5 Essential Qualifications to Look for in an Instructional Designer

checkmarkWhen trying to find the perfect instructional designer for your project, be it contract work or a full-time employee, there are certain qualifications that you should ensure are on their resume (or at least implied given their previous work). In the past, employers often had a difficult time defining the roles for instructional designers. However, today ID is very prominent, with many institutions offering advanced degrees in the area, and a handful of professional societies offering additional accreditation. This is big business.

So let’s assume that you have a project that needs an instructional designer. Be it instructor based learning, elearning, learning management system set-up, training delivery, or the like – you need someone with experience and a background in successful design and implementations (you could opt to just assign this entire process to another in-house employee, but I can promise you that you’ll lose money, and it will not be effective). But what specific qualification should you look for?

Granted there will be some specific items to your project or company that are not on this list, but by rule of thumb, any instructional designer that you hire should meet the criteria below, listed in no particular order:

1. Industry Experience – Do you work in the automotive industry? If so, then the ID you employ should have exposure to this industry as well. While resourceful, Instructional Designers still rely on subject matter experts for much of the information they are training. If they don’t understand basic terminology of your industry, then expect your other employees to become annoyed quite quickly.

2. Application Experience – If your developing training for a new system, such as an ERP like SAP or Oracle, then make sure your ID has experience with similar projects. Often times, instructional designers leverage content that they have already created (to an extent, as they need to be mindful of privacy). If your ID has created training for your application in the past, they will need less time to get the training development.

3. Minimum Five Years of Experience – This one may rub some IDers the wrong way, but it relates to the first two points above. If someone in ID has five years of experience, then they will have resources, connections, and general industry knowledge that will decrease development time and likely have a positive impact on your training. If you are cost conscience, then you can get someone with a little less experience, but they’ll be doing more learning on the job than someone with five years.

4. Industry Accreditation – This is a bonus, but often accreditation in the field is not even possible until someone has at least five years of relevant experience (see #3). In order to be a Certified Professional in Learning & Performance (ASTD), or a Certified Performance Technologist (ISPI), one has to continually take courses to improve and hone their skills… which is good for you!

5. Knows of (and Uses) Leading Technology – If it isn’t listed on their resume, ask the applicant about the tools they have used when creating their training. If they only say MS PowerPoint and Word – RUN! The number of available tools for training build and delivery is staggering. Some key words to look out for include: Adobe Captivate, Articulate Studio, Articulate Storyline, iSpring, Moodle, SAP LSO, Flash, HTML/Javascript, SurveyMonkey, TechSmith… among others.

Finding the right employee for any position can be a difficult task. The list above will give you a good starting point in your search for a capable Instructional Designer for your project. If you need someone with more of a technical background you can use sites like DICE to find the right match. Also, LinkedIn is proving more and more effective for finding qualified candidates – so you should certainly take a look there!

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About the Author:

Justin Ferriman is the co-founder and CEO of LearnDash, the WordPress LMS trusted by the world's leading organizations, such as the University of Michigan, Digital Marketer, WPEngine, and Infusionsoft. Justin has made a career as an elearning consultant where he has implemented large-scale training programs for Fortune 500 companies. Twitter | LinkedIn

10 Comments
  1. Rakesh

    Hi Justin,
    I would give preference to the number of elearning hours an ID has developed, and not the number of years in experience. The elearning hours is the right measure to evaluate the relevant experience and exposure of an ID. If an ID has developed close to 500 elearning hours, he/she is qualified to be a project head and anything above 500, for a program managers role.

    thanks
    rakesh

  2. Michelle

    I agree with Rakesh. Hours over years is a better measure.

    I would also ask for examples of prior work. You can tell a lot about the ID from the resources they have developed. You can be in a job for a number of years and just transition courses from one platform to the next….a friend of mine is an ID for a large health company and she has not created one single authentice piece of training she has just been transitions courses from one system to the next.

    As an interviewer you should learn some basic terminology and use this in your interview. IF you ask an ID to discuss how they have used the ADDIE model in course development and you get a blank look on their face….end the interview…you are wasting your time.

    The greater issue I think IDs have though is the MISunderstanding by most as to what an ID is and does. Creating “shovelware” courses isn’t ID. I am the lead ID for a state Dept or Ed and even they don’t understand what I really do. It’s a continual struggle to educate on what an ID’s role and expertise is. Before my arrival the agency had SME’s creating course work and it failed horribly.

    Thanks for the list Justin.

  3. I definitely agree with Michelle about asking for samples. That’s what helps you figure out if candidates are doing the kind of work you want or not. You could have 10 years of experience developing shovelware, but if I want something scenario-based, you’re the wrong candidate for me.

    I also disagree wholeheartedly with your first point. Philosophically, I’m much more in tune with people like Connie Malamed. She talks about what to do when you don’t have experience in the industry to get familiar before you talk to the SME so you don’t annoy them.
    http://theelearningcoach.com/elearning_design/instructional-designers-are-content-neutra/

    Instructional designers are content neutral. Industry experience is a nice to have, but not a requirement–and sometimes it’s even a detriment. IDs often need to play the role of “naive learner” to a SME; if the learners have no experience themselves, it’s better for the ID to also have no experience. Otherwise, we suffer from the same curse of knowledge as SMEs.

    In the last year and a half, I’ve worked on classes for the following topics. I had zero prior experience in most of these topics. I pick things up quickly–that’s what actually matters.

    Baby behavior
    Bulldozer safety
    Active listening/customer service skills
    How to influence people
    Change management
    Addiction counseling
    Career counseling for addiction counselors
    Medical research ethics

    One exception is when your learners are experts. Most training that we develop is for newbies, which makes sense–experts in a field don’t benefit from formal training as much as newbies. If your learners are already experts, having some background in the industry can be helpful, and you don’t need the ID to play the role of newbie. I’ve developed online graduate courses for K-12 teachers, most of whom already have 5-10 years of experience in the field. For that job, my teaching background was helpful. I still could have done the job without it, but I would have needed more time to research.

    Most instructional designers develop “work for hire,” so even if they have developed for a software system in the past, they can’t legally reuse that content with another employer. You’re suggesting that employers hire IDs with the intention of enticing them to violate their prior employment contracts.

    I’ve also never in my entire career had a recruiter ask me for accreditation like CPLP. I see job seekers list it in their resumes and LinkedIn profiles, but I’m not aware of a single employer who cares. I’m sure there are, but they aren’t contacting me–and I’m so busy I’m turning down work at least once a month.

    Take a look at the job search aggregator Indeed. A search for “CPLP” turns up only 110 jobs in the entire US with CPLP even mentioned. A search for “instructional design” finds over 10,000 jobs.

    For technology, I do agree that you want someone that has multiple technology skills listed. For long term positions, I’m less worried if someone has exactly the software I need. I’d rather hire someone with great ID skills who has demonstrated the ability to learn software on their own in the past, but needs to learn something new, than someone who has the right software but weak ID skills. Someone who knows Captivate can learn Storyline quickly, and I’d rather train them on software than ID skills.

    • Hi Christy, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts 🙂 It’s always valuable to hear the opinions of other instructional designers who have a great deal of experience. The five points I layout in the article are derived from my own personal experience working in the fast paced consulting world. I feel they provide a good starting point for employers, but not all requirements by any means.

      Regarding the first point – this was one of the biggest areas I have personally witnessed instructional designers fall flat on their face. I concede that it is a catch-22 in some regards (how do you get experience if all clients are looking for are experience people?)… but it can be overcome, we all have to start somewhere.

      I can recall one time I was in a client meeting with a SME who was responsible for signing off on the course content. Like most SMEs (heck, every-single-one-I-have-ever-worked-with), he was not happy about the extra workload he was given to review and fill in the gaps for the training. As usual, it was the classic uphill battle to even get 30min of his time. That day I had a junior colleague with me. He was new to the game, but catching on quickly. After speaking with him, we decided this would be a good meeting for him to practice his client presence, and to build upon his skills for running meetings. We arrived into the conference room (the SME was 7min late…big surprise), and my colleague kicked off the meeting. No more than 3min into the discussion, the client says, “Do you even understand how procurement in the auto-industry works?”…. ouch…. I took over the meeting at that point, realizing that I perhaps jumped the gun on letting my fellow employee run the meeting. Nonetheless, it was a good learning experience for both of us, and one that could have been avoided in a lot of ways, one of which being if this colleague of mine had industry experience.

      Okay, so maybe the consulting industry is an exception… I suppose there are exceptions to everything. But I’m sure you can relate seeing as you too worked at Accenture. The client is expecting experts when they are paying for someone, as they should. We all want someone with industry experience – just as I wouldn’t want someone who lists “learns new mechanical skills quickly” on their resume to then work on my car. My question would be: “have you worked on a car engine before?” – in other words, do you have industry experience? As you know, IDers often face uphill battles in these types environments, constantly having to shake the stereotype is that all instructional design consists of is “chicks making powerpoints” (as a former colleague of mine so “eloquently” put it).

      Your point is well made regarding the certification piece. CPLP certainly isn’t the be-all, end-all. It was an example (more or less a “bonus”), and closely tied to the previous made point regarding experience. Much as you probably consider your Certified Technical Trainer certification to be a bonus, and mark of credibility. In the end, having that certainly doesn’t hurt – as an employer, if I had the choice between you and an equally qualified candidate, your CTT+ certification absolutely be a deciding factor.

      I also think it is important to specialize. Is it necessary? No. Is it beneficial to both employer and employee – yes. In a world of generalists, it pays (well) to be a specialists. And from what I have seen, and now believe, a “jack of all trades” is seldom the master at one. If I’m an employer, I’ll prefer the skill master…the specialist, over the generalists. (and as a professional, I’d prefer to fall into that camp as well).

      Where I agree with you is your comments on the audience knowledge. In my consulting projects, the majority were for an audience that was very knowledgeable in their roles and industry. We were upgrading their support systems and they needed to know how these new systems worked, and needed to know the changes in the workflow. As such, it became even more important for the training team to be able to talk-the-talk.

      • I think you set up your junior ID to fail by not setting expectations properly when you signed the contract for that project. You did a poor job explaining the purpose of an instructional designer and what we bring to the table, and your ID paid the price for that. You didn’t stand up for your ID and explain that he doesn’t need to know that; he’s an expert in learning. If we all work on educating clients better right from the beginning, we avoid some of those problems. IDs who can’t explain the value of instructional design probably are in the wrong field; explaining is a big part of what we’re able to do. I think as a whole, IDs as a group do a lousy job of explaining our value though.

        Accenture had no expectation that I had experience in the pharmaceutical industry or other areas where I worked. I’m sure that’s not a universal experience there, but my manager did a great job of explaining to the clients what my role was as an ID before I ever joined the project. The clients knew what I was there for, and it wasn’t for my pharmaceutical experience. Obviously your consulting experience is different, but you’ve also allowed yourself to get sucked into that trap of being a mini-SME instead of an instructional designer.

        CTT+ is something I had to do for my corporate training job in 2002. I don’t think I’ve ever had an employer even ask me about it in an interview for an ID job. It’s on my LinkedIn profile, but not always on my resume since it’s mostly a waste of space. It’s not even really a bonus. When you call certifications like CPLP “essential” as you do in your title, I think you’re stretching their importance. If you’d used a different title for your post, I think it would be OK to use those certifications as a tiebreaker.

        I’d never put those certs on my top 5 list though. What about passion for learning, or ability to pick up content quickly without formal training (although I guess if you expect people to already be SMEs, their ability to learn is less relevant), or their ability to work with SMEs, or their experience developing training with better practice activities and assessments than simple recall multiple choice questions? Every one of those qualities is something I’m looking for before certs, but they aren’t on your list at all.

        • HI Christy, thank you again for the comment. Unfortunately there wasn’t anything that I, our training team, or Accenture could do about the junior ID – he was let go. Smart kid but just couldn’t grasp the level of professionalism needed for client engagements – regardless of the ID concept.

          I actually worked quite hard at becoming a mini-SME, and it definitely paid off as my team’s training was far more effective, received client praise, and resulted in additional work. I think here is where the fundamental difference is from the perspectives we have, and how we both are approaching this concept. You have taken on a variety of projects with different backgrounds. I sought out projects with similar backgrounds as I knew it brought value to both my clients and myself (from a career perspective). Heck, clients often demanded someone in their RFPs who had previous experience in either their industry, or with the system being trained to. Am I a guru at all things SAP and product lifecycles? Not nearly like that of the SMEs – but it sure made the meetings more productive. With aggressive timelines, international elearning deployment, and real money in the balance – it realistically wasn’t the forum to over preach ID principles.

          Listen, we can’t get hung up on the CPLP. I don’t have one, nor do I plan to at this point as my career has taken a different trajectory. If I were still doing ID day in and day out, I would probably get it (or CPT from ISPI… I dunno). Truth be told though, you are correct – what matters MOST is the person’s experience (items 1,2, and 3) I think the learning industry is quite afraid of accreditation, it just never really picked up the way it has in other industries (such as the PMP certification for engineers). The “essential” part of it is that in order to obtain it, you’re required five years minimum of experience. For the sake of the article, these five years were for organizations who didn’t want to waste time and get the most of of their new ID.

          I have no disagreements with the soft skills you mention – I think those are very important. What I have come to see in the world of training and development is that while soft skills matter to us, tangible (“hard”?) skills matter “more”. For the ROI focused people (often leaders of the organization), they are more likely to value someone who can create elearning and provide measurable results than someone who just harps on their ability to pick up new concepts quickly. I just contend that someone with industry or application experience is better positioned to do so in regards to the content being trained.

  4. Hannah

    Thanks for sharing the list and the comments. Experience with industry can help cut down the timeline and thus the budget, perhaps not with basic training, but definitely with specialized training. I would add that so does experience with the targeted learners- I work in the K-12 course development arena, not professional training for adults- and some IDs have difficulty transitioning between populations. It’s not to say that they can’t do it at all – with some research and reflection, most can – however, if there was a time sensitive project, I would hire someone with a good track record with students instead of hiring a newbie.

  5. Its and great blog post. I do agree with Rakesh. Also while looking out for an Instructional designer you can check his problem solving abilities. The solutions he has provided as ID and also the tools used by him for solving the problem. Like ID at our organization use tool like Raptivity for there use.

    Its a great Blog with check list while looking out for an Instructional Designer.

    Thanks,
    Pratik

  6. Maribel Chavez

    I would like to add the most basic, but often overlooked qualifications: 1) Writing skills and 2) Reading comprehension skills. I’ve seen many instructional designers who can’t seem to understand there is a difference between “proofreading” to get grammar correct (although that’s important) and truly grasping the raw content from SMEs and transforming it into usable information that has an actual flow to it. I often see courses that are just a collection of discrete facts and interactions. Students don’t learn anything because there’s no connection to how the things fit together. You can tell me what a pedal is, give me the parts of a bicycle chain, and show me the spokes on a wheel, but in the end I still won’t know how a bike works. You can look at work samples, but if the SME was really good, it’s difficult to judge the impact the ID had.

    • Silvia, Sydney Austalia

      I could not agree with you more Maribel, it is so true. I know of an ID who is very good in the writing of material for the 19th Century English, it is great if you want to read Charles Dickens again. eLearning is fast and modern, so words like your system will compute – instead of calculate..do not belong in this era.

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