Let’s pretend you’re going on vacation with a friend we’ll call Suzy.  You tell Suzy you love vacation planning and you’ll take care of everything. Suzy is a busy woman and says “Great!”. You agree on the week to go, a climate, and a budget, and you immerse yourself in planning. You know Suzy enjoys being active, how much she’s is willing to spend, and that you both want to go somewhere hot. So you find a perfect hiking trip for the two of you. Suzy and you have done some day hikes before so you are confident she’ll love it. The trip you pick involves 10-mile hikes each day, tent camping at night, and backpacking your supplies from one location to the next each day. There will be no showering for the entire week and no bathrooms either. It will be fun and you’ll be off the grid.

You let Suzy know you have a terrific active vacation planned and what time to meet you at the airport. When Suzy arrives, you excitedly share your destination and itinerary… and a look of horror passes over Suzy’s face. She hates camping and her idea of action would be a couple of hikes of far shorter duration than you’ve planned, perhaps mixed in with a one-day bike rental so you could pedal around a cute little seaside town somewhere. She also wants a hot shower and a clean, cozy bed every night. Finally, she has no desire to carry her food – she wants it served in a restaurant every day of vacation.

Both your vacations are ruined. You thought you had good info on Suzy, but by failing to consult with her as you planned, you designed her worst nightmare of a vacation.

Plan Learning Solutions With Your Learners in Mind

You might now be thinking, “I would never do this. That’s ridiculous. Obviously, someone who is going on a vacation needs to have input into the destination and the activities. Otherwise, it will be a horrible experience for that person. This is a stupid, unrealistic example.”

You’re right. It is stupid, but it is not unrealistic. We do different versions of this kind of planning all the time. We plan training initiatives without consulting the people we’re planning it for and fail to consider the entire learning experience from start to desired end point. So we don’t know what might make an experience magical for someone or what could make it utterly miserable. We have no idea what the people we are planning for have going on in their daily workflow or what they are thinking, feeling, seeing, hearing, or doing on a daily basis.

Instead, we focus on what we need to communicate or get people to do.

design thinking

Design thinking involves the intentional decision to include the user in the design experience. It seeks to find the “sweet spot” between the user’s needs, the organization’s needs and constraints, and technical feasibility. It recognizes that a user will only benefit from a solution if it does three things:

  1. Solves a problem they see themselves as needing to solve.
  2. Has ease of use.
  3. Is enjoyable to use (aka not miserable and hopefully magical – or at least delivers magical moments).

Design Thinking Tips for Instructional Designers

So how can you use design thinking in L&D to create better learning experiences? Here’s a list of six design thinking tools and tips to help you get started.

1. Define the Problem

Identify a clear problem you’re trying to solve. Consider that problem from the organization’s perspective and from the user’s perspective. A simple “strategy blueprint” can help spark conversation around what challenges you’re trying to resolve, what success would look like, and how you’ll measure achievement of success. If you want to read more about strategy blueprints, there are lots of posts about them and great images of them. Here’s a post we like.

2. Create an Empathy Map

empathy map

Create an empathy map of your learner(s). Your empathy map should focus on whatever task or block of knowledge you are trying to get people to do or know about. There are also plenty of digital tools available for creating empathy maps. These tools enable people to collaborate virtually and provide good explanations on how to create them. A baseline map addresses questions in six areas:

  1. What is this learner thinking about X? (X = whatever it is you want people to learn to do or to know about)
  2. How is the learner feeling about X?
  3. What does the learner see and hear from others as they do X or apply knowledge of X in their jobs?
  4. What does the learner do in relation to X? (For example, if the training is going to focus on selling a product, ask yourself what the sales rep (the learner) does in the job as he/she sells a product.)
  5. What are the learner’s pain points in attempting to do the task/applying knowledge?
  6. What are the motivators for doing the task/applying knowledge?
3. Craft a Learner Persona

Use the outputs of your mapping exercise to craft one or more learner personas. Personas are fictionalized representations of your learners. They help you keep the learner front and center in your design as you consider their primary challenges, their motivators, their daily realities, and what they like/dislike in technology usage. Name your persona and make them realistic. Keep them front and center as you design and build your solution. Ask yourself, “What would (INSERT PERSONA NAME) think of this?” When SMEs push you to include gobs of content you feel is not relevant or useful, refer to the persona for some validation. “Would Suzy use this? Where would she use it?”

4. Plan Out the Learning Process

journey map

Use a learning journey map to discuss and plan every step that is part of the learning process. We have crafted and trademarked the learning journey map above that includes six steps that go from Step 1 (Notice) to Step 6 (Sustain). Consciously connect what your empathy map has revealed about the learner with decisions about what you will include in your solution. As you build a learning journey map, make sure you identify these things for each step of the learner’s journey:

  • Key activity or activities the learner will do within that step.
  • Emotions you want the activity to elicit and the ones you want to avoid.
  • The desired outcome of the activity so you can make sure each activity has a purpose.
  • Things that could make this step “magical” (perhaps by tapping into one of the learner’s motivators or eliminating a challenge they have).
  • Things that can derail the journey and cause misery. (These opportunities for magic or misery can be found within the empathy map.)
  • What the organization has to do to support the activities, maximize the magic, and avoid the misery points.
  • Organizational obstacles that can threaten success or make an activity hard for it to support.
  • Opportunities the organization can leverage based on an empathic understanding of the user. (Opportunities can generally be found as part of the empathy mapping exercise.)
5. Prototype With Target Learners

After you brainstorm solutions, prototype them with low-fidelity prototypes and let a small group of target learners give you feedback on what’s delightful about the learning experience you’ve prototyped and what stinks about it. Let them suggest ways to improve it. If you are designing a live workshop, then your prototype may simply be a narrative outline of what the workshop will include and activities learners will do. If it’s an eLearning course, then prototype a typical screen and a key activity. The point is to get feedback on your solutions from the learners rather than just building them and hoping for the best. It’s not fancy and it shouldn’t take long to test/get feedback on.

6. Keep Testing Simple

Focus on three things you want testers to tell you and have them explain to you:

  1. How would you rate the learning value (low, medium, high)
  2. How would you rate the enjoyability? (low, medium, high)
  3. How would you rate how easy this was to understand/do? (low, medium, high)

Want to learn more about design thinking and how to create a “magical” learning experience? View our recorded webinar, Design Thinking Techniques for Trainers.