How Design Thinking Can Enhance your Learning Experience Design

What is Design Thinking?

According to the Interaction Design Foundation, Design Thinking revolves around a deep interest in developing an understanding of the people for whom products, services, or solutions are being developed. It helps people discover and develop empathy with their target audience. Design Thinking assists with the process of questioning the problems, the assumptions and the implications. Design Thinking is an important methodology used to grapple problems that are vague or unknown, by recalibrating the problem in a human-centric way, creating many potential solutions in collaboration sessions, and fostering an immersive approach to prototyping and testing.

One of the core principles Design Thinking advocates is that design enables ideas to become tangible, which in turn facilitates communication. When Design Thinking methodology is applied to the context of creating e-learning solutions, one can see how critical the instructional design process is when it comes to aiding measurable behavioural changes.

Design thinking can offer Instructional Designers a structured framework to understand and pursue innovative ways that can contribute to the effectiveness of a learning solution, and add real value to the learners. Applying the Design Thinking cycle to the Instructional Design process will help them design and develop powerful people-centric solutions. When applied, the Design Thinking cycle involves observation to discover unmet learner needs, framing the learning opportunity, scoping the innovation (whether from a pedagogical or tech approach), generating creative ideas that will resonate with the learner audience, and then testing and refining the learning solution for maximum efficacy, ultimately resulting in a positive return of investment. (ROI).

The Human-centric Approach to Learning

E-learning is rapidly making the fundamental shift in its approach to becoming more human-centric. To create more effective learning solutions it is crucial that one understands the learner they are designing for, taking into consideration their values, motivations, and goals. Design Thinking is a powerful and proven methodology that stems from the idea of Human-centred Design (HCD), which involves a human perspective in every step of the problem-solving process and in designing learning experiences where the human learner is the customer. Design Thinking methodology can be harmoniously applied to Instructional Design practice through 5 phases.

For this example we’ve chosen’s approach because they’re at the forefront of applying and teaching Design Thinking:


1. Empathise

Traditionally, learners were grouped together as a ‘population’, labelled with a vague range of age, gender, and location. We know there is a far greater level of detail that is needed to give these learners ‘personas’, and this is where empathy mapping plays a major role. Empathy mapping is about experiencing the feelings of others and understanding what it is like to have their challenges. Great ways for Instructional Designers to do this when scoping a solution is to:

  • Conduct some field research to understand the learner’s challenges such as learning environment, technology constraints, learning preferences or any other problems that might not seem obvious.
  • Speak to both learners and managers around their challenges, and the learning problems that need to be addressed.
  • Establish Focus Groups with representation from across the target learner audience to gain insight into their motivations and values. You may be surprised at some of the fresh ideas you can generate based on their feedback.

2. Define

To design an effective learning solution, it is important to accurately define the problem. With the information and insights collected during the previous research phase, one can look at the problem from different perspectives. This helps define the problem and give Instructional Designers a solid foundation on which they can start brainstorming solutions.

3. Ideate

This third phase is where all the brilliant and maybe not so brilliant ideas get generated by the cross-disciplinary team based on the problem that was defined during research – there are no restrictions or constraints. It may even be beneficial to involve collaborating and co-developing with your learner audience if feasible.
Some great ways of doing this include:

  • Brainstorming, with sticky notes, flip charts, whiteboards etc. and extracting all the ideas from the team until the well runs dry. At the end of the session, the participants can arrange the ideas into logical groups, and discuss and eliminate until the most powerful ones remain.
  • Mind-mapping is a great way to visualise the central learning problem with potential solutions radiating outwards. This can help visibly join the dots and spark new ideas.

4. Prototype

In the Industrial Design world, this phase would entail 3D printed prototypes, cardboard, CAD models etc., but for the learning solution team it might entail the following:

  • Mood-boarding visual design approaches and concepts which could potentially include; colour pallets, illustration or imagery, iconography, UI etc.,
  • Mocking up the visual designs of how the screens, menu, and navigation could look,
  • Wire-framing either the flow of the content or the interactivity,
  • Good old fashioned pen and paper/digital drawing tool, storyboarding a scenario, animating and/or mapping out the design hierarchy.

5. Test

Develop a “thin slice” and conduct user acceptance testing with an earmarked focus group that represent a cross-spectrum of learners and stakeholders, and see if it will work in the learning environment and for the target learners. Getting this feedback will help refine the prototype and optimise the final solution.


In conclusion, Design Thinking will never replace Instructional Design but can act as a complementary methodology. It can be used to keep the learner audience the primary focus when designing learning experiences, that will yield faster and better results. Ultimately, more effective design results in more effective communication. This increased communication within learning solutions means that learning will ‘stick,’ behaviours will shift, and the learning objectives are met.

Author: Kate Atkinson

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