If you’ve worked in L&D for any length of time, you may be among the people who are cringing at the rising attention to design thinking. After all, we don’t need yet another process for design! I feel your pain. I used to say that we should date-stamp our design process because it changed with every project. (As it should.) I’m all in with those folks who have found an overarching arc to their process with a few relatively certain checkpoints, and who then fill in details to meet the emerging need of the project. It’s easy to name design thinking as another overhyped miracle cure to design problems.
And yet, I am finding real value in design thinking the more I look into the details of what is being advocated. The headlines and bulleted lists are not necessarily exciting, but the underlying recommendations and concrete tactics have real contributions to make to our way of doing the work of talent development.
The real value in design thinking is that it recognizes that design isn’t just a process, but the resultant beauty and impact of what we create. Real impact comes from thinking like a designer, from reclaiming our role as designers—not as a title, but as a core identity.
Decades of research have uncovered how designers do what they do, and design thinking attempts to articulate these into actionable phases or practices. From design thinking advocates, I have gleaned reminders of elements of the design process I don’t always attend to well, and specific techniques that can help me to ensure these elements are indeed incorporated into my everyday way of doing the work.
Here’s what I think we all can take away from the design thinking hype.
Invest more deeply in knowing your learners. In design thinking parlance, the idea is to empathize—which isn’t just gathering demographic data, but digging deeply into how people are thinking and feeling, what their goals might be, and their concerns and frustrations. From design thinking, we can learn about tools like personas, empathy maps, and journey maps that capture the learners’ perspectives so we can more specifically address their needs.
Take time to really play around with ideas. Design thinking practitioners pay a lot of attention to defining the problem. While we can be quite good at defining objectives, we can fall short of focusing on the right things—the real cause of the performance issue, the skill that differentiates the star performers. Design thinking advocates give us a variety of tools for examining problems and refining our goals–for framing what it is we are trying to accomplish in our design work. Design thinking also puts great stock in “ideating”—generating ideas and recasting them in a variety of ways. The techniques for divergent and convergent thinking have potential to result in really creative work.
Find ways to gather and respond to feedback throughout your process. Designers use their hands as much as their minds—they sketch, draw, storyboard, build, or make—to think out loud and get a reaction to their ideas along the way. The design thinking advocates’ focus on prototyping isn’t about showing a close-to-finished product; it’s a way of throwing out ideas for consideration and responding effectively to feedback, especially from those you wish to serve. Designers iterate their way to success far more often than they conceive a great idea fully formed from the start.
These are simple takeaways, to be sure, but they require a degree of commitment and skill. They don’t require us to yet again adopt a new process; we can integrate these practices and techniques in whatever way we currently approach our work. Incorporating practices like empathizing, framing, ideating, prototyping, and iterating will, I believe, make a difference in the quality, creativity, and impact of the work we do. Design thinking is certainly worth exploring more deeply.
If you’d like to learn more, I’m facilitating Essentials of Design Thinking through ATD Education. Let’s explore these concepts and practices together.