Iterative, collaborative, and experimental approaches are giving many business processes complete makeovers and leading to better results. That’s just as true for L&D as it is for marketing and product design. In the case of instructional design, that means adoption of design thinking.

In this interview, top designer Connie Malamed discusses how design thinking accommodates and improves instructional design, as well as how to “sell” your organizational leaders on the idea.

BB: How is design thinking different from how we think of instructional design?

CM: That's a great question. They really are two different processes and different models and yet there is a way to merge them together. People use design thinking to come up with innovative strategies that solve complex problems. Several years ago as our learning industry began to mature, people were looking for other approaches to help them solve some of the stickier, more challenging issues and problems in the 21st century workplace and in schools. So, some practitioners started looking at design thinking.

I think of design thinking as a framework. It’s pretty easy to insert whatever instructional design process you use within that framework. Previously, instructional design was very content-oriented. We often thought of ourselves as content developers. Design thinking and its accompanying toolset help us think more in terms of user-centered design. I think that's really the wave of the future and how we're going to solve the more complex performance problems that we deal with.

BB: You mentioned that design thinking is useful to solve sticky problems. What are some examples of those sticky problems?

CM: Well, there are so many challenges now, it's like a perfect storm. The skills people need at work are often very complex; adult learners don't have much time, skills need to be consistently updated, and knowledge is now more of a dynamic network than a static entity. Many different aspects of our lives have sped up and we frequently experience disruption. We are constantly online and overwhelmed with different types of media. And everyone can easily access information and learn new skills outside of the workplace. So, I see the whole thing as one big 21st century challenge.

BB: What are the specific advantages of design thinking in this situation? And can you use it in any eLearning project?

CM: Well, I don't necessarily 100 percent believe in silver bullets. I don’t think that there's only one way to do something. But you can probably use a design thinking approach on many projects. Design thinking helps people think holistically. So, instead of only thinking in terms of one-off learning interventions, we can use design thinking for solutions that build long-term capabilities over a person's lifetime as a real learning journey.

There's a lot of research that says one learning intervention is not going to be enough to change behavior and improve performance. That's because the mind is not a video recorder that takes in whatever it sees. If we see and hear something, even if we practice something, we're not going to learn it instantly. It really takes a long time to build up capabilities. Now, sometimes all we do need is something like a job aid or some form of support in the flow of work. But a lot of times to reach a goal we need to be on a somewhat defined learning journey that is holistic. Design thinking can help us with that.

BB: Is that because of the structure that's used in design thinking, or is it something else?

CM: I do think it's partly because of the structure and partly because it uses techniques that enhance open-minded thinking and idea generation. In terms of structure, design thinking is flexible for varied situations but there are certain commonalities.

One is great empathy for the learner, user, or audience member. Through empathy, we are likely to come up with human-centered design solutions because there are a lot of tools like personas and empathy maps that can help us better understand the target audience. In the design thinking process, you also spend a lot of time trying to define the right problem. Sometimes training addresses the wrong problem. When you get it right, you don't go down the path of creating something and then find out that wasn't really the issue in the first place.

One of the best aspects of design thinking is how it can help people generate creative ideas. I see this in my workshops all the time. I’m often amazed at the creative solutions people generate. That’s because when you work in interdisciplinary teams, you hear many different perspectives. The collaborative aspect is one of the reasons it enhances innovation. You get to prototype your ideas, test them out, and get feedback from learners or users before you continue on your path. Just like the Successive Approximation Model and the Agile methods, it's very iterative so you're getting feedback quickly. Those are some of the reasons people are able to come up with effective solutions using design thinking.

BB: Design thinking is a new concept for many people. How do you sell up to your stakeholders who don't make the connection between design thinking and learning and training?

CM: Well, one thing is to figure out how you can use design thinking on a small project. Then if you are happy with the results, demonstrate to stakeholders how you were able to design a better solution, a more effective solution and one that is more aligned with business goals. Some people are co-designing with learners or users, who then get excited about a product or solution because they were actually part of the design team. This another way to get buy-in.

Another approach is to take a workshop and learn the methods of design thinking. It is not difficult to learn and in fact that's one of the beautiful things about it. Then take it back to work and teach others. It’s so much more fun than designing in a vacuum, it might catch on. As people practice the methods, they get better at it. It becomes second nature. Whatever path you take, I think you have to prove to stakeholders that your solution was somehow more effective at improving performance, more cost-effective, or more meaningful in some way.

From the editor: Want more?

Connie Malamed will present "Using Design Thinking to Craft Learning Experiences," a pre-conference workshop at Learning Solutions 2020 in Orlando on March 30, 2020. In this workshop, you’ll explore an entire design thinking cycle. You will work through every stage of the process, applying and adapting best practices that will work for you and your organization, including user interviews, prototyping, and iterative design. You will see how this approach can stimulate ideas for creative, human-centered solutions that fit the modern workplace.

Designers, developers, and managers will learn:

  • How to think differently about learning experience design
  • About the models of design thinking
  • How to adapt the model to your workplace
  • How to develop empathy for learners
  • How to create low-fidelity prototypes
  • How to generate creative ideas
  • How to test and refine your ideas

Registration for the Learning Solutions Conference & Expo 2020 is required in order to register for this pre-conference workshop.