Broad and Deep Instructional Design Skills

In instructional design, we have both broad and deep skills. We have broad skills across a range of domains, plus a few deep skills as specialties.

Do instructional designers and learning experience designers need to know how to use development tools, or should they focus just on analysis and design? What about people who only do development but no design; are they instructional designers? How much project management falls under the role of instructional designer? What about LMSs—do instructional designers need to know about those too? Psychology, cognitive science, graphic design, usability, and other fields also overlap with instructional design. In instructional design, we have both broad and deep skills.

Job titles and expanding expectations

Many of us in the instructional design field struggle to explain to others what we do for a living. I usually say, “I’m an instructional designer; I create online learning.”

Part of our struggle is that we haven’t agreed even among ourselves what exactly an instructional designer does. The range of roles and responsibilities is pretty wide. Lots of us do a little bit of everything. Job descriptions have also been expanding to encompass more skills, especially more technology skills, as noted in “Digital Skills Dominate Job Ads for Instructional Designers.

Core skills

The core skill for instructional designers is creating learning experiences. I would argue that anyone who isn’t creating learning experiences isn’t an instructional designer; they’re working in a related role. That doesn’t necessarily mean only designing formal learning and courses. Creating job aids or supporting informal learning could be a core task for instructional designers too.

However, if your role is taking a storyboard created by someone else and building it in a rapid development tool, you’re not really doing instructional design. I would classify that as elearning development or media development instead.

T-Shaped: ID Skills. On the horizontal bar of a T, broad skills. On the vertical bar of a T, deep skills.

T-Shaped skills

Cammy Bean refers to this as a “T-shaped” skill set in her book The Accidental Instructional Designer (p. 16).

We need broad skills and understanding (the top of the T), with potentially one area of deep expertise (the vertical bar of the T). The horizontal bar enables you to communicate and collaborate with experts across a wide range of disciplines, making you a versatile generalist with a well-rounded point of view. The deep vertical bar makes you a specialist.

Misshapen comb

While Cammy described one deep area of expertise, you might actually have a couple of deeper skill areas. You might have the strongest skill in elearning development with authoring tools, but moderate skill in graphic design, Javascript, and UX. Alternatively, maybe you’re best at writing and storyboarding for elearning, but you also work with virtual live training and have strong skills in blended learning.

Sophie O’Kelly describes this as a “misshapen comb” with multiple vertical bars of varying lengths. I wrote about her idea more in Finding a Good Fit in Instructional Design.

Strengths and weaknesses

I love this idea. It’s a great visual for thinking about how people have different strengths in a field where we all wear a lot of hats. I find this much more helpful than just talking about “generalists” or “specialists,” when it’s more nuanced than that.

Knowing where you’re strong helps you focus your career. You can work on your weaknesses or gaps in your skills, but you can also emphasize and focus on your strengths.

As a consultant, I focus on design and writing, especially writing scenario-based learning. That’s my strength, and it’s where I can differentiate myself from others in the field. However, I have enough development skills to create courses from start to finish.

What about you? Does this metaphor resonate for you, or does it not quite fit your role? What do you consider to be the vertical bars in your T or comb?

Originally published 7/29/2016. Updated 6/22/2020.

18 thoughts on “Broad and Deep Instructional Design Skills

  1. Amen sister! If you are not creating learning experiences you are not an instructional designer. Instead perhaps they should fancy themselves as developers. Valid skills to have. But there is a difference in other industries like director vs. camera operator, editors and a team that can give their best to create a movie. But the director maps out the experience. Do not get me wrong there are a few out there that can a powerful army of one :).

    1. This is also related to our industry-wide issues with not having consistent terminology. We have so much variation in job titles that it’s hard to tell whether someone with the title “instructional designer” is actually an elearning developer, or whether someone with the title “Training Specialist II” is actually an instructional designer.

  2. Hi Christy,
    I’m in the same boat as Jeannine. And while I don’t mind doing LMS administration in addition to designing and developing elearning (and on occasion virtual and in-class materials, too), it’s a challenge to balance the time allocated to any one given part of the job. Spending half the morning fixing problems in the LMS or creating and enrolling users in course work detracts from the time I might need to actually build a course. Now this isn’t really a problem if you’re not faced with tight deadlines, or indeed any deadlines at all. But when you need to get materials out there quickly, but at the same time have to fix issues in the LMS or with other courses, it’s a problem, particularly when your supervisor/manager/team lead has little or no awareness of the time it takes to do any of those jobs. And bringing it to the attention of your supervisor could lead him/her to think that you can’t handle the requirements of the job…which 99.9% of the time is not the case. Good instructional designers nowadays CAN do it all…just not all at once. One person can only do so much in a day/week. I was only wedded to my job 24/7 when I was in the Navy…not now. It’s particularly frustrating when you work for a small company that often does not have the money to hire the talented people it truly needs to satisfy the company’s training requirements, and with managers who have not come through the ranks to understand what it takes to do this job .

    1. I hear your frustration, Kirk. The thing is, in a functional work environment, you should be able to bring it to the attention of your supervisor that you have too much on your plate. This isn’t an issue of skills, it’s an issue of workload and priorities. A good manager should be able to tell the difference.

      If your manager can’t tell the difference between “I have asked this person to do too many things with too little time” and “This person isn’t qualified to do the job,” then that’s a management problem. You can either figure out how to “manage up” and educate that person on why things take a long time, why you need some longer uninterrupted blocks of time to do deep thinking work (writing, dev, etc.), or you can look for a new job somewhere with more realistic time requirements and better managers. If you have already tried repeatedly to educate them, and they aren’t willing to reduce the scope of the requests to match your actual time, then it’s probably time to look elsewhere.

      You don’t have to put up with a lousy manager or an organizational culture that is setting you up for burnout. There are TONS of opportunities in the field right now, including an increasing number of remote options with organizations that don’t care where you live. The competition is stiff too, because many people are entering the field, but you have the advantage of having all this broad experience.

  3. I really appreciate this blog post. My previous job as a high school teacher, motherhood, and an overall get it done mentality has left me knowing a little bit about a lot of things. Still, my recent venture into instructional design (I’m doing a MEd) has left me a bit overwhelmed. Although I truly love the career diversity, the breadth and depth is a lot to take in. Finding the right strategies really is the name of the game for me. so stumbling upon this T-shaped model was extremely helpful. Focusing on a specialty while developing a foundational understanding of the rest is much more manageable. I also love that it provides an excellent template to evaluate my current skills and set goals for future development.

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. I’m so glad this post was helpful to you. I think a lot of people feel overwhelmed by the number of skills listed in job opportunities. It’s easy to get caught up in the idea of having to learn everything all at once as you transition careers, but the T-shaped skills are much more realistic.

  4. Great post and a great article you linked to. Thank you. I might add another representation — one prong going the other way to make a two-sided comb. I have often pushed back (pushed up (?) the chain of command) to determine if elearning/training is actually the right solution to the problem in the first place. Perhaps this can be seen as “needs analysis” but I see it as more of “cause” or “performance” analysis before the design of learning experiences even gets underway. Thanks.

    1. That’s an interesting idea. In terms of skill development, I’d see that as another vertical for “performance consulting” as a skill. I don’t think the comb model maps perfectly to an ADDIE or other development model (and I don’t think it should), but more as a way to think about skills and growth over the course of your career.

  5. If you have the luxury of working with an elearning team, which some of us don’t, I think it is important to understand the bigger picture of design, development and delivery. In our shop, I am the only person who does instructional design, development and delivery via LMS. Thankfully, I had formal/graduate training and experience in adult education and have always been fascinated with technology as a personal interest. The two have meshed well, but my time is spread pretty thin. I am also the system admin for our LMS simply because of my technical skills and the lack of such skills in the rest of our training team. That really hampers what we can do and really puts a time crunch on me to keep all bases covered.

    1. The one person team is very common. I think that’s why the broad expertise in this model works. You do a little of everything. Chances are, you still have one area where you’re stronger. That area of deep expertise might be not as far ahead of your other skills, and your broad skills are probably all a little deeper. The model can adapt for that.

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