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How Design Thinking for Educators Elevates Corporate Training

Why should Learning & Development professionals care about Design Thinking?

In their book, Innovation by Design, Lockwood and Paske describe how organizations that adopt Design Thinking foster more meaningful innovation and custom experiences. And, as L&D professionals, that’s what we’re all about.

When it comes down to it, Design Thinking isn’t that far off from what we are already doing as instructional designers. With a few tweaks to our processes and templates, we can dig beyond the surface to engage and empathize, and create more meaningful solutions. The key is empathy. Empathy is where Design Thinking begins.



Let’s practice by empathizing with Matt.

Imagine that Matt is a brand new sales and customer service representative who just starting working in the call center, just beginning his training, and currently shadowing. Matt is seeing that his days are soon to be packed with back-to-back customer questions for which he’ll need a wide range of knowledge. He’ll need to be able to articulate all this information in a meaningful way to his customers and, as we know, often he’ll see escalating conversations.

Now imagine you’re Matt’s manager. Do you need your new phone rep to remember to log call information? Of course you do. But that’s probably not going to happen because a new hire receives that information once, during an eLearning that’s tucked away on the LMS. What about plan and product information?

Matt, and colleagues like him, took several courses and he aced every one. But that was days ago, and the details are in various brochures, PowerPoint decks, Sharepoints, and other crazy places. Matt has to fight the instinct to fight, flee, or freeze several times a day, making it difficult to access his frontal lobe. Oh, and for certain, training did not cover how to deal with that.


The schedule is filled with chunks of product training followed by a series of systems training, customer service training, and compliance courses, with some quizzes and observations sprinkled in. Ugh. The first time he got to practice for real was Thursday afternoon, during some role plays. We all know how we love some role plays. His schedule is packed with information with little integrated action-based learning.

If you were tasked with finding solutions to this curriculum problem, what might you do? Microlearning? Mobile learning? Gamification? Virtual Reality/Augmented Reality? More Instructor-led training?

The real key here is to not jump to solutions or the new, bright shiny object immediately.

In the search for more meaningful approaches, we’re often tempted to turn to new technology or trends, thinking one of these must be what our approach is missing. Certainly these modes can be useful, and are useful, but only after we’ve done the work to identify the root cause of the problem. We have to remember that training is not always the solution to the problem. We need to face the problems as our learners would, in this case as Matt would. Only then can we create meaningful solutions that use the right mix of tools and technology.

That’s where Design Thinking is crucial.


Design Thinking is essentially the practice of considering the human element in design. As it turns out, the methodology is not new – it originated in 1969 and became known as the human-centered design approach in the 1990s. Since the late-1960s, the design thinking process has been used to design products, software solutions, and to solve some massive human problems.


Why now for Learning & Development?

Josh Bersin, an L&D researcher and strategic adviser, thinks that L&D arrived at this need back in 2017. He stresses that L&D must focus on experience design and design thinking to create relevant learning experiences and adds that these experiences have to extend into the flow of work. That’s where Design Thinking comes in, to walk a Day in the Life of our learners. He and other experts in this industry insist that instructional designers must also be experience designers. 

How do we do this? Do we scrap our tried and true processes like ADDIE and Bloom’s Taxonomy and Situated Cognitive Learning and SAM? No. Design Thinking doesn’t replace instructional design; rather it enhances instructional design.

As part of our practice, we think about our model in three buckets: Design, Develop, and Deploy. It’s in the Design phase where we apply Design Thinking mostly, where we start to establish empathy, dig deeper, and go beyond to find solutions that get at the root cause.

Let’s break it down:

Design Thinking Empathize


Design Thinking starts with Empathy. How? We’re going to look at three empathy tools, specifically, that are helpful in gaining empathy with learners: Journey Maps, Empathy Maps, and Learner Personas. There are some prescribed ways in which you should use these but, really, it doesn’t matter what order you use them in. Find how these tools work for you and use them. Also, update them, especially in times of change. Some practitioners may already use some of these tools, but L&D really is still in the early adopter stage of Design Thinking.

Journey Maps
Journey Maps are really Day-in-the-Life Maps. This is where we often start in tackling a problem. Here is a Journey Map for our fictitious learner, Matt. Maps should start before the workday starts and after the workday ends because, as we know, many people are checking in on email and calendars before and after work. And, what happens before and after work often impacts how the day goes. To gather this data, you should conduct structured interviews and observations with employees and their supervisors. Or, facilitate a focus group and whiteboard a typical day.


The process of drawing helps elevate the thinking process. It provides a solid framework upon which to continue collecting data and exploring our learners’ thoughts. It also gives us a common ground and vernacular for talking about a Day in the Life.

Empathy Maps
Empathy Maps help synthesize observations. As you conduct interviews and observe learners, also collect data, like direct quotes that reflect how a learner is thinking and feeling, then how those thoughts and feelings affect their behavior. Empathy Maps are designed to capture the essence of the learner’s day.

By synthesizing that data in an Empathy Map you can dig beyond the surface and draw out deeper meaning, as well as insights that help get to the root cause of the problem. Imagine that you are an Instructional Designer who is interviewing and observing Matt to gather some data and insights about his thoughts, feelings, actions, needs, and frustrations. What might Matt be feeling, thinking, or saying?


You might jot down things like: He has ambition. He wants to meet his goals. He wants to be seen as an expert and is eager to make that happen. He might be frustrated; there’s way too much to memorize. He might be feeling disappointment; he might not have all the answers, but he’s expecting that he will because of his background in school and previous jobs. His headphones are also a problem.

These are all aspects that are going to affect how Matt shows up to learn. Training is not going to solve all of these, and that’s where Design Thinking will help us discover root causes and apply the right solutions.

Learner Personas
A Learner Persona is the augmentation of all the data we’ve collected so far. It provides a one-page snapshot of our target learner. Meant to be a fictitious persona, it’s to be used to help design a learning program for learners like Matt, but not specifically for Matt. Here is a template we’ve designed to organize the data.



Above is a completed Learner Persona. You can see that we’ve created a fictitious name and indicated the key demographics that differentiate this learner from other learners who might also be going through new hire training. In this case, it’s learning for millennials who live in the city, have a BA, maybe their second job out of college, etc. This Persona, along with the Journey and Empathy Maps, will respectively drive the rest of our Design Thinking Process.

Design Thinking Define

After collecting and analyzing data in the Empathize phase, the next step is to Define the problem. The key to accurately defining the problem is to pinpoint root causes. Our Root Cause Analysis framework addresses problems from a whole-learner perspective: head, heart, and hands. Each of the problems and underlying causes will lead to a variety of solutions depending upon which they’re found in: lack of knowledge/understanding, lack of believe/motivation, or lack of skill. After the root cause analysis, we define the problem in clear statement and performance goals based on real business drivers.

Design Thinking Ideate

After the Define phase, we show how the Root Cause Analysis framework works when we’re ideating on solutions. During Ideate, we need to consider a wide range of possible solutions.

Is the problem a lack of knowledge?  If so, you need to determine if the learner needs to recall the information instantaneously or if they need ready-reference. For recall, then, flash cards, memorization might be the best tool. If the need is readily accessible reference material, then that’s the solution you need to build and you might need to train your learners how to use the tool. The root cause of a performance problem could be the lack of the belief or motivation. In that case, the solution is not likely training. If the root cause is low confidence in performing a task, it might be a skills issue, so that would fall into the lack of skills bucket for which training can be the solution.

But, if we’re in the lack of belief or motivation bucket, your learners need evidence. So, storytelling, testimonials, and messaging–not training–are going to help. If it truly is lack of skill, where training may be the answer, certainly practicing and coaching can be part of the solution, too. In any case, the important message here, and for us to deliver to our stakeholders, is that workforce problems are complex and often require solutions that go beyond what training can provide. This is where things like reflecting, sketching, brainstorming, and affinity diagrams help. Depending upon the complexity of the problem, you may need to ideate with a larger group.

Design Thinking PrototypeDesign Thinking Test

Prototype and Test
During Prototyping you create simple, inexpensive models of the solution–or, if you’re just developing one eLearning module, for example, it could be just a key activity from that module. These are often called minimum viable products. Then, you test those with your learners. During the testing phase, you help learners actually use and walk through the solution that you developed, or prototyped, and watch them. Interview them so that you can gain information about their thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and actions so you can go back and improve the prototype, if necessary, and test it again.

If you’ve been thorough on Empathize, Define, and Ideate, the chance of scrapping an entire idea at this phase is low and, in our experience, you can expect no more than two to three iterations if you’ve done your work well.


Let’s return to Matt and our new hire training problem. Remember his new hire training schedule? Let’s assume that we have been given the problem to revamp this new hire training and as part of the strategic effort to help solve new employee turnover, which is at 40 percent right now. 40 percent of our employees turnover within the first six months. The corporate goal, the strategic goal, is to reduce that rate to 20 percent in 2019. If we adopt a Design Thinking approach, we have a greater opportunity to be strategic advisers in meeting this goal, and contributors to driving that goal to reduce employee turnover.


With the Design Thinking approach, Matt’s learning journey might look something like this.

It starts with a Day in the Life walk-through, instilling in Matt an understanding of his role and his contributions to the company. This is where we want to engage Matt’s heart, get him to buy-in–what’s in it for him. This is where we use self-study and facilitated sessions, stories, and testimonials. Then this design synthesizes product, system, and process content together in real-life scenarios that Matt will commonly face, and gives him a chance to practice real-life tasks in a risk-free environment, with scaffolding, or reference tools, that he’s learning to use, coaching, and feedback. It ensures that these reference tools actually exist and teaches Matt how to use these tools, as well as provides memory tools for the content that he simply must memorize.

You can see going along this journey, this design recognizes that Matt might benefit from learning some self-awareness and negotiation skills, and it provides that content for both Matt and his manager. It saves more advanced and enrichment topics for later, after Matt might feel proficient in the basics. It’s a learning design that is empathetic to Matt’s learning needs, now and into the future, and it moves the right learning content from formal events to self-study and learning on the job, saving both time and money.


We have looked at what Design Thinking is and how it is beneficial to Learning & Development, but what gets in its way? The top two roadblocks are awareness and buy-in. It takes more than rhetoric to make this work and to achieve those outcomes. It’s far too easy to write this off as an impossible task or dismiss it as another trend, assuming that it’s going to take more time and money.

But that’s simply not the case. As the saying goes, measuring twice and cutting once saves time and money. That’s Design Thinking. It saves time and money in the long run.

Also, there are many common shortcoming and pitfalls that lurk for L&D practitioners. It’s easy to make assumptions about what the learner wants and needs without actually talking to them. We might focus on the technology and see that as the solution, that we need to invest in the technology, and not the people or the process.

Lastly, it’s easy to do what’s convenient and those shortcuts lead to pitfalls. Like mandating that all corporate learning must be hosted on the LMS or that all online learning materials must be created with a single IT-approved software tool, regardless of the need. But we can overcome these shortcuts and pitfalls. The key is to pay attention to what we hope will now be tugging at you, and that’s Design Thinking. 

This piece was originally developed as a webinar. To watch the webinar with its full set of slides and audio, click here.

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