Design Thinking and Human-Centered Design approaches, as applied to eLearning, focus on designing solutions that work for real learners in real workday situations. As such, empathy is an essential element in a Design Thinking approach to eLearning, and it is the first stage of any Design Thinking-based process.

Empathy is the first stage in the Design Thinking process, followed by Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test

Figure 1: The Design Thinking process starts with empathy

In a instructional design context, empathy requires understanding the pain points and the daily reality of your target audience; it also requires some knowledge of learners’ motivations and needs, which might not be obvious.

In some ways, this stage is similar to a conventional needs analysis: You’re defining your target audience and describing the problems the eLearning is meant to solve. You might come up with a profile of a typical learner—a persona—for whom you develop the training solution. You might brainstorm possible solutions—a conventional eLearning course, microlearning, a job aid—that could solve the learner's problem.

Designing with empathy includes doing all of that—and going an additional step. It requires actually imagining the experience of work, learning, and problem-solving from the learner’s perspective. It requires being aware of and setting aside preconceived ideas about how things should work, how learners should do things, or what they should know, and replacing those ideas with knowledge and understanding of their actual experience.

Ideally, this will entail talking with learners, seeing their work environment, watching them work, and getting their take on the problem to be solved—in their words, based on their experience on the job. It requires asking questions about how they approach their work and why they do things the way they do. Armed with these insights into the application of the training, an instructional designer can create a better learner experience and a more impactful eLearning solution.

Empathy serves other L&D needs

Building empathy into eLearning design serves other functions of eLearning and instructional design.

  • eLearning designed with the actual users’ perspective front and center will be relevant, and relevance is a key motivator, driving higher engagement and retention.
  • The training will be more effective if it considers learners’ pain points, the environment where they will use and apply the training, and their real-world needs.
  • Intentionally seeking users’ perspectives makes it more likely that the eLearning will work for a diverse audience of learners, whether those learners are culturally diverse, consist of both native speakers and learners of the instruction language, or include learners with disabilities. It also considers learners who might not be fully comfortable with technology. Designing with empathy naturally results in accessible, human-centered design.
  • As a direct contrast to one-size-fits-all training, eLearning designed with empathy considers actual learners and their job roles and needs; it does not try to cram anything that any employee in any department needs to know into a single module. The training eliminates redundancies, and also covers necessary information at a depth appropriate for the target audience. This respects both learners’ time and their prior knowledge and experience.

Learners are already hard-pressed to find time for training. Designing training with empathy acknowledges their reality and meets their needs, resulting in a net benefit to everyone involved—the learner, the managers, and the L&D team that creates the training.

Explore Design Thinking

The eLearning Guild’s Learning Solutions 2019 Conference and Expo, March 26–28, 2019, in Orlando, Florida, takes a deep dive into Design Thinking. All attendees are encouraged to attend the keynote, “Design Thinking in Learning and Work.” Consider registering for Connie Malamed’s pre-conference workshop, “ Using Design Thinking to Craft Learning Experiences,” on March 25. And don’t miss the concurrent sessions addressing Design Thinking.