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Use Design Thinking To Fast-Track Training & Development

learning and development strategies: design thinking for instructional designIf your learning and development team has been at it long enough, you or someone on your team has probably wondered on more than one occasion how to make your curriculum more varied and engaging. Through the day-to-day of creating materials, administering courses, and verifying credentials, it isn’t always easy to be creative on-demand. And when inspiration does strike, it sometimes feels risky to pour time and financial resources into an untested approach.

Graphic designers, architects, filmmakers, and other creatives face these challenges on a regular basis as they are tasked with delivering exceptional experiences each and every day. Taking an approach known as design thinking, creatives work quickly through a series of explorations, oscillating between idea generation (ideation) and curation (iteration).

By rapidly identifying, researching, prototyping, and testing solutions, designers are able to evaluate a range of problem/solution pairs. By limiting the resources devoted to any one iteration, they are then are able to experiment freely, approaching complex problems and innovative solutions with confidence.

eLearning lends itself well to this ideative/iterative process. With the right tools for content authoring, L&D professionals can take a page out of the design thinking playbook to rapidly prototype their instructional design.

The Design Thinking Process in 5 Steps

Since the process of design thinking is recursive, professionals looking to generate and refine problem/solution pairs should take a step back from the day-to-day and allow themselves to become fully invested in each step of the process. Designers often begin new projects with an intense workshop, known as a charrette, where teams spend an entire day or more exploring the problems to be solved and brainstorming a range of ideas.

Don’t worry if moments in the process feel like they’re out of control. Through subsequent phases in the process, bad ideas will be culled and the good ideas will get better.

1 | Define the problem

Before designers even get started with the process, they accept the notion that they might not even know the problem they’re trying to solve. While it may seem like semantics in the workplace (where objectives are often dictated from above), it’s a helpful mindset in which to approach the exercise. By allowing yourself and your team to be open to the idea that the problem presented is not the right problem to solve, you’ll be able to generate ideas much more freely.

For learning and development professionals in the process of curriculum design, the problem could be clear. For example, it could be “to teach new managers the intricacies of corporate hiring policies”, or “to help train front lines sales teams on a new CRM tool.” The problem could also be quite vague, such as “improving employee engagement” or “helping team members become more responsive.”

Defining the problem doesn’t presuppose the solution. Maybe a weekend workshop is the solution, but then again, maybe having employees all submit 45 second videos to share amongst themselves makes more sense. By documenting and then reserving those decisions for later and focusing on the problem at hand, everyone can move into the next phase on the same page.

2 | Empathize with the learner

After they’ve defined the problem, designers consider the end user. While it hasn’t always come naturally for designers, this part should be second nature for professional educators. Empathizing with the learner means having the thoughts, skills, opinions, and cultural norms of the target population in mind at every step of the process.

Designers approach this phase through research in order to create a user persona. Simply stated, a persona is the profile of a fictitious person that represents your learner audience. Note that a given pool of employees might need to be represented by a spectrum of personas instead of just one.

In learning and development, empathizing with the user might inform the format of the eLearning module, the length of it, or the complexity of the content. In some cases, a video-based microlearning approach might make more sense within the constraints of a job function than a weekend-long off-site training retreat.

By interviewing and observing representative individuals in the company, curriculum designers can understand how the problem they seek to solve affects the daily life and work of their end users.

3 | Prototype ideas

After you have defined the problem and empathized with the potential learner population, the creative juices should be flowing. By translating ideas into sketches, wireframes, storyboards, and other representations of a final product, curriculum designers can test their ideas in the prototyping phase.

This phase of the process is where the rubber meets the road. But where there might be the temptation to create a fully fleshed out solution, hold out!

Prototyping prioritizes speed and quantity over a “finished” product. This is not the time to call in the creative services team to produce a fully illustrated and professional produced eLearning video. Borrowing from the Agile software design process, prototypes can be thought of as MVPs – Minimum Viable Products, or the most simple intervention that can accomplish the task at hand and move on to testing.

4 | Test and gather feedback

With one or many prototypes, it’s now time to once again bring in the people that your eLearning initiative will affect. By getting your prototypes into the hands of your user group as quickly as possible, you will generate a wealth of feedback and observations before committing to more expensive and time-consuming versions of the solution. In some cases, you may find that your prototypical solution doesn’t quite hit the mark and needs to be culled from the design process altogether.

For example, a gamified training module might need little more than a storyboard to convey the basic ideas in early rounds of testing. Test participants, “clicking” on a printed representation of a button on a wireframe, sitting next to a curriculum designer, can experience the prototype with no coding required.

The key to prototyping is collecting feedback, both through observation and the interview process. This feedback will inform the next step.

5 | Repeat the process

Depending on the scope of the eLearning initiative, this simple process may be repeated once or a dozen times. Nothing about the process is prescriptive in its scope or scale. Moves made in early phases will likely be several times more radical than those later, which seek to simply refine earlier design decisions. It will be up to the experience of the instructional designer as to when the process is actually complete.

Why eLearning With Video Makes Ideation And Iteration Easy

The process of design thinking can be applied universally across organizational learning and development. Design thinking can apply to handouts and note cards, learning games, and even traditional classroom sessions.

As more organizations adopt broad eLearning strategies, many have found the combination of design thinking and virtual learning makes things easier. From generating, communicating, and refining ideas amongst the team, to conducting field research, drafting prototypes, and documenting user testing, video makes the whole process more efficient and more cost-effective.

As the design thinking process of ideation and iteration process tends to be messy and collaborative, it lends itself well to capturing the charrette — or meeting — on video. This video creates a useful reference that documents potential solutions that get culled in the early excitement of other ideas, but may offer a way forward at a later date.

When testing eLearning delivered via video, the ability to programmatically observe and identify strengths and weaknesses in the lesson mean more information for the designers in their next round of intervention.

Of course, one of the obstacles to successfully executing the eLearning design process is the limitation of the team’s ability to prototype in a cost-effective way. In the past, video has been an expensive medium, requiring the coordination of an audio/visual team whose professional expertise in shooting, editing, and producing a video comes with a relatively high barrier to entry in terms of both financial and time resources.

Related Reading: Corporate Training Trends: Instructor-Led Training Is Going Virtual


Today’s enterprise video platforms have given learning designers new power to quickly produce video for employee training without breaking the bank or suffering long production times. When L&D professionals have the ability to record, edit, share, and track video analytics from the computer on their desk, they’re are only limited by their imagination — a limitation that the design process is designed to minimize.

Panopto is the fastest growing video content management system for recording online training presentations, social learning videos, and corporate communications. With desktop, mobile, and web based tools, anyone can create video to facilitate the design of a new curriculum, whether it’s delivering the content or recording the learner’s interaction in the prototype test.

To learn more about how your L&D organization can leverage the Panopto video platform to produce more creative and engaging training content, contact a member of our team to request a free trial.