

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