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Design Thinking Process for Learning Design: Some Musing and Thoughts

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Instructional design models are linked with system thinking, which signifies the systematic mindset; however, every work activity needs to have a tweak of creativity and innovation. To ensure the development of robust solutions, design thinking should be integrated with an iterative yet collaborative approach.

Traditional design thinking includes five phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. I have added the thought of each phase in the design thinking model that may help people think about using it in instructional design.


If you want to become a noteworthy learning experience designer, you need to start with empathizing because it helps identify gaps between the realized and desired state. While designing the learning, you need to target an audience group, study their behavior, and record it. However, empathizing with them is much more than that. It involves understanding the group to the core along with the challenges they are facing. Now, it is a complicated thing, and one needs to conduct multiple types of research to get closer to their customers.

  • Field Research. This includes meeting the target audience, having a conversation with them about their job and overall experience, putting yourself in their shoes, and analyzing the problems they must be facing.
  • Interviews. In this scenario, you need to talk to the employees as well as the managers to gain a better understanding of the challenges, issues, and opportunities.
  • Focus Groups. In this case, you’ll need to conduct the research, which will help understand the pattern of different behaviors among the users and also identify the beliefs and values. You also need to identify the motivating and demotivating factors of the target audience.

Problem Identification and Definition

Many times, ineffective outcomes are the result of biased and insufficient problem understanding. When design thinking approaches are being talked about, it is essential to define the problem at hand. If enough time is invested in defining the problem, you may not want to conduct employee learning, but take a different approach. It is crucial to think from every possible perspective and angle of the problem to make sure the process is on the right track and solving for the right problem.



Ideation is the critical phase of design thinking and that, during this phase, the solutions are conceived by the learning designer and the SMEs for the problems that were found during the research. Hopefully, the target audience is involved in this process to gain suggestions and ideas. After gathering multiple ideas, they are turned into the potential solutions which can include following methodologies (among others).

  • Brainstorming. All the members sit together, think of all possible solutions, and write them down and discuss them.
  • Mind Mapping. In this case, you will connect multiple ideas, identify the pattern, and find the best possible solution.
  • Creative Matrix. Use a matrix where each cell represents the intersection of two disparate categories. You can then use this “mash-up” of categories to help generate a wide range of concepts in each cell.
  • Thumbnail Sketching. A series of small drawings used to quickly explore a variety of ideas.



Try out the solution without investing the entire resources, but the outcomes will be predicted in an enhanced way. A prototype can be simple as a general sketch of the idea.


Design thinking is an on-going process, and at each step, testing is required, which helps gain feedback and upgrading the process to refine the overall productivity.

About the Author

Darren Nerland works on disruptive, innovative, and emergent digital learning technologies and methodologies, aligning key leaders and stakeholders on the implementation of learning initiatives for the enterprise. An expert technologist, he has a demonstrable track record of bringing complex learning systems from requirements through design into scalable production. Darren's experience includes working at the executive level to determine how training strategies and awareness can affect and sustain positive behavioral change. He is an accomplished and dynamic leader with strong global learning strategy and measurement experience.

1 Comment
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Very well articulated. You have inspired me to write a similar note on Facilitation! Thank you!
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