The topic of design thinking is getting renewed attention in the L&D space. Among other things, it is seen as having the potential to inject creativity, to provide strategies for leveraging emerging technologies, and to expand our vision of learning support.

At the same time, design thinking is sometimes critiqued as old wine in new bottles (and relatively tasteless wine at that). It may be one of those “buzz words” that gets put into conversations without any real understanding of what it means. Critics dismiss design thinking as lacking substance and real impact.

Historically, design thinking was introduced as a way of applying designer sensibilities to other endeavors in order to promote innovation. Since we ARE designers, design thinking can more powerfully be seen as a way of reclaiming our roots. It may, in fact, be a needed antidote to processes that have become too bureaucratic and uninspiring. Design thinking practitioners offer tools and techniques that are quite useful to those of us who design instruction, multimedia for learning, or broad learning strategies.

What exactly is design thinking?

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

When you search for resources on design thinking, you’ll come across a variety of methods and toolkits, each with their own take on the idea. From what you see at a glance, you might conclude that design thinking is a process. The at Stanford recommends that design teams “empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test.” IDEO’s flowchart is similar: “discovery, interpretation, ideation, experimentation, and evolution.” IBM’s approach centers around an iterative loop of observing, reflecting, and making, but it also highlights high-minded principles related to “a focus on user outcomes, restless reinvention, and diverse empowered teams.”

The last thing we need in L&D, however, is another process, so adopting a packaged approach is not the answer. A state-of-the-practice study by the Hasso-Plattner Institute found that there are four ways that people leverage design thinking: as a toolkit, a process, a methodology, or a mindset. While we might be tempted to simply cherry pick relevant tools when needed (the toolkit approach), design thinking is likely to have a bigger impact if we incorporate specific tools and mindsets into our current processes, thereby reinvigorating our own methodologies and reasserting our identity as designers.

Design thinking practices

So what can we leverage from design thinking? Here are the top five practices that will strengthen our design methodologies:

Empathizing. The foundation of design thinking is a deep understanding of the people for whom you are designing – whether they are users, customers, clients, or learners. Our typical assessment strategies often don’t go far enough in helping us to inhabit the mind and experience of the people we are trying to support. Getting to know the people we serve shouldn’t stop at documenting their demographics and expressed needs – we should seek to deeply understand their day-to-day work, interactions, motivations, goals, sources of pride, frustrations, and more.

To achieve an impactful level of empathy, we can leverage the empathizing tools developed for design thinking and embed them into our processes as both catalysts of design and touchpoints for checking back during the development process. These tools include intriguing ways of gathering and analyzing data (e.g. journey maps, card sorts, immersion) and substantial strategies for capturing what we know about the people we are trying to reach (e.g. personas, empathy maps). This will be a challenge for those who already say they don’t have enough time for the assessment phase of a design project, but the investment of time here will be worth it in terms of the targeted nature of your recommendations and ability to craft truly effective solutions. And, if you repeatedly serve the same group, it’s possible that you can leverage this work across multiple projects.

Framing. An old adage says that if you ask a better question, you get a better answer. At the very least we can be sure that different questions lead to different answers. Design thinking encourages us to be more thoughtful in framing our challenges, and that often involves deepening our questions. Some design thinking tools (e.g. exploring analogic points of view, asking five whys) help us to truly excavate the problems and opportunities to make sure we are addressing core needs and not just surface ones.

We should also consider how we frame up our potential solution set – training is just one of the ways we can address skill development needs. Many L&D professionals have already demonstrated frame-switching by changing our focus from “how might we train people?” to “how might we support performance?” And we can continue to expand our frameworks to incorporate broader models like learning environment design, 70:20:10, continuous learning, or modern workplace learning into our questioning model.

Ideating. The insight we get from design thinking is the power of utilizing both divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking helps us to multiply the options under consideration, and convergent thinking helps us to put diverse ideas together for a unique solution. Design thinking toolkits and creativity toolkits provide an array of techniques that can be matched to particular projects to multiply and invigorate ideas. The key to ideating is asking many versions of “what if…?” What if we had to design in a different mode? What if we changed our assumptions? What if favorite options were unavailable? What if constraints were no obstacle? Linus Pauling said, “if you want to have good ideas you must have many ideas.” Ideating multiplies your ideas.

A commitment to design thinking will prompt us to establish a phase in the process that is focused on ideating – after assessment but before we move into detail design and development. We too often forge ahead with the first good idea that comes to mind. Another key point: ideating is best done in the company of others; involving colleagues and stakeholders in generating ideas is a simple but high-value way to increase the quality of ideas in the mix. A brief ideating phase would be all about playing with possibilities – stretching our minds to identify many ideas that have potential and then combine the best features of our options to create something new and powerful. This kind of creative pause point would also be useful as we flesh out design recommendations – ideating on the specifics. (Need some new tools for ideating? Try here or here.)

Prototyping. The practice of prototyping already has a foothold in our field. Those who develop e-learning solutions, videos, and games almost always create wireframes, storyboards, and working prototypes to capture their thinking and help decision makers to envision what is being recommended. These and other prototyping tools can provide a visual, tactile preliminary design artifact that can be used to think out loud, to gather feedback – and to iterate. Stanford professors Bill Burnett and Dave Evans write that designers “don’t think their way to solutions; they build their way to solutions.” Expanding the use of prototyping in all delivery modes could have a great impact on our work.

Iterating. Multiple cycles of prototyping and iterating can be very worrisome because it sounds expensive – in both time and actual costs. But design thinking case studies demonstrate that iterating is integral to the creative process. Iterating is different than developing smaller elements in short sprints; it’s about gathering and substantially responding to robust feedback from end users (learners, clients, customers – the people you are serving). And that kind of deep engagement with stakeholders and colleagues throughout the process is something we could definitely improve. Using a design critique to gather feedback on prototypes is a critical change to make in our design processes. We need to ask more pointed questions and experiment with different ways of enriching feedback so we truly understand what to change. Iterative design and development needs to be part of our process, our timeline, and our client’s expectations.

If you want to explore more details, check out these toolkits for specific practices you can adopt into your processes:

But don’t stop with just identifying a new technique to try in your next project. A design thinking mindset always starts and ends with a sharp focus on customer needs. It makes room for creativity and experimentation. Consider reclaiming the depth of what it means to be a designer by weaving design thinking throughout your standard processes.

If you’re interested in learning more, keep an eye on my workshop schedule, or call me for a consultation or customized offering.