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Making the Link Between Design Thinking and Instructional Design

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Design thinking is a human-centered problem-solving approach (as opposed to a business-centric approach) to solving complex business problems. To help advance this effort, learning and development experts Sharon Boller and Laura Fletcher have written Design Thinking for Training and Development: Creating Learning Journeys That Get Results (ATD Press, June 2020).

Sharon Boller is a managing director at TiER1 Performance and a frequent speaker at industry conferences on topics such as performance-focused learning design, UX, technology and trends, learning game design, and design thinking. Laura Fletcher is a seasoned learning consultant with 15 years of experience in learning and development.

In the book, Boller and Fletcher explain that design thinking features five core steps:

  • Empathize with users—for instance, with those affected by a situation or in need.
  • Define the problem to be solved.
  • Ideate with target users to come up with possible “solves”.
  • Craft and test quick and dirty prototypes of potential solutions.
  • Iterate on and refine the prototypes based on testing outcomes.

What’s more, these same steps can be applied to instructional design (ID) and other talent development efforts. Here are some insights from Boller and Fletcher about how TD pros can apply this approach.

Is there a link between design thinking and instructional design?

Boller: The five steps of design thinking are similar and different to traditional ID steps and offer ways to improve those traditional steps. The first key difference is the impetus for even starting the process. In ID, we react to a problem someone presents us with. In design thinking, we empathize with users and see if we can distill the problem after building empathy. If we flip the traditional instructional design framework known as ADDIE to a “learning experience framework” rooted in design thinking, we shift from “audience analysis” to “insight gathering.” We use design thinking tools and techniques such as experience mapping and empathy mapping to get perspective. Such tools get us great insight into learners and their needs more than does demographic info gathering or pure task analysis.

Armed with this perspective, we can refine the problem (instead of defining, which is a DT step). With the problem clarified, we can then proceed to ideate and co-create potential solutions with our learners, inviting them to help us shape prototypes that we can test. We can think in terms of an entire learning journey rather than just developing an event-focused solution such as a workshop or an e-learning course.

Traditional instructional design frameworks follow design with development and development with implementation, usually done first as a pilot. Design thinking offers a testing approach as well—but that testing starts earlier when it is cheaper to do. The goal is to build rapid, cheap prototypes and test those prototypes before proceeding to a full buildout. This early testing leads to iteration before things get expensive—something ID frameworks could benefit from. Waiting until a solution is fully built out to test it is costly and time-consuming. It also means we can be reluctant to make changes because we’ve invested so heavily by the time we pilot.


The link between ID and DT is in the similarity of the steps and the intent to be iterative. Design Thinking has some fantastic tools that can seriously enhance the ID process with experience mapping and empathy mapping being two of the big ones.

What’s the difference between learning experience design (LXD) and instructional design?

Boller: Learning experience design is focused on the entire learning experience, including how I notice a need to learn, commit to that learning, do the learning, build memory and proficiency over time, deepen and expand proficiency through exploration and reflect, and sustain performance for the long haul. Instructional design is task focused. It analyzes tasks and figures out ways to teach those tasks. I think of LXD as imagining the experience I want a hotel guest to have while in my hotel and ID as the blueprint for the hotel itself. I don’t think there is a role of “learning experience designer” because just as design thinking is executed by a cross-functional team, LXD too is best done as a team sport. It’s not done by an individual. Learning experience design is more about what you are creating and not the role you perform.

Is there an easy way to get our feet wet with design thinking?

Fletcher: The first time we experimented with design thinking, we invited learners to the design meeting to create an empathy map and persona. That was it—no elaborate brainstorming, no prototyping, just extra focus on the learner during design. That mindset of gaining the perspective of the learner is a great place to start, whether you use an empathy map, an experience map, or a focus group. The tools themselves are easy to facilitate, but the insight they generate can have a huge effect on the ultimate solution.


Boller: We also experimented early with experience mapping, using no other tools. We blocked out the steps of a process and invited people to consider the thoughts/feelings happening as part of each step as well as the magical and miserable moments associated with doing each step. The insights from that were huge, including recognizing that the sales process was not at all as the subject matter experts in the room assumed it to be.

Are design thinking tools effective virtually?

Boller: The best thing about empathy mapping and persona development are the ease with which you can create them via virtual means. Tools like Miro, Fun Retro, Mural, or even a white board in Teams can be used to create collaborative workspaces without people physically being in the same room.

Fletcher: It has always been hard to get the right people in a room together, even before social distancing and travel restrictions, so we have had ample opportunity to experiment using the tools virtually. We have found that live collaboration works better than asynchronous. Early on, we tried getting input from learners asynchronously and found the results were not as good. The advantage of being live while building an empathy map or experience map, for example, is that it allows learners to build on each other’s responses and enables the designer to facilitate and ask probing questions. But live doesn’t have to mean face-to-face. We’ve had good luck pairing voice-to-voice connection with real-time collaboration tools. Virtual collaboration can be just as effective as sticky notes on the wall and is more efficient for learners who can’t leave their home office.

For more guidance and advice on how to apply is approach in your work, check out Design Thinking for Training and Development: Creating Learning Journeys That Get Results.

About the Author

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.

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