Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Describing What You Do: Instructional Design

You're at a playground and you start talking to the mom sitting on the bench next to you. Eventually, she asks you what you do for work.  What do you say?  Are you met with comprehension or blank stares?

This was me yesterday:

Playground Mom:  So, what do you do?

Me:  I'm an instructional designer.  I create eLearning.

Playground Mom:  [blank stare]

Me: ...corporate training...

Playground Mom:  [weak smile]

Me:  I create training for companies that's delivered on the computer....

Playground Me: weak nod..."Oh, I see."

I see that she really doesn't see and I just don't have the energy to go further.  I'm sort of distracted by the naked boy who just ran by (not mine).  We move on.

Is it me?  Is it the rest of the world?

Ellen Wagner says, "IDs help transform intangible information assets into things of great business or epistemological value."

That's a great description, but it still doesn't help me tell the woman on the playground what it is that I do.

How do you explain yourself?  How do you tell someone who's not in the field what you do?

38 comments:

Robert Kennedy said...

Well Cammy, I think your "mom" in the park might have been a bit on the "indoors" side. I find that most people understand once I tell them I create training on computer or something like that. I have even had the light bulb go on once I let them know that I developed 'eLearning'. I try not to use the term 'Instructional Designer' as my opening line anymore :-) because, like you, I get the 'whats that' stare. So I simply say I develop eLearning or training. I still get questions sometimes but they are usually more about what its like, can i give an example, etc. I don't think I have gotten the blank stare in a while. Maybe that's my explanation, or maybe people are just becoming more informed these days :-), with the www and all ;-).

Janet Clarey said...

"I do stuff on the computer"

Lynn Ireland said...

I find the role of 'IT trainer' works best for me, as my actual role title 'Systems Learning and Development Designer' is a bit of a problem, particularly on forms!

Still I find the slightest mention of IT does tend to kill the conversation unless you happen to be speaking to a techie.

Mark Britz said...

Pretty much the same as the rest. Maybe it’s the marbles I have in my mouth but I have had people (using unconscious Active Listening) ask? "So, You're a Structural Designer ...like an Architect?" Then again, people tend to associate or accommodate for new knowledge right? I follow of course with “I design training for businesses…”

Michelle said...

I agree - I leave "designer" out - I tell people I am an instructional consultant and then let the conversation go from there....

Cindy Shundo said...

For the longest time, right after I'd say I was an Instructional Designer, people would think I said that I was in Interior Designer. So, just at Robert and Mark mentioned, I don't start off with "Instructional Designer" anymore. Now, I say that I write training manuals for companies, and then I quickly mention the different delivery methods for training (as examples). If I see they still have that blank look in their eyes, I quickly mention the names of some of my clients and that usually gets there attention enough to explain further.

Cammy Bean said...

So we need a different job title. Instructional Designer just sounds too vague/technical. I like Janet's description, "I do stuff on the computer."

I think I'll just start off with Mark's "I design training for businesses."

Jeff Goldman said...

Like many of the rest, I do not use Instructional Designer because I get the same confused reaction. I will use the term e-Learning Designer, but include that I provide interactive training accessed via my company's Intranet. More and more, people will respond with "we have that at my company." If that is the case it is like hitting a home run.

Of course my brother-in-law once responded with "yeah, we have that stuff at my work, but I never take 'em." Mind you, this is my stereotypical brother-in-law who also has difficulty putting on a shirt when company comes over.

John D Roberts said...

I usually say "I create training that genuinely helps people do their jobs better."

The hard part is living up to that description.

MY brother in law says "and you can make a living at that?" (Eyebrow raised). What's wrong with our sisters, I wonder.

Cammy Bean said...

billbrandon had this comment on Twitter: I usually just tell 'em I'm a writer. Then if they ask what I write, I explain: "Stuff that helps people learn how to do things."

Kirsten Reichelt said...

I usually start out by saying "I'm an E-Learning author" – if whoever I'm talking to then has little question marks in his/her eyes, I add that I develop computer learning programs for companies. Of course, I then need to mention some topics, because otherwise, people think I teach others how to _use_ a computer...

learnnuggets said...

Once I said I was an "Interactive Learning Developer." That seemed to get an even deeper blank stare!

Most people understand what a "Project Manager" is so lately I've resolved to "Training Project Manager." If there is a follow up question, it opens the door for a bit more depth.

ID's today are essentially project managers who are involved from the front end designing to the back end development.

Downes said...

"I teach classes on the internet"

and then

"I write software that lets people teach classes on the internet"

and then

"I design ways of creating software that lets people teach classes on the internet"

and finally

"I help people use the internet to learn things"

(You can't simply start with the fourth thing, because then they think I work for Google).

Joe Deegan said...

If you asked my co workers they would describe me as "the guy who does training things with computers." My title of "Program Development Leader" doesn't come close to describing what I do so well.

Archana Narayan said...

I face the same situation every time I am asked what I do. Because in India (more so than the west) elearning is an alien concept among non learning professionals. When I explain that I help people learn, the immediate question is which field. It is difficult for them to understand that you could help teach domains that you are not an expert in. Then, I explain about the SME. So, it is a long explanation which I am sure confuser the listener further. :) This was actually my first blog post: How do I explain what I do?

Rupa Rajagopalan said...

Hi Cammy,

This is a really interesting question. As Archana says, in India, non learning professionals have no clue about Instructional Designing. In face most of them do not know something like this exists.

So what I tell people is my job is similar to that of a film director who directs a movie or an ad maker who visualizes commercial ads.

I explain that the only difference is that I direct a learning program :)

Geetha Krishnan said...

I create learning material. Well, I try to, client, SME, and colleagues willing.

Cammy Bean said...

I'm comforted to know that I'm not the only one who receives blank stares or gets tongue-twisted in trying to describe what I do. Of course, it always depends on the audience -- some people have more experience with eLearning and get it right away.

I think the word "instructional" is the biggest obstacle. That's not a word one hears in normal circumstances...

Anonymous said...

I usually say

I have an internet business

Then if the converation is paused I will follow up with


.......Hard Core Pornography

That usually ends the conversation

Jason Willensky said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason Willensky said...

I often say I design workplace learning. For some reason this phrase usually works.

ellen wagner said...

gotta say, I continue to be surprised at how many of us can't easily articulate what it is that we do. Me included. I think it's because we try to explain way too much.

Let's not forget that casual questions about what one does for a living is a way to get a "speed-dating" sense of who we are...not because others are deeply interested in the practices and activities with which we are involved, but because they are looking for a common point of experience to continue a conversation.

My affirmation that "IDs help transform intangible information assets into things of great business or epistemological value" is really more for us because it reminds us that, in the words of Stuart Little, "We ARE somebody!!!"

(Oy....Sometimes I just want to give IDs a big hug and remind us all that we are a critical lynchpin in the learning technologies value chain....we are such a sensitive bunch!)

But when talking to "civilians" about ID, I usually ask them if they've ever gone to school or had a job. Or I ask them if they've ever had to learn how to do something using technology. With that context its a bit easier to say "yeah, I design that stuff".

If one prefers the more academic explanation "we transform digital assets into tangible value by designing and producing learning experiences enabled via IT."

Or, from the biz side, we can say that we "maximize the value of investments in people and enterprise technologies".

Of course, sometimes I just tell people that I can get their Flash player to install. And then they think I'm a flippin' genius!!!!

Cammy Bean said...

Ellen, I'm pretty sure you are a flippin' genius, Flash player install or not.

Let's all us IDs gather round now for a great big group hug. And then go speed date the other moms and dads on the playground.

Narauttam Das said...

Whenever I say, "I'm an Instructional Designer" I get a very confused reaction at the first place. Some thinks that it is something realted to interior designing, while some told is it related to fashion design. Then I need to explain them what e-learning is and how instructional deisgning is related to develop e-learning programs.

Even I say the same thing, as said by Rupa, that my role is somewhat similar to the director of a movie. I direct the designing of an interesting and engaging e-learning program.

Steve said...

I think...

'Learning and Performance Strategist'

...might work pretty well for the layman.

'I design stuff that helps people learn new things'

Instructional Designer, ID, etc. works for those inside the industry. But you're right - nobody outside the cone of 'know' gets it.

I've titled myself...

'Learning Systems Engineer'

...at one time. Those in the know say there's no such thing;P

Matt Meyer said...

I have been trying to have this conversation for over 16 years now. Believe it or not, it's gotten easier in that time. It's funny you've blogged on this as I did the same just two weeks ago: http://tiny.cc/tOyCL

I think we could all have a lot of fun submitting favorite reactions of those "not in the know" when we tell them our title!

Chris said...

You've hit on two separate, although related, soapboxes on which I sometimes find myself perched. This is from an educational perspective (blame John Curry for that one ;-) He and I go back about 10 years).

First, as a discipline/field/industry segment, instructional design is not well defined or understood. A symptom of that is the two types of institutions you'd expect to most likely have and need instructional designers/technologists, K-12 and Higher Ed - having a very small group or not any hint of ID's at all; for example, a K-12 district with 36 campuses and only 5 instructional technologists/designers *or* a community college not having a single instructional designer/technologist on campus. I think the root of the problem is that we have not defined or promoted ourselves well; decision makers that should be approving and hiring instructional technologists aren't aware enough of the need for the skill set within their organization. If decision makers do not understand the discipline and the job, how are those not associated with it in any way supposed to know?

Second, even where there are instructional technologists/designers employed, they are often not in significant leadership positions. As a result, even in educational institutions, technology related decisions impacted by training and integration (adoption rates) often do not include instructional designers which often understand the user base in more depth or detail: their use habits, tendencies, attitudes etc. That leads to 1:1 laptop programs in K-12 schools in which faculty have said the computers are basically ebook readers because software and access to the internet isn't addressed well enough from an instructional perspective to make the computers more useful. Or an instance in a higher education institution where IT begins implementing blogs for the business side of things with zero consideration for or involvement by the instructional departments; that same IT group also abandoned pursuit of iTunes U because they didn't see how or why the instructional side would use it. If those kinds of decisions are being made in educational institutions that DO have instructional designers/technologists, should we really expect there to be a good understanding of the discipline by those not associated with it in any way?

-Chris

Cammy Bean said...

I'm enjoying all of the alternative titles people are coming up with. Great stuff.

I do think a big 'problem' is that we all do something slightly different from each other. For some of us, "technologist" might be part of the job description. For others, the emphasis might be more on writing. We all play a part in the design of instruction, yes, but there are so many pieces to that puzzle!

libbyfundwell said...

How about:
The production and distribution of eLearning courses.

This describes what I do.

While audacious this description leaves out the most important part of our job -- engagement with faculty and students and creating an eLearning environment which enhances that relationship.

Anonymous said...

I always answer the "What do you do?" question with the following:

"I'm an Instructional Designer (pause). I create training materials. Mainly I read, write and research for a living."

SometimesI'll add:

"I'm also the person who typically trains the trainer."

Tracy said...

While I'm not quite working in the field yet (I just finished my degree last month) I stopped telling people "I want to be an instructional designer" and started saying "I want to work with professors to help them make their classroom courses work online." People seem to get that.

Cammy Bean said...

Tracy, I love that description -- works really well for those IDs working in the academic space.

I've started moving away from the term "elearning" when I describe what I do -- instead using "online training/learning." With elearning I still get blank stares...

Alanieta Lesuma-Fatiaki said...

I have just stumbled upon this great blog and article and yes, I have to agree with this as well. I have to relate a very interesting though some would say odd experience with regard to this. Two years ago whilst at the hospital bed and being attached to the CTG machine i.e. for monitoring contractions etc., out popped that question about what do I do from the nurse who had a glimpse of my file. In the midst of my increasingly painful contractions :), I proceeded to explain what an ID does and fortunately with the CTG machine by my side, I used that as an example for trainees nurses who will need to learn how to use it and the kind of activities that will assist them to be able to operate the machine; I think it was a win win situation on both sides - she understood my work as an ID and I on the other hand got the distraction I needed to withstand my labour pains :) - that I experience here in Fiji and its a relief to know that I have fellow IDs around the world that also face this and that the kind of discussion that is happening here help us in this regard.

Alanieta Lesuma-Fatiaki said...

I have just stumbled upon this great blog and article and yes, I have to agree with this as well. I have to relate a very interesting though some would say odd experience with regard to this. Two years ago whilst at the hospital bed and being attached to the CTG machine i.e. for monitoring contractions etc., out popped that question about what do I do from the nurse who had a glimpse of my file. In the midst of my increasingly painful contractions :), I proceeded to explain what an ID does and fortunately with the CTG machine by my side, I used that as an example for trainees nurses who will need to learn how to use it and the kind of activities that will assist them to be able to operate the machine; I think it was a win win situation on both sides - she understood my work as an ID and I on the other hand got the distraction I needed to withstand my labour pains :) - that I experience here in Fiji and its a relief to know that I have fellow IDs around the world that also face this and that the kind of discussion that is happening here help us in this regard.

Cate said...

When I started my PhD I remember my supervisor telling me the first thing I should do is figure out how to explain my thesis topic to my grandmother - if I could do that, then I probably had a pretty good understanding of what it was I was trying to do. Years later, I've found the same approach works with explaining what I do as an Instructional Designer. I tend to start with "I help people learn stuff so they can do their jobs better".

Judy Katz Unrein said...

For the first time last week, I just said Designer.

I don't really care if people think I design clothes or shoes or websites. When they ask what I design, I tell them. But I no longer have to feel like my job title has to say it all. Designer is the important part. :)

Adam R. said...

My experience and description depends on to whom I'm talking. If I'm talking with a teacher or someone in an educational field, using "instructional design" typically works fine.

If the person is more corporate-y, I stick with "technical training."

If I don't know what they do (Hint: it help to ask them first...and then listen!), then I go with "training consultant."

What muddies the waters even more is that I've trained exclusively on "social enterprise technologies" (e.g., wikis, blogs, etc., within the corporate firewall), with which most folks are equally unfamiliar.

Chris Rogers said...

I always get a kick out of how people often ask it twice.

"What do you do?"

"I'm an instructional designer."

{pause} "So ... What do you DO?"

What ANYbody does for a living is a funny topic. I find that if any of my friends are anything other than policemen, firemen, or athletes, I can never fully understand what they do for a living. So expecting someone to fully understand what I do as an ID is a bit of a stretch. But I do think there is a way to help them connect a bit more.

I am at The Home Depot and I find it easiest to speak to them as if they are a customer of my company (and I can't imagine why they WOULDN'T be) so that they see the benefit to themselves from me improving the performance of those who serve them.

"I create training for our associates so that when you come in shopping for a drill, they know how to recommend the right one and make sure you leave the store with any drill bits and extension cords that you're going to need to complete your project. Oh, and I also help make sure that forklift operator knows how to safely drive around you."

This is easiest in a retail environment like ours, but any of us can step through that mental exercise to think of how the mom on the park bench is a customer. And I think beyond the "What do you do" discussion, this is a geat exercise, to help us view those around us as customers, current or potential.