I was lucky recently to sit in on a conference presentation by Julie Dirksen, who offered some ideas on skills a designer might need beyond those we usually think of when we talk about “instructional design.” While building her presentation, Julie checked in with some prominent names in the field, known for their expertise in particular areas. While mastering every skill set may not be necessary, building some fluency in each realm certainly couldn’t hurt.

Academic research

Learn to find and read good books and summaries. If academic reading is new to you, try Googling “how to read an academic paper” or “how to read scientific research.” When an idea interests you, try to read beyond one article. And before believing everything you read, try to hunt down original sources, paying special attention to pieces with citations. In our industry Will Thalheimer does a lot of the heavy lifting for us, offering recaps of research, good debunking of myths, and advice for reading through pieces you encounter. Will recommends Peter Brown’s Make It Stick; I’d add looking at anything from Rich Mayer. If you have limited time or are very new at this, I highly recommend Ruth Clark and Rich Mayer’s e-Learning and the Science of Instruction for a great introduction to evidence-based practice.


One of the dirty little secrets in L&D is the amount of training developed based on felt needs and gut feelings rather than actual data. Julie asked for input on this from Ellen Wagner, who recommended that instructional designers take time to learn the difference between data and analytics and to understand what’s being tracked and what can be tracked. HR and other areas often collect lots of data that can be useful, there for the asking: Safety data. Workers’ compensation payout data. Data about recruitment, days to hire, retention, absenteeism, turnover. Data from exit interviews. Data from critical incidents, like accidents. Data showing trends in employee performance reviews. Start digging around to see what you can find, and what you might never have thought to ask for before. More advice from Ellen: Become proficient in Excel and data visualization. Recommendations include Eric Siegel’s Predictive Analytics and Dawn Griffiths’ Head First Statistics. I’m partial to Nathan Yau’s Data Points, and if you can get your hands on a copy, check out the “emergency statistics” section in Ron Zemke and Thomas Kramlinger’s 1982 book Figuring Things Out: A Trainer’s Guide to Needs and Task Analysis.

Business acumen

What metrics are relevant to your particular organization? Sales growth and product performance? Customer retention and sales per square foot? Call abandonment? Lab turnaround time? What indicates how your organization is doing, and whether it is getting better? At minimum, try to develop an understanding of KPIs (key performance indicators) and learn to read a profit and loss statement—and how learning initiatives are affecting outcomes. Product manager Koreen Pagano recommends PragmaticMarketing.com as a resource for developing business acumen.

User experience

I’ve written about this a good deal myself, often from the point of accessibility. Julie checked in with several people on this, including the folks at Good Practice. Managing director Owen Ferguson stresses the importance of trying small things—not the huge, splashy launch or the enterprise-wide anything. Watch your users interact with your creations. See how what you’re doing affects them. Some recommended reading here: “Designing for Panic”; “It’s Not Just About Compliance”; and Steve Krug’s books Don’t Make Me Think and Rocket Surgery Made Easy.

Community management

No one in our business exemplifies the idea of community management better than Articulate’s Tom Kuhlmann. Those of us who’ve been around for the past decade have watched his great blog morph into an engaging, dynamic community. Many of us find inspiration and help there; others of us have made good friends there. He recommends a two-tiered approach: help and content and curated resources for those who have come looking for something, and connections, props, and ways of sharing for those who come in search of interaction. Some suggested reading: Kevin Maney’s Trade-Off and Richard Millington’s Buzzing Communities. Also take a look here at Etienne Wenger, Beverly Traynor, and Maarten de Laat’s framework for value creation in a community.

Behavior change

There’s a note on my office wall that says: “What Are You Trying To Change?” as that forms the focus of most everything I get paid to do. I worked for a decade in a hospital for developmentally disabled adults, where behavior modification techniques ruled the day and psychologists ruled the kingdom. One thing I learned there took a long time to grasp but has served me very well in my career: All behavior has a purpose. People do unsafe things because they’re in a hurry. People do stupid things to get attention. People engage in things that involve short-term pleasure (smoking) even though they know the long-term consequences could be terrible. People at work are rewarded all the time for what can’t possibly be desirable behaviors: Workers in call centers rush through conversations because they’re up against calls-per-hour metrics. I once got a new work laptop because the “G” key popped off my old one and the tech person was evaluated on closing tickets, not fixing machines. While we may not always know the internal or external or hidden forces behind it, there are things that drive or restrain behavior—and those things can be modified, if only we can figure out what they are.

To learn more about behavior change, Julie recommends taking a look at the Behavior Change Taxonomy, now available as an app for Android and iOS devices. And check here for Julie’s great slide show on the topic.

So: Where could you use a little more skill development? Which areas are completely foreign to you? It’s what John Seely Brown calls “expanding your surface area.” Think of ways building understanding in each area could improve your conversations and your products.