Becoming A Learning Designer: Part 2

Becoming A Learning Designer: Part 2
Summary: This is part 2 of a series about everything you need to consider when becoming a learning designer. In this article, we tackle the problems of experience, portfolio, and challenges during the hiring process.

Experience Is Not The Same As A Title

Have you read Part 1? You’re reading the second part of the article series about how to become a learning designer. If you haven’t read the first part, I suggest starting with that. Continuing from the process from part one, in this article, we’re picking up from where left off: applying for a job.

Let’s Apply For A Job

One of the most commonly cited challenges to even apply for a job is the paradox of experience. Entry-level jobs sometimes require 2-3 years of experience. How do you get experience without a job?

Solving Problems

Problem-solving starts with reframing the problem. Basically, instead of pondering over how you can get experience if you don’t have a job, you look at the same problem from a different perspective by asking the right questions: Why are they asking for that experience?

Time With A Title Is Not The Same As Experience

Let’s do some myth-busting here: The time someone spent having a title is not the same experience hiring managers mean in these job descriptions. Most likely your future employer is not looking for someone who had the title “Instructional Designer” for three years. (And, if the job title is the only thing they’re looking for, you’d better not apply anyway.)

Then why are they asking for the experience?

The reason why hiring managers ask for experience is that they don’t want to risk spending all the resources on recruiting, onboarding, and training just to learn that the person they hired is not capable of doing the job or needs too much hand-holding. But, just like the wind, it is something hard to measure because you don’t see it. Therefore, they use a “proxy” to measure experience: job title on your resume. That’s one way to measure. (It’s like licking your finger and getting a good feel of the wind in the air. It might not be the best or most accurate way.)

What Counts As Experience?

What companies mean by the years of experience is this: Do you have the capabilities to learn quickly and provide value to the organization without draining too many resources? One way to measure experience is by looking at the time you previously held a title. But that’s not the only way and, arguably, not the best way to do it.

Therefore, your answer should focus on showing evidence of capabilities:

  1. How did you face challenges that were above your head?
  2. What proactive actions did you take?
  3. What was the outcome?
  4. What did you learn from it?
  5. What tools, processes, models did you learn on your own?
  6. And then, turn it around and state that the ability to learn from experiences through reflection and proactive professional development is where you exceed expectations, not the number of years holding a title.

It’s up to the hiring manager to make a decision. If they’re looking for someone to be thrown into the job and perform well, you may not get the job. But believe me, you don’t want that job either. They know they need to invest in you to grow your skills. If they don’t have a plan or even the will, they would set you up for failure.

How Do You Show Value (Aka Experience)?

One of the magic words is portfolio. There was a time when I looked through loads of resumes to narrow down contractors to hire. If you think your resume is unique, try reading 20 of them in a row. When recruiters (and later hiring managers) go through resumes for an ID job, it is like Groundhog Day. Most Instructional Designers use the same tools, apply the same principles, list similar results, and often use a similar format. Industry-specific experience might be one of the differentiators, but entry-level candidates usually don’t have that in-depth knowledge yet. And so, anyone who stands out based on the search criteria for a specific job is a good start.

How To Stand Out As A Candidate?

That’s where your portfolio comes in. Today, it is expected that you have a digital presence. Your online brand is a public calling card. Whether it is good or bad, everything you do on social media counts. Your portfolio represents your brand, and it is worth a thousand words on a resume. So step one is to have a portfolio.

How To Build A Portfolio?

There are excellent resources on this topic to help you design, host, and maintain a professional portfolio. Whether you’re inspired to be a freelancer or to land a full-time gig, you can find something in my Flipboard magazine [1].

If you need some inspiration from someone who already did it, check out this post on how to create a portfolio in 45 days [2].

What’s Your Personality?

There is another side of the hiring process: personality fit. It is not just about getting things done. A manager is also concerned about how things get done: team balance, culture, collaboration, etc. They don’t just want to hire an ID. They want to hire a person to work with. Don’t pretend to be someone else online just to get a job because you might actually get the job.

Who are you?

  • Are you more of a focused, serious person or a social butterfly with a pinch of humor to season your conversations?
  • How creative do you consider yourself
  • Are you more into tinkering with tech or writing white papers?

Your portfolio should be professional but also look and feel like you as a person. Give the hiring manager a hint of what it would feel like working with you.

Creating A Portfolio

Think of your portfolio as a professional storytelling tool: it should showcase you, your capabilities, and your interests. Storytelling is both science and art. Every story has a basic structure: premise, conflict, and resolution. Every piece in your portfolio should tell 4 things:

  1. What problem or challenge you faced (premise)
  2. What you did to solve the problem (conflict)
  3. What the result was (resolution)
  4. What you learned from the experience, what else you want to explore (reflection)

These 4 essential elements can help hiring managers understand not only what you do but how and why you do it. Share your way of thinking! Work out loud!

The same piece of "interactive example" can be an effective solution or waste of resources, depending on what problem you were solving for. A simple checklist you created for parent-teacher organization volunteers about how to use an application can be more potent than a thirty-page design document that covers everything in the world about the same topic. If you need some inspiration and practical advice about how to work out loud, check out Jane Bozarth's book and blog.

Do I Need To Post Full Courses?

You don’t need to show the whole learning solution you created. Just highlight the part you believe represents your best work. Remember, the power of a story is not about the number of words in it. It is about the message delivered.

It takes time and commitment to build a portfolio—and that’s the point. To learn more, check out Kristin Anthony’s step-by-step portfolio building course.

What About Passion Projects?

Showcasing your passion projects is one of the best ways to create a good impression. They show your interests outside the professional work. Hiring managers can get to know you as a person. Since these are passion projects, they’re not scrutinized for perfection, and you can hint how versatile you are: a simple illustration to show how you’re working on your graphics skills; a simple game showing how you’re playing around with game engines; an interesting interaction demonstrating your ability to learn coding; or even topics that are far-out like teaching yoga, doing lucid dreaming, writing a screenplay, etc.

Portfolio Examples

I always find exciting bits on Kristin Anthony’s blog (also check out her Dear ID series to find learning professionals you want to follow) Mell Milloways’s site, Christy Tucker’s, or Connie Malamed’s collection.

eLearning Developer's portfolio:

If you’re leaning toward eLearning development, the following resources might be helpful for you:

  1. Ashley Chiasson not only has hundreds of Articulate Storyline tutorials but even a complete course for you.
  2. Tim Slade covers a lot in his book, blog, and tutorials online.
  3. Tom Kuhlman’s blog is always a good place to pick up new tricks.
  4. And finally, the only way to get better at building is by building.

As an eLearning developer, your portfolio should clearly state what level of expertise you have in industry-standard authoring tools. In addition to saying beginner or advanced (which means very different things to people), the best way to explain is by giving specifics on what you’re working on now. For example, you can mention how you used triggers, conditions, and actions in an example building a Storyline project.

The Hiring Process

Everything you did so far from the resume through to the portfolio is just to open the door. An organization’s hiring process tells you more about the company itself than any marketing material you read online. Remember, this is the time they really want someone to join them. A job is not a destination. It is a milestone in your journey. It is a very important milestone but your life doesn't stop there.

One of the common questions I see on social media about the hiring process is the work sample. Not just sharing your portfolio, but the fact that they want you to create something on the spot to prove you’re capable of doing the job. “I'll have ten minutes to create a course. What should I do?”


Let’s go back to the problem-solving steps: reframing the challenge by asking the right questions.

What might they want to learn from this?

  1. Are they interested to see if you can throw together something super fast?
  2. Are they testing how you approach these types of requests?

If #1, what could be the reason behind it?

  • They’re not convinced that you built your portfolio?
  • Did they get burned before? Hired someone that looked good on paper and online but failed at the job?
  • Or, maybe this is how they work? Under ridiculous time pressure?

If #2, what could be the reason behind it?

  • Are they testing how you can work with Subject Matter Experts and stakeholders under time pressure?
  • Do they want to know if you're just an order-taker?

Ask them: What are the evaluation criteria for this challenge?

My two cents: ask them. Ask for the evaluation criteria! Tell them this is obviously not realistic, so if you have ten minutes, you would want to spend most of it asking the right questions to make sure the solution you design is what they need.

However, if they just want to make sure you know how to use the tool proficiently, you’ll be happy to show what you can do in ten minutes.

Either case, you need to understand how success is measured.

Beyond The Milestone: Corporate Learning Traps

If you’re interested in workplace learning, especially in the corporate world, you need to think beyond courses. Every time you work on a course think about not only what happens in the course but what happens after the course. Who’s your audience? What’s their culture? What’s their incentive system? Do they need this course at all? If they do, when?

Because here’s a trap you might fall into if you’re only investing your energy bringing the content to life:

  1. Just because you made a decent course on time within budget from the content you were given, doesn’t mean the course is worth the time and the budget.
  2. Just because you created an engaging course, doesn’t mean learners would be able to pass your quiz at the end of the course.
  3. Just because learners pass the quiz at the end of the course, doesn’t mean they learned the material or even that they will remember what to do on the job.
  4. Just because they remember what to do on the job right after the course, doesn’t mean they will be able to recall important things a week later.
  5. Just because people can recall important things on the job later, doesn’t mean they know what to do differently.
  6. Just because people know what to do differently, doesn’t mean they will actually do it—or do it right.
  7. Just because people will actually do something they learned in the course, doesn’t mean they do it well or changed their behavior for good.
  8. Just because people change their behavior based on what they learned and perform desired actions and decisions, doesn’t mean that these will lead to better performance measured by their KPIs.
  9. Just because people have better performance measured by their KPIs, doesn’t mean the company achieves their business goals if they’re not aligned.
  10. If a course wasn’t the solution to the problem, it doesn’t matter what you did from 1 – 9. Ouch!

Do you see the trap? You can be the best designer in the world to “bring content alive” in a course if that course is not the solution to the problem you’re trying to solve. Showing the value of our work in today's world of Learning and Development is not just about the course content.

You can’t change the value of anything unless you know how it’s measured.

Thinking Backward: Designing For Results

That is why important to start thinking backward:

  1. What are the business goals (or business objectives), and how are they measured? The answer is often “to make sure people complete the course.” That’s not a business goal. Usually, it’s easier to start by discussing what strategic initiatives we should be aligned with and find the business objectives they support.
  2. Once you know the business goals and objectives, you can identify performance goals and objectives. These are more specific to a business unit or a role with actual KPIs (Key Performance Indicators).
  3. Once you have performance goals and objectives, you can drill down to behaviors (actions and decisions people need to make on the job). A more natural way to do that is by asking your Subject Matter Experts about scenarios where people make mistakes today. The more specific the actions and decisions are, the more impactful your solution can be.
  4. Once you have these actions and decisions, you can explore the reason why people are not doing them correctly. These are your barriers. If someone is not submitting a timesheet on time because they don’t know how, it’s a different problem from someone who just doesn’t have time.
  5. Once you have your performance goals and objectives, the desired behavior, and the barriers, you’re ready to think about solutions. However, not everything needs a course!
  6. Focus on where you can make the most significant impact on learning solutions. Design the most effective, authentic activity where people learn and practice.
  7. Finally, identify what people need (minimum content) to be able to do #6. Content is the last thing.

At Kineo, we follow our methodology called Designing for Results. Part of the process is inspired by the work of one of my learning and doing heroes, Cathy Moore.

This is not the only way to cut the content fluff and solve problems! There are excellent HPT (human performance technology) tools out there to explore.

“Wow! I don’t have time for this when the deadline is tomorrow.”

You’re right. When the deadline is already set and your stakeholders’ reputation hinges on whether they deliver the checkmark course, there’s nothing you can do. You act as an order taker. Shifting from the perception of an order taker is not an overnight change. To do that, we must shift our focus from content creation.

What Is The Biggest Challenge With Content Creation?

One of the reasons why working with Subject Matter Experts (SME) is challenging is because they bring you a lot of content with the dreaded statement: “It’s all important!” This is a typical response you hear from SMEs when you inform them that the 45-slide deck with a font-size of 10 might not fit in the course. How do you respond to that?

Starting With Content You Will End Up With Content

When you start a project with content, your argument is lost already. It’s opinion against opinion. It’s you against the curse of knowledge. What’s the curse of knowledge? SMEs know too much. They have years of accumulated knowledge, skills, and experiences.

You can learn more about the curse of knowledge, a cognitive bias many SMEs have in the field,  and how biased assumptions can lead to incomplete or unclear communication [3].

For SMEs, the process is often on autopilot. Explanation of actions or decision-making processes is often missing because it is so evident to them that they don't even think of mentioning them.

How To tackle “Too Much Content” And SME Bias

Let’s be real. You can’t just say no. Saying no without an alternative option is not a viable route in workplace learning. So, let’s analyze the problem:

  1.  “Everything is important!”
    • Ineffective response
      “Well, we have 15 – 20 minutes and this content doesn’t fit. We can add some click and reveals and tabs to show more content without overwhelming the learners, but some of the content will have to go.” In the SME’s mind, you’re saying: “I disagree. A lot of this is not important. I know the subject better than you do.”—And you know how this conversation ends.
    • More effective response
      “I understand and agree that all this information is important. Since people will only spend 15 – 20 minutes in this course, where would they find this important information after? Is there a quick way for them to access this on the job?” In the SME’s mind, you’re saying: “Yes, absolutely! In fact, I want to help you find even better ways to provide this information after the course.”
  2.  The SME is skipping over steps (“curse of knowledge”).
    • This problem is a trickier one. If you are not familiar with the subject or you’ve never done the process, it is not likely you will recognize that something is missing or not clear. So how do you deal with that?
    • If the learning is about a process or use of an application, a simple trick is to record the SME talking through it. Then bring in a user group: selected end-users with different levels. While they’re watching the video, encourage them to raise their hand to pause and ask any questions. You’ll have a gold mine of information. You’ll know where more explanation is needed and what types of questions to expect. You will also see the difference between newbies and skilled workers. They might need a very different approach to training. You may be able to convince your stakeholders that skilled workers only need a quick video with a checklist instead of creating a full-course wasting their time.
    • Lastly, creating learning personas with multiple SMEs can help you facilitate the conversation and identify gaps. At the same time, nothing beats shadowing and working with your actual target audience. Even better, try the job yourself. When interviewing, ask the hiring manager if they do monthly shadowing or similar programs to learn first-hand about the business.

Additional Resources

Finally, I wanted to mention some formal courses, books, blogs, videos, and communities you might find useful while preparing for the adventure:


We’ve covered a lot in this two-part series. The amount of information may be daunting. You probably have lots of questions still. That’s a good sign! Why? Because the more you know, the more questions you have. The more question you have, the more you know.

Where should you start then? I’ll leave you with an Arthur Ashe quote on challenges: “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can...” and adding my thoughts “…make of that what you will!”

Tell me how it goes! Use these articles as resources. Save them. Come back when you need them. If you find this information useful, share it with others! And let me know when you get hired!!



[2] Becoming an Instructional Designer: How I Completed My Portfolio in 45 Days

[3] Subject Matter Experts Must Communicate Clearly – Especially During Crisis