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ATD Blog

Design Thinking: Knight in Shining Armor or Rogue Monster?

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

You might have heard of Richard Buchanan’s paper “Wicked Problems in Design Thinking” from the ’90s. Many think that this started the design thinking movement, but the term wicked problems was coined back in the ’60s. I’m not planning on giving you a history lesson about design thinking, but it’s important to recognize that design thinking has deeper, longer roots that grew from a world very different from the one of today. Although many of the principles are still applicable, design thinking has evolved, and learning and development (L&D) jumped on the bandwagon somewhat recently.

What Is Design Thinking?

Design thinking is a method and a mindset used to help solve complex problems that L&D faces every day, such as employees not performing despite having multiple resources at hand, learners struggling to connect and interact with one another in a hybrid work environment, and businesses not knowing how to engage learners that work fully remote, to just name a few. As organizations strive to work in a more agile manner, design thinking has emerged as a solution to those challenges. Design thinking allows businesses to be creative, continuously improve, and think critically. It puts humans at the center of all design decisions, helping L&D pros create meaningful learning experiences.

The design thinking process can be broken out into five phases:

  • Empathize
  • Define
  • Ideate
  • Prototype
  • Test

The biggest challenge organizations face when they first embark on the design thinking journey is that they start with the problem. Let’s take, for example, a company with employees who are struggling to connect and interact with one another in a hybrid world. The solution? Technology that allows learners to easily connect. Although this might be a possible solution, organizations forget one pivotal element: the learner. Design thinking always starts with the learner. We must gain insights into their jobs, lives, emotions, and feelings. During this stage, you want to interview and observe learners. Once you have insightful data, you can create learner personas or empathy maps to understand what drives your learners, excites them, and makes them feel uneasy. Let’s assume we did all of this and created a learner persona called Anita.

Leveraging the information about your learners, you can now move to the define stage, where you reposition the organizational challenge from the learners’ point of view. Instead of generically referring to all learners, create problem statements and “how might we” questions focused on a specific learner persona.

  • A problem statement: Anita is working from home three days a week and finds it challenging to attend virtual instructor-led sessions that are offered as instructor-led sessions for everyone in the office at the same time.
  • A “how might we” question: How might we help Anita feel more connected to her peers when she attends a virtual session, which is also offered in person at the same time?

Equipped with problem statements and “how might we” questions, move to the ideation phase where you brainstorm viable solutions. It’s about pushing boundaries and collaborating on a solution. The sky is the limit here. You want to encourage wonky and crazy ideas within a given timeframe. Often, the best solutions come out of those. Use time-tested and proven methodologies, such as the 5 Moments of Need, to help with ideation. For the above scenario, one of the solutions would be to offer separate virtual and live sessions and create a more engaging experience for Anita. The group should vet and prioritize the best ideas.

During this phase, you make your solutions come to life in a low-cost, scaled-down version that you share with a wide audience. This phase offers a chance for you to investigate the best solution. For our challenge, we could start by breaking the live sessions into smaller chunks and redesigning them for virtual sessions. If a PowerPoint deck is part of the experience, you might want to use placeholder images and only focus on engagement and interactivity throughout the session.

As you run multiple sessions, get feedback from all learners both in the moment and after a session. Reiterate and improve the solution until it hits the mark. Sometimes, if a solution doesn’t have the desired effect, we might need to return to your learner personas and problem statements. Don’t worry—it’s all part of the process.


When to Use Design Thinking

Design thinking is a powerful tool for reframing a problem in a learner-centric way. But it doesn’t always make sense to use it. If the performance context is complex or not well-defined, content isn’t documented or unstable, or stakeholders cannot agree on the requirements of a learning solution (wicked problems), design thinking can be your knight in shining armor rescuing the world from bad learning. If not, you might create a rogue monster that continues to spit out bad learning experiences.

If you want to learn more about design thinking, best practices, and pitfalls to avoid, join me for my session at ATD TK 2024.

About the Author

Bianca Baumann is VP of learning solutions and innovation at Ardent Learning. She has more than 15 years of experience in the L&D industry. Over time, she has developed processes and methodologies to help organizations meet their growth targets with the help of innovative L&D approaches, including workforce transformations, onboarding and reskilling programs. She has spearheaded multiple projects in the marketing, automotive, financial and events industries, creating award-winning programs along the way. She shares her expertise in her blog and at global conferences. She teaches Learning Experience Design at OISE and published the eBook, The Little Black Book of Marketing and L&D, a practical guide that helps integrate proven marketing techniques into L&D. You connect with her on LinkedIn:

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