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.
// The Design Thinking Landscape >
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 (d.school)
This document contains solid explanations of the d.school’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 >
- Design thinking: Crafting the employee experience (2016) by Josh Bersin, Marc Solow, Nicky Wakefield at Deloitte – Some thoughts on why and how HR professionals can apply design thinking to improve their work.
- Design thinking comes of age (2015) by Jon Kolko, Harvard Business Review – An outline of design thinking principles.
- 10 Things You Should Know About Design and Design Thinking (2017) by Connie Malamed, eLearning Coach – A short article with insights compiled by an L&D thought leader.
// 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.
- Design Thinking is Kind of Like Syphilis — It’s Contagious and Rots Your Brains (2017) by Lee Vinsel on Medium – A widely-shared critique that calls out superficial implementation and hype in design thinking initiatives.
- Design Thinking Is A Failed Experiment. So What’s Next? (2012) by Bruce Nussbaum on Fast Company – A lament that too many people implement design thinking as a simple process rather than seeking to effectively incorporate deeper design principles into the work.
- Yet another design thinking article (2018) by Jon Kolko on jonkolko.com – A well-considered rebuttal to some of the critiques along with a bit of design thinking history.
- A designer addresses criticism of design thinking (2018) by Connie Malamed in Learning Solutions – a list of the key points of critique along with recommendations to overcome them in our context.
// Details on each of the practices >
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.
- Empathy – How to Improve Your Designs by Developing Empathy for Your Target Group (2017) by Pricilla Esser, Interaction Design Foundation – Outlines the process for developing empathy (and detaching from empathy as needed to continue the work) as well as tips on data gathering. The Kouprie and Sleeswijk-Visser (2009) article that is referenced can be found here.
- Empathy on the Edge: Scaling and sustaining a human-centered approach in the evolving practice of design (n.d.) by Katja Battarbee, Jane Fulton Suri, & Suzanne Gibbs Howard, IDEO – An in-depth exploration of how empathy works and its value to business.
- The importance of context in learning design (2018) by Connie Malamed – A short take on key angles to explore in your assessment phase so that empathizing is possible.
- Empathy Maps: A complete guide to crawling inside your customers’ heads (2015) by Demian Farnworth on Copyblogger – Scroll toward the bottom for advice on how to generate empathy maps.
- Putting Personas to Work in UX Design. By Nick Babich on the Adobe blog. (2017)
- Why Learner Personas and Learning Design Go Hand-in-Hand (2017) by Sharon Boller on the Lessons on Learning Blog (Bottom-Line Performance) – Solid list of potential elements to capture for a persona, specific to L&D.
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.
- Problem Framing – Not Problem Finding (2018) by Jon Kolko – Describes how a “frame” develops by sharing a specific example of how the ongoing up-front analysis helps define more clearly what is needed (and it involves listening closely to the people we intend to serve).
- How You Define the Problem Determines Whether You Solve It (2017) by Art Markman, Harvard Business Review – Brief advice on looking at a problem in multiple ways.
- How Constraints Force Your Brain To Be More Creative (2017) by Scott Sonenshein on Fast Company – Explains why constraints are actually a good thing, not a creative barrier.
- Emerging frameworks for learning strategy (2018) by Catherine Lombardozzi – My post and curated resources on the array of strategies we can use to frame how we address needs in organizations.
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.
- Design Thinking For Instructional Design, Part 3: Ideation (2017) by Angel Green on eLearning Industry – Advice on incorporating ideating into an instructional design process.
- 10 key steps for running an awesome ideation session (2014) by Ken Hudson in Marketing Mag – the title is the description.
- Ideation in Practice: How Effective UX Teams Generate Ideas (2017) by Aurora Harley, Nielson Norman Group – Nice analysis of real ideating practices of user experience teams.
- Empathizing Tool Index (pdf)– Links to ideation toolkits plus an index to the variety of approaches defined therein.
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.
- Prototyping: Learn Eight Common Methods and Best Practices (2017) by Rikke Dam and Teo Siang, Interaction Design Foundation – Creative ideas for prototyping that may help if you can’t imagine how to prototype your specific project.
- The Best Prototyping Tools for Every Level of Fidelity (2017) by Jonathan Courtney on Medium – Quick reviews of a variety of digital prototyping tools. (I have not validated this as objective or accurate; I know little about these products, but you may want to be aware of them.)
- Six Steps to Superior Product Prototyping: Lessons from an Apple and Oculus Engineer (n.d.) interview with Caitlin Kalinowski , on First Round Review – Excellent advice related to prototyping, no matter the context in which you design.
- Design Thinking For Instructional Design, Part 4: Prototyping (2017) by Angel Green on eLearning Industry – Advice from the author’s experience in elearning design, relevant to all instructional modes.
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.
- Dare to Invite Critique (2018) by Catherine Lombardozzi – A blog post on design critique.
- How To Improve Your Skills And Products With Design Critiques: A Conversation with Adam Connor, Co-author of Discussing Design (2017) podcast with Connie Malamed, eLearning Coach
- Frank talk, spirited debate, laughter, and love (2017) by Catherine Lombardozzi – A blog post that speaks to selecting people to engage with you in design critique, and on how a “brain trust” works.
- Want To Build A Culture Of Innovation? Master The Design Critique (2018) by Jon Kolko in Fast Company | Co.Design
- Using Critiques To Improve Learning Experience Design: Lessons and Resources to Get You Started (2016) by Connie Malamed, eLearning Coach – links to multiple resources with commentary.
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Last updated: May 23, 2019 by Catherine Lombardozzi
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