Getting Your Head Around Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a bit of a trendy term these days.  It’s what they do at Toyota when designing a new high-end car (and hopefully not recalling it three years later). It’s what they do at IDEO when designing a fancy new product.  What is it and how can we apply it to learning design? Because really, design is design no matter what you’re doing.



What is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking is a process for problem-solving, which is the purpose of any design project (in case we forget).

Design Thinking puts some parameters around that process and helps you better identify what the problem is and some creative and optimal solutions to that problem.  

Ultimately, Design Thinking lets you get into the end-user’s shoes, allowing you to see the problem from their perspective so you can create a solution that meets that need.  It’s about seeing the problem through a lens of empathy - the designer ultimately cares about the end-user and wants to create something useful and helpful and that really will solve that problem.

The 7 Steps of Design Thinking

1. Define

The first step, not surprisingly is to define the problem you’re trying to solve. In Design Thinking, you don’t assume you’ve got the right problem statement, but you take time to research the problem in depth, which leads us to step two.

2. Research

Go out and research the problem.  Design Thinkers play the role of ethnographers, going out into the field to observe and experience the situation first hand. The research stage could take time; in fact, this could be the longest phase of your project. Skip it at your peril. We think this is a big gap in the ID world, where instructional designers often accept the problem-statement put forth by the Subject Matter Expert. They may not actually know the root causes. They may have little to do with ‘learning’  - factors like motivation, conditions, culture may be closer to the answer.  Direct observation coupled with business analysis will help ensure that you are solving the right problem.

3. Ideation

With a well-defined problem in hand, and agreement that learning-based solutions will address at least part of the problem, now it’s time to start generating ideas. And lots of them.  Ideally, you pull people in from different teams and get lots of input at this stage.  Ideation tools: pencil, paper, whiteboards, conversation, models, and so forth.  In the ideation phase, you should see a lot of crumpled up ideas tossed into the trash can.  You never just move forward with your first idea, but keep exploring and innovating until you’ve got at least two good ideas to try out.

4. Prototype

Now that you’ve come up with your ideas, it’s time to try them out.  Everyone seems to have a different definition of what a prototype is or needs to look like.  For this purpose, keep it simple and something you can easily change and adjust. It could be a sketch, a wireframe in PowerPoint, or a rough cut in Storyline.

As Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO says, “The goal of prototype isn’t to finish. It is to learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the idea and to identify new directions that further prototypes might take.” The scientists call this successive approximation. Or put another way – accept that your first prototype will be way wrong, and get ready to learn why. Then the next one will be slightly less wrong, and so on  - until it’s good enough to try (and it’ll still be wrong in some way).

Put your prototype in front of real users and get real feedback to help you adjust.

5. Choose

From the prototyping phase, you’re ready to choose the design with which to move forward.

6. Implement

It’s build and launch time!  Turn your chosen design into a learning product for release to the world. (Yes on steps 5 and 6, we’re leaving out loads of detail. That’s not for today. Look at our many tips on design and implementation for more information.)

7. Learn

Post-mortems and evaluative feedback can let you know how this design worked to solve the problem.  Talk to end-users and hear first-hand what they thought. Look at data and explore outcomes. Learn from your mistakes and carry them forward into the next project. Really, no design project should ever end, unless the problem is forever solved by a single intervention -- let us know if you find one of those…

Design Thinking can be a bit chaotic with a lot of back and forth between stages. It’s not a direct linear process. You need to be ok with failure, less failure, and then accepting no design is perfect on first launch, as you can see here.

How would you apply this process to instructional design? Do you think it can work for your elearning projects?  Let us know in our eLearning Professionals group on LinkedIn.

Further reading: