What is Design Thinking and How Can You Use It To Make Killer Content?

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What if you could create a course that everyone loved to access?

I don’t mean trial-and-error or catchy meme images. I mean turning work into actionable lessons that can be absorbed without sacrificing any attention or productivity.

Would you save time? Would you save money? Would your end-users feel like they’d learned and absorbed more of the lesson? Would they even notice that they’re learning, or would it feel as natural as the work itself? How much more could they get done, and how much more could you aspire to?

What would happen if your learners had a process that they truly enjoyed?

What is design thinking?

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is about paying attention to the user and their experience rather than the technical process of an application or lesson. It means studying people at work, when they learn, designing personas, examining demographics, and identifying challenges. It’s about making sure that you create your learning material with learner experience at the center of your mind.

Or, for a more technical description, Gartner describes design thinking as “a multidisciplinary process that builds solutions for complex, intractable problems in a technically feasible, commercially sustainable, and emotionally meaningful way. Design thinkers balance intuitive originality (the hallmarks of great designers) with analytic mastery (the hallmarks of business leaders and engineers) to create business-focused outcomes that generate transformative, innovative and strategic change.”

However you define it, design thinking comes down to one common feature: you’re writing for the end user.

How can a course author use design thinking?

To apply design thinking to content design, ask yourself some questions:

  • What does a great learner experience look like from start to finish?
  • How can instructors inspire learning and learner collaboration in every single aspect of a course?
  • How can we take advantage of tools and software to make employees and learners more productive?

Answering these questions will set you down the design thinking path. To make those thoughts actionable, let’s look at two big elements that make up the bulk of the design thinking process.

One: Design Thinking and Research and Personas

You already know you need to do research for course content creation. You need to know what your learners will need to know and find effective ways to impart that information. But with design thinking, you need to research your learners themselves.

Look into the company you’re designing for— is it yours or are you contracting? What’s the corporate culture like? What are the day-to-day expectations of your future learners, beyond what they’re expected to learn from you? What age range and generational makeup are you looking at? What level of education?

This information can be used to help you craft a learner persona. A persona is a well-known concept in marketing, but has come and gone in the learning sphere. At its most basic, a persona is a fictional person that you create based on the data you’ve uncovered about your users. They represent the average user, their needs, wants, pain points, and preferences.

A persona helps you personalize the design process. When you’re designing for different audiences, you need a mental shift and a persona is a great way to visualize that shift. The course you’ll make for teenage online high school student will be different from the content you’ll design for a late-Baby Boomer architect doing continued learning.

The most important elements of the persona are their demographics, goals, challenges, and design and learning preferences. Use your market data, real-person interviews, company information, and generalized user research to uncover the averages you’ll use to create your persona.

Two: Design Thinking and Adaptation

Use your persona (or personas— if your research leads you to believe that you need more than one to accurately represent your user base, don’t be afraid to design as many as you need and then shoot for the overlaps) to base your content, and then follow the adaptation process to create your material.

Gartner explains the design thinking process thusly:

  • Understand: Research and become familiar with the subject matter. Subject-matter experts may be employed here, but real users are also used as sources of information. Persona and stories are good tools to use to further flesh out the area, as well as to continue to test future potential solution sets.
  • Observe: Actively observe the environment, the subject and interactions. Record activities via a variety of mechanisms, including laboratory studies and field-based studies. Iterate back to the “Understand” phase until the subject space is thoroughly explored.
  • Define point of view: Consider multiple points of view to flesh out the problem and to provide alternate paths to the goal. Here is where the problem is defined, key insights are identified, and design principles established. Iterate back to the “Observe” phase to validate the points of view with actual observation, and to the “Understand” phase to validate alignment with persona and stories.
  • Ideate: Brainstorm, generating lots of ideas without criticism. Traditional brainstorming methods (for example, colored sticky notes) can be used here. Choose a solution set. Iterate back to the “Define Point of View” phase to validate alignment with points of view.
  • Prototype: Rapidly develop prototypes. Initially, generate low-fidelity prototypes and evolve to high-fidelity prototypes. Iterate back to the “Ideate” phase to validate the prototypes’ fit for purpose and back to the “Define Point of View” phase to assure alignment.
  • Test: Test the proposed solution and validate its fit for purpose. Iterate back to the “Prototype” phase to modify and improve the prototype(s) based on results of the testing. Iterate back to the “Define Point of View” phase to assure alignment.

If you take care in applying this methodology to your course content, you’ll achieve a thoughtfully, intentionally designed course.

How will you use design thinking?

Have you used design thinking before? How did it go? Tell me all about it in the comments below, and subscribe to my blog for more content like this. If you want to know more about design thinking and other topics on making your eLearning methods shine, check out Gartner’s research on the subject.

Looking for Courseware software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Courseware software solutions.

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About the Author

Halden Ingwersen

Halden Ingwersen is a graduate of Agnes Scott College and a TEDx presenter. You can find her on LinkedIn, just don’t get her started about her zombie survival plan.


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