In a fast-moving competitive marketplace, it’s all too easy for companies to hit the ground running on developing a new product or service before taking the time to understand if there’s even an audience — or need — for that product. It’s the innovative (and successful) companies that flip this approach by first focusing on the need something like a new product or website layout might address for the customer. 

This user-first methodology for creating products is called design thinking. Even if you haven’t formally learned the design thinking process, it may already seem familiar. That’s because it’s a human-centered approach to problem-solving.

Design thinking isn’t only applicable to teams targeting a paying customer. Learning and Development (L&D) teams should use pillars of design thinking to build effective training programs for their users — employees.  

Transform L&D with the 5 pillars of design thinking

The design thinking process breaks down into five phases: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test. Following this process puts your learner first and helps you develop a training program that employees will find effective for achieving their learning goals.

To familiarize yourself with the process, learn the five pillars of design thinking:

  1. Empathize: To solve problems for your audience, you must understand your audience. The foundation of design thinking is to build an understanding of your user’s needs, wants, expectations, and frustrations. Survey employees on their challenges with the company’s current training programs. You can go further with a focus group of learners where you dive deeper into their experiences with your training program. 
  1. Define: To successfully tackle an issue, you have to define the problem. Take the insights you gained in the empathize phase and translate them into a meaningful and actionable problem to solve. Start by asking questions that can help offer ideas for solutions. For example:
  1. Ideate: Once you’ve defined the problem, it’s time to explore potential solutions. In design thinking, brainstorming should be semi-structured and with a team. The goal of this phase is not to find just one solution, but many to develop a collection of possible approaches. Even “bad” ideas can spark better ones.
  1. Prototype: Now it’s time to build out one or more of your ideas. Rapid prototyping is about making something quickly, putting it in the users’ hands, and testing it to get feedback early and frequently in the process. Your L&D team is likely already doing this type of prototyping of programs, but design thinking puts a shared process and language around it. 
  1. Test: Finally, you want to test your solution to gather a first-hand understanding of what works and what doesn’t. Design thinking is an iterative process. Allow learners to compare and contrast two alternative solutions during this testing phase. Then, use that feedback to improve your prototype. 

Build storytelling into your design thinking approach

Because design thinking is a human-centered approach to problem-solving, strengthening your L&D team’s storytelling skills is a must. Humans remember events and experiences better when we can shape them into a narrative. Throughout the design thinking process, use storytelling to understand the underlying problems your learners face in different aspects of your training programs.

To improve your storytelling skills, focus on three core principles: 

Know your audience

Every business insists they focus on the customer, but reality doesn’t always match up. The difference when implementing design thinking is going beyond understanding what a customer wants, and uncovering why they want it. For example, leaders at Sephora noticed millennials on their site would often visit YouTube before purchasing to watch videos of people using the products found on the site. That understanding of their customer inspired Sephora to create product demo videos right on the site. 

Talk to your learners to discover not only what they need in workplace training, but also why they need it. 

Keep it concise

Whether you’re in the ideate or prototype stage, the KISS (keep it simple, silly) principle is key to storytelling. It’s tricky to know when you’re dispensing too little or too much information. But the design thinking process revolves around faster feedback and iteration which helps you hone in the art of keeping it simple, silly.

Don’t overcomplicate your training programs. If you receive feedback that a straightforward solution is working for your learners, keep at it.

Draw on emotions

Don’t limit empathy to that first pillar of design thinking. It’s an attitude that must permeate throughout your approach to L&D. People want to love the programs, courses, and experiences you create. But to deliver a well-loved program that meets the needs of learners, the program architects must understand the emotions their learners feel at every stage. 

Have your L&D team or people managers take the courses you’re requiring of employees. They’ll better understand the learner experience and can provide powerful feedback for future iterations.

Design thinking powers social learning

L&D teams can use design thinking to spark innovation, creativity, and collaboration within the training programs they offer to employees. A learning experience that not only meets the needs of learners but also gives them a delightful experience results in engaged and enthusiastic learners. 

Learn how Slack used many of these design thinking principles to create a social learning program for its employees in The Power of Peers: A Framework to Promote Social Learning at Work.