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Instructional Designer as Product Designer?

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Instructional Designer Roles

I spend a lot of time on Twitter with an amazing community of instructional designers, L&D’ers, elearning authors, and various folks of other description. As I have felt since the very beginning, the thought leaders that I follow sometimes seem to have very different experiences from someone like me. There are the little things, of course, like references to talking with your developer and graphic designers to create elearning. Who has those? In my role (and I know this is also true for many of my colleagues) I act as the coder, the graphic designer, the motion designer, the QA person, and everything in between. But there are larger differences, too, like references to Learning and Development departments. A lot of conversation seems to revolve around creating opportunities for internal clients, being in charge of creating L&D plans for the organization (including being able to choose the form of the learning objects they create), being in the position to discuss L&D with C-suite executives, and the list goes on. Obviously, not everyone I follow is in this position, but when I’m constantly hearing ideas and practices and exhortations around these topics, it’s easy to feel a bit like a fish out of water. I’ve struggled for a while to define my place and the place of my team in my current organization. Up until now, I’ve mostly described us as being “in a weird place” because we didn’t seem to match up with many of the other experiences I hear about. But I was thinking about it last night and I was finally able to articulate an analogy for my current role as instructional design: right now, at least, I’m more like a product designer.

ID as Product Designer

The more I think about this comparison, the more it seems to fit. Product designers need a lot of the same skills and techniques as a “purer” or more traditional instructional designer or L&D’er: empathy with the user, agile prototyping, QA, creative/design thinking. But as a product designer, you may not always have a say in whether or not the product gets designed at all. When a project gets to you, someone else has already determined that the product needs to be designed and so you just do it. Of course, you try to cut out all the fluff and make the sleekest, sexiest, most effective product you can but you don’t get to choose whether or not there will be a product, or whether you should just send an email or (create a job aid). As a product designer, I create things that my organization will sell to customers. So I have to keep the customer in mind, but I also have tight budget restraints from my internal clients. I’m always serving two masters and I don’t have the end-user on hand to back me up when undesirable design choices I have to make (read “force the user to click on every page” or “create a notetaking page with blank spaces so the user has to take notes”).
I think that another thing I likely have in common with a product designer is that I am largely invisible within my organization. Instead of being a go-to person when an internal client wants to learn more about x or being a visible force in employee learning, I’m about as visible as the people at the office supply store you get to print your copies. It’s more of a “here, get this done. I’ll be back at 4” proposition. And because we’re seen as more of a product shop than an L&D team, conversation around professional development, effective instructional design, and making time for practice, creativity, and innovation seem very difficult, if not impossible (though I’m sure those are difficult for everyone).

Any other Product Designers?

This post isn’t about whining. It’s about thinking deeply about my current role in my organization and my place in the larger ID and learning communities. I’m loving instructional design and how creative it allows me to be. However, I am also keenly aware of the differences in situation that are evident in many of the Twitter chats, articles on best practices, and comments that I see. That’s cause for some serious reflection.

Any other ID product designers out there? What do you see as being a bit different about your role in your organization?

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