Design thinking finds its way more and more into training, and instructional designers are often tasked with using this human-centered approach. It consists of five stages: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test.

In the empathize and define stages, designers connect with the learner and gain more insight into what drives and motivates them through interviews, observations, empathy mapping and learner personas. Equipped with that knowledge, designers can leverage all this information and organize, interpret and make sense of it, which helps them define a problem statement. A good problem statement is human-centered, broad enough for creative freedom, narrow enough to be manageable and actionable. Designers can use a simple post-it technique to gather their thoughts, use the point of view problem statement approach, or use the “how might we” question technique to define the problem statement.

The first two stages are the basis for the ideation stage. In this stage, designers think outside the box to identify new solutions to the human-centered problem statement. Generating ideas can be a challenging task if designers are not in the right environment and are not able to take a step back. The ideation stage is about looking at every possible angle for the well-defined problem statement. It is about pushing boundaries and effective collaboration. Some best practices for this stage include having a skilled facilitator leading the session, working in a creative environment featuring the work from the two previous stages, setting a time limit and having a “there are no bad ideas” mindset. Designers should be bold and curious, challenge common beliefs, and explore each other’s ideas. It is also not too late to flip ideas over to reveal new insights.

In order to stimulate free thinking, there are a few different techniques designers might use to generate as many ideas or solutions as possible. The sky’s the limit, but it’s important to combine the rational with the creative. It’s about using your imagination to come up with the best possible solution.


The most common ideation technique is brainstorming, in which designers collaboratively build good ideas based on the problem statement. Once certain ideas form, designers can categorize them and dedicate certain areas in the room for specific ideas. The team can then add their additional ideas as they walk around the room (an approach known as brainwalking).

Worst Possible Idea

Another useful technique is the worst possible idea, which helps more reserved individuals produce bad ideas, which, in turn, result in valuable threads. It’s a also a fun way to flip the ideation stage on its head and help relax everyone on the team.

Visual Approaches

A more graphical approach to ideation is the use of mind maps, which allow designers to connect ideas and find major and minor qualities of each. Designers can also sketch or storyboard their ideas using rough sketches or diagrams to express possible solutions.


In order to dive deeper into solutions for a problem statement, the SCAMPER technique can be a great tool. SCAMPER stands for substitute, combine, adapt, modify, put to another use, eliminate and reverse. Designers can use the action words to question the problem statement at hand.

A great example for this technique are new service models such as Uber or Airbnb. The founders thought about ways to change the cab and hotel industries, and voila! Uber and Airbnb were born. The SCAMPER technique can go hand in hand with the use of analogies to draw comparisons in order to communicate ideas better.

Other Activities

For a more outgoing team of designers, consider role-playing learner journeys. If a design team is stuck at any point, it can always fall back to its target audience and have them help crowdsource ideas. Finally, sometimes, we just have to take a step back and take a creative pause in order to refresh our minds.

The ideation stage is really the heart of the design thinking process. It is here that designers come up with human-centered design solutions. Choose the ideation technique that matches the problem statement at hand and the experiences of your design team. One technique might work well one day but not the next. Mix them up to get the creative juices flowing, and push the envelope to come up with outstanding solutions that help your learners succeed.