Design Thinking

Curated Resources

How can designers use design thinking to improve their processes and outcomes?

Curated resources on design thinking

Enthusiasm for design thinking is on the rise in L&D at the moment, and there is a great deal of value in the practices that come out of the design thinking movement.

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.—Tim Brown, President and CEO of IDEO (IDEO)

While critics caution that this enthusiasm is just hype about an old concept that has questionable substance, my take is that design thinking can be a catalyst for reasserting our expert design skills and reclaiming our role as designers of high value strategies in learning and performance support.

Design thinking as a process: For some, design thinking is defined as a specific human-centered design process with several specific activities. But instructional designers and learning strategy consultants don’t need another process; there are plenty of options already. It can be argued, though, that injecting design thinking into any of these processes can help them to produce more innovative and on-target solutions.

Design thinking as a mindset: Other people tout design thinking as more of a mindset. If so, it is a mindset founded on a strong commitment to deeply knowing your end users (a.k.a. employees, clients, customers, learners, students – the people you are trying to serve). And it places high value on an iterative feedback process centered on a series of prototypes. That is, design thinking encourages us to make ideas real and put them out there for genuine critiques so they can be honed to the greatest extent possible. These values can strengthen our own design processes as well.

Design thinking as a set of practices to add to our methodology: To me, the most impactful way we can integrate design thinking in L&D is to identify specific practices to weave into our own ways of working. Given the array of toolkits and techniques offered on design thinking web sites, it’s reasonable to find suggestions that work for any context or project type.

Design thinking offers five specific practices that should be integrated into our own design processes and tool set.

Empathizing: Using the tools of design thinking to understand the people we want to support – their day-to-day experiences, interactions, aspirations, feelings, and challenges – so that we can better imagine what would be most relevant and helpful for them.

Framing: Taking the time to describe goals, problems or opportunities in ways that open the door for more innovative approaches, and identifying the parameters within which the solution should fit.

Ideating: Coming up with and playing with ideas – to generate options and discover unique solutions.

Prototyping: Building ideas in some temporary form as a way of thinking out loud and providing concrete options for discussion.

Iterating: Using a repeated cycle of feedback and revision to hone in on the best possible approach.

When I do workshops on design thinking, we talk about how to effectively weave these practices into the way we uniquely approach our design projects. The trick is to identify and routinely incorporate specific techniques that inject richer background and new ideas into our work, allowing it to be more customized and impactful. Advocates of design thinking have been incredibly generous in describing how they do what they do, and we just need to translate these activities into our particular contexts.

I’ve further described each of these practices and curated more specific resources on design thinking in the materials below. The toolkits and resources listed give more details on techniques so you can pick and choose what makes sense for your work.

For more on design thinking, join me for Essentials of Design Thinking, an ATD Education course, or contact me for a more customized development program.

Curated Resources

//  Design Thinking Toolkits

These links will lead you to more detail from design thinking proponents.

Inspiration > Ideation > Iteration
OR Discovery > Interpretation > Ideation > Experimentation > Evolution        

  • IDEO customizes the way they express the process for various audiences. These resources not only explain the design thinking process and provide advice on some of the necessary skills, they also provide facilitation notes for specific techniques that might prove useful.
  • IDEO Design Thinking for Libraries (download PDF) – Activities and advice for inspiration, ideation, and iteration. One of my favorite toolkits. You’ll obviously want to extrapolate from library examples, but very useful regardless. IDEO also offers a Design Thinking Toolkit for Educators.
  • IDEO Field Guide to Human-Centered Design (free registration required to download) or the online IDEO Design Kit – more from IDEO, taken from a more global point of view.

Stanford d.School (Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design)
Empathize > Define > Ideate > Prototype > Test

  • An Introduction to Design Thinking ( This document contains solid explanations of the’s version of design thinking: what, why, and how.
  • Bootcamp Bootleg (Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford) – A similar document to above that also provides directions for a variety of activities.

Observe > Reflect > Make > (loop)

  • IBM Design Thinking In addition to the ‘observe > reflect > make’ process, IBM also emphasizes key principles: a focus on user outcomes, relentless reinvention, and diverse empowered teams. When you go to this overview site, be sure to click on its links for a deeper exploration of the details. More on IBM’s journey to transform the company through design thinking can be found here.
  • IBM Design Thinking Activities – A nice set of activities aligned with IBM’s observe > reflect > make I especially appreciate the options for prototyping under make. Click on each activity for guidelines and tips. Also see IBM’s Design Thinking Field Guide (download PDF)

//  Thought-Provoking Articles

//  Critiques and Rebuttals  >

You should know that design thinking has its critics, and reading these critiques can help you to avoid common pitfalls. In short, effective design thinking requires much more than a surface understanding of the skills and practices involved.

//  Details

Getting to know your intended audience is a routine part of our up-front assessment process. But empathizing with them is another thing altogether. Empathizing requires a deeper understanding of people’s experiences, feelings, and goals. If we can deepen our grasp of their perspectives, we have a much better chance of crafting recommendations that will be embraced and impactful. The point of empathizing is not simply to write down what the people say they want; it’s to try to get inside their heads and come to know their activities so well that it’s possible for us to discern solutions that they yet cannot see for themselves. Empathizing can have its challenges. We can get emotionally caught up in others’ lives, or our own biases can lead to us misinterpreting what we see and hear. That’s why design thinkers diversify the inputs they have from the people for whom they are designing and related stakeholders; they use an array of tools and techniques – both to gather data and to document (and verify) what they learn.

See the toolkits above for a variety of techniques for generating empathy.

Most design thinking processes label one of the phases “define,” and it focuses on defining the right, root problem before tackling the project. I prefer to describe the practice as “framing” because in our context, this practice goes beyond naming a problem. Framing defines what you are trying to achieve and the general approach you intend to take – it has real implications for the end product you create so it deserves careful attention and calls for a degree of outside-the-box thinking. Framing is about identifying your goals and objectives as well as the parameters within which you have to (or want to) work. It’s the creative question that leads to novel recommendations.

There are multiple ways to think about framing your L&D project, and all have specific contributions to make in exploring possibilities.

Determining the problem. If your project is being driven by a problem, then it is vital that you explore the problem’s definition before working out a recommendation. The presenting problem is often not the area that needs the most attention, and unless you explore deeper concerns, you risk simply masking symptoms. Design thinking advocates provide a number of tools and activities that can assist in exploring and refining your problem definition.

Envisioning overarching strategy. One aspect of framing is to put your project into a broader context. The nature of your work changes when you consider your project as a performance concern rather than strictly as a training or education project. And it changes when you consider how expansively you plan to think about the potential solutions – across a wide variety of ways that people learn and develop or more narrowly through an instructional lens. Once your mind has been stretched to consider more expansive learning environments, 70:20:10 strategies, modern workplace learning, learning ecosystems, and other frameworks, your creative options multiply, and your work will never be the same.

Setting performance and learning objectives. Goals and objectives are the primary framing force in our work. How you define these objectives drives the kinds of activities you might design to address the need. Goals and objectives in our context are most often driven by what people need to be able to do in both the short and long term – what we want people to retain and apply.

Where do you come up with ideas? That’s the core question in research on creativity and innovation, and the heart of ideating. From the advocates of design thinking and creative problem solving, we can find an array of techniques intended to provide energy for generating ideas. Some are interesting ways to conduct brainstorming, some are prompts meant to help you expand on ideas so they morph in new ways, and some are activities to encourage you to mentally play with ideas so that fresh ideas can form.

A theme running through design thinking literature is that designers often prefer building their way to a solution rather than thinking their way there. That is, they need some physical representation of their ideas in order to communicate them, explore them, and refine them. A prototype isn’t a pilot or alpha test; it doesn’t even necessarily have to work – it’s a much looser sketch of ideas, meant to give food for thought and something concrete to consider for feedback. In L&D, we frequently storyboard e-learning and video, or prototype learning games, but in my experience, we tend to want even these documents to be much further down the path toward finalization before we start showing them to people. Design thinking encourages us to sketch early and often, to open our ideas up for feedback as soon as possible in order to rapidly hone out proposal to something that works.

The entire purpose of prototyping is to get reaction to ideas – sometimes we need to see it ourselves in order to figure out what yet needs to be figured out, and sometimes we need to get ideas out of our head so that others can provide further input about what works and what doesn’t. Design thinking practitioners are hooked on rapid cycles of prototyping and iterating, happy to scratch out and start over or to use feedback to fill in details. Effective iteration depends on people having good feedback skills and designers being willing to consider feedback that is contrary to their own inclinations. It requires the ability to discern whether and how to respond to specific feedback and recommendations from others. The structure and process for design review and critique should be agreed in advance and embedded in the design process and the work culture.

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Last updated: May 23, 2019 by Catherine Lombardozzi
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