Applying “Design Thinking” into companies’ learning process

Leticia Lafuente, CEO at Learning Lovers, describes the process of applying Design Thinking to training

DesignThinking aplicado al proceso de aprendizaje en empresas
20/03/2017 · Leticia Lafuente

Originally used on an industrial level by product designers, Design Thinking is a methodology that tries to meet real needs through creative and innovative ideas. It consists in having multidisciplinary professional teams trying to understand the clients’ needs at first, and then coming up with a prototype-like solution. This prototype is then presented to the clients, with the purpose of observing their behaviour whilst using it; thus learning from the interaction. The information obtained from this process is then used in order to improve the proposed solution.

Taking into account this definition, how can we then apply it to the learning model? From a Design Thinking perspective, changes do not necessarily have to be triggered by organisations. Tutors and the people learning within the companies can also transform the learning process. How? Through several elements: 

  • Contents: tutors can bring the contents of any training program or course taught by companies or institutions closer to the personal interest of students. For this purpose, the tutor should invite professionals to expose their concerns and personal activities out of work.
  • Space: spaces determine interactions between people, the way they behave within them and the kind of learning they can achieve. We can transform the space in order to foster collaborative learning. Improving the comfortability of the learning space, or setting new areas formerly used for other purposes in the company, like the resting area, can show surprising results. Opening spaces in order to enable mobility, resort to big tables for team tasks or areas set up for collaborative creation, with panels, paper rolls or blackboards where to write ideas, can boost the co-creation of learning contents and the coming-up of solutions to meet the identified learning needs. 
  • Tools and processes: in structured organisations where learning processes are well defined, it is not usual to rethink the methodology to improve them. Schedules, participation and evaluation systems can be assessed to be adapted to the needs of those who learn. 
  • Systems: in big corporations knowledge transfer between employees from different geographic areas or departments should be envisaged, as the shared information could be potentially useful for both sides. Moreover, workers could participate in R+D processes in order to improve their training.   

Applying the Design Thinking methodology to learn

If we take the steps on which the Design Thinking methodology is based (understanding, observing, defining, conceiving, prototyping and testing), we’ll see that they are easily adaptable to learning phases (discovery, interpretation, conception, experimenting and evolution). Let’s give this a look: 

  1. Understanding and observing: it consists in comprehending the challenge or the problem our clients are facing by observing how they interact with it.

    Learning and discovery: before a specific, comprehensible, doable and well defined learning challenge, we will have to choose how to approach it. For this purpose, we are going to try to understand it by asking open questions, as well as preparing for a field research. We can get inspired on anything having to do with the learning objective, and we should pay special attention to its context, as well as the opinion of experts. 

    Example: if we want to learn about negotiation techniques in the company, we should be able to identify the existing ones, formulating questions about their functioning, phases and results, and researching the best practices, always based on the savvy opinion of experts. 
  2. Defining: once all the information has been gathered during the observing phase, we’ll have to filter it, analyse it and interpret it with the aim of obtaining conclusions that help us define the problem, and then identify the best possible solutions. 

    Learning - interpretation: with all the information stored during the Discovery phase, we must a carry out a correct interpretation of the data. For this, we can tell a story that helps explaining it and sharing it with others, grouping these stories by shared topics, aiming to find their connections. It is necessary to link what has been learnt with the learning objectives, and try to express it through diagrams or conceptual maps. These diagrams can express a chronological succession (step by step), a set of overlapped categories (Venn’s Diagram), a representation of values (x-axis), or a representation of connections (map of relations). These will help in finding a meaning within the information, or formulating the learning opportunities implied by the data at hand. 

    Example: We could tell a story about two professionals from different companies who are using a selected technique in a negotiation. We are going to group different stories in accordance with the negotiating techniques being used in each case, and we will represent them visually by means of a “step by step” succession, along with the correspondent phases of this technique. This will help us visualizing the meaning, the context and the phases of each of them.
  3. Conceiving: In this phase the aim is to obtain as many ideas offering a solution to the problem defined in the earlier phases as possible, to then select those best fit to solve the problem or the challenge in question. 

    Learning - conception: we are going to come up with new ideas or re-defining old ones, in order to turn them into learning opportunities. We won’t judge these ideas and, once generated, we should support them with previous ones, and express them through drawings. Also, the more the better. When defining the ideas, we will give them a title, describe them in a sentence and explain their purpose, their needs and their value. In order to select the best ideas, we should take into account their real level of applicability. 

    Example: based on the compiled information on the existing negotiating techniques, we will try to come up with new formulae or new variants, in order to adapt them to the real needs of the company. 
  4. Prototyping: This phase consists in creating a prototype that formalizes the selected idea or ideas. 

    Learning - experimenting: it consists in building the ideas created or re-defined in the previous phase, through the construction of prototypes with which we will carry out experiments in order to obtain feedback. In order to materialize a prototype, we are going to identify the needs for its elaboration (materials, terms, funding and team). We are also going to create storyboard made of panels containing images and simple text, based on what we expect to happen in the future. We will picture a fictional advert of this prototype and then will create a mock-up of the prototype, from which we will create the real model. The last step will be gathering a group of people willing to experiment with the prototype, and we will ask them open questions about their experience. 

    Example: we can create a storyboard where the conceived negotiating process is defined, asking different people to represent this negotiation in the most realistic environment we can provide. 
  5. Testing: it consists in delivering the prototype to the clients to observe their interaction with it, and then interviewing them in order to obtain as much information as possible, that will then be used to improve the prototype. 

    Learning - evolution: once we’ve gathered all the data from the experiments, we will either try to create a new solution or upgrade the existing prototype. A follow-up of the results shown by the prototype should be carried out so we can measure its success and its impact. Also, we will monitor the process, celebrate our achievements and plan the pendant tasks. 

    Example:  we are going revise our storyboard according to the results we obtained in the previous representation and we will plan the upcoming steps to be made in order to assess the changes in the practice and measure their efficiency. 

Design Thinking allows all professionals to actively engage with their learning, draw theoretical knowledge closer to their real concerns, and participate in the search of innovative solutions to their learning needs in a creative way, all of it instead of passively receiving a homogenous theory through standardised tests. 


Learning Lovers

Leticia Lafuente