Learning & Development

3 easy ways to implement Design Thinking into your training program

In a recent webinar, “Human-Centered Learning: Leveraging Best Practices from Software Design,” Sean Osborne, our SVP of Product and Growth Strategy, along with our Lead User Experience Designer, Alan Underwood, introduced the concept of “Design Thinking” and how you can apply the concept and method to your training programs. The topic created a lot of interest and discussion. Most have heard a little about this concept but were not sure how they could use it.

How is Design Thinking applicable to curriculum design or development of training programs?

Since Design Thinking is both a concept and a tool, it gets confusing to figure out how to apply it. At a very basic level, Design Thinking can help you find ways to innovate or improve your training programs. The premise of Design Thinking is to draw out problems to solve in a user-centric way. With regards to curriculum design or training programs, it can help propel innovation and solve real challenges or overcome tangible barriers for your stakeholders such as your users, learners, admins, or management.

But what is Design Thinking?

Design Thinking has its roots in creative thinking as a way to solve problems. One of the first authors to publish this concept was John E Arnold, a professor of mechanical engineering at Stanford University who published a book called “Creative Engineering” in 1959. Fast forward to 1991, David Kelley, another professor at Stanford adapted Design Thinking for business purposes and founded a design consultancy IDEO. IDEO’s definition of Design Thinking is “Design Thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

There are multiple resources for how to apply Design Thinking. There are also many schools of thought regarding this concept as well as practical applications, so this blog is not an exhaustive resource about Design Thinking. There are typically 5 steps in Design Thinking which are Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype and Test. However, we will focus on consolidating this into 3 easy ways to apply this concept to your training programs or 3 core activities you can incorporate into your training programs.

The 3 core activities described by IDEO, are: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. If you attended the webinar “Human-Centered Learning: Leveraging Best Practices from Software Design”, our Lead User Experience Designer, Alan Underwood, defines those 3 core activities as “observe, reflect, create. It’s the same concept as IDEO’s 3 core activities with different names. For the purpose of this blog, we will stick with Alan’s version he learned while working at IBM of the 3 core activities being: observe, reflect and make. These core activities will help you implement Design Thinking in a really easy way.

Desired Impact: what do you want to change or aspire to do?

Before you start your observation, make sure you are in alignment with what your goals are for improvement. What is the change you are hoping to achieve? For example, are you hoping to get better knowledge retention or shape your workforce into a learning first culture? Those could help shape the direction of your questions around your observations.


The first step of Design Thinking is to identify a problem or identify concerns about your training or training program from your users, learners or other stakeholders of your training programs. These are the barriers or challenges that are preventing you from the goal you identified earlier. This is meant to be an exhaustive exercise to see the variety of issues or challenges at hand. It would be ideal to approach this as a thorough observation of the subject at hand through various lenses. Real human lenses and not simply as a focus group of one. Immerse yourself in your training environment. Get to know your users or learners. Put yourself in their shoes and establish empathy with the user. Ask yourself, who is affected or impacted by your training? This is not limited to just your learners, this could be their managers, upper management, analysts, developers, your IT department etc. Start your observations by asking questions and gathering data. Some easy ways to do that would be:

  • Interview
    • Do an interview and ask them basic questions. For example, if your goal is to create a learning first culture, some of those questions could be: Have you taken classes outside of work? How did you feel when taking those classes? “When was the last time you enjoyed learning? What did you learn? What inspires you to learn? What is a learning first culture? What does a learning first culture mean to you? How can we make our company a learning first culture?
  • Send out a survey
    • Create open-ended questions to draw out context
    • If possible, make it anonymous
    • Focus on questions that can help you uncover barriers to the goal you’re aspiring to.
    • Ask them for solutions to issues they have identified
  • Focus groups
    • Invite a variety of people from various departments to draw out some of their concerns.
    • Ask them similar questions as you would in an interview or survey but be mindful of how you frame the questions. It would be best to encourage an open discussion and a supportive environment without judgment.
    • Make it fun and not a negative dumping session


After the observations, you should now have a good amount of information to make sense out of. Categorize the information by things you can easily segment to approach a solution. For example, Categories for barriers to a learning first culture could be based on lacking something such as, lack of skills/understanding, or lack of resources (tools, time, etc.) and see if the common challenges can be further segmented based on how frequent your users brought it up during the observation phase.

See if you can come up with 3 desired outcomes or goals you want to tackle. These goals are called “Hills”. Focus on achieving practical results and solutions that are: feasible, viable, and desirable for the user.  Once you have your Hills, identify key groups (or create groups) you want to design a solution around based on what Hills you identified to be critical or priority. Those groups of people will be your “Sponsor Users”. Once you have identified who those “Sponsor Users” are, invite them to a workshop to get their insights into the 3 Hills. Some other Design Thinking tools that can be run inside of workshops include scenario maps and empathy maps. These tools are great ways to understand the why, not just the how, of what is being designed.

  • Hill Workshops
    • Hills are composed of a “Who” (a specific user or group of users), a “What” (a specific action or enablement), and a “Wow” (a measurable market differentiator).
  • Scenario Maps
    • As-is Scenario Mapshelp to document collective understanding of user workflows and are best used as precursors to exploring new ideas.
    • To-be Scenario Mapstell the story of a better experience for your user
  • Empathy Maps
    • “An empathy map is a collaborative visualization used to articulate what we know about a particular type of user” – Don Norman


After the Sponsor User workshops, you can now begin building those solutions based on the Sponsor Users feedback regarding those Hills. Start creating and testing your ideas. The main point of this phase is to move from planning to acting. When you start taking action to implement your ideas, remember to schedule workshops or playback sessions with the sponsor users to show progress, get feedback and observe once again to see if there are further improvements you can make.

Design Thinking is not something to do one time and think you have met your goal. The idea is to have a fluid process of continuous improvement. You can always revisit all of the ideas you gathered in your first observation phase and go through this process again. Or you can go back to observation if you feel your reflection phase failed to address some points. There are no hard and fast rules. The idea is to let your people lead the way with guiding your solutions. Here are additional resources to help you learn more about the concept of Design Thinking.

IDEO’s website on Design Thinking


Design Thinking Book: The Field Guide to Human-Centered Design


What is Design Thinking? A Video Overview



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