Catherine Davis

SweetRush’s instructional design practice lead

Catherine Davis is SweetRush instructional design practice lead. Her years of experience as an instructional designer in various capacities (in-house corporate, vendor, freelance, etc.) make her a corporate training veteran who fully understands the needs of an ID team and her clients, and then masters those two in the most effective way possible.

As an e-learning, m-learning, and ILT vendor-partner, Catherine actively works on innovative instructional design projects, providing expert instructional design, solid on-boarding, and sage advice.

Her thoughts, guidance, and intentions were recently translated into the pages of her debut free e-book, How to Be a Rock Star Instructional Designer: Learn the Ropes from a Corporate Training Veteran and Supercharge Your Career! The book brings together Catherine’s best practices clearly, making the readers feel as though they are being coached and mentored as part of her team.

Christopher Pappas, Efthymios Savvakis & Nasia Efthimiou

Interview with Catherine Davis

How would you introduce yourself to someone for the first time?

I try to avoid industry-specific jargon in social settings. The quick answer is something like “I manage a group of professionals who are experts at creating training programs that can change the way people work or think. I have a home office and love the work–life balance this situation offers.” If someone is interested in learning more, I then get more specific about SweetRush and my recent projects, as well as my role in coaching other instructional designers on how to come up with fresh ideas and push their course designs further.

Who is SweetRush and what do they offer?

That is a big question. Of course we are learning and development professionals, but the roots of the SweetRush concept—and really, I think, the key to our success— is our culture, and how we treat one other and our clients.

I am really proud of SweetRush and have never before worked at a company like this. I really believe everyone at SweetRush feels this way. We are definitely different, and the Marketing team has jumped on that, often promoting that we are “different, in a good way,” which again comes down to our culture. We rarely have a person leave the company, and we have strong, articulated values of respect and caring, which manifests in how we work with one other as teammates, and how we work with our clients and partners. What perhaps makes this more interesting is that we are completely virtual and have been so since 2009. We have teammates all over the world, including a large team in Costa Rica.

Functionally speaking, we help organizations improve the performance of their employees by imparting knowledge and skills and, ultimately, changing their behavior. I always look for IDs that have an orientation toward analysis and are skilled at getting to the heart of the business drivers and what is important to learners.

From that starting point, we can design learning solutions and communications that meet our clients’ objectives.

What type of qualities do you personally look for in an instructional designer?

There are several fundamentals that come to mind:

Solid ID chops with creative flair. I look for individuals who know the science behind instructional design and learner engagement. However, it goes beyond only the academic, and, interestingly, we rarely engage an ID with only an academic background. The ID must be comfortable working in gray areas and breaking some of the rules to truly engage the learner.

Consulting skills. Sophisticated IDs today have to grapple with complex business challenges, and being able to do so increases their value. IDs cannot go into their respective man caves/woman caves and produce some fantastic solution. Projects require a lot of collaboration and consulting with clients to gather information, determine needs, etc. Clients know their content, but are often not trained in learning or instructional design. This is where we come in! The ID is the “broker,” translating client ideas into concrete deliverables.

Self-motivation with unwavering follow-through. IDs must “walk the talk,” take tremendous personal ownership, and have the ability to work independently.

They must conceptualize a solution that can then be taken to the broader project group for expansion through collaboration.

What are the components of a successful, large team of instructional designers?

Creating an effective team starts at the individual level. I look for individuals that exhibit the qualities listed above. To build the team, especially in a virtual environment, we offer extensive onboarding and coaching, have regular in-house continuing education webinars, and leverage Google technology, such as Google Groups, to communicate consistently. I think that each member of the team also knows that my door is always open if they need to just chat or to truly vent in complete confidence.

At SweetRush, we have a cohesive team of dedicated people who work hard and are passionate about their work. However, we know also how to have fun, and strive for a healthy work–life balance. As part of the company culture, we regularly share good news, stories, and achievements, professionally and personally, through companywide e-mail blasts. They happen often, and are encouraged and celebrated.

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What are the key elements to the design and development of an excellent learning experience?

First, you need to create an emotional connection with the learner. Be sure to address the what’ s in it for me (WIIFM) factor, which can range from external to intrinsic: job competence, workplace safety, a fun and engaging experience, company culture, healthy competition with others, awards and accolades, etc.

We must realize that intrinsic motivators do help training stick while also recognizing that some learners only want to learn the basics to keep their job and get paid. This just makes the ID’s job a challenge! I would love to infuse more humor and/or campy themes into the courses, and clients are asking for this approach more and more.

When it comes to the actual design, beyond using solid instructional design principles, you should know the tools in your toolbox and their limits—then push that limit! Visualize your designs in your mind’s eye and play with them. Never put too much content on a page. Also, use your words to paint pictures. For example, get away from just asking those standard multiple-choice questions. They remind me too much of those nerve-wracking tests from junior high school that required a No. 2 pencil! Write a scenario or tell a little story, and then present a series of good–better–best options with supporting feedback.

These improvements and strategies elevate a course from good to engaging and memorable. SweetRush’s lead IDs and I spend time coaching IDs on a regular basis to increase the “dazzle factor” in our courses.

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Which are the high-end e-learning and blended solutions you offer to a prospective client?

SweetRush learning solutions are typically blended, and we really excel in the intersection of business driver analysis and instructional, visual, and technical creativity, such as gamification, simulation, and mobile application. We assist with implementation, delivery, and evaluation, and establish long-term working relationships with our clients, including Bridgestone, Petco, and many others.

Tell us about your new e-book. What’s the story behind its creation?

Over the years, I’ve provided a lot of coaching to the internal team through continuing education webinars. I have also written articles for a few years for sweetrush.com and other websites, like eLearning Industry. After chatting with a colleague, I realized most of the content aligned into a series of major topics and had an organic sequence. It took some legwork, rewrites, and new material to pull it all together into one cohesive unit.

The “Which Type of Rock Star ID Are You?” infographic is my favorite part of the book. It truly created itself! A colleague mentioned the different “archetypes” of IDs, and, in a flash, the book’s rock-star theme with four of the six types popped in my head. I wish every great idea came this easy… ha ha.

Which Type of Rock Star Instructional Designer are You? Infographic
Would you consider the book of greater value to an amateur or a professional designer?

Whether this is your first rodeo, or you have been in the business for a while and are looking to add to your skills, I hope both junior and seasoned IDs will find a pearl or two in the book. There are tips and strategies for developing your career, from how to land gigs to keep your skills fresh. Because e-learning has become so prevalent over the last 10 years, the focus has a definite e-learning and freelancer tilt. IDs need to be chameleons and are continuously brought in to solve problems using myriad theories and practices. This is what I’ve done for many years. As such, the book reflects a lot of my experiences, and I am hopeful it will be of value to others.

Is there another book in the works?

Yes, there are several. After working through the entire process—from soup to nuts—I have so many new ideas. There is a certainly part two of this book in the works, where I will expand on some of the same concepts. For example, I address successful interaction between IDs and other team members, such as those in creative design and development. This really is a fascinating dynamic and one that has changed a lot recently. IDs now have to think creatively and work in tandem with visual designers when conceptualizing solutions, particularly with newer options such as gamification. Also, I am collaborating with a colleague regarding the ins and outs of creating systems training. It includes both strategic and tactical considerations.

So many people (IDs and otherwise) blog and write other content they are passionate about. I totally support and encourage everyone in delivering their own unique messages to the world. Cobble together your blogs and raw content, play with them a bit, and create your own e-book. I can attest that it is satisfying to see your thoughts compiled and available for others to read and, hopefully, gain value from. Today, there is zero barriers to entry for getting your message out there. Anyone can self-publish through Amazon. Seize the opportunity!

What makes How to Be a Rock Star Instructional Designer different from the others?

Perhaps most important is that I am not a blogger or influencer first, but rather a hands-on instructional designer who works in the real world every day. So, my intention was to paint the picture of the everyday challenges IDs face and offer their practical solutions. I wanted to move away from theories, and provide small, practical steps on how to improve your design or freelance business. I also intentionally made the tone conversational so readers could easily resonate with its concepts.

I received a fantastic compliment from a member of the SweetRush ID team who has partnered with me on several projects over the years. While reading the book, she felt like she was having one of our usual planning or brainstorming sessions where she walked away with several concrete, actionable steps. She said that she could literally hear us having a conversation.

Yes! I am so happy that my thoughts, guidance, and intentions translated into its pages.

What do you think is required reading for every instructional designer?

Instructional designers can find inspiration everywhere. I cannot go through the day without other people’s fantastic ideas bombarding me: I like how that icon was used in that (print) article. Rather clever use of a whiteboard animation in that commercial. That stock photo really set the tone for the piece. Then again, I do have those “what were they thinking?” moments, and they are equally important.

I also draw inspiration, ideas, and themes from books and movies in popular culture. Since most people in Western culture are already familiar with these stories, it’s an emotional hook that is low-hanging fruit, as addressed earlier. Being a child of the 70s, long before we could watch anything streaming on-demand, we read our favorite books from the library over and over. It was a BIG deal when we actually went to the movies, and we remembered so many details. Together with the heroes and heroines, we engaged in awesome adventures, flew over fantasy landscapes, and met bizarre creatures from a time and place very different from ours. I could clearly go on and on with my trip down memory lane. My main point is that we absorbed everything like sponges: we put ourselves into the stories and our imaginations were on fire. When coming up with a theme or concept for a course or a game, I find myself shifting through my file cabinet of themes and ideas, most of which were inspired by those I encountered when I was quite young. I think those of us who gravitated to the world of instructional design are observers by nature, so we build on this personality orientation.

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Where do you see the SweetRush ID team five years from now?

As we’ve matured over the years, the work we’ve taken on has become more complex, and more and more our IDs need to be consultants—really able to analyze, look at root causes, and then embrace all the new tools driven by technology. I see growth continuing as we blend the instructional world with the creative and engineering worlds, and I am sure SweetRush will continue to stay on the cutting edge of technology as our IDs partner with members of our engineering and technology team. I wish could we create full-on 3D, interactive, immersive simulations on-demand, like on the Star Trek holodeck, but I think that is more than five years away! The IDs and other professionals we embrace will be active in continuing their own education—learning more about employing creative design, effectively using gaming elements in courses, leveraging social media, etc.

Outside of our day-to-day work, I see further promotion of SweetRush’s Good Things Initiative. At SweetRush, we believe that the way we treat one another and our planet is a reflection of our values of caring, commitment, and fostering good things. The Good Things Initiative is an open initiative in which we find ways to practice those values, both inside and outside of SweetRush. I have several projects going where I volunteer my time to those in need here in Los Angeles as well as back in the Midwest where I was raised. Everyone I work with regularly gives back freely within their respective communities.

One of my favorite projects sponsored by SweetRush was when several of our team members came together to improve a schoolyard for underprivileged children in Costa Rica. Our artists collaborated on a beautiful mural that is sure to bring joy to the kids for years to come. It was a direct, local, impactful event that everyone felt good about.

Catherine Davis schoolyard for underprivileged children in Costa Rica

In general, I am excited to see what the next five years of growth will bring, both at SweetRush and in the industry at large. Learning professionals have the tools and knowledge to affect behavior, and we have an enormous opportunity to impact business at every level, from profitability to productivity. But, we also can make a tremendous impact on society by furthering sustainability, diversity, equality, and other socially good initiatives.

If we put our hearts and minds into this work, we can all make a difference.