An introduction to Design Thinking (Podcast episode 4)

In Episode 4 of our podcast, Adventures in Learning Design, Tim and Laurie explore design thinking and how it applies to our field of practice. This is an abridged version of that conversation. To hear it in full check out the episode on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or on our podcast homepage.

Design thinking has been talked about quite often in our work over the last few years. It’s a concept and approach that we’ve enjoyed working with and have found really helpful in a lot of our learning projects. It’s interesting to see it serving a lot of different organizations in lots of different ways.

So, what is design thinking? 

It’s a process that you work through in order to identify and develop the most appropriate design for a product or service based on an understanding of its users and their problems.

Another aspect of it is innovation. Inherent in the process and principles of design thinking is a drive to be creative; to come up with creative solutions, or to challenge assumptions or reframe problems and think about things in a different way. It does this by forcing you to go beyond your first idea. As such, it’s a really creative, collaborative, exploratory way of working through ideas and potential solutions that meet a need or problem you have identified. 

Why is design thinking an important practice in Learning Design?

Because it’s about challenging assumptions and coming up with fresh approaches rather than doing the first thing that comes to mind. This is a really important aspect of learning design; there are a lot of assumptions or fossilized ways of working and ways of doing things. Design thinking forces you to break out of that cycle and leads to a more learner-centered way of designing learning experiences or learning products. Design thinking is grounded in empathizing with the user of the product, which in our case would be a learning experience of some kind. So it’s that learner-centeredness that’s a real benefit of applying the design thinking process.

It’s also incredibly useful to have a framework that you can follow that works, rather than needing to come up with a process on the hoof every time you do a piece of work, which is not not a great way to do things.

What are the stages you typically go through?

1. Understand the problem

Start by understanding the users deeply. Who are they? What are their motivations? What do we know about them? What makes them tick? By empathizing with them you can move on to framing the problem that that user has, and that you’re looking to solve. 

We have used Powerful Questions to really help us do that. They unearth different dimensions of a learner’s current experience and aspirations by moving beyond simply asking Do you like x?, or What do you want more of / less of

The questions we use split across three different aspects; motivations and desired outcomes, context and behaviors, and feelings and emotions. Some examples of questions around motivations and desired outcomes would be:

  • What are you trying to accomplish in life that you think this particular skill or knowledge will help you with? 
  • What does good enough look like for you in regards to this skill? What about perfect? 

To investigate context and behaviors we ask questions like:

  • How are you currently spending your time when you’re learning this skill /knowledge at the moment? 
  • If you had an extra hour free each day to spend on it how would you spend it? 
  • What factors in your life make learning this skill or knowledge more of a challenge? And what factors make it less of a challenge?

Finally, to explore feelings and emotions:

  • What kind of things just make you happy as a human being? 
  • Which parts of learning this skill or knowledge make you feel joy or happiness? 
  • Where do you feel stuck when you’re learning this stuff? 
  • What do you feel passionate about? 
learner personas
LearnJam co-founder, Jo Sayers, talking through a set of learner personas

Check out our post ‘Three ways to understand your learners more deeply‘ for more strategies. You can also download a copy of our Powerful Questions here.

2. Generate ideas

Then, move on to the next stage, which is generating ideas for a possible solution. This can be described as an exercise in divergent thinking; what are all the different ways that could possibly solve that problem or meet that need? This is where the creative firepower comes in. 

We tend to use an activity called Crazy 8s. Fold a piece of paper into eight segments, and unfold it so you’ve got a grid of eight squares. In eight minutes, sketch out eight ideas; super quick, no attachment to how they look or how feasible they are. It’s just a brain dump to get you moving past your first idea. If you’ve got a group of people around a table doing this, you’ll quickly get dozens and dozens of fresh, interesting ideas that you can then start responding to.

3. Find a solution

Then, move into a convergent thinking stage where you whittle those ideas down to what you think is actually the best solution for this problem. 

We do this by working up solution sketches whereby we spend a bit more time working out what the learner is doing. What are they interacting with? What does this solution look like in a bit more detail? Pool these sketches together and collectively vote on which ones to take forward. 

design solution sketches
LearnJam UX Designer, Berta Rojals, talks through her solution sketches

4. Prototype and test

The final piece is to develop a prototype or a working version of something that you can test with real users. You can then analyse the results of that, and determine whether you’ve really hit the mark or if you need to cycle back and go through some or all of those previous steps, again. Keep doing that until you hit a point of validation, where the users are giving you validation that your solution is something that’s going to work for them and that it’s worth spending time, money and effort in developing a full solution.

Your prototype could be as simple as something drawn on pieces of paper, or it could be a working prototype website. You could use an online tool like Balsamiq to create clickable wireframes that you can put dummy content into. There are all sorts of ways to do it and, in a way, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that you come up with a basic expression of your proposed solution.

design learning prototypes
Super simple paper prototyping

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