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Q&A With the Authors of Design Thinking for Training and Development

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The following is a Q&A with Sharon Boller and Laura Fletcher, the authors of Design Thinking for Training and Development: Creating Learning Journeys That Get Results, an ATD how-to guide for applying design thinking tools and techniques .

What prompted you to write this book? What experiences and challenges in your work did you have that led you to see the need for a discussion and book about this topic?

Boller: I was getting tired of attending design meetings without learners present. The business voice would be loud and clear, but we couldn’t get data from learners, and we didn’t have the right tools to offer compelling reasons for why we needed the learners’ voices. Design thinking is gaining a ton of traction right now and has a lot of success stories to show for it. Every time I tell the story of Doug Dietz and the MRI machine (in the intro to this book), it resonates. When we talk about products we love—and the experiences around those products that match our needs—it resonates. Most of those things were created with a design thinking approach. We can do that same thing in L&D.

Fletcher: One of the primary pain points we faced while designing solutions for clients was the absence of learners from the process. Sometimes there were big (expensive) decisions about a training initiative—like who the audience was, the level of content to focus on, or which format to package it in—with no input from the person who actually had to use it. As a consultant, that’s a shaky bridge to cross, knowing that there’s not much holding it up. Design thinking elevates the learner in the design process, and that had a huge initial appeal. As we began experimenting with a few of the tools and saw instant returns, we wanted to share our experience with the L&D community.

What is design thinking (DT)?

Boller: Design thinking is a human-centered problem-solving approach (as opposed to a business-centric approach) to solving complex problems. It 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.

Is there a link between design thinking and instructional design (ID)?

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?

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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.

Why did design thinking get so hot in training and development?

Boller: We think it’s a well-known ugly fact that most training focuses on isolated learning events and does not achieve tangible business results. L&D and T&D people are seeing what’s happening in the marketing and product development world and grasp the concept of customer journeys and buying journeys. Even when creating mass-market solutions, as Amazon and Netflix do, you can personalize the experience and make it seem more relevant to the individual learner. We also have the chance to understand learners better to design solutions for the learners we specifically focus on and design the solution that fits their environment. Here’s an example: I am a big Coursera fan. I love taking their courses. I took my first Coursera online course about seven or eight years ago right after it launched, and I loved it. I strongly encouraged a few other members of my team to take the course, assuring them that they too would love it, and they did not love it. They hated it. Does that mean Coursera is poorly designed? No, it has well-designed courses for the right learners. The courses I recommended were great for me and my needs. However, those same courses didn’t address my teammates’ needs. The lack of relevance and immediate connection to what they were doing meant the courses weren’t right for them. Design thinking recognizes the importance of understanding the target user in ways that T&D wants to know how to do.

Fletcher: The hotness of design thinking isn’t unique to training and development; I’ve seen lots of industries embracing design thinking and human-centered design. That makes sense since most industries either build products to be used by humans or provide service experiences for humans. As far as the buzz, there are a couple reasons I can point to from my own experience: First, it’s accessible. Design thinking doesn’t require special credentials or certification. The tools and techniques, like empathy mapping or paper prototyping, are simple to try. Second, involving the target user produces better results. We saw this the first time we tried using a few tools—we uncovered insights about the project that we wouldn’t have otherwise. This leads to innovative ideas, sounder decision-making, and ultimately stronger results.

Many of us are already overwhelmed trying to juggle multiple responsibilities while working at home. 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?

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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.

What are some of your observations from projects that adopt a design thinking approach?

Fletcher: It’s exciting to be in the room when stakeholders hear something from learners they never knew or considered before. Those aha moments often affect the content or format of the solution. For example, in one meeting, a group of hotel staff described a typical day on the job and mentioned how frequently they played key roles in the safety and security of the guests. Management wasn’t aware of the extent of these responsibilities. As a result, security became a key focus of the new onboarding curriculum. Another example: During a software training design meeting, we created an experience map to learn about how people used the new software. The experience map uncovered that users only executed a few tasks in the system, requiring few of the available functions. That was a game-changer for the design because it narrowed the scope of the solution to those key tasks instead of the full capabilities of the software. In the end, these aha moments will save the organization money and improve the learner experience. Examples like these are not the exception. Adopting design thinking empowers you to ask the right questions to the right people that result in better decisions for the project.

Boller: I love the impact of prototyping and iterating—using a “sprint-based” approach to developing the solution. My observation is that we fix a lot of problems early and correct problems that we might not have identified if we had fully developed and then unveiled the solution. Things are much easier to fix early than after a solution is fully baked. I just made my first quilt. Before I started cutting fabric squares, I drew the quilt out on paper, labeling each square with the color of fabric I’d planned to put there. When I drew it out as I’d originally planned it in my head, I could see I didn’t like the pattern. I drew a few different ways until I landed on the one that worked the best. I saved myself hours of cutting and restitching by drawing the pattern on paper first. That’s prototyping and testing: It saves time and helps uncover mistakes or problems early.


Design Thinking for Training and Development: Creating Learning Journeys That Get Results
ISBN: 978-1-95049-618-1| 274 Pages | Paperback

td.org/books/design-thinking-for-training-and-development
To order books from ATD Press, call 800.628.2783.

To schedule an interview with Sharon Boller or Laura Fletcher, please contact Kay Hechler, ATD Press senior marketing manager, at [email protected] or 703.683.8178.

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