Thursday, June 9, 2011

Portrait of an Instructional Designer

One of my consulting assignments involves helping clients identify vendors with the right Instructional Design (ID) talent. It got me thinking about my own experience with Instructional Designers in the last 15 years in the industry. Who were the best Instructional Designers I worked with? What was special about them? What did they do to stand out? When did I realize they were exceptional?

In this article, I try to answer these questions but not by describing the skillsets or competencies of Instructional Designers. There are many good sources of that. Instead, I will share stories about my experiences working with an exceptional Instructional Designer. After all, this is an article about ID and isn’t storytelling one of the most powerful instruments for learning?   

At the Start
The year was 2003. We had recently won a large deal to develop courseware for an online MBA program. I had been closely involved in producing the prototype and was exhausted after weeks of an intensive design, review and redesign cycle. The project was now with the production team and a new Instructional Designer, Myra, had been assigned the task of developing the first course. A week or so into the project, I received a rather frantic message from Myra saying she needed help with the course. My heart sank. I had too much on my plate. How much of this project will I have to take on from the newbie?

Myra and I had a call in which she shared the challenges she was facing when developing case studies on the subject of New Enterprises. The content she had been given was academic and conceptual. She just didn’t know how to start writing a case study using that. She was also new to this type of content and had never written a case study before. I gave her some spiel about thinking about a real-life situation in which the concept being taught would be applicable and then ensuring that the story remains realistic while conveying the learning point. I followed it by an email with an idea of a telecom company using their existing customer base to push a new product. The idea was very vague and would take a lot of research to ensure it was appropriate and then some creative writing to make it effective. The truth is that although I spent half an hour or so advising her, I knew it was too much to expect and was mentally preparing myself for months of hands-on hard work on the project.

Two days later, I receive an email from Myra requesting me to review the case study she had written. It contained a believable scenario about the telecom company, followed by an intelligent quiz about the learning point and a summary. The case was realistic, detailed to the right depth, and pitched correctly to the intended audience.  The entire piece was eloquently written and obviously well-researched. There was none of the stilted awkwardness that is the bane of scenarios. For someone who had never done this before, it must have taken a huge amount of hard work and a leap of faith to come up with this. I had been proven wrong, and what a way to be proven wrong. To top it, Myra had the humility to thank me for this product of her hard work!

The Next Few Years…
Over the next few years, we won the contract to develop 10 more titles for the same customer and the team was expanded to increase capacity. Myra became the resident expert, gaining the trust of her team, her customers and the subject matter experts (SMEs) alike. The last was not an easy task, since the SMEs were academicians and Myra didn’t have any background in business studies.  It was only later I discovered her secret. In addition to reading a lot of material on the subject, she used her extended network of friends and family members to learn more about the subjects she was working on. She cross-checked everything she wrote using multiple sources and ensured integrity of her work.

Then came along a course that needed something quite different from what was usually expected from her- creating fake content! The idea was to teach students that not everything you see on the Internet is true or correct, even though it might look authentic. This time, I sought Myra's help and requested her to help me develop content for a webpage that might look real at first glance, but had subtle authenticity problems visible only upon close scrutiny.

She responded by writing a fantastic piece about extra-sensory perception (ESP) in dogs. She concocted data showing that dogs behaved peculiarly at the very moment their masters left their offices for home and quoted serious-sounding experts on other theories and experiments on dog ESP. She also added pictures of her dog and mine at relevant places in the article to give it that extra punch. Although the premise of the article was ridiculous, she made it believable, totally readable and very funny. Somehow I knew that our super picky client would accept it in its original form. They did. Call it my ESP!  

I believe that Myra's voracious appetite for reading, and of course her sense of humor, had a big role to play in her coming up and executing on this idea. 

In the last couple of years of our association, Myra got involved in another very interesting project. The subject matter was ethics, the audience was staff of Fortune 500 companies and the presentation style was completely scenario-based. I had developed the first few courses in the series myself, so was deeply aware of the challenges involved. First, the entire course was dialog driven. Dialog had to be authentic for American audience. Second, situations had to be relevant to employees in corporate America. Third, the messages were not always black and white or prescriptive. Fourth, original content needed to be created. This was not a conversion project.

Myra used the first few courses as the building block for the next set, reusing and extending the main storyline, redeploying the interactive templates, adapting presentation and interactive strategies from other courses being developed around her, and working with the media team to make incremental changes to the existing visual style. And as always, she prepared herself for the project- she got her head into the ethical issues faced by corporate America by reading and researching about them.

One of the first topics she worked on was diversity. How to write a scenario on diversity without sounding condescending and preachy was, in my opinion, a big challenge. Myra developed a simple realistic story about a Manager agnonizing over his team composition for a Japanese client. Her story dealt with issues of stereotyping and generalizing in a polished manner, without making the Manager look like a bigot. In fact, she succeeded in creating a character that came across as a regular person with perceptions and concerns that most people have. In ID terminology, she made the protagonist relevant to the audience, thereby reducing barriers to learning this type of content. The dialog she wrote was smooth and polished, and real. It was no surprise that yet again, the customer loved her work! We won the contract to create 15 courses for the client over a period of two years.

In Conclusion
While I have decided to leave the task of deconstructing Myra's skillset to the readers, I would like to highlight a few core attributes of her, more like life skills, which were instrumental in her success as an Instructional Designer. These are resourcefulness, right amount of confidence, lots of guts, sufficient diffidence and self-doubt to know when to ask for help, wide exposure, willingness to learn, intelligence, humility, and absolutely no fear of hard work.


  1. Hats off to Samara and you. It is team work that counts. When people work in harmony new ideas evolve and if harnessed intelligently results in miracles. Keep up the good work Samara and Puja. Credit goes to you Puja to be able to appreciate talent of others and put it in writing so beautifully and cordially. If a person speaks well we call it gift of the gab . What does one say for having such gift of writing writing "Gift of the wrap"??

  2. Thanks! Yes indeed Samara (now changed to Myra) and I did great work together and raised the bar for many.

    Gift of the wrap is cute. Passing by the mirror today, I can say with certainty that I also have the "gift of the flab"!

  3. I am very inspired by Myra and I am impressed by your encouragement that elicited her core skills.

  4. Here is a comment from Myra, who emailed me her comment instead of putting it I am posting here. She says:

    I agree with Videhi, Puja. A number of people don't find ample opportunity to realize their potential or find the right expression for their talent. Undoubtedly Myra has some innate skills and talent, but they are brought to fore by the guidance you provided as her mentor.

  5. Wonderful portrait of a very talented writer. Well written like always. I agree Puja that you have the skill to nurture and hone talent till it (they) DAZZLES. :).

  6. "Gift of the Wrap" is very appropriate.