Instructional Designer Onboarding – a Multi-Modal Approach

In early 2020 I was tapped to design an onboarding program for three new Instructional Designers that would be added to our team in the coming months.

I decided to take a multi-modal approach to designing the onboarding experience, balancing consistent, online, low-touch eLearning experiences with high-touch, rich, interactive, learner-centered constructivist activities. Now that it’s completed and has been implemented, I’ve had time to take a look back and summarize how it went.

The four high-level features of the training plan were as follows:

  • Self-paced Online Onboarding Path
  • 1:1 Mentoring / Shadowing with experienced IDs
  • Ongoing Community of Practice — The Authoring Innovation group
  • Self-Study and Continuous Improvement practices

Anatomy of the Onboarding Plan

I’ll go into greater depth about each facet of the plan here:

Self-paced Online Onboarding Path

The existing practice in our department before we began this redesign was to give each new employee a “New Hire Checklist” — essentially a Word doc with a list of tasks to complete in their first two weeks. It included lists of exemplary courses to review, hyperlinks to key tech systems to get signed into, lists of team members to schedule “meet-and-greet” interviews with, and learning resources to introduce Autodesk’s mission and culture. Though the form it took was simple, I remember my own onboarding experience with this document fondly, feeling that the thoughtfully-curated content gave me all the information and experiences I needed to be successful in my first few months. The strength of this approach is that it’s low-touch, consistently reproducible, and promotes self-directed learning through some narrowly scaffolded experiences that apply to all new hires in their first few weeks.

I likened it to that scene in every James Bond movie where Q gives him all the spy gadgets he’ll need to be successful on the upcoming mission.

Still, there was room to improve.

I wanted to take what was good about that checklist and form it into an attractive self-paced online onboarding path, with direct links to key learning materials. I had previously begun centralizing all our documentation about our internal course development processes and procedures in a Confluence wiki, and I wanted to build a guided, curated path through those materials to give new hires a deep, detailed look at our course development processes that they could consume at their own pace — even if that stretched weeks or months into their employment.

My goal was to get away from the “one-and-done” approach that’s so common in onboarding training, where you’re squeezed through a crammed schedule of guest speakers and orientation videos in your first few weeks, only to forget much of what you heard when your workload fills up afterwards. Instead, I wanted to give learners a rich resource of relevant information they could refer back to frequently in their everyday design work, and use the onboarding experience to teach them how to find and use it.

Learners would start out in a friendly, uncluttered home page, with just the most relevant links and tasks they’d need in their first couple weeks at the company. There are specific pages for Week One and Week Two, then Foundations of Course Design gives them just enough information they’ll need before they develop their first course for a stakeholder.

Gradually, though, they would be led deeper into a well-organized knowledge base where evergreen documentation is maintained, capturing our best practices. Course Development Process assembles detailed guides for every step in the process, hyperlinking out to all relevant resources they may need at every stage. Best Practices in Instructional Design is where we get into highly detailed, topic specific discussions of the finer points of our work — the kind of information they won’t need until they need it. Important Links are important/not urgent things they should familiarize themselves with when they have time.

This knowledge base was designed both for the benefit of the veteran designers as well as the newbies — it was intended to be a “single source of truth” for our collected design wisdom, accessible by all and searchable instantly, anytime.

Constructing this resource involved finding all our existing documentation, reviewing it with our team, updating the information, and then sequencing it smartly on the wiki. This involved getting buy-in from other team members to write up their best practices on the wiki so that the information would be accurate and up-to-date.

The resulting wiki has two “entry points” — one for new hires and one for veteran designers. All content pages are accessible within either view, but the UI is arranged differently for the two different audiences to meet their specific needs. For new hires, it feels like a guided path of discovery, measured out over weeks for a focused and gradual exploration of the content. For veterans, everything is up-front, instantly searchable and discoverable with the minimum number of clicks to aid in “just-in-time” learning. This knowledge-base view encourages experienced designers to refer back to best practices frequently as they encounter new and recurring work challenges to benefit from our collected wisdom.

As an onboarding tool, this guided wiki’s strengths are that it provides a consistent, low-touch, one-size-fits-all experience to expose learners gradually to the resources we know they’ll need in their first weeks. Once learners are ready to move beyond their introductory experiences, they can gradually explore the detailed documentation we have on our processes and procedures for every stage of the course development journey.

One more note on the construction of the wiki experience — it benefits heavily from the ability to have many topic-focused pages that can be re-arranged or accessed separately for maximum freedom in navigating the content. Rather than stuffing a few pages with too much unrelated content (people often do this to limit clickiness), I chose to have many topic-focused pages that could be re-combined in novel ways, and to rely on search and creative hyperlinking to provide a pleasant path through the content. I think of each page like an “index card” that can be arranged in a variety of ways according to the needs of the user accessing the content, and this approach has been very effective in organizing all this content into a nice unified experience.

1:1 Mentoring / Shadowing with experienced IDs

The second main feature of the onboarding program is a high-touch mentorship experience, where new hires can learn-by-doing, building their own courses with frequent support and collaboration with the more experienced designers. I was trained at Autodesk by a team of designers each with 20+ years experience at the company — an invaluable wealth of knowledge at my disposal as I climbed my own learning curve. Our team was small three years ago, and this easy culture of collaboration was informal and organic, driven by genuinely collaborative personalities. Providing this high-touch mentoring concurrently to three new IDs was both critically important and required some proactive planning among the team.

We had to first ensure that the veteran designers were willing and able to carve out time to work intensively with the new IDs, as well as work with our managers to justify the time and resources that would be required. Every meeting with a senior designer is an hour that they can’t be working on their own projects, so we had to justify the time spent in terms of new hires’ time-to-productivity. Thankfully everyone showed commitment to support the new IDs with time and expertise, but I could see this being a problem at a different kind of workplace where time, resources, and enthusiasm for such a task are stretched tighter.

As the new designers began their first course development projects, the mentors played an active role in every step of the process. We collaborated on the initial course planning and development process while letting the new ID drive the overall process. All the way through the build, QA, and publishing process, we created a “learn by doing” experience where the new IDs are fully supported while they’re in an active and responsible role. This enabled us to ensure the quality of the deliverables was consistent with our established standards before they went out the door, and we were able to teach those standards in context to the new IDs at the very time when it’s most relevant.

Ongoing Community of Practice — The Authoring Innovation group

The third main pillar of this onboarding program is our Authoring Innovation group, a biweekly community of practice where we can show-and-tell one another the best tips and tricks we’ve found in our course design work. I started the group years previous when our team transitioned from one eLearning authoring platform to another as a way for us to learn the new system together, ask questions, raise issues, and share discoveries. By the time that platform transition was complete, the vision of the meeting had grown to include all variety of topics related to eLearning design. We discussed new tools, techniques, and ideas beyond just our authoring platform — ranging around to include all facets of multimedia design, game development, and everything remotely related to the work we do. Whenever we needed an hour to sit together and think hard about a design challenge, it would happen in Authoring Innovation. I started recording the Zoom meetings, and soon found that colleagues inside AND OUTSIDE of our team were watching the old recordings for the valuable nuggets of information shared at those meetings. In short, the group was already considered highly valuable to the existing team by the time we were planning to onboard our three new Instructional Designers.

As I allude to above, I think training is best when it’s woven into our everyday work, not as a distinct event before any real work can begin. The beauty of Authoring Innovation is that it’s one hour every other week when we can enjoy one another’s presence and share information that we can all benefit from. It’s a joyous social event that also happens to disseminate our best practices across the team. Our instructional design wisdom is freed from the siloes of individual brains, shared freely with the team, and deepened through discussion and open dialog.

Our new IDs first attended as passive observers but soon took an active leadership role, teaching us about the tools and techniques they know from their own previous experience. The spotlight is shared democratically at this meeting and everyone is free and encouraged to demonstrate techniques they’ve used, tools they’re using, course designs they’ve developed, and new features they’re interested to try. We’ve even built in a recurring update about the platform change notes so everyone can stay abreast of the (sometimes dry) details of how our tool is constantly changing. These meetings are held via Zoom and recorded in the cloud, so the video recordings can be viewed by anyone who’s missed a meeting. I’ve even started publishing the agendas and recording links as a blog feed on our wiki so now all agenda items are searchable – this means you can quickly find recordings by topic areas addressed! This resource will continue to grow more valuable over time as we continue to tackle interesting topics and save it for future reference.

Self-Study and Continuous Improvement practices

Once the new IDs had completed their initial onboarding experience — they had been working 3-4 months with us by this time — I asked them to complete a simple online survey to collect quantitative feedback about the experience. I followed up the survey with a 30-minute interview where I could collect qualitative feedback — asking them to give more detail or context around their survey answers. This self study led to valuable insights into how the onboarding experience could be improved in the future as well as validation of the parts that worked well.
The reviews of the whole onboarding experience were unanimously positive, with all participants citing it as “the best onboarding experience of any job they’ve ever had”. Amidst the glowing praise, they also gave us specific areas of improvement that we can use to revise the onboarding experience before the next new hires go through the program.

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