Instructional Designer Soft Skills
By Ian Craine
When I get together with ID’s over beverages, the conversation inevitably turns towards sharing “war stories” about working with SME’s and senior academic administration. Invariably, the core issue is that no one really knows what our job fully entails and almost everyone thinks our job can be done in 10 minutes – a frustration probably familiar to many abstract artists, wedding photographers, and game coders.
As a result, ID’s often find ourselves in meetings with people wanting to migrate courses or entire programs online who think that having some draft lecture Powerpoints on hand is 90% of the work. Unless you can step in immediately and reset their timetable expectations, you’ll be in for a very rough ride with lots of angry and disappointed passengers. This is something most of us had to learn the hard way.
I think managing expectations is the real secret to success in this job. Sure, keeping up with research in cognitive psychology, education technology, pedagogy and software licensing is important, but having cutting edge technical skills won’t save you when a project is doomed from the start.
Here are some my “soft skill” strategies for managing ID projects:
Start with a good rapport: It may seem obvious but building a good working relationship with your SME’s and project directors is critical. Each of us does this differently, but make sure you do it. If you can manage it, meeting over an informal coffee is a great way to kick things off after the formal first project meeting. I find gentle humour helps a lot too (but you have to tread carefully!).
Make expectations clear at the start: Be honest about what can be done given the resources allocated for your project, even if that makes you seem unpopular. Make sure everyone knows what the end product might look like and approximately how much time and work is required from everyone on the team to get it done.
Under-promise and over-deliver: This is the universal rule for all consulting projects. It’s way too easy to do the opposite! We all want to portray ourselves as heroes who can achieve anything, but we look a whole lot better in the long run if we don’t oversell ourselves and come up short.
Communicate early and often: Projects can go off the rails because important players feel left out. SME’s might deliver a suite of Powerpoints or PDF’s by email and then either they or the ID “goes dark” for a few weeks or months. Make sure you send out frequent updates on your progress and ask for their input where you need it. If things are taking longer than expected on your end let them know why and show them how the final product will be much better for it.
Use your expertise to guide the project: No one knows your job as well as you. Don’t assume that the SME’s or project administrators will have the same insights as you. Have the confidence to anticipate their design needs and suggest creative ways they can achieve their education goals. However, this can get tricky if the SME is wedded to multiple choice assessments and seems resistant to your ideas for other approaches. That’s where the good rapport really helps.
Let them see some of the “magic” behind the scenes: As with the abstract art piece seen above, the end user enjoys your final product without really being aware of the endless hours of work and design decisions that went into creating it. In early meetings, I try to show examples of how we adapted passive slide show lectures into engaging, active learning experiences for students. And I emphasize the work required and how the SME or content expert can be involved in this process from the beginning.
Ian Craine is an instructional designer and professor at George Brown College in Toronto