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How Can Design Thinking Be Used As A Problem-Solving Tool In L&D?

A whiteboard with illustrations on design thinking and a team of learners in front of it

In times when adaptability & innovation are not just valued but required, the methods we use to solve problems and fuel growth within companies can be vital. Design Thinking is one such method that has grown over the years as a powerful tool, and not just in terms of product development or customer experience, but also when it comes to Learning & Development. 

L&D Managers and Top-Level HR Executives are constantly working to incorporate newer, more effective ways of creating highly engaging learning experiences.

Design Thinking, with its empathetic and iterative approach, offers a fresh perspective on solving problems within L&D. By placing the learner at the center of the process, design thinking encourages us to rethink how we create, deliver, and evaluate learning experiences. Let’s uncover how this approach is suited for today’s global workforce and how it can serve as a catalyst for organizational innovation. 

What is Design Thinking? 

At its core, design thinking is a very human-centric approach to problem-solving. It enables us to think deeply about how people for whom we’re designing interact and engage with the system, be it content, product, or training modules. Also, it requires us to challenge our assumptions about the problems at hand and ask questions that may lead to unique alternate solutions.

In the context of Learning & Development (L&D), this means putting the learners and their needs at the forefront of every decision, from the conception of a training program to its execution. 

Design thinking in L&D is not just about a step-by-step process. It’s a mindset that values co-creation, empathy, and experimentation.

One way to create a training module would be to do an information dump with all the relevant facts and figures of the topic. And another way, and a better one, is to create the module through the learners’ perspectives. What are their individual and group motivations? And how are they aligned with the organization’s goals? 

Identifying learner’s pain points, experiences, and aspirations and making them the pillars upon which their unique learning journeys are created can make a big difference in the overall outcome of your L&D initiative. 

Core Principles Of Design Thinking That Can Be Applied To L&D 

  1. Empathy: It's like putting yourself in your learners' shoes. We get what they're feeling about training, which helps us craft content that really hits home.

  2. Ideation: This is where we get creative, dreaming up new, cool ways to learn. It's all about ditching the usual and sparking some excitement in learning.

  3. Experimentation: Ever tried something new just to see what happens? That's us with learning methods. We're all about mixing it up, seeing what sticks, and keeping it fresh.

  4. Iteration: Think of this as fine-tuning. We take what works, play around with it, and make it even better based on real feedback. It's about staying nimble and always improving.

The five stages of design thinking (Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, Test) with icons representing each stage.

The beauty of design thinking lies in these 4 principles. And what it comes down to most is flexibility. It can be applied to virtually any challenge in L&D, from creating more engaging content to enhancing mobile learning modules for better user experiences. 

Now, let’s go a little deeper into how these principles can be applied in practice. 

Applying Design Thinking In Your Next L&D Initiative

For L&D Managers and HR Personnel, the challenge is not only to develop and deliver high quality learning content, but to ensure that they’re actually impactful. This is where design thinking becomes extremely powerful.

Since the content development part is usually reverse engineered based on initial learner interactions and motivations, it becomes increasingly relevant the further you move along on the content development journey for them. 

The integration of design thinking into your L&D programs require a deliberate shift in mindset; by moving away from one-size-fits-all training programs and towards dynamic, learner-centric approaches, you would’ve taken your first step. 

Employees gathered around a white board to visualize design thinking

Here’s how you can go about applying design thinking effectively into your L&D initiative: 

Start with the Learner

As mentioned previously, the first step is about reorienting the organization’s outlook towards employee training. Over the course of one’s senior management tenure, assumptions tend to build up about what their employees need or prefer.

The ideal way to begin would be to put the assumptions aside and engage directly with them to understand their challenges, preferences, and goals. This stage is not about aligning organizational goals with the personal goals of your employees. Empathy is key. You can schedule interviews, surveys, and data driven observations to gather deep insights into the learner’s experience. 

Set the tone for collaboration

Design thinking thrives when collaboration and cross-functional teamwork are promoted. L&D initiatives are often not isolated to single departments. For instance, the sales team and product team couldn’t be more different in how they spend their working hours.

Yet, how each department functions affects the other. So, doesn’t it make sense to conceptualize learning activities that give the chance for sales and product teams to collaborate over their shared experiences? This also brings us back to the point of thinking out of the box. 

Embrace rapid content development

As discussed in the principles, one of the key aspects of design thinking is iteration and experimentation. Rapid e-learning development plays a crucial role in helping develop and test ideas quickly with a small group of learners.

This approach even allows for immediate feedback and the opportunity to make iterative improvements. Once you’ve embraced the speed of e-learning content development, the next stage could even involve focus groups wherein various learning modules are tested at once. 

Make room for feedback loops

Agile feedback loops are crucial for the iterative design approach in employee learning. Establish methods for collecting feedback quickly and effortlessly at every stage of the learning journey. Google Forms can be highly efficient and simple when it comes to gathering data without learners having to spend a lot of time on typing out their responses.

This could also involve regular check-ins and post training assessments. L&D Managers can use this feedback to refine their learning programs, making them more receptive towards learner needs over time. 

Measure impact and scale success

Finally, keep measuring the impact of your L&D initiative to understand their effectiveness and their ROI to the organization. Speaking of ROI, here’s a training evaluation toolkit we’ve created to help you boost your training programs. The data you track must go beyond traditional metrics like completion rates and test scores.

While they can be useful, a more complete picture can be achieved by measuring behavioural change, performance improvement, and business impact. And when you’ve eventually come across a design thinking inspired program that shows success, consider ways to scale it further or integrate it into other areas of the company. In short, discard what doesn’t work, keep what does work, but find ways to make it more effective. 


A bunch of post-its on the wall indicating design techniques for L&D

As we’ve seen so far, design thinking offers a robust framework for improving Learning & Development practices within organizations. By focusing on human needs, encouraging innovation, and adopting an iterative approach to e-learning content development, design thinking enables L&D Managers to create more engaging, effective, and impactful learning experiences.

Organizations that successfully incorporate design thinking principles into their L&D initiatives can expect to see not only enhanced learning outcomes but also a stronger, more innovative organizational culture.

What are your thoughts on implementing design thinking into L&D programs? We’d love to read your comments on the topic below.


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