Design thinking is a methodology that puts human needs at the center of design decisions, reframing the design challenge at hand in human-centric ways. Designers try to find multiple solutions in brainstorming sessions and use prototyping and testing to ensure the best solution for learners. The design thinking process consists of five stages: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test.

In the first stage of the design thinking process, “empathize,” instructional designers should put aside their own assumptions about the learner and the design challenge and look for insights into their users instead. Immerse yourself into the physical environment, consult experts, and engage and empathize with learners to understand where they are coming from and what drives and motivates them. Here are a few ways to achieve a better understanding of your learners.

Interview and Observe

In order to learn more about your users, you first have to meet them where they are. Put yourself in their shoes, and try to understand what their day-to-day looks like. Schedule meetings and interviews to ask questions, and use observations to develop a realistic picture of the learner. Talk to supervisors and managers to learn more about high performers and strugglers, and focus on how the learning experience can help develop their skills.

Empathy Map

An empathy map is a great way to summarize what you learned during interviews and observations. It’s commonly divided into four quadrants describing what the learner said, did, thought and felt. It’s easy to determine what a learner said or did, but it can be a bit more complicated to fill in what they thought and felt.

Draw the four quadrants on a whiteboard or large piece of paper, and start writing down the findings from your interviews and observations. Work with your team, and write ideas on sticky notes so you can move them around as needed.

Next, synthesize the learner’s needs based on the empathy map to define the design challenge. Keep in mind that needs are verbs, meaning they describe activities and desires.

As a last step, synthesize your insights. Look at the empathy map and ask why something is the way it is, and use that knowledge to solve the design challenge. Use the empathy map to role-play the persona and ask questions such as, “What would this person do if he or she saw this?” or, “Why would this person not move on to the next step?”

Learner Personas

An empathy map is the first step in creating learner personas. Think of personas as fictional, generalized characters, each with individual goals and needs. Information that can help you create a persona on top of the empathy map includes, but is not limited to, job role, biggest challenge, demographic information, personal background, tech savviness and years with the organization. Once learner personas are in place, it becomes more intuitive to create content that resonates with these personas, allowing you to keep the learning experience solution human-centered.

Traditionally, designers complete a target audience analysis. However, design thinking takes this analysis to the next level. It enables instructional designers to create a more human-centered learning experience that makes learning stick. By empathizing with learners, designers create learning experiences that are more meaningful, which increases motivation and engagement. Instead of creating content that no one wants to take part in, create unforgettable experiences that make an actual difference.