Finding a Good Fit in Instructional Design

When you’re looking for an instructional design role, it’s important to find a good “fit.” A good fit means doing work you find satisfying, in an organization or with clients that value your contributions.

Generalist or specialist

Generalists do a little bit of everything. This is pretty common in instructional design and elearning roles, especially in smaller organizations. Generalists have a broad set of skills. You can have a lot of variety in your work when you’re a generalist.

Specialists have deep skills in one or two areas, but tend to have a weaker base of other related skills. Many elearning developers are specialists; they work best when someone else provides them with a storyboard or script that they can be creative in building. Larger teams are more likely to hire specialists who focus on a particular skill or part of the process.

Finding a Good Fit in Instructional Design

Unicorn or comb

What employers ask for in job openings is often unicorns: people who have deep skills in all the areas. In practice, real unicorns aren’t very common.

Aim towards unicorn, realistically end up as a beautifully misshapen comb

The reality is that to be a unicorn is a worthy goal, but most people won’t get there, and that’s fine! First, find something you’re good at and which contributes towards the field you’re interested in, then you have at least something to fall back on and can bring value to a broad range of teams.

Sophie O’Kelley in Generalist versus specialist? How about a misshapen comb?

Rather than being a unicorn, it’s more common to be a bit of a “misshapen comb.” That means you have the broad base of skills that give you a little knowledge about many topics and help you interact with other specialists. You also have a couple of deeper skills, maybe at different depths. An elearning developer might have deep skills in Storyline, plus moderate skills in UX, graphic design, and a little Javascript, along with a foundation of instructional design principles.

The idea of the comb is related to Cammy Bean’s explanation of broad and deep T-shaped skills in her book, The Accidental Instructional Designer.

Good Organizational Fit

Generalists have lots of options for jobs. They can contribute to a team or work as a department of one (fairly common in L&D). Being a generalist is a good way to start out in the field of instructional design because you get experience across a broad range of skills.

If you’re a specialist, you may need to be more discerning in searching for jobs or projects. Larger companies are more likely to have larger teams where different members have different specialties. Elearning vendors, the companies that specialize in creating elearning for other organizations, are other good places to find more specialized roles.

Elearning development specialists seem to have an easier time finding work, especially as freelancers. Organizations are always looking for developers who can build elearning, even if they have an internal team of instructional designers. Development is the easiest part of the process to outsource to a freelancer or consultant.

I know people who want to focus primarily on writing and stay away from development or technical work. It can be a little trickier if you want to focus primarily on analysis, design, and storyboarding. You have to look for those larger teams, or at least organizations who regularly outsource development work.

Questions to ask

Many people treat job interviews as a one-sided evaluation of your skills, instead of a two-way review for good fit. When you interview, asking questions helps you figure out the role and the culture.

Ask questions like these to learn more about the position:

  • What does a typical day or week look like in this position?
  • Thinking about the people who have been really successful in this role in the past, what sets them apart from people who are “just OK” in this role? (If they say how pretty they make PowerPoint, you know it’s not a good fit if you want to do more rewarding work.)
  • What’s the most challenging part of this position?
  • Tell me about the roles in the rest of the team. Who else would I be working with?
  • How do you determine which projects get developed and what projects have priority?

If you ask those sorts of questions, you should get a better feel for the job and the organizational culture. Even interviewing with an elearning vendor as a subcontractor, you could ask some of these questions. The answers will help you figure out how much is just order taking from clients and how much is consulting.

More on Instructional Design Careers

Check out all of my posts on instructional design careers, including these:

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11 thoughts on “Finding a Good Fit in Instructional Design”

  1. Pingback: Instructional Writing, Identifying Strengths: ID Links 4/13/21 - Experiencing eLearning

  2. Pingback: Broad and Deep Instructional Design Skills - Experiencing eLearning

  3. Really enjoyed this post. How do you recommend getting your foot in the door? I have a Master’s degree in Instructional Technology Management and I really want get into learning and development but I have no experience other than 3 years face to face training.

    1. Joshua, do you have a portfolio? That’s the first thing I check for folks who are having trouble finding that first job. When you don’t have much experience (or not much direct experience), a portfolio is how you demonstrate to employers that you can actually do the job.

      I have a number of other posts about instructional design careers that might be helpful to you. Even though your experience is in training rather than teaching, check out the posts on transitioning from teaching to ID. I think many of the same tips for customizing your resume and showing your skills will be relevant.

      1. No I don’t yet have a portfolio. I started to create a wordpress site but wasn’t sure what to include. I of course have my resume and contact info. I have a masters in instructional design however we mostly discussed theory rather than actually using software to create content other than power point.

        1. If you don’t have projects from your masters degree, or samples from your experience training, you might need to create a few samples specifically for your portfolio. The samples can be short: 3-5 minutes is usually a good target. I would start with 3 samples, and you can always add more over time. If you plan and storyboard in advance, you should be able to build 3 short samples during a 30 or 60 day free trial of Articulate Storyline or Adobe Captivate.

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