21st Century Learning Trends and Innovations: Design Thinking

Design Thinking TTA Blog

As outlined in the January TTA “Experts Table” blog being learner focused was one of the two drivers underlining TTA’s learning trends for 2019. Being more learner-focused is, in my opinion, an art and a science. From a scientific perspective, one model that has received a lot of attention in the last few years is design thinking.  Design thinking is a learner or user-centered solution-based methodology that seeks to understand the problem(s) and find innovative solutions. Design thinking is a form of human-centered design (HCD).

The question I get asked a lot is how can design thinking be used in learning and talent development? First, let’s take a step back and see why design thinking can be a valuable 21st-century tool for training and talent development professionals. Then let’s look at what design thinking is and how you can use design thinking to address the learning needs in your organization.

WHY Design Thinking

Design thinking is getting a lot of attention these days because of one word.…“change!” A recent Deloitte Insights Article highlights the “forces of change that are driving the evolution of work, workforces, and workplaces.” Forces of change such as advances in technology have enabled automation, increased employee collaboration, expanded the geographic footprint of our organizations, and have also created new jobs. In addition, organizations are required to change and innovate to be competitive in the global digital world we now live in. As talent development professionals it is extremely challenging to stay in sync with the forces of change impacting the 21st-century workforce.

So why would design thinking* be a good tool for talent development professionals? Design thinking helps us to identify challenges associated with change, gather a variety of information, generate potential solutions and test those solutions before we spend a lot of money and time building a solution. For example, a few years ago I was asked to design a learning curriculum for a global company that was creating a new subsidiary in Europe. The reason for creating the new subsidiary was that due to the changes in labor costs and shortage of needed skills in the US they could not meet their staffing needs to stay competitive. Talk about complexity and change! I needed to design learning for roles that were new to the organization, for people who have not yet been hired, for prior skills obtained from universities outside of the US, and for standards that were for Europe vs. the US. I used design thinking to design a solution to this complex change.

*Note: Design thinking should not replace training design models such as SAM, ADDIE, etc. It should be another tool in your toolbox to create more learner focused and innovative solutions.

WHAT is Design Thinking

In essence, design thinking is a user or learner-centered solution-based methodology that seeks to understand the problem(s) and find innovative solutions. Design thinking has been used in engineering, medical science, business development, economic development, and literature. For example, from designing a solution to hunger to designing a new packaging for paper towels.

First, a bit of history. In 1992 Richard Buchanan in his publication titled “Wicked Problems With Design Thinking” noted that design thinking can be traced back to 1935 with John Dewing’s work on adopting engineering principles to find learning solutions. Today, we see the elements of design thinking in other scientific methodologies such as Six Sigma, Lean and Agile. In education we see design thinking being used and taught at predominant institutions such as MIT D-Lab, Berkley Haas Innovation Lab, and the Sanford d.school.21 Century Trend Design Thinking BlogThe five phases* of design thinking according to the Stanford d.school are:

  • Empathize – create a deep understanding of your users or learners
  • Define –define your users or learners needs based on your understanding
  • Ideate –create ideas for innovative solutions by challenging assumptions
  • Prototype – create sample solutions quickly
  • Test – get feedback on prototypes using small groups of users/learners. Determine what works and what does not. Re-empathize, re-define, re-ideate, re-prototype if needed

In my opinion, what is different about design thinking vs. other learning design methodologies is that it is an agile and iterative human-centered process that allows us to truly understand our learners needs, to test solutions to those needs, via rapid prototyping, in a collaborative and creative way.

*It is important to note that the five phases are not always sequential.

HOW to use Design Thinking in Training

An example of how I have used design thinking was in the scenario I provided above on Why Design Thinking. To address this need we used design thinking to first deeply understand the learner. We did job shadowing, met with university administration and professors to learn their teaching methods and objectives, conducted surveys and created learner personas. Through this, we were able to truly understand and empathize with the learners. Using the personas, we defined performance goals. Using the performance goals, in small cross-functional teams we created sample designs using whiteboards, PowerPoints and some simple graphics.  We then shared those designs with senior leadership, managers and current as well as future learners. The result was a design that was not even close to what we originally thought it would be. We were able to create an innovative and less costly solution that directly addressed the needs of the learner.  Design thinking allowed us to re-frame the problem in a learner-focused way by involving the learners in brainstorming sessions, creating prototypes and testing the design.

The five phases of design thinking in learning:

  • Empathize – create a deep understanding of your learners

          Goal: Understand what it is like to do their job and the challenges in doing that job

          Tools/Techniques: Learner Personas, Job Shadow, Interviews, Surveys

  • Define – define your learners’ needs based on your understanding

          Goal: Definition of measurable performance goal(s)

          Tools/Techniques: ADDIE, SAM, or Action mapping

  • Ideate –create ideas for innovative solutions by challenging assumptions

          Tools/Techniques: Brainstorming one-on-one and/or in small groups, mind maps

  • Prototype – Create sample solutions quickly

          Goal: Provide the leaner the opportunity to interact with the idea to validate it meets the need

          Tools/Techniques: One-on-one coaching, sketching, or minimum functioning working copy

  • Test – get feedback on prototypes using small groups of users/learners. Determine what works and what does not. Re-empathize, re-define, re-ideate, re-prototype, if needed

Design thinking is a human-centered solution-based methodology that seeks to understand the problem(s) and find innovative solutions. Design thinking can easily be used in learning and talent development to create more learner focused and innovative training and development solutions. Today, I encourage you to add design thinking to your toolbox! Practice using it this week and share with me your comments, challenges and/or questions.

Visit TTA’s Design Thinking page to see how they can help your organization!


Dr Gravel TTAAbout Dr. Carol Gravel

During her career, Carol has held senior leadership roles in HR, OD, talent management and learning. She has been invited to present at numerous international conferences such as the Oxford University Global HR conference and the International Online Learning Consortium conference.   She has been published in several peer-reviewed journals as well as several international professional publications. In addition, she has architected, designed, developed and taught numerous classes at several corporations and universities.

Carol holds a Doctorate in Education, Master’s in Education, Bachelors in IT, and a graduate certificate in project management from George Washington University. In addition, she earned her SHRM-CP certification from the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) and is the President-Elect for the Association of Talent Development (ATD) in Research Triangle Park, NC.