How to balance design thinking methodologies with evidence-informed learning design principles

As a learning design professional with 10+ years of experience, I have used many instructional design approaches. However, a year ago I moved to Accenture and joined a team called Learning Experience Design. Since then, when designing learning experiences, I suddenly keep asking myself, “What is the next step?”.


The ‘thing’ that shook things up for me is Design Thinking. This approach is at the core of what my team does. I had to take a deep dive into it, as I regularly need to facilitate virtual Design Thinking sessions with global clients (sponsors, learners, and other stakeholders), and I obviously need to know what I’m doing. As Connie Malamed states in one of her blogs, “Design Thinking is an approach for deeply understanding the audience and their challenges, in order to generate creative and effective solutions.” Sounds great, right?


As with any trend, I think we should be careful about jumping on the Design Thinking bandwagon without fully understanding how it can positively and negatively impact learning experience design. Design Thinking provides great opportunities; nonetheless, I think we need to make sure to balance it with evidence-informed learning design principles, such as what learning sciences tells us about effective learning strategies. We need to combine both in order to design the best possible learning experience. Let’s explore this a little bit more.


The image below shows the ‘traditional’ design thinking process, which starts with an ‘Empathize’ phase (sometimes called ‘Understanding’, ‘Discovery’ or something similar).


Design thinking process


By the way, let’s call our learners ‘workers’ because, as the next paragraph illustrates, they are workers first, and they might or might NOT be learners! It depends whether or not a learning solution actually turns out to be part of the overall solution to solve the business problem at hand.


First, I’m not sure if ‘Emphathize’ should be the first phase when it comes to solving performance issues. I’d say that there is a business problem first, and only when it’s clearly identified can we move on to the Empathize phase in order to understand the workers’ experience in relation to the business problem that’s been identified.


Next, how should we empathize with workers? Should we ask what they like or want? I don’t think so. After all, we know that what people prefer is not necessarily good for them: We like sugary and fatty food, we like to binge-watch TV shows, and the list goes on – see a blog on this topic from my blog partner Paul A. Kirschner here). When we empathize with workers, we should focus on what they do, what their challenges are, and what their needs and motivations are.


So far, I’ve learned that one of the benefits of using Design Thinking for learning experience design is that it enables divergence. (When I say ‘divergence’, I mean that we take a step back and open the space, in this case to generate insights around people’s jobs and their goals and challenges). Using Design Thinking methods, such as What’s on Your Radar and Think Aloud Testing, makes diverging efficient and effective when you bring in multiple stakeholders across many roles (e.g., sponsors, business leaders, and workers). Bringing all these people together helps create mutual understanding and visualize the bigger picture to help all stakeholders see, for example, that the two-day workshop that they originally had in mind is not going to do the trick. Sometimes it even shows that learning is not part of the solution! Interestingly, I’ve found that sometimes you might need to use a ‘traditional’ method such as Cognitive Task Analysis to get the specific insights you need.  Hence my recurring question, What is the next step I’m taking? Sometimes you need to use instructional design methods in the Design Thinking approach to get what you need!


What about the Ideation phase? I find it challenging to decide when to collaborate and co-create with stakeholders and when to take ‘a time out’ and work on my own or with other learning design professionals. In both cases, there is a need to use solid evidence from learning sciences to make sense out of all the ‘user output’ and decide on next steps. (I often see ideas from stakeholders that might be fun or creative but will be detrimental for learning). Of course, keeping them involved during the ideation phase works for a ‘mutual sense of ownership’ and perhaps also helps them understand why certain design decisions are made. I’m just not entirely sure yet what the most effective approach is.


This is what my workshop at OEB is about: how to find the balance between a Design Thinking approach and ‘traditional’ instructional design methodologies and evidence-informed learning design principles. I am looking forward to figuring it out through exploring real-life project examples with you!


Written by Mirjam Neelen


Mirjam Neelen will facilitate a Knowledge Factory about How to Use Design Thinking Effectively in Learning Experience Design on Friday, December 7 from 14:30 – 15:30

5 Responses

    • Mirjam Neelen

      Hi, we use a virtual tool called Mural but I guess you can just use any interactive whiteboard and draw 3 circles and let people add ‘sticky notes’ or just text?

      • Detlef Hold

        true, principles and process are the same and Mural is one option to conduct such sessions. curious to learn more about accentures work in learning design.

    • Lubna

      If you are employed at Accenture, You can also use WhiteSpace to fecilitate design thinking concepts virtually. It’s one of Accenture’s app built for collaboration.


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