Design thinking is an approach to problem-solving and creativity based on the field of design. It uses design principles such as user empathy and a focus on user experience, prototyping, and acceptance of failure as a way to learn. Design thinking is especially useful for complex problems as well as developing products, such as training programs or content, that require creativity.

The Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University defines five stages of design thinking. The stages are listed below, along with an instructional design example.

1. Empathize

Design thinking is user-centered, which means that the designer must consider the users: who they are and what’s important to them. In the case of instructional design, the user is the learner. Using design thinking, the instructional designer would first consider the people who will be participating in the training, what they need to learn, how they learn best and how they prefer to learn. This includes their learning objectives, the most effective and engaging modalities for the learners, and how the training will fit in with the learners’ jobs.

For example, let’s say the learners are retail associates who don’t have access to a desktop or laptop computer and can only consume training content during short breaks.

2. Define

In the second stage, designers define the challenge or problem they’re solving. In instructional design, the challenge might be creating a new course or a new piece of content. In defining this challenge, the instructional designer should identify the user (the learners), their needs and the context of the challenge. For example, retail associates might need content related to a new product the company is selling, and they need that content to be quickly and easily consumed on a mobile device.

3. Ideate

The next stage is ideate, in which the designer generates ideas based on the insights gleaned through empathizing with the user and the definition of the challenge or problem. For example, an instructional design team might come up with the following ideas for training retail associates on a new product:

  • A five-minute video in which the product is demonstrated by people roleplaying as customers
  • An infographic that takes learners step-by-step through the use of the product
  • A 500-word article that defines the product, explains why it was developed and shares reasons customers should buy it

4. Prototype

After developing ideas, the designer must create “artifacts,” or samples of the product. For example, an instructional design team might create the video, infographic or article. When prototyping, it’s important not to spend too much time on any specific prototype, as they will not all be used, and to create the prototype with the user’s needs in mind, based on the insights gathered in earlier stages.

5. Test

In testing, designers gather feedback about the prototypes to learn more about their users, refine the solutions and maybe even go back to the drawing board. For example, the training team might find that the retail associates in their test group don’t engage well with an article and can’t view the infographic clearly on their mobile devices, but they do enjoy the video and are able to apply what they learn in the video in their customer interactions. Based on this testing, the organization would then make any changes needed to the video and launch it company-wide.

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