If you spend any time on social media, you have probably noticed the buzz about design thinking. No matter what field you’re in, it seems like an epidemic taking hold of one industry at a time, the way 6Sigma and Agile methodology did in past years. If you follow BLP specifically, you know we have written blog posts, hosted a webinar, and written an eBook on the topic. Speaking from my own experience, design thinking tools and principles have had a transformative effect on the way I design. (I know that sounds dramatic, but it’s true! Stick with me here.)

So you can imagine that when BLP President, Sharon Boller, and I read a recent blog post by Donald Clark about design thinking not just being a fad but in fact resulting in poor learning design, we felt compelled to share our knowledge and applied experience. I’ll begin by saying: I get it. Design thinking, at first glance, can look… blurry.

Design thinking has fuzzy edges.

If/when you start researching the design thinking process and its origins, you will quickly realize that it’s not a process that was invented one day by one person. It has slowly taken shape over decades to evolve into a mainstream problem-solving technique. It started out as a product design process, picking up speed when computer and software development began to blend “product design” into “interaction design.” The problems design thinking was used to solve were no longer always things, but experiences. I think that’s one reason design thinking aligns so well with L&D – it’s not about the solution itself, it’s what the learner feels like while using it and what they walk away with afterward.

A quick Google search (this is an excellent overview & infographic) proves that the “process” and the underlying mindsets that drive those steps have historically and continually evolved. I put “process” in quotation marks because it’s not a matter of “follow steps a, b, and c, and you’ll have invented something new!” It’s more like “make sure you incorporate these activities as you solve your problem!”

How Design Thinking Improves the Instructional Design Process

Here is how each step of the design thinking process adds value to instructional design:

1. Empathize: Not as touchy-feely as it sounds.

The best way to explain the empathize step may be to eliminate what it’s not. It does not mean solely “asking learners what they want,” nor is it solely a “needs analysis.” Sharon and I prefer to think of this step as getting perspective. From the business point of view, it’s understanding what problem the organization hopes to solve and what measurable impact it hopes to achieve. From the learner point of view it can be summed into one statement: “Learner, tell me about the realities of your day-to-day work life, your current thoughts about doing this skill, and how/why you will apply new information so that everyone at the table has a shared understanding.

An empathy map is one of our favorite tools used during this step – it’s easy to facilitate and provides a lot of data in 15-20 minutes. What I take away as implications for the design are things like content we wouldn’t have previously included, insight into the right level of content, a more appropriate delivery format (that’s a huge win!), a more accurate “What’s in it for me?…” you get the picture.

2. Define: Why are we here?

I’ll keep it short: without clearly stating the problem, you can’t clearly solve the problem. If there’s no driving business need for the project, there’s no metric to tell you when your solution has been successful. If we only define the problem from the business’s perspective, we’re missing a lot of information and context.

3. Ideation: See if you can stop it!

True confessions time: while we allow time for brainstorming in our design meeting agendas, by the time we get to that point in the meeting, we often have a head start – or even total agreement – on what solution we want to pursue. Why? Because once you have the learner perspective and a clearly defined problem, possible solutions bubble up whether you’re ready or not. It’s not an off-the-rails bacchanalia (although I’ll file that idea away) – there’s an instructional designer leading the process to maintain alignment with the learner needs and the defined problem.

4. Prototyping & Testing: Red light/green light.

Remember: we’re designing an experience. Prototyping should be a gut check on whether that’s going to be a good experience or a bad one. Does this format align with the use case? Can we present the content clearly and effectively? Does the UI have optimal usability? Does this style send the right message? The best way to know for sure is to pose those questions to the learner.

I disagree that “testing is pointless if you’re not testing retained learning,” as Clark asserts. As I put more focus on the learner experience, I have designed more just-in-time and quick reference materials that require access and usability over memory retention. Those two traits are relatively easy to test and confirm.

If you take nothing else away from this post, remember this:

The mindsets/principles/ideas behind design thinking are its driving force, not the process. I suspect that once you integrate them into your problem solving, you’ll agree that they have staying power.

Sharon and I explore design thinking in more detail in two additional posts: Using Design Thinking to Craft Better Learning Solutions, Part 1 and Part 2. We focus on four principles we have derived from the design thinking approach to solving problems and how they link to instructional design.