A few years ago I was at a CLO conference where the keynote speaker asked a question that I still think about now: “Is the 45-minute course you created a good use of 45 minutes of the learner’s life? Because those are 45 minutes of time that the individual does not get back.”

Anyone else feel a need to pause and consider if any courses they created might not be an optimal use of someone’s life minutes? I did.

I asked myself, “How do we truly add value to learners through the experiences we create?” When I reflected on the question, I could easily identify three challenges that inhibit the ability to create value:

  1. Too often, learners’ perspectives are absent from the design process. Customers tell us learners are too busy to participate. Or that the “subject matter expert” can represent the learner. Or that they themselves know what learners need. When we acquiescence on this, we are doomed.
  2. Business leaders focus on events and courses. They laser in on the event aspect of learning rather than thinking through an entire experience that *might* include a course. They under-estimated what it takes to get someone to change their behavior.
  3. The problem to be solved is poorly defined or solving the problem doesn’t seem to matter since no one wants to measure whether it gets solved. We either get asked to create solutions for which no fully defined problem exists, or we don’t have any measures to assess against to see if our solution solved anything.

Identifying challenges is easier than solving them. However, I’ve turned to design thinking tools and processes as one avenue that’s helped with the three listed above. Contrary to its description, design thinking is a problem-solving methodology; not a design methodology. Its steps help teams craft human-centered solutions to problems that often start out as poorly defined ones. It starts with empathy rather than problem definition. Its premise is that the people who experience the problem—and will be recipients of any solution that gets created—need to be involved throughout the process. The perspective of people affected by the problem can help define it. Its highly iterative process includes the five steps shown in Figure 1.

The five iterative steps of the design thinking process

Figure 1: The five iterative steps of the design thinking process

Along with book co-author and practitioner Laura Fletcher, I’ve extrapolated four principles from design thinking that can significantly increase your likelihood of crafting learning experiences that learners value and businesses see operational results from.

Principle 1: Recognize learning as a journey. Plan for the journey instead of an event.

Learning is an experience that begins with a person noticing a need to learn something or being curious to learn. It ends when the person can consistently integrate the learning into their actions. Events by themselves (aka courses) don’t enable this integration. Figure 2 summarizes the journey I describe to clients when we initiate a project whose intent is to help people think and behave differently. Clients always want to focus on Step 3. I highlight all the steps and emphasize the ones most needed—repetition, elaboration, and reflection—and explain consequences of omitting them. (No learning.)

This is the journey learners undergo as they “learn” how to do something

Figure 2: This is the journey learners undergo as they “learn” how to do something

The map defines the “macro” learner journey. Your job is to design experiences to support each step of this journey. Your goal is to create “magical moments” that propel a learner forward and to avoid “miserable moments” that cause learners to exist (worst case) or stay on the journey under duress (best case).

Principle 2: Get perspective

Gather insight and perspective using three lenses: the business, the learner, and the environment. Probe stakeholders within the business to clarify the business challenges they want to resolve and how they will measure success. Probe members of the learner population to understand what life is really like in their workspace and to document daily realities and ways of doing things. Probe members from both groups to get perspective on the real and perceived constraints of the environment. Your goal is perspective-gathering is Principle 3.

After you’ve gained initial perspective, pull your learner in to ideation of possible solutions—and testing of early prototypes. You’ll save time. You’ll increase value. If this sounds like it links to “audience analysis” from ID models, it does. Using design thinking tools such as empathy mapping, experience mapping, and performance canvases provide a better means of achieving the original goals of audience analysis.

From the learner standpoint, one simple tool you can use is an empathy map like the one shown in Figure 3. For example, if you need to design a product training program for sales reps, you might invite a few reps to talk to you. You can ask, “When you sell a new product, what are you seeing and hearing from customers and colleagues? What are you thinking and feeling as you attempt to sell? What do you do as part of the process? What are the big pain points for you? What motivates you? »

A blank empathy map

Figure 3: A blank empathy map

Principle 3: Find and mind the “sweet spot”

The 5-step process of design thinking, applied to L&D, needs to be rooted in finding a sweet spot between learner, business, and environment. (See Figure 4.) In human-centered design, designers always look for that sweet spot that addresses the intersection between the needs of the business, the desires of the user, and the constraints of the environment. Specifically we need to distill 1) what the learner finds valuable, easy to use, and engaging to participate in; 2) what the business needs in terms of results and outcomes, and 3) environmental and technical constraints that everything needs to happen within. In traditional ID models we often lose sight of the sweet spot and tilt too strongly in one direction.

In design thinking—and in learning experience design—your goal is to find the sweet spot between learners’ wants, business needs, and environment constraints

Figure 4: In design thinking—and in learning experience design—your goal is to find the sweet spot between learners’ wants, business needs, and environment constraints

Principle 4: Prototype before you refine

99.9 percent of the time your first solution is not the best one. Prototype before you fully build out. Do NOT build out the entire solution and then test it at “pilot.” That’s a recipe to use if you want to spend a lot of money to find out your solution doesn’t work or needs heavy rework. Instead, borrow from the world of software development, game development, and other product development teams and build simple prototypes that you can test with a small group of learners. This approach lets you tweak and refine before you bet the farm on your solution.

So, back to that question at the start of this article: “Are the experiences you create a valuable use of minutes of learners’ lives?” How might you apply the four principles extrapolated from design thinking to create learning experiences that learners truly value AND that deliver results for the business?