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Lessons by Instructional Designers for Instructional Designers


Today it seems that designers think having an authoring tool and good content is enough for a great interactive course. And it's true, to a certain extent; the plethora of eLearning development software programs helps you create snazzy, glitzy courses. However, you cannot get anywhere without your creativity, designing skills, and knowledge of instructional design theories. 

Instructional designers have indeed a multifaceted role. They are part engineer, part analyst, part architect, part artist, part content curator, part project manager, and part researcher. It definitely entails a lot of flexibility and the ability to balance roles.


 Who has not done any of these tasks? Who has done all these tasks? Who is an expert in everything? Possibly most people have performed some of these tasks, but it is unlikely that they could carry them all out and almost impossible to be experts in each one of them.

The colorful courses you see all around look like the handiwork of designers who were making merry and had a ball when they created them. They definitely had fun while they were at it, but apart from creating stories and playing with images and colors, they also had to do a lot of "unglamorous" tasks. They had to deal with disorganized information and inspiration draughts. They had to run around, send emails, or make sundry calls to schedule appointments with SMEs and then stayed up late to prepare for the interview. They had to do a lot of number-crunching and juggling scarce resources and short timelines to make the budget. They had to go through several rounds of tweaking, modifying, and reworking designs before they got it right. All the while, they had also to come up with stellar storyboards and drool-worthy graphics.

Being an instructional designer is a challenging job. That’s why our Instructional Design experts here at SHIFT want to share with you some of their most valuable tips to help you overcome the challenges and get going.

1) Plan Everything

One of the first things you learn in Instructional Design is to think integrally, that is, visualizing the starting point as well as the end goal. This is imperative, because if you are not aware of where you are, it makes it harder to know where you are going, or what obstacles are in the way.

To see the big picture means to understand that everything, even the shortest (and perhaps minor) activity, has a set objective and that the sum of these small or medium objectives will result in the fulfillment of the final objective.

The ability to plan everything is vital to the Instructional Designer. From a meeting, writing a paragraph, or conceptualizing a chart, to daily activities, like sending emails, interviewing SME’s and drafting evaluations. Everything goes through the sieve of planning.

But is everything really a matter of planning? Yes, ID’s should plan EVERYTHING to the limits of what is achievable by their actions; what is beyond their reach can be estimated, and from there, actions are planned.

The effect of planning is almost immediate: if you give yourself the opportunity to plan your daily activities, at the end of the day you will see that they were successfully concluded.

Here is a list of seven steps you should follow to promote planning habits in eLearning design:

1. Divide each activity into smaller actions
2. Prioritize those actions
3. Identify those responsible for each action
4. Associate each action with an expected result
5. Assign a reasonable time to complete each action
6. Establish the most appropriate form of communication between those involved
7. Designate the parameters to determine when an action has been completed

2) Look for Inspiration in Unlikely Places

One of the most complicated challenges of the Instructional Designer's work is to generate learning that surpasses the expectations of those who request their services. Therefore, the task is always to look beyond the common.

One of the ways in which ID’s can give a boost to their work as an Instructional Designer is by observing and analyzing eLearning courses conducted in different environments, like for example, in other countries or another language. Have you seen any courses designed in India? In Australia? In England? Or in Chile?

Moreover, it doesn’t even need to be an eLearning course per se. Look beyond eLearning courses. Look up from your computer screen, get up from your desk, and seek design inspiration in other areas of life. A quirky toy packaging. A training video. A training program. A story. An infographic. An advertisement screaming at you from the billboard. The blurb on the book jacket. The layout of a magazine. The visuals in a music video or the storyline of a movie. The innovative and efficient interplay of aesthetics and functionality—the hallmark of great design—is evident everywhere if you keep your eyes open.

For example, an extraordinary idea to begin the storytelling of a course may be born from reading a story; a new way of using shots to focus attention on something specific can be taken from a video, or we could apply the structure and the classification of themes and sub-themes of an academic curriculum.

The idea is to take those new elements, review their viability in our context and modify them to create fresh and interesting things in our instructional designs.

QuickStart: Sign up on DribbbleDribbble is a social networking platform for designers. And no, the extra b in the name is not a typo. See, you are already hooked. Here you cannot only put up your own work and receive valuable feedback from your peers, but you can also take a sneak peek at the work of other creative individuals. If you want to find inspiration from Dribbble, follow the works of some of the best and brightest web designers and illustrators in the world who frequent this website.

The premise here is to expand your horizon in search of new ways to create Instructional Design that moves and connects with your learners. The moment you find a creative idea, study it, share it, give it a different approach, test it, and incorporate it into your next design.

More inspiration ideas here: How to Find Design Inspiration for eLearning

3) Master New Tools

The most common practice of Instructional Designers in our times is creating courses through an authoring tool and putting the content generated in an LMS.

The evolution of authoring tools has allowed for the integration of resources created in other tools. For example, there are now educational tools on the web (paid and free) that enable us to create animated videos, forums, gif files, podcast, infographics, edited images, etc.

Consequently, the Instructional Designer will inevitably be asked to make effective use of these tools to generate multimedia resources and create more impactful eLearning courses.

An example is the use of Adobe Captivate to create system simulations that can be integrated into almost any authoring tool. This means you must know how to use Captivate to generate the resource, and you must have enough knowledge to include it in your authoring tool too.

If you are an Instructional Designer who is faced with this panorama, you will surely need some guidance. Here are our recommendations:

  • Research new tools: there are many web pages that are dedicated to reviewing new tools.
  • Analyze the possibilities of each tool: request a free trial so that you can analyze its performance and choose a tool that adds value to the development of your courses.
  • Verify integration: once you have selected the tools that add more value to your development process, understand the steps to integrate it into your authoring tool.
  • Explore other options: if you generated an animation in another tool, and there is no way to embed it in your favorite authoring tool, look for alternatives such as using a direct link to the animation.

4) Teamwork is Vital

One could think that the job of an Instructional Designer is rather solitary, sitting in front of a computer working on their own, all day. However, around the Instructional Designer is a group of people who have done their work so that Instructional Designers can do theirs and others can eventually do theirs afterward.

The really difficult thing is to get stakeholders involved, and the one who should lead and organize the different parts is the Instructional Designer.

However, achieving a synergy, that is, a joint action of various people focused on performing a specific function (in our case, learning), is not easy. It requires elaborate planning and high-level resource management.

How does an Instructional Designer achieve this? We won’t fool you, the task is not simple but is not impossible either. Here are some recommendations:

  • Define roles: each person involved should know and understand their assigned role.
  • Assign activities: each person involved needs to know the activities they are going to perform and the quality standards which they are expected to comply with.
  • Communication: Everyone involved needs to be informed about how things will work, which days they are going to meet, at what times they should be available, etc. (write it all down).
  • Don’t depend on emails alone: Use alternative ways to communicate with your team. Many of your conversations might work well over Skype or Google Hangouts or other similar applications.
  • Define concrete plans and instructions: not only assign an activity but also explain how to do it and what is expected as a result.
  • Recognize the effort of each person in the team, so that there is always motivation to continue doing things correctly.


 writing tips for elearning

Emilia Iñigo

Psicóloga Educativa. Planea, diseña y produce cursos de eLearning. Con talento para la elaboración propuestas didácticas creativas.

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