My colleague Laura Fletcher and I have spent quite a bit of time studying design thinking, a problem-solving technique. We’ve also spent the past 18 months using our company as a learning lab to evolve the use of its various steps and tools as we’ve developed learning solutions for clients. We both read this recent blog post about design thinking being a fad and the author’s dismissal of the technique with some concern. Laura wrote an excellent response that we published here on this blog.

The author erroneously assumes design thinking is about letting users make all the decisions about design (in L&D application users = learners) and that its primary focus is on design. He is right that learners are poor decision-makers about their own learning paths. He’s also correct that any design predicated on learning styles would be bad. As most of you know, learning styles are well-debunked.

He is incorrect, however, in assuming design thinking is primarily about design because it is not. It’s about problem-solving. Design thinking solicits users’ perceptions of value and need because they have a perspective that the business may not.

Why Design Thinking?

We decided to explore the use of design thinking as a problem-solving process for several reasons:

  • Training is supposed to solve a problem for a business. (Often lack of training is cited as the reason for a business problem; training is deemed the solution.) Design thinking is a problem-solving technique that’s been used by other industries for decades. It has a history of success stories behind it.
  • Too often, the traditional approaches to learning design (ADDIE) – and their derivations – are not producing measurable results or altering performance. This appears to be because business problems were poorly defined or not defined at all. It may also be because training too often has an “event-based” mindset rather than a journey-based mindset.
  • Learners are largely absent from the design process. Information about learners is assumed rather than gathered from them via observation, conversation, and interview.
  • Discussions about “what we need to tell people” frequently drives decisions instead of “what people need to be able to do.”
  • What’s easiest is favored over what’s most likely to bring about sustained change.

The Four Design Thinking Principles

With trial and error, coupled with lots of research and experimentation, we have distilled four principles from design thinking. We’re integrating design thinking problem-solving steps (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, iterate) into our existing design and development process. Learning solutions should be just that: solutions to a well-defined and understood problem. Use of design thinking tactics and tools helps keep us honest about what we do/don’t yet know about the problem and learners rather than simply proceeding on a set of untested and unverified assumptions.

using design thinking

We’ve honed in on four principles that underpin the use of design thinking tools in our practice. The premise underlying all four is that applying them throughout the process will help us produce better learning solutions. We define “better learning solutions” as ones that, at a minimum, have a sustained impact on people’s job performance and ideally have an impact on a business’s bottom line.

Principle #1: Find and MIND the sweet spot.

What’s the sweet spot, you ask? It’s the mindful balance of 1.) the needs of the business (represented by the stakeholders on a project), 2.) the needs of the learners, and 3.) the environmental constraints. Traditional design thinking emphasizes this “sweet spot.” And too often, traditional instructional design processes such as ADDIE do not. It is very, very easy to create a solution that makes the business happy, fits within perceived environmental constraints, and doesn’t resonate with learners at all.

The “find” part of this principle is about making sure we understand all three perspectives. The ones typically at the table in any kickoff or design meeting setting are those of the business stakeholders. The perspective that’s usually not present – or represented by someone labeled a “subject matter expert” is the target learner group. Learners are usually deemed too busy to be pulled away for solution design or problem-solving about a problem that directly affects them.

Assuming we all do a great job of finding the sweet spot when we define the problem and come up with possible designs for a solution, we then need to continue to mind this sweet spot as development proceeds. As development proceeds, we forget the rationale for design decisions. Suddenly we’re reviewing a draft of a solution and an SME or previously-uninvolved stakeholder requests changes. It’s up to us as the solution architects to take the “mind” role seriously. We need to prevent our solution from moving out of the sweet spot we’ve targeted: something that provides value to both the business and the learner.

Examples of not finding or minding the sweet spot abound.

When a project begins with a solution already decided upon (eLearning, a webinar, a workshop) or a specific number of minutes of training defined (30 minutes, 2 hours), we can be pretty certain that no discussions have occurred about what problem is really being solved or what learners might find value in.  Other decisions, too, are rooted in the business side of things without really thinking about the learner perspective. Here are a few examples of common ones:

  • We need to make the training X length. This length can be short because people perceive a need to limit it to a minimum. Or it can be really long because stakeholders perceive the material is so difficult and the content is so important that it requires a lot of time.
  • Training is the appropriate solution and specifically, it should be eLearning/a workshop/a webinar.
  • We invested in Articulate Storyline so we need to create eLearning courses.

In all these examples, decisions get driven by environmental constraints more than a deep understanding of the problem or the learners who will be the recipients of whatever solution gets devised. Adoption of design thinking as a problem-solving tool can help prevent this focus on environmental constraints. It can also prevent an exclusive focus on the business perspective without fully considering the learner perspective as well.

This leads us to the second principle.

Principle #2: Get perspective.

Consider the learner perspective.

using design thinking

In design thinking, the first step in the process is “empathize.” When you research design thinking, though, you’ll discover “empathize” is not really about compassion (a common definition of empathy). It’s about collecting perspective: discovering and recognizing the realities, constraints, thoughts, pain points, and motivators of the target learner. This perspective means you know what their workflow looks like. You have a sense of where any training solution could best fit into that workflow. You understand what devices they use and how/when they might use them. Additionally, you have clarity on how much time they spend doing various things, and what they feel most/least confident doing. You have a sense of their attitudes and beliefs around whatever topic your training solution is supposed to address.

This perspective is critical if your intent is to design and implement a solution that learners will find relevant and actually use. The empathize step is not the same as saying, “Ask the learner what they want and design that.” In reality, it’s closely linked to traditional instructional design’s step of “audience and task analysis.” In today’s era of rapid authoring tools where we can oh-so-quickly start developing solutions, analysis is often forgotten.

Consider the business perspective.

We also need to grasp the business perspective fully: what is the problem? Why is it a problem? What are the symptoms of this problem? What measurable changes will indicate the problem has been solved? To answer these questions, it’s often necessary to gain the perspective of multiple stakeholder roles, both vertically and laterally in an organization.

There has been more than one project where a “big wig” with veto power came in at the end of a design meeting (or even during development) and completely altered the course of a project. Cross-functional perspective is also valuable. Different departments often have access to different data or different stages of the customer experience. Once we are confident in the defined business problem, we can link the business perspective and the learner perspective together and define that sweet spot.