“What truly motivates this audience is competition….”

“We need a mobile app — our learners are the perfect demographic….”

“When I was in this role 15 years ago, I’d have loved a simulation!”

When designing new learning solutions, how often do you hear these kinds of assumptions about your learners from stakeholders, subject matter experts (SMEs), learning and development (L&D) colleagues, and/or vendor partners? For most of us, the answer is “all the time.” These well-meaning professionals may have learners’ interests at heart, but do they really know what learners want — and need?

These assumptions make sense. After all, today’s fast-paced business environment demands the rapid development of learning, leaving little time for robust audience analyses. Interviews, focus groups and surveys are seen as time- and cost-prohibitive — except in the case of high-profile programs. Later in the process, learners might review a course or participate in a pilot, but by that point, there often isn’t the time or budget to make any significant changes.

And what happens when a solution isn’t on target for learners? It results in decreased motivation and engagement and, ultimately, a less effective solution —which is a missed opportunity for L&D.

Practitioners need a way to validate ideas proposed by non-learners and to invent something new that hits the mark. Enter a new, powerful tool in the L&D toolbox: design thinking.

You’ve likely heard of design thinking as a methodology for business innovation. Now, it’s being used in L&D to create learner-centric solutions — and it’s a process you can use to vastly accelerate your learning design.

The five stages of design thinking (empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test) bring L&D professionals, stakeholders, SMEs and, most importantly, learners together through a creative, collaborative and engaging design experience. The result: an effective learning solution aligned with both the business’ and the learners’ needs.

Creating Your Design Thinking Experience

Start by framing your design question as, “How might we…” without mentioning a specific solution. If you can ask that question in this way, you’re a strong candidate for design thinking.

Then, consider the “who,” “when” and “how.” Determine who to include in the process. You’ll want to include your stakeholders, especially the ones with strong opinions, and you’ll definitely want to include your learners.

Next, determine when you will work together. Set aside enough time to work through all the phases of design thinking, which typically lasts two to three days. Explain to your collaborators that moving through the phases of design thinking consecutively will take less time, in the long run, than breaking up the process — which can also help you gain buy-in.

For a successful design thinking experience, setting expectations is key. Address expectations on attendance, phone policies, lunch breaks and any other relevant factors up front to ensure everyone is on the same page.

Empathize: Taking Audience Analysis to the Next Level

When you deeply understand your audience, you can make decisions that best serve them. To do so, you need to actually talk to them. The first stage in design thinking includes empathy interviews (ideally face to face or, alternatively, via video) with representatives of each learner category for your program.

Empathy interviews with learners are different than SME interviews. In these interviews, you want learners to take you where they want to go. Ask open-ended questions and, after they respond, follow up for clarification. To be a real empathy ninja, ask your first question and then be quiet — don’t ask a follow up question, and don’t make a comment. Just wait, and your learner may offer a deeper, subtler, more nuanced reply.

As you speak with your learners, listen for three things: First, what do they know (or not know) about the topic, both in terms of knowledge and skills?

Second, what is their work life like? Everyone has a different day-to-day work experience. The more you can understand their experience, the more you can empathize with them.

Finally, how do they like to learn? Do they jump right in? Call a friend? Watch a video? Uncovering learners’ modality preference is golden.

Define: Shaping the Requirements

Next, your team will need to define what the program needs to address by focusing on three areas:

First, consider any constraints and/or requirements at play, such as time, resources, technology and budget. Don’t take items that surface as fact; probe to understand them deeper. Channel your inner two-year-old and ask, “Why?” Although constraints and requirements may seem restricting, they can act as helpful guardrails and encourage creativity.

Then, determine the business need the program should address. Leaders may give you lofty-sounding statements, such as, “We need every employee to demonstrate leadership” or “Employees must put customers first.” In this case, it’s implied that learners have a current way of acting or thinking, and the business wants them to change; in other words, they want a mindset shift. The empathize stage of design thinking helps you understand learners’ view of the world. In this phase, you’ll need to focus on how the business wants to develop learners by listening to the organization’s leaders and reviewing its vision and mission.

Lastly, determine the program’s learning objectives, which serve as a bridge to move your learners from their current mindset to their future mindset. If your learning objectives are more knowledge-based than application-based, try again. Even if a project sponsor tells you, “This is an awareness course; we just need learners to be aware of this content,” ask, “Why? What will the learner actually do with this information?”

Ideate: Exploring the Possibilities

Now, it’s time for the fun part. The goal of this stage is to generate ideas. To do so successfully, try the following activity with another person:

Divide a piece of paper into four sections. Start by putting your “How might we…” question in the top section. In the next section, write a description of one part of your learning project, as you envision it, and hand the paper to your partner. In the third section, your partner will write all the things that are wrong with your idea. Then, your partner will give the paper back to you so you can rewrite your idea based on his or her feedback. Repeat this process with all the sections.

Prototype and Test: The Final Two Stages

The goal of prototyping is to give your learning project enough form so that you, your learners and your stakeholders can envision it. For example, take a representative chunk of the project, and sketch or storyboard it. If you are creating an instructor-led workshop, you can select some of the activities and practice them. For e-learning programs, you can build a small section of the course.

Prototyping is more than a stage in design thinking; it’s a mindset. If you take the approach that your work will always have room for improvement, and if you share it often and make iterative improvements, it will improve — which benefits your learners.

When you test, compare your prototype to your learning project’s constraints, requirements and business needs. Did the prototype include the project’s must-haves? Did you stay within the allocated budget and deadline? You may find that in some areas, you weren’t able to meet the mark or that, now you’re in the prototyping phase, you don’t know how to implement a requirement. This is a completely normal part of the process.

After prototyping, you should also revisit your learning objectives. Do the content delivery and practice activities align with learning objectives? If they don’t, determine if the objective was off base or unrealistic or if you need to rework the activities.

Design thinking is an iterative process, so looping back to an earlier phase is part of the plan. When doing so, make sure you’re communicating with stakeholders so they know how the project is unfolding.

When Assumptions and Reality Collide: Navigating Difficult Moments

Sometimes, in these sessions, what you hear from your learners is in direct opposition to your stakeholders’ opinions. If this happens, try to validate what you’ve heard by interviewing more learners. You can also conduct empathy interviews with stakeholders to better understand their views, as deeper research often makes it easier to find a middle ground. For example, if stakeholders are set on a mobile solution, but your learners hate the idea, figure out why. By digging deeper, you will likely find an innovative solution that satisfies both parties.

With an open mind and a willingness to improve, design thinking can help you create learning programs that authentically connect with learners by meeting their needs — and that also meet the business’ needs. As a learning professional, design thinking can take you from being an order-taker to being a powerful consultant focused on developing deeper insights with both your stakeholders and learners.

Design thinking is a win-win for L&D professionals and the businesses and learners they serve.