painter representing design thinking in learning experience design
Training & Learning

Design Thinking in Learning Experience Design: Empathy, Iteration, and Innovation

One of the most common struggles in the world of learning and development (L&D) is finding novel approaches that capture the learners’ attention, while boosting engagement and enabling problem-solving and creativity. There is one approach that’s making a lot of headway, known as Design Thinking.  

It’s a human-centered learning design strategy that emphasizes empathy, iteration, and innovation–and is highly effective at bringing unique, learner-centric experiences to learners of different backgrounds. This article will help you explore the concepts that come with integrating Design Thinking and will provide some much-needed strategies to help you implement it.

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Empathy: the heart of a human-centered learning design

Empathy is at the core of Design Thinking. Without it, the innovative solutions that are built to meet the needs and expectations of the learners fall apart completely. Using an empathetic approach naturally relies on conducting user research. Similar to marketing, effective learning processes rely on getting to know the learners, their preferences and challenges, and motivations.

User research can be conducted in many ways, through surveys, interviews, observation, or persona development, among others. All of these can provide invaluable insights into learners' minds. If you can identify gaps in your current learning experiences, you can uncover opportunities for creating more impactful learning journeys within your organization. 

Tailoring your human-centered learning design process involves addressing your learners’ pain points and aspirations. This way, your solutions will be relevant and meaningful to the learners.

Iteration: a virtuous cycle of learning and improvement

Design Thinking promotes a culture of iteration. This is based on the understanding that the first solution might not be a perfect one. Learning designers are encouraged to repeat this process of iteration to improve overall learning outcomes.

The beginning of this cycle starts with prototyping, which is a tangible representation of the learning solution, followed by a test with the users. One example of this is transforming a basic draft of a learning module into a fully developed e-learning course. It works so well because you have a very fast idea-to-feedback relationship. 

That feedback is then used to iterate the design. Thus you’ve created a loop of prototyping, testing, and refining until an effective learning experience is crafted. The biggest benefit comes from the final product being so closely aligned with the learner's needs.

Innovation: creative human-centered design solutions

Design Thinking and innovation are closely related. By its nature, Design Thinking empowers learning designers to step outside the usual frameworks and think divergently. It involves exploring many different possible solutions before finally deciding on the most effective one.

One of the biggest strengths of Design Thinking is the way it encourages a culture of ideation. An environment where all ideas are welcomed and explored is exactly what is needed to drive innovation. The point is to push boundaries and challenge the status quo. What results is human-centered design learning experiences that are not just efficient, but inspiring.

Key strategies to implement Design Thinking in your organization

While we’ve discussed some of the ingredients for Design Thinking, let’s discuss how you can implement them.

1. Establish empathy through user research

By understanding your learners in a deep, empathetic way, you can create learning experiences that genuinely resonate with them. You’ll want to use methods such as surveys, interviews, or persona development to answer the following questions:

  • What are my learners’ main motivations?
  • What are some of their biggest challenges?
  • What are their preferences in terms of how they best learn? 

Using key performance indicators (KPIs) can be extremely helpful here. Examples of KPIs to track in this case include the length of time spent on a section of a learning module, retention rate, or engagement rate of a certain learning feature. 

2. Prototype and test

Prototyping and testing can be achieved with the following steps:

  • Create a prototype for your users to test. It’s important to note that testing in Design Thinking isn't about achieving perfect results. The goal is to evaluate the usefulness of the solution and identify areas of improvement. 
  • Share the prototype with your users, and observe and evaluate their interactions with it. Many issues with user experience are discovered in this stage. Take note of how much time is spent on each tool/feature.
  • Collect user feedback to get insights into what parts of the learning experience work well and which ones need refinement. A short list of examples would be user interface, content relevance, engagement strategies, and the effectiveness of the learning tools which are a part of the design.

3. Iterating based on feedback

Embrace feedback and use it to refine your design. Ask the following questions to determine which areas of improvement should be prioritized.

  • What parts of the learning experience received positive feedback?
  • What elements received negative feedback, or led to confusion or frustration?
  • Did the learners achieve the desired learning outcomes effectively and efficiently?
  • Was the learning experience engaging and motivating?
  • How did the learners interact with the different components of the learning experience?
  • Were there elements in the training that were overlooked or ignored?

4. Practicing ideation and innovation

Here are ways to encourage outside-the-box design thinking:

  • Brainstorming sessions: Make sure these sessions are judgment-free, which means there are no “bad ideas”. The brain works best when it’s allowed to explore all options, no matter how outlandish they may seem.
  • Creative thinking techniques: Two of the most famous ones are mind mapping and SCAMPER (Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Purpose, Eliminate, Reverse). The main point is to encourage lateral thinking, which helps the brain make connections it normally wouldn’t.
  • Reflection time: Always give your team breaks to reflect on what’s been discussed. Time-management methods like the Pomodoro technique are beneficial because it allows our minds time to let ideas marinate.

Major benefits of Design Thinking in learning experience design

Design Thinking guarantees the learning solutions you develop are truly learner-centric. The better you understand your learners, the greater your ability to tailor training material that resonates with them and brings about the best learning outcomes for them.

By creating a culture of iteration, Design Thinking supports a cycle of continuous learning and improvement. The trial-and-error approach uses learner feedback to improve the design progressively, which helps your learning experiences become increasingly relevant and effective with time and consistency. With a collaborative learning strategy, you can also use peer feedback to identify and verify learning needs, to confidently address the most critical skills gaps in your workforce.

Creativity and innovation help people think outside the box, and keep learning strategies novel, which boosts learner engagement. 

This fosters active participation, encourages critical thinking, and delivers stronger learning outcomes. These kinds of learning experiences help L&D teams maximize their impact on the wider business, as the skills and knowledge that learners gain enable them to perform their work to their best capability.  

The role of Design Thinking in modern organizations

Learners’ needs have become increasingly complex, and the rapid advancements in technology are putting greater pressure on L&D teams. That’s why the empathetic, iterative, and innovative approach of Design Thinking is now more relevant than ever.

As AI-powered technologies proliferate, Design Thinking for human-centered learning design will need to become more nuanced and sophisticated. L&D teams should stay adaptable and closely aware of learner needs and skills gaps to execute effective user research, innovative prototyping tools, and testing and iteration. 

360Learning's all-in-one learning platform enables organizations to create personalized and hyper-relevant learning experiences with your internal subject-matter experts. Get a free demo here to see how it can help maximize your L&D team's impact.