The five-step process known as design thinking — empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test — is well known thanks to the work of IDEO and Stanford, which have used it design a wide variety of new products. And it seems like it would work for learning designers, doesn’t it? Good news: It does! Let’s take a look at the whens, whys and hows of applying design thinking to one of your most common learning programs: new employee onboarding.

The process of designing a learning program isn’t usually all that novel. You know what your business constraints are — that is, your budget and timeline — and, more than likely, they are tight. You will not be creating something the world has never seen before, right? You’ve probably received a directive like, “We need the new global onboarding ready to go by October,” and you probably can, off the cuff, list the primary topics that the program needs to include.

Do you really need design thinking for that? Is there any value to gathering everyone to plan something you’ve done a zillion times already? Well, yes — especially in the case of an onboarding project, when:

  • You have a large number of stakeholders with a broad variety of points of view — some of which may be in opposition to one another.
  • You have an existing program in place, but you feel that the new version needs to be better, and you aren’t sure what “better” means.
  • Your audience for the program is “everyone.”

Let’s start with the empathize step. In general, empathy in design thinking means understanding your audience. You need to understand what your learners want to know, not what your stakeholders want to tell them. As learning designers, we have two challenges with this step: First, we might not regularly meet our audience. More frequently, we are told about them by the people who are asking for the training on their behalf, who have solid reasons for believing they know their audience — and who can be wrong.

There’s no substitute for talking to audience members directly. In the case of onboarding, you can tap into folks who are still new at the company — perhaps only a few months into their new position. When you do these interviews, it’s best to do a little talking and a lot of listening. Try not to guide the conversation; keep your questions as open as possible or even vague. Let the learner take the conversation where he or she wants it to go. The strategies you use in subject matter expert interviews to establish connection are probably not suitable here. For example, don’t chime in with examples or stories from your own experience. Your role is to listen.

You won’t be able to interview everyone in the audience, so how many people is enough? If your audience is huge and diverse (“the whole world” might actually be the audience for a global organization), try to break it down into categories. In an onboarding project, think about where the learners are coming from. What kinds of experience do they bring? Interview a diverse group with members from each category. You’ll start to hear patterns, which is what you are looking for.

There are two practical strategies that can be helpful in gathering your audience information. First, if possible, include your stakeholders in the interview. The learners will probably say something that turns their assumptions upside-down. It’s more powerful if they can hear it from the learner’s mouth than to see it as a bullet point in a design document.

Second, if you can, schedule twice the time you think you need. If you finish early, it’s fine. But let the learners talk as long as they want. Taking the time pressure off helps you reach a deeper understanding.

The define step is considering business constraints and goals associated with your project, including the audience needs, desires, interests and motivators, and define learning objectives.

Because of the empathy step, you know who the audience is now. You know their skills, knowledge and mental models. During the define stage, you can uncover what the business’ needs are. Then, the learning objectives will transform your learners from their original, untrained state into the employees the business needs.

Have you ever had a conversation with a stakeholder where he or she insisted on including a topic in a program because “We always do”? With design thinking, you can work through that conversation and come to a decision that is mutually agreeable and helps you achieve your desired outcome.

At this point you know your audience, you understand the business’ needs and you have learning objectives — or at least topics. Next, you’ll move to the ideate phase. Ideation can help you determine the modality (or modalities, in a multimodal program) to use, nail down your narrative arc or storyline, and consider features or approaches.

At this stage, you’re trying to put as many ideas on the table as possible. A helpful strategy is to include diverse points of view in the conversation. Can you include someone who recently joined the company? What about someone who joined from a different industry? This person may bring an entirely new way of thinking to the conversation. You may also find it helpful to create smaller ideation teams made of people from various parts of the company. Non-siloed brainstorming is a boost to creativity and the generation of novel solution sets.

Prototyping and testing are closely linked when you’re creating a learning experience. The prototyping step is an opportunity to try things out and fail early and often. It can be as simple as quickly drawing a visual storyboard to help learners imagine the final onboarding experience might look like and then asking for their feedback. If your solution includes e-learning, you can divide it into small “nano” modules, release one to current onboarding participants, and follow up with interviews or surveys. If you have the numbers to do it, you could try a couple of versions of the same module.

This step is also the test phase. Although you can ask questions like, “How much did you love this module?”, there are other elements you’ll want to ask about. Think about the design challenge you faced in creating the learning, and ask questions that evaluate how successful your solution is with your learners. As in the empathy interviews, it’s a balancing act of asking what you want to know without pushing the respondents to reply in a particular way. Ask yourself whether the questions prompt people to tell you that the learning experience wasn’t successful. That kind of information is gold and will help you improve the program.

For the particular challenge of creating onboarding, the testing phase can and should extend into the future. Any learning experience has two points of evaluation: the learner’s experience and the effectiveness of the learning. Considering the latter, you’ll want to measure how effectively the program prepared learners to contribute to business goals — essentially, its return on investment. If your organization has an evaluation process in place, use it to assess your work.

You will likely find yourself returning to the ideate stage to refine parts of your learning experience, which is good! Design thinking is an ongoing process that loops back upon itself, gathering information and using that information to make incrementally better and better learning. When you use design thinking for learning, you may initially feel like these “back to the drawing board” moments are failures. Instead, they are a testament to your commitment to the best possible learning experience for your learners and a successful marriage of training and business achievement.