manager-308474_640Finding qualified instructional designers (IDs) to work with has been perhaps one of the biggest headaches and heartaches of my career. There are good IDs out there. But, finding them has been no easy task. Over time, I have learned both what works and what doesn’t. I hope you can benefit from my experience – some of it quite painful.

First, here are three common tactics that I’ve found surprisingly don’t work.

1) Work samples. You’d think that work samples would be the most accurate litmus test of an ID’s skills. Unfortunately, in my experience that notion hasn’t proven to be true for two reasons.

The first reason is that work samples can be more of a reflection of what the subject matter experts (SMEs) involved in the project wanted and less of a reflection of what the ID could or would do left to their own devices. Let me remind you that almost 100% of the time these SMEs have zero instructional design skills, themselves. This means that quite often while the content they provide is beyond reproach, the actual design of the training leaves a lot to be desired from an adult learning perspective. As a result, these work samples under represent the ID’s true skills.

The second reason is the reverse situation. In this case, the ID’s work has been massaged by so many skillful hands (i.e., project manager, editor, graphic designer, etc.), that it no longer reflects their true skill level either.

2) Interviews. This one baffles me. But, I’ve noticed that there are some IDs who can talk a good game, but can’t deliver the goods. They know adult learning theory inside and out. They can explain the nuances between the various instructional design models. And, they are intimately familiar with the latest research on whatever the hot topic of the day is. The problem is that they can’t apply their knowledge to produce an effective learning experience.

This means they shine in the interview. But, once you get them on board, they spend more time spinning than actually getting anything useful done.

3) References. Many IDs are managed by people who do not have an ID background, themselves. So when you call to check an ID candidate’s references, their former manager can tell you what it was like to work with them. But, they can’t speak to the quality of their work from an informed point of view. Ultimately, I’ve found checking references only helps me determine if I should rule someone out, not if I should rule them in.

Now that you know the pitfalls of some common screening tactics, let me tell you what I’ve found does work.

The only screening tactic that I’ve found consistently works is the test drive. To set up a test drive, contract with the ID candidate to do three ID projects. Pick projects that are as diverse as possible. Why?

Over the years, I’ve noticed this unexplainable phenomenon among some of the IDs I’ve hired. They do spectacular work on one project only to completely blow the next three.

The best I can figure out is that it is a matter of either the type of training (soft skill or technical) or the subject matter covered. It seems that there are some IDs who excel at soft skills training, but falter if asked to design technical training and vice versa. I’ve also noticed that some IDs are very comfortable developing training about a specific topic, but don’t know where to begin if the topic is outside of their comfort zone.

Assigning three diverse projects also allows you to see what the ID’s strengths and weaknesses are. This is especially important if you are hiring for a jack-of-all-trades position. I’ve yet to meet anyone who is an amazing ID, mad programmer, visionary graphic designer, and meticulous editor.

In addition to really getting a sense of the ID’s skills as noted above, a test drive helps you see how well the ID fits in and works with the rest of your team. Instructional design is a team sport. So, this is an important consideration.

Finally, I hate to say this, but it is much easier to terminate a test drive than it is to terminate employment if the ID is not working out.

To get the most out of the test drive, it is critical to know what to look for. Here are my recommendations.

  • Do they have a plan to approach each project or do you need to structure their work? If the latter, do you actually have the time and patience to structure their work?
  • Are the training materials they design and develop effective? When you review the course, you should feel like you could do what they are teaching you to do, although maybe not as well as someone with the requisite background.
  • How long does it take them to do the work? There is never enough time allowed to design and develop training. So, the ID should be able to work quickly and efficiently to get their projects done.

At the conclusion of the test drive, hire them if you like what you see. If not, it’s back to the proverbial drawing board. At least you won’t waste your time on screening tactics that just don’t work.