“Designers don’t think their way forward. Designers build their way forward,” Bill Burnett and Dave Evans said in Designing Your Life. The book guides readers in applying design thinking to planning and creating the life they want to live—an approach that is equally applicable to designing eLearning that employees will want to experience.

Design thinking focuses on the end user; L&D teams using the design-thinking methodology will create eLearning that keeps learners’ needs and experience foremost. As learners’ needs change in the age of digital learning, “Design thinking allows organizations to innovate and disrupt traditional development processes that are no longer meeting these needs and develop digital products based on human-centered design,” Lauralee Sheehan wrote in a blog post, “Design Thinking in Digital Learning.”

A new look at an old process

Early in their book, Burnett and Evans distinguish between engineering problems and design problems. “Engineering is a good approach to solving a problem when you can get a great deal of data and you’re sure there is one best solution,” they wrote.

But, they point out, a design problem does not have a single correct solution; it often does not have a clear goal or a fixed outcome, and the criteria for success might be hard to define. A solution is found by seeking and testing different ideas.

This is also true of eLearning design: There are many ways to teach information or train people in new skills. Universal Design for Learning, which, like design thinking, is user- or learner-focused, emphasizes offering learners a choice of formats for consuming information. This is an acknowledgment that learners’ preferences vary, as do the circumstances under which they seek and use eLearning.

Design prototypes focus on user experience

Just as a design problem differs from an engineering problem, a design prototype differs from an engineering prototype—and is ideally suited to eLearning design.

A learner-centered design prototype focuses on the end user’s experience; a design prototype is not a solution or a product. It starts with a question; its goal is to figure out what the solution might be, according to Evans.

Creating and testing prototypes allows designers to discover and confront assumptions they  have that could be incorrect. It also allows them to see how potential end users interact with the solution, whether a physical product or an online course or game. During testing, designers and developers see which elements users like, which they dislike—and which they never even notice or use. This information is used to improve the next iteration, ensuring that the end product meets learners’ needs.

Reframe problems to avoid biases and assumptions

A recurrent theme in Designing Your Life is that dysfunctional beliefs hold people back from living more fulfilled lives. In an eLearning context, dysfunctional beliefs might center around debunked myths, like those concerning learning styles or the brevity of people’s attention spans. Dysfunctional beliefs might also focus on how people feel about competitive games or how much time they have available for training.

Assumptions about how much people know about using technology and how comfortable they are using it often derail eLearning; learners are so frustrated by the navigation, the complex rules, or the hoops that they have to jump through to access content that, by the time they get to the content, they are in no mood for learning.

Dysfunctional beliefs and assumptions are not as immobile as many in eLearning might think. “Reframing is essential to finding the right problems and the right solutions,” Burnett and Evans wrote. “Reframing also makes sure that we are working on the right problem.” Design thinkers must be willing to pause their problem-solving long enough to examine the assumptions and biases that might have shaped their approach—and possibly take a different approach as a result.

Recognize “gravity problems”

A “gravity problem,” in Burnett and Evans’s language, is a problem that is simply part of reality: You cannot eliminate gravity as a way to make your bike-racing time faster. You cannot, in additional examples from their book, change the reality that, in the United States today, poets rarely make enough money to earn a living or that few music lovers are likely to have careers as members of successful rock bands. Gravity problems are not “real” problems, the duo wrote, because “in life design, if it’s not actionable, it’s not a problem.”

An eLearning parallel might be a technology or bandwidth issue that makes delivery of some types of content impossible. When TorranceLearning was working on training for Vitamin Angels, the team faced a number of gravity problems: Their learners lacked modern computer equipment. No two teams had the same equipment. Learners had unreliable internet access. Learners were distributed in remote locations covering several countries—and languages.

The team could have followed tried-and-true design approaches they’d used for other projects; they could have worked with the basic assumptions they use when designing eLearning for North American clients. But those solutions would have failed. Rather than fight gravity, the team implemented an innovative, learner-centered design that was wildly successful in this extremely challenging environment.

Design is a team sport

Despite myths about solitary geniuses working out brilliant solutions to vexing problems, the best solutions are not the product of a solo mind. “Design is a collaborative process, and many of the best ideas are going to come from other people,” Burnett and Evans said. “Great design requires radical collaboration.”

The prototyping and testing process—in fact, most of the design process—entails what Burnett and Evans call “wayfinding.” While designers often have a direction or an end in mind, they rarely have a map.

Seeking mentors, collaborators, and testers to provide input and ideas smooths the prototyping process—and is essential to getting from an initial idea to a great design. Design thinking can help.


Burnett, Bill and Dave Evans. Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life. Knopf: New York, 2016.

Evans, Dave. “How to Make Better Life Decisions Through Design Thinking.”

Sheehan, Lauralee. “Design Thinking in Digital Learning.” November 4, 2016.