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How to Screen Instructional Design Candidates


Wed Mar 30 2016

How to Screen Instructional Design Candidates

Hiring qualified instructional designers has been one of the biggest headaches and heartaches of my career. Certainly, there are good designers out there, but finding them is 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 which has been quite painful.

Here are three common tactics that fall short when recruiting instructional designers.


Work Samples

It seems like work samples should offer the most accurate litmus test of a potential designer’s skills. In my experience, unfortunately, that notion has proven untrue for two reasons.

First, work samples can be a greater reflection of what a subject matter expert wants to see than the capabilities of the designer. Keep in mind: Almost 100 percent of SMEs have zero instructional design skills. This means that while the content that SMEs provide is beyond reproach, their influence on the instructional design can be less than stellar from an adult learning perspective. As a result, work samples can under represent the designer’s true skills.

The second reason is the reverse situation. In this case, the work of the instructional designer has been massaged by so many skillful hands (project manager, editor, graphic designer, and so forth) that it no longer reflects their true skill level.


This one baffles me. I’ve noticed that although some designers can talk a good game, they can’t deliver the goods. They know adult learning theory inside and out. They can explain the nuances between the various instructional design models. They are intimately familiar with the latest research on the newest trends.

The problem: Sometimes these applicants can’t apply their knowledge to produce an effective learning experience. In other words, these candidates shine in the interview, but once you get them on board, they spend more time spinning the situation than performing. (This situation can hold true for nearly any role in any industry, of course.)



Many instructional designers are managed by people who do not have a background in L&D. This causes problems when you call to check a 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 out someone, not rule them in.

What Can You Do?

Now you know where some common selection strategies falter. Here’s a tactic for screening candidates hat has consistently worked for me: the test drive.

To set up a test drive, contract with the instructional design candidate to do three diverse projects. Why? Over the years, I’ve noticed that some designers do spectacular work on one project only to completely blow the next three. It seems that some excel at soft skills training, but stumble when asked to design technical training—and vice versa. I’ve also noticed that some 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 allows you to see the designer’s strengths and weaknesses. This is especially important if you are hiring a “jack-of-all-trades” position. I’ve yet to meet anyone who is an amazing instructional designer, mad programmer, visionary graphic designer, and meticulous editor.

In addition to really getting a sense of the candidate’s skills, a test drive helps you see how well the designer 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.


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

  • Does the candidate have a plan to approach each project, or will you need to structure her work? If the latter, do you actually have the time and patience to do that? 

  • Are the training materials they design and develop effective?  

  • How long does it take the candidate to complete the work? It seems that there is never enough time allotted to develop training, so the designer should be able to work quickly and efficiently.

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

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