As many organizations and leaders have recently come to understand, unique problems require unique solutions. Amid the chaos brought on by the outbreak of coronavirus, rise in unemployment and decline of the stock market, the organizations that find themselves staying afloat — and even thriving — are the ones with the agility, creativity and resilience to adapt, change and create unique solutions to challenges as they arise. Practicing a design thinking approach can give organizations and learning and development (L&D) teams the tools they need to navigate the rapidly changing business landscape.

I recently became more acquainted with this reality in Training Industry’s new Design Thinking Master Class. I joined the virtual class expecting to leave with a basic understanding of the design thinking process and, in addition, left with a greater knowledge of design thinking’s timeliness and ability to meet learning and business demands in this uncertain moment in history.

Let’s take a look at how each of the specific stages of the design thinking process gives organizations and L&D teams the ability to empathize with and provide solutions to its learners.


The design thinking process begins with the heart, not the head. You cannot begin to meet the needs of your learners if you do not understand them. At the time of this blog post’s publication, learners are faced with an array of unique challenges, from navigating new in-home workspaces to juggling homeschooling and remote work simultaneously.

To practice empathy, course participants were organized into breakout teams to brainstorm about the needs, feelings and fears of our audiences at this time. By putting ourselves in learners’ shoes, we gained new perspectives and insights on their current needs and challenges. Design thinking gives learning leaders and instructional designers the power to understand and meet learners where they are.


The empathy practiced in the previous stage informs the process of defining the business problem your learning solution seeks to address. Often, L&D teams and professionals believe they have a concrete understanding of the problem their learning seeks to solve but, to their dismay, later find that their solution did not initiate the necessary change or meet the stated goal. Taking the time to sit down and reframe the problem provides learning leaders with the perspective and strategic alignment they need to create meaningful solutions that have business impact.


Once you have clearly identified the problem, you can begin to think about solutions. However, sometimes, we limit ourselves in the brainstorming process by trying to come up with the best possible solution. The ideate stage in the design thinking process is not for coming up with the solution; it’s for coming up with as many solutions as possible (quantity over quality).

In our breakout groups, one team member would express his or her defined problem and, in response, the rest of the team could provide unique solutions, because we were not aware of any of the restraints the team member may have been working against.

Setting the mission to come up with a large number of ideas within a set time opens you up to new possibilities. An outlandish idea, jotted down to simply put words on the page, may breed other, more practical ideas you wouldn’t have previously imagined.

Prototype, Then Test

With a breadth of unique ideas for solutions in your arsenal, you can create a prototype of the best one. Prototypes are quick and low-resolution; they don’t need to be a fully developed final product but could be simple sketches or small models.

Once you’ve created the prototype, you are ready for the final stage of the design thinking process: testing, when an individual user or sample groups interact with the prototype. The testing stage allows for immediate, early feedback on the prototype’s potential flaws or strengths. Rather than creating a learning solution and only finding out what worked and didn’t work after delivery, testing saves learning leaders time and money by enabling them to gain some of these insights up front.

Design thinking takes an open mind and lots of practice. But amid the unprecedented changes learning leaders and organizations currently find themselves in, they should not underestimate design thinking’s potential to creatively and rapidly meet the needs of their learners.