Even though a crucial part of our jobs involve design, the prevailing instructional design models are based on systems thinking. Systems thinking promotes an analytical or engineering type of mindset. But we also need an approach to help us synthesize, innovate and create.
In many design fields today, people who are required to create on demand use a design thinking model for this purpose.
Design Thinking is Human-centered
Design thinking acquires and synthesizes information in order to generate creative, human-centered solutions. 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, because the way things are going, the solution to many problems may be much broader and more integrated 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 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’s one approach adapted from Stanford’s d.school that I think could work well for Instructional Design.
A Design Thinking Process
Research helps you define the problem and get to know the target population. Research creates a more open mindset than Analysis, where the focus is on breaking things down and finding answers. In design thinking, research is practiced through empathizing with the target population.
The researcher is thought of as an ethnographer, studying and recording the viewpoint of a group of people, their subculture and their vision of the world. In our context, it is to discover the needs of a target population and to explore their universe.
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 a problem 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.
- Feedback: review feedback from similar projects.
- What’s Out There: research existing solutions to similar problems through internal or external channels, such as social media, journal research and case studies.
- Mind Maps: Mind maps, which are radiant drawings showing connected ideas, are good for exploring many aspects to a problem. These can be created alone or with a team.
If you spend time broadly defining a problem, you may discover that a simple solution, like one training course, is not the answer to a complex issue. 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.
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 problem defined during research. Although many companies won’t allow for this, getting ideas from audience members is very valuable. Generating as many ideas as possible is best. All ideas are considered and there are no constraints or restrictions.
Some ways to generate possible solutions include:
- Brainstorming: Nearly everyone is familiar with this technique. It involves conceiving lots of ideas while suspending judgement. The solutions to the problem can be realistic, fantastical or silly. One crazy idea could lead to a viable solution. The more ideas the better. Some people do better by brainstorming alone and then bringing their ideas to the group.
- 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.
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.
Although an iterative approach to design might seem expensive, how many poor solutions are out there? How many training programs are not fulfilling their stated goals or are simply boring? Perhaps you can start out by using design thinking during the Design phase of your project to see what works in your environment. Then expand its use from there.
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 important solutions for the learning problems of the 21st Century.
Design Thinking Resources:
Graphic Design Thinking: Beyond Brainstorming by Ellen Lupton
Sketching User Experiences by Bill Buxton
Design Thinking Methods from Stanford’s d.school
Design Thinking for Educators
Design Thinking Article in Harvard Business Review
Would love to hear your thoughts. Comment below.