How To Use Design Thinking In Learning Experience Design

Even though a crucial part of our jobs involve design, the traditional instructional design models are based on systems thinking. Systems thinking promotes an analytical type of mindset. But we also need an approach to help us innovate and create.

If you are required to be creative on demand in your daily work, you may find that a Design Thinking model suits your needs. Design Thinking is an approach for deeply understanding the audience and their challenges, in order to generate creative and effective solutions. It resembles Agile models in its methods of prototyping and testing. It differs in its emphasis on human-centered solutions. I’m facilitating a Design Thinking workshop at the learning Solutions Conference 2018. See the end of this article for more information.

Design Thinking is Human-centered

It places a great value on empathy for your users. The practice of Design Thinking seems to be sorely missing from instructional design university programs, professional training and workplace practices.

If Design Thinking has the potential to help us come up with better design solutions, then let’s make room for it as we design and promote learning experiences.

Solutions for the 21st Century

Those of us who feel hampered by current models may already practice some Design Thinking techniques. The more we understand these practices as a whole model, the more likely we are to leverage Design Thinking in our daily work.

This is critical at this time because the solution to many problems may be much more complex, broader and more integrated into work than one training course can provide. Perhaps the solution to a problem requires developing a community of practice-not formal training; or perhaps there is a need for performance support combined with a user interface redesign; or a change in organizational processes as well as interactive training.

This is why I often speak of the practitioners in our field as “solution finders” rather than course builders. Design Thinking is more in line with the complex problems a learning experience designer might need to solve.

As you would expect, there are many variations to the Design Thinking model. Generally, there are between three and six steps. Here is one of the original methods as taught by Stanford’s It fits in well with instructional design methods by replacing and extending the design phase with this approach.

A Design Thinking Process


Empathy involves more than just analyzing an audience or users and this is one of the keys to Design Thinking. Empathy is about experiencing the feelings of others. You are attempting to understand what it is like to be in their job and to have their challenges.

You are researching the audience as an ethnographer, studying and recording the viewpoint of a group of people. In the workplace context, it is to discover the needs of a target population and to explore their universe.

Through the empathetic experience, you are able to create more effective solutions than when you are simply an order taker. Empathy may even involve collaborating and co-designing with the audience.

Industrial designer and design educator, Paul Backett, writes that, “Great designers are great empathizers. It’s what separates a design that has soul from one that’s simply well-realized.”

Some ways to research users and their challenges include:

  • Field Research: talk to and observe audience members in their jobs and imagine what it would be like to have that job. Discover problems that may not be obvious.
  • Interviews: speak with both supervisors and staff to understand the issues they face and the characteristics of the people you want to help.
  • Attitude Research: run focus groups to find out what motivates the audience and what demotivates them.

During this phase, you can go ahead with a traditional analysis too. It is likely that the empathy and research you bring to your analysis will change the perspective you bring to your analysis.


Research and empathy ultimately help you define the real problem. How often have days of training been developed based on an incorrect understanding of a problem? In Design Thinking, the problem space begins to evolve by understanding the challenges of the target audience.

If you spend time specifically defining a problem, you may discover that a simple solution, like one training course, will not be effective. That’s why defining the problem through research-looking at it from many angles and perspectives-can set you on the right track. Without correctly defining a problem, it’s nearly impossible to generate a corresponding solution.

When the problem is defined, I recommend writing it as a measurable performance goal. Then you can determine if training is an appropriate solution or partial solution. If so, apply your go-to instructional design method, such as SAM, Action Mapping or ADDIE to tease out the learning objectives that will help people reach the performance goal.


The practice of conceiving ideas, or ideation, is a critical step of Design Thinking. This is where you and ideally, a cross-disciplinary team, generate potential solutions to the performance problem defined during research. Although many companies won’t allow for this, getting ideas from audience members is very valuable. Try to generate as many ideas as possible because more ideas means more potential solutions. All ideas are considered and there are no constraints or restrictions.

Some ways to generate possible solutions include:

  • Brainstorming with Sticky Notes: Brainstorming involves conceiving lots of ideas while suspending judgement. The technique has its critics. But brainstorming with sticky notes is a different matter. Team members write potential solutions on sticky notes and post them on a board or wall. The process of writing and posting continues until there are no more ideas left. This approach is more anonymous than brainstorming, as everyone is busy writing and posting. At the end, the team organizes the sticky notes into some type of coherent structure and discusses all of the ideas. It’s a fun and energetic approach to finding solutions.
  • Sketching: For many people, sketching short-circuits the judgement side of the brain and helps them tap into a flow of ideas. Sketching is visual brainstorming. Using stick figures and geometric shapes is completely acceptable and gets the job done. Sketching is exploration.
  • Manipulative Verbs: From the creator of brainstorming, Alex Osborn, comes an exercise using a list of action verbs that are applied to various ideas or problems. This works particularly well when sketching. You can make up a long list of verbs and see what ideas are generated from this approach.
  • Mind Maps: mind maps, which are radiant drawings showing connected ideas, are good for exploring many aspects to a problem. You can create these alone or with a team.


A prototype is a preliminary model of an approach. Prototyping involves hands-on exploration. It provides a way to rapidly try out ideas without a large investment of time and money. Think of a prototype as a low-resolution or low-fidelity version of an idea.

In the world of industrial design, a prototype might be constructed from cardboard. In graphic design a prototype might be a series of sketches. In learning experience design, a prototype could involve storyboarding an interaction. They say it’s better to fail early and often with your prototypes because with each failure comes a better understanding of what will work.

Some ways to prototype or to create form include:

  • Sketching: Using pencil and paper or a digital drawing tool, prototype sketches are more involved than in the previous phase. They might include storyboarding a scenario or visualizing all possible responses to an interaction.
  • Mock-ups: A mock-up is a simulated version of an idea, that replicates how it will look and behave. These can range from a Styrofoam model to a working user interface.
  • Small Implementation: If your idea involves something that isn’t physical, such as social learning, then your prototype would involve building a very small and rough implementation of the approach that would work for a small group of people.


Testing is all about seeing what works in the real world, getting feedback and refining (or ditching) prototypes. You can see how Design Thinking is an iterative process that involves lots of testing and modification. Although you might run your initial tests internally, it’s important to test your innovative approach with the target population through all of its iterations.

Closing Words

Design Thinking isn’t a silver bullet, but it’s one model for dealing with the “be creative on demand” requirements in our line of work. And it might provide valuable solutions for the learning problems of the 21st Century.

Would love to hear your thoughts. Comment below.

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