May 12, 2022

Make the link between Design Thinking and instructional design

Design thinking is a human-centered problem-solving approach (as opposed to a business-centered approach) to solving complex business problems. To help move this effort forward, learning and development experts Sharon Boller and Laura Fletcher wrote Design Thinking for Learning and Development: Creating Learning Paths That Drive Results (ATD Press, June 2020).

Sharon Boller is the Managing Director of TiER1 Performance and a frequent speaker at industry conferences on topics including performance-driven learning design, user experience, technology and trends, game design learning and conceptual thinking. Laura Fletcher is a seasoned learning consultant with 15 years of learning and development experience.

In the book, Boller and Fletcher explain that design thinking has five basic steps:

  • Empathize with users, for example, with those affected by a situation or in need.
  • Define the problem to be solved.
  • Idea with target users to find possible “solutions”.
  • Build and test quick and dirty prototypes of potential solutions.
  • Iterate and refine prototypes based on test results.

Additionally, these same steps can be applied to instructional design (ID) and other talent development efforts. Here are some insights from Boller and Fletcher on how TD professionals can apply this approach.

Is there a link between design thinking and instructional design?

Boulder: The five stages of design thinking are similar to and different from the traditional identification stages and offer ways to improve these traditional stages. The first key difference is the very impetus to start the process. In ID, we react to a problem that someone presents to us. In design thinking, we empathize with users and see if we can distill the problem after building empathy. If we transform the traditional instructional design framework known as ADDIE into a “learning experience framework” rooted in design thinking, we move from “audience analysis” to “information gathering”. “. We use design thinking tools and techniques such as experience mapping and empathy mapping to gain perspective. Such tools allow us to understand learners and their needs better than collecting demographic information or pure task analysis.

Armed with this perspective, we can refine the problem (instead of defining it, which is a DT step). Once the problem has been clarified, we can then imagine and co-create potential solutions with our learners, inviting them to help us shape prototypes that we can test. We can think in terms of a complete learning journey rather than just developing an event-driven solution like a workshop or e-learning course.

Traditional instructional design frameworks follow design with development and development with implementation, usually done first as a pilot. Design thinking also offers a testing approach, but that testing starts earlier when it’s cheaper to do. The goal is to build quick and cheap prototypes and test those prototypes before proceeding with a full build. These early tests lead to iteration before things get expensive, which ID frameworks could benefit from. Waiting for a solution to be fully developed to test it is costly and time-consuming. It also means that we may be reluctant to make changes because we have invested a lot by the time we are piloting.

The connection between ID and DT lies in the similarity of steps and the intention to be iterative. Design Thinking has some fantastic tools that can seriously improve the identification process, with experience mapping and empathy mapping being two of the most important.

What is the difference between learning experience design (LXD) and instructional design?

Boulder: The design of the learning experience focuses on the whole learning experience, including how I notice a need to learn, engage in that learning, do the learning, to build memory and skill over time, to deepen and extend skill through exploration and reflection, and to sustain performance for the long haul. Instructional design is task-oriented. It analyzes tasks and finds ways to teach those tasks. I think of LXD as imagining the experience I want a hotel guest to have at my hotel and ID as a model for the hotel itself. I don’t think there is a “learning experience designer” role because just as design thinking is executed by a cross-functional team, LXD is also best done as a team sport. It is not made by an individual. The design of the learning experience is more about what you create and not about the role you play.

Is there an easy way to get started with design thinking?

Arrow: The first time we experimented with design thinking, we invited learners to the design meeting to create an empathy map and character. That was it – no elaborate brainstorming, no prototyping, just extra focus on the learner during the design. This mindset of getting the learner’s perspective is a great place to start, whether you’re using an empathy map, an experience map, or a focus group. The tools themselves are easy to facilitate, but the insights they generate can have a huge effect on the final solution.

Boulder: We also experimented very early on with experience mapping, using no other tool. We blocked out the steps of a process and invited people to consider the thoughts/feelings that occur within each step and the magical and miserable moments associated with each step. The resulting insights were tremendous, including acknowledging that the sales process was not at all like the subject matter experts in the room assumed.

Are design thinking tools effective virtually?

Boulder: The best thing about empathy mapping and personality development is how easily you can create them through virtual means. Tools like Miro, Fun Retro, Mural or even a whiteboard in Teams can be used to create collaborative workspaces without people being physically in the same room.

Arrow: Getting the right people into a room has always been difficult, even before social distancing and travel restrictions, so we had ample opportunity to virtually experiment with using the tools. We’ve found that live collaboration works better than asynchronous collaboration. At first, we tried to get learner feedback asynchronously and found that the results weren’t as good. The advantage of being live when constructing an empathy map or an experience map, for example, is that it allows learners to build on the responses of others and allows the designer facilitate and ask probing questions. But living does not necessarily mean face to face. We’ve had good luck pairing a voice-to-voice connection with real-time collaboration tools. Virtual collaboration can be just as effective as sticky notes on the wall and is more effective for learners who can’t leave their home office.

For more guidance and advice on how to apply this approach in your work, see Design Thinking for Learning and Development: Creating Learning Paths That Drive Results.