Career Spotlight: How to Become an Instructional Designer

Last Updated on January 16, 2021 by Jeff

Are you a creative person who likes to help others learn? Do you enjoy working in a variety of tools while identifying potential training opportunities?  Then a career as an instructional designer might be for you!  In this article, I will share my tips and tricks on how to become an instructional designer based on my 20+ years of corporate experience.

For an overview of several Learning and Development positions, check out I Want To Be in L&D: Getting Started in Learning and Development

What is an Instructional Designer?

When you think about a training class or a job aid or an e-learning course, they didn’t just appear magically out of thin air.  Someone had to design and build them.  That person is (typically) an instructional designer.  I realize that is a pretty simplistic way to explain it and I’ll go into more detail as we move along.  At the most basic level, though, that is what an instructional designer is.  They are the person who designs the instruction.

For the purposes of this article, I am going to focus on jobs where the main responsibility is instructional design.  Throughout most of my career, I held positions where I did a lot of instructional design but I also did other things like facilitate classes and/or administer the Learning Management System.  I will spotlight those types of positions in a separate article, though.

Also, a lot of the cool kids are calling themselves “Learning Experience Designer” or “LXD” nowadays.  I have also seen “Learning Designer”.  Those are basically the same as what I will be describing here.  I do like those titles and think they probably more aptly describe the role but, most job postings and companies that I’ve seen still use the “old school” term.

What does an Instructional designer do?

I think if you were to ask an ID what they do, they’d tell you “EVERYTHING!”  It sure does seem that way sometimes.  More and more, when I look at job descriptions, in addition to the typical needs analysis and training course development I would expect to see, companies are throwing in a whole bunch of other stuff that they expect you to do.  I guess they are trying to get more bang for their buck but it can make it a little confusing or daunting for someone who really just wants to focus on instructional design.

I decided I wanted to do just that a few years ago.  As I mentioned, I have held several positions that combined instructional design with training and facilitation.  After awhile, I realized that I really wanted to do more of the ID related tasks and began to pursue an ID focused position. I am now a full time instructional designer with a Fortune 10 company.  While different positions are going to emphasize different tasks, I’ll describe the most typical ones here.

Needs Analysis – A big part of what an Instructional Designer does is to figure out if the instruction or learning even needs to be designed in the first place.  Oftentimes, people within a company will say “we need training on xyz”.  This may or may not be true.  As an example, a leader came to my department and wanted us to create some training on a product that she wanted her team to be selling more of.  She thought that they needed to be reminded of the product features and how to sell them.  Now, we could have just said “ok” and gone off and created the training.  The problem with doing that, though, is we would likely miss some important details which would ultimately lead to some pretty worthless training. Before you run out and start creating training all willy nilly, you have to ask questions.  These might include: Why do you think they need training? Is there something else that might be causing them to not sell the product? What specifically do you want the training to achieve?  These are just a few examples.

In talking to the leader and then also talking to some of the sales people, we found out that the issue wasn’t lack of knowledge on the product or how to sell it.  It was a lack of incentive for the amount of effort it took to add that particular product.  Basically, in the sales people’s minds, it wasn’t worth the hassle of selling that particular product.  Was the leader thrilled to learn this?  No.  BUT, she was glad we didn’t waste a whole bunch of time creating training that wasn’t needed (and so were we!).  She was also able to focus on the right problem in order to come up with the right solution.

Training Design and Development – Sometimes you determine that training isn’t the issue.  Sometimes you determine that training is needed, though.  If that’s the case then, as the instructional designer, you would work on designing and developing the training.  There are lots and lots of ways you can go with this.  It could be something as simple as a job aid with step by step instructions.  Or, it could be a three week, instructor-led program.  Or anything in between.  This is where you get to be creative as you come up with the HOW the training will be delivered along with WHAT you will include and what it’s going to look like.  This is always my favorite part of being an ID because it’s where you get to let your creativity loose.

Once you determine how the training is going to go, you typically will spend a good amount of time creating the materials. This could mean creating PowerPoints, training manuals, job aids, videos, audio clips, etc…  It just depends on what you’ve determined the training is going to look like.  In the case of an e-learning course, you may also be working in some kind of specialized software to create that.

Training Evaluation – Usually once a training class or project is complete, it’s not REALLY complete.  That’s because there is usually some kind of evaluation to determine the effectiveness of the training.  This can be simple feedback collection from a poll, your own and colleagues’ observations or it might be a more formal process.  It depends on the type of training as well as where you are working.  Some places may not put as much of an emphasis on this as others.  Regardless, though, you want to know how your training is being received.  If something you created totally bombs, while that may not exactly give you a warm, fuzzy feeling, you still want to know so you can do better next time or redesign that section of the training.

Project Management – Unless your department has a separate person to handle this, you will most likely be the project manager for any training project you are working on.  That means setting up any interviews that need to occur, setting a timeline for the project, communicating to the stakeholders, etc…  As a right brained, big picture thinking, creative type, this is probably the most challenging aspect for me.  You have to stay organized and you have to stay on top of the other people on the project.  For example, the subject matter experts who might be helping you with content.  They are likely busy people who don’t necessarily prioritize the training at the same level as you.  Sometimes it feels like they are ignoring you or that they don’t care.  That may or may not be true but most of the time it’s just because they are very busy just like you.  At any rate, an ID has to manage them as well as the overall project.

Other Stuff – These are just a few of the high level tasks a typical ID would do.  Again, depending on your company, your department or your individual role, there are other things you might do as well.  Here are a few things I grabbed from some real job descriptions:

  • Administers and maintains online faculty development courses/resources.
  • Will be responsible to update the company’s social media and website.
  • Promote and participate in intra- and inter-team innovation, technology integration, process improvement, and collaboration.
  • Training and onboarding of new employees

Huh?  Training and onboarding of new employees???  Update the company’s website??  See what I mean about cramming in random responsibilities?  These were all from positions that were specifically titled “Instructional Designer” yet apparently you would also be the webmaster or new employee trainer.

I would just say this – if those other random responsibilities are things you’ve done or are willing to do, that’s great.   There’s nothing wrong with adding other skills and experience along with doing the “traditional” instructional design tasks.  If you’ve determined that you really just want to focus on the instructional design, that’s ok too.  For me, I knew that’s what I wanted.  I didn’t want to do anymore new employee training and I didn’t want to do any more LMS administration so I was very targeted with the jobs I applied for.  It probably took a little longer but I did eventually find exactly what I was looking for.

 

What skills/qualities Do I need?

Creative – This is a very creative role.  Think about it.  You are not only coming up with an overall plan for training, you are then creating all kinds of training assets.  Job aids, podcasts, video clips, e-learning, PowerPoint presentations, infographics, manuals – these are all things you could potentially be creating.

Another creative aspect is coming up with activities and themes.  How will the instructor engage the learners?  What activities will they run?  Will there be some kind of a fun theme that will be used in the training?  You can really have a lot of fun with your themes and activities.  For one series of webinars, our theme was a TV Fishing Show.  Each “episode” began with a short video lead in and the PowerPoints were all themed accordingly.  We also built in a lot of bad fishing puns.  Corny?  Yes.  But the learners loved it and they were able to demonstrate that they had learned what we wanted them to learn.

Learner Centric – As an instructional designer, I like to think of myself as the defender of learners.  When no one else is thinking about the person who actually has to take this class (or read this job aid…or go through this e-learning…etc…) I do.  I don’t mean to say that nobody cares about the learner.  They do.  It’s just that sometimes people have all these ideas of what they think should go into a training vs. what really needs to.

As you work with leaders and subject matter experts you will hear things like “they need to know this” and “they need to know that” to which I respond “do they??”  I may not say it out loud exactly like that but that is my underlying question.  Do they really need to know that and if so…why?  The reason I ask that is because I always put myself in the learner’s shoes.  I don’t want to waste their precious time just as I don’t want my time to be wasted.  We’ve all been through really boring, pointless training classes and I sure as hell don’t want to be the one responsible for that!  I want my learners to feel like their time was well spent and they got value from the training.  And more importantly, that they are able to DO whatever it is the training was supposed to train them to do.

Collaborative – Instructional designers work with a lot of different people.  The leaders who request the training, the subject matter experts who provide the content, the trainer who is going to deliver the training, the voiceover person who records audio for the e-learning…those are just a few examples.  It can feel like a juggling act sometimes with all of the different people and agendas you may be working with. Bottom line, you have to be able to work with people.  You have to be able to collaborate and allow others’ ideas to be heard while also maintaining the quality of the learning for your audience.  It can be a very challenging balancing act sometimes as a leader may be insisting on including material that you have determined to be unnecessary.  You may have to have a conversation with them to help them understand your recommendation for not including it.  Most of the time, people are actually pretty receptive when you can show how you are still meeting their goals and staying true to the learners.

Tech Savvy – If you’re the person who says “I’m TERRIBLE with computers!” this probably ain’t the gig for you.  You are going to be working on a computer every day using a variety of software.  At a bare minimum, you need to know your way around the Microsoft Office suite of software.  Especially PowerPoint, Word and Excel.  Most likely, you will also be working with e-learning software such as Adobe Captivate, Articulate Storyline or Lectora.

Most companies I’ve worked for have also had the Adobe creative suite of software (e.g. Photoshop, Illustrator, Audition, etc…) so you might have to learn some of those too.  On top of that, there are always new trends in learning that you will want to stay on top of.  Mobile learning, for example, is a hot topic.  So are VR (Virtual Reality) and AR (Augmented Reality).  You don’t have to be an expert in everything so don’t worry about that.  Also, your company may not be ready for the most cutting edge stuff yet.  You should still stay current, though, with what’s going on in the industry.  You don’t want to be caught unaware when your boss or your boss’s boss comes back from some conference going on and on about how “we need to incorporate more micro learning” into your training.

Investigator/Researcher – One of the most interesting parts of being an instructional designer is how you get to work on different topics for different projects.  This can also be not so great if you get assigned something you aren’t particularly interested in.  I’ve been in the health care industry for a while now.  I will tell you, though, I don’t actually have a natural interest in health care or health care related topics. What I do have, though, is a willingness to learn.  A willingness to research and investigate whatever it is I’ve been assigned to create training for.

That can be a real challenge sometimes.  Especially if the topic is something you know nothing about.  For me, it helps to feed off of the enthusiasm of the subject matter expert.  I find that most people really like to talk about what they do.  When you show genuine interest in them and their work you will get a lot of good information and stories that help make the topic more interesting and relatable.  I’m often surprised at how much I take away from a topic where my original reaction (to myself) was “yuck”.

Project Manager – I mentioned project management earlier.  In my experience with both small, non-profit companies as well as huge Fortune 10 companies that I’ve worked for, there is a strong project management element with being an instructional designer.  Every project will have different components and people to keep track of.  You will most likely be responsible for that.

 

How much does an instructional designer make?

If you Google this question, you’ll get a pretty good range.  I’m seeing a range of $46k – $94k.  That seems right.  Obviously, the $94k would be for someone with a lot of experience.   Early in my career, I was in that $40k range and have gone up from there as I built up experience.  Can you make six figures as an Instructional Designer?  Yes, you can.  Like anything, it will depend on where you work, industry, experience, etc…  But, yes, you can definitely make a very good living at it.

How do i get started?

Degree and Certificate Programs

One way to get started is through a degree or certification program.  There are quite a few out there and I think this can be a great way to get started with instructional design.  You get the fundamentals while also (typically) working on projects and getting exposure to the different types of tools and software you would use as an instructional designer.

When I began to realize that I wanted to be more focused on instructional design and e-learning, I opted to get a Masters in Educational Technology. My company had a tuition reimbursement program so I took advantage of that.  The reimbursement was only $2500 a year so I had to do a good bit of research to find a program that was both quality and affordable.  I ended up finding an online program through the University of Texas, Brownsville (now University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley).  Since I live in Texas, I was eligible for an in state scholarship that gave me three free credit hours each semester which helped too.  I think, out of pocket, I maybe paid $400 or so total.  That ain’t too bad! I really liked the program.  It covered instructional design fundamentals as well as the EdTech stuff.  I found it to be a very good balance.

Depending on your situation, going back to school may not be feasible or desirable for you.  Many of the colleges (including UTRGV) also offer certifications.  That may be a better option for some.  You can still get some focused experience but without the time/cost involved with a degree.

On the Job Experience

If you’ve read some of my other articles (you HAVE read some of my other articles…haven’t you???) then you know I am a big proponent of getting experience where you already work.  The reason is because IT WORKS!  That is how I initially got experience and was able to build a very successful 20+ year career.

If you are already in some sort of a training role, getting experience with instructional design is pretty easy.  When I was doing mainly training and facilitation, I would naturally make updates to the training.  I’d change activities or create new ones.  I’d also update my presentations.  Even though I didn’t have a formal “instructional design” title, I was doing just that.  Eventually, I moved into roles that had heavier ID responsibilities and just kept building my skills.

What if you aren’t in a full time training role?  Can you still build up experience?  Of course!  I don’t have any official stats but I can tell you anecdotally that LOTS and LOTS of people who are full time IDs didn’t start out that way.  They may not have even known what an ID was.  They were in whatever job they were in (Nurse, Accountant, Financial Advisor, Sales…) and got asked to help with training.  Maybe as a presenter…maybe to help build a job aid…maybe both.  At any rate, they did it and found they liked it.  That’s basically how I got started which I talk about here.

If you haven’t been asked to help with training yet, don’t worry.  That’s where a little initiative comes in.  No matter where you work, there is something that people need help with.  I’d start within my department and think about what you may have heard your boss say they wish people knew how to do.  Or you can ask your boss.  Once you do that little informal needs analysis, offer to create something.

Let’s say you work in a call center and the department uses software to record and track the calls that come in.  Maybe people aren’t consistently using the software the right way.  That’s where you come in.  Maybe you create a job aid that walks people step by step through what they need to do in the software.  Maybe you do a 20 minute mini training at a team meeting.  Or, maybe you create a quick video that you distribute to the team.

You probably have a good idea of what will be the most effective method for your team and if not, you can talk to your boss.  Whatever you end up creating, you now have experience that you can put on your resume’.  Will that one thing get you an instructional design job?  Probably not, but it’s a start.  And the more of these types of opportunities you explore, the more experience you will gain.

Off” the Job Experience

In addition to gaining experience at work, you can build things outside of work too.  One of the things you will need to have if and when you start to apply for ID jobs is a portfolio with samples of your work.  Up until recently, all my work samples were files on my computer or printed examples that I only shared in interviews.  I think that can still work depending on the employer.  What I am seeing more and more, though, are employers wanting to see that stuff even before the interview.  In those cases, you may be expected to provide a link to a website or some other place where you have stored your examples.

What examples, you might be wondering? Where am I going to get examples when I’m not an instructional designer yet?  Good question!  You might have some examples if you took my advice for voluntarily creating some things at work. Another consideration, though, is to create some samples outside of work.

There are a couple of reasons for this.  1. You may not be able to share your real work samples publicly.  And 2. There may be some samples you want to be able to include but can’t create at work.  An example of this might be an e-learning course built in Storyline.  If you work in the call center from our earlier example, chances are slim that you would have access to Storyline.  Why would you?  That’s usually going to be something the Training department has, not the call center.  So, in that case, you may have to get a trial version yourself and work in it at home, if that’s something you want to learn and include in your portfolio.

The kinds of samples you create will depend on what kind of work you want to do.  If you are interested in e-learning, for example, you would definitely want to get yourself up to speed with at least one of the big e-learning softwares (Storyline, Captivate, Lectora, iSpring, etc…)  Maybe e-learning isn’t your bag and you are more interested in creating instructor led classes.  In that case, you’d want to create a sample PowerPoint and, possibly, some support materials like a participant guide. Regardless of what you end up creating, you’ll kill two birds with one stone.  You will be honing your ID skills while also building up your portfolio.

Resources

Books

The Accidental Instructional Designer by Cammy Bean
Map It by Cathy Moore
The Non-Designer’s Design Book by Robin Williams (no, not THAT Robin Williams…)
Instructional Story Design by Rance Green
slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations by Nancy Duarte
The eLearning Designer’s Handbook by Tim Slade

Courses and Certifications

ATD Instructional Design Certificate

 

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