Design thinking is getting more and more visibility, in all industries, not just L&D. This methodology in designing products, tools and processes is proving its value and getting hard to ignore – and for good reason. At its essence, design thinking involves customer empathy, ideation and experimentation. Many new practitioners jump directly to the ideation phase, ready to brainstorm all the ways to solve a problem. It’s tempting to pull out the sticky notes and ideate on: How can we achieve more interactivity in our courses? Why is the completion rate so low? Why were our business performance goals not met with this new training program? And so on.

The phrase “don’t jump to the solve” comes in handy here. Brainstorming is the fun part, but if you jump straight there, you’re not digging into the problem itself. Understanding the customers (in our case, the learners) better than they know themselves is critical and should be the first step in your design thinking process. In other words, define the problem before you ideate on how to solve the problem. Problem statements are often too vague or framed incorrectly, which can lead to wasted time brainstorming the wrong issue. Prevent this problem by investing time in the empathy phase, which involves two parts: developing empathy and then synthesizing data.

An obvious way to develop empathy is to conduct surveys or interviews with your learners. While these methods are sufficient (and often the only realistic) options, they are not ideal, because people commonly self-report inaccurately. One unbiased way to develop empathy is through observation. Many training professionals don’t have the luxury of watching someone participate in their training, but if you do, go for it! It will give you insights that learners may not share in a survey or remember in an interview.

While shadowing in person is best, there are ways to be creative if you aren’t physically present. Use a webcam or web conference so learners can share their screen as they take an online course. Encourage them to “think aloud” so you can gather feedback on what they are thinking as well as doing. By experiencing the world through our customers’ eyes, we can discover new and surprising insights that make us think differently about the challenges we face.

Now that you understand and empathize with your learner, it’s time to articulate the problem. One effective way to do so is to map a customer journey line, which enables you to visualize the behaviors and emotions in your learners’ approach to a task. Capture each step of the learner journey for a specific experience. Then, plot these steps chronologically, left to right. Assign an emotion to each step of the journey, with neutral on the line, misery below the line and delight above the line. Vote on one pain point of the journey to solve first, and voila! It’s time to break out the sticky notes and brainstorm.

Refine your design thinking practice by investing the time and energy into a deliberate approach to gaining deep empathy. Your learners will thank you for it.