In the 21st Century, we need creative approaches to learning design that help us meet the needs of the modern workplace. Furthermore, many of us are required to be creative on demand in our daily work. In light of these concerns, you may find that a Design Thinking model suits your needs. Design Thinking is an approach for deeply understanding the audience and their challenges, in order to generate creative and effective solutions. It resembles Agile models in its methods of prototyping and testing. It differs in its emphasis on human-centered solutions. I’m facilitating a Design Thinking Workshop at the Learning Solutions Conference on March 30, 2020.
Design Thinking is Human-centered
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 framework, the more likely we are to leverage Design Thinking in our daily work.
This is critical at this time because the solution to many problems may be much more complex, broader and more integrated into work 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 the practitioners in 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.
There are many variations to the Design Thinking framework. Generally, there are between three and six steps. Here is one of the original methods as taught by Stanford’s d.school modified with an approach that can work with learning experience design. You can extend the Define Phase to include your instructional design practice for identifying and writing measurable performance objectives.
A Design Thinking Process
Empathy involves more than just analyzing an audience or users and this is one of the keys to Design Thinking. Empathy is about experiencing the feelings of others. You are attempting to understand what it is like to be in their job and to have their challenges.
You are researching the audience as an ethnographer, studying and recording the viewpoint of a group of people. In the workplace context, it is to discover the needs of a target population and to explore their universe.
Through the empathetic experience, you are able to create more effective solutions than when you are simply an order taker. Empathy may even involve collaborating and co-designing with the audience.
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.”
Tools that will help you research users and their challenges:
- 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.
- Personas: fictitious person with the collective characteristics and attributes of your audience or a subgroup of your audience (see Learner Personas for Instructional Design)
- Empathy Maps: a visual tool to collect what the persona thinks, feels, says and does when faced with the challenge of your focus
- Attitude Research: run focus groups to find out what motivates the audience and what demotivates them.
During this phase, you can go ahead with a traditional analysis too. It is likely that the empathy and research you bring to your analysis will change the perspective you bring to your analysis.
DEFINE THE PROBLEM
Research and empathy ultimately help you define the real problem. How often have days of training been developed based on an incorrect understanding of a problem? In Design Thinking, the problem space begins to evolve by understanding the challenges of the target audience.
If you spend time specifically defining a problem, you may discover that a simple solution, like one training course, will not be effective. 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.
When the problem is defined, I recommend writing it as a measurable performance goal. Then you can determine if training is an appropriate solution or partial solution. If so, apply your go-to instructional design method, such as SAM, Action Mapping or ADDIE to tease out the learning objectives that will help people reach the performance goal.
Tools that will help you define the problem:
- Root Cause Analysis
- “How Might We” statements: statements that redefine the problem from another viewpoint, such as “How might we help staff remember to wash their hands?” or “How might we help sales reps quickly access the information they need?” or “How might we help international students feel comfortable at our school?”
- Instructional design analysis practices that lead to measurable performance objectives, such as Action Mapping, Dick & Carey method, etc.
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 performance problem defined during research. Although many companies won’t allow for this, getting ideas from audience members is very valuable. Try to generate as many ideas as possible because more ideas means more potential solutions. All ideas are considered and there are no constraints or restrictions.
Tools to help you generate possible solutions include:
- Brainstorming with Sticky Notes: Brainstorming involves conceiving lots of ideas while suspending judgement. The technique has its critics. But brainstorming with sticky notes is a different matter. Team members write potential solutions on sticky notes and post them on a board or wall. The process of writing and posting continues until there are no more ideas left. This approach is more anonymous than brainstorming, as everyone is busy writing and posting. At the end, the team organizes the sticky notes into some type of coherent structure and discusses all of the ideas. It’s a fun and energetic approach to finding solutions.
- 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.
- Mind Maps: mind maps, which are radiant drawings showing connected ideas, are good for exploring many aspects to a problem. You can create these alone or with a team.
- “How Might We” statements (see above)
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. For graphic design, a prototype might include 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 learning with social media or a face-to face instruction, then your prototype would involve building a very small and rough implementation of the approach that would work for a small group of people. Or in the case of face-to-face instruction, create a short pilot program and test it on sample audience members.
Testing is all about seeing what works in the real world, getting feedback from learners and stakeholders, and refining (or ditching) prototypes. It’s important to test your innovative approach with the target population through all of its iterations. You can see how Design Thinking is an iterative process that involves lots of testing and adapting.
Some ways to test include:
- Provide learners/users with a task and watch as they perform it
- Ask users to think aloud as they work
- Prepare a list of questions and discuss the person’s reactions to a program
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 valuable solutions for the learning problems of the 21st Century. You can join me at a full-day Design Thinking Pre-conference Workshop at Learning Solutions on March 30th.
Would love to hear your thoughts. Comment below.