Design Thinking in Learning & Development


Design lies at the core of all that we do as learning professionals. We design solutions, interventions and experiences. More effective the design, more successful will be the outcome. Design is a key competency required for learning professionals.

We have been using instructional design frameworks like ADDIE for long. Design Thinking will not just be an extension of a framework like ADDIE, but will in fact be an elevation of it. Being a business framework, it will enhance the credibility of the learning design and ensure it is better aligned to business needs and priorities.

Understanding Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a design methodology that provides a solution-based approach to solving complex problems and generating new opportunities. The concept is pertinent to any field and purpose.

It follows a very structured five stage process proposed by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford. The five stages of Design Thinking are as follows –

  1. Empathise
  2. Define
  3. Ideate
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

Applicability in the learning domain

Design thinking can be applied both at the macro level for crafting the learning agenda and at the micro level for designing specific learning solutions. While we will take a deeper look at the latter, let me start with a quick overview of how certain elements of Design Thinking can be used in building the learning agenda.

Design Thinking and Learning Agenda

Design thinking will be an enabler in positioning the learning function as a strategic one. From being reactive and waiting for learning needs to emerge from Individual Development Plans, the learning manager can proactively trigger efforts towards building a business aligned learning agenda.

As a means of doing that, the learning manager needs to understand the larger business landscape, strategic priorities of the organization and challenges facing the business; through observations and interactions one needs to immerse oneself into the aspirations as well as the pain points of different stake holders. After doing this, the individual will be in a position to define the problem or the focus areas – the capabilities that need to be built. Ideating would lead to further brainstorming with stake holders to sharply define and narrow down the focus areas so that the solutions generated adequately address the problem. Once this is done, it is possible to come up with the prototype of the learning plan or calendar along with various options of delivery, including leveraging digital and technology platforms. The final stage would involve inputs from different stake holders before firming up the final agenda.

This approach would shift the focus from being programme centric to being business and capability centric. Some other advantages of this approach are as follows –

  • It is a collaborative approach involving stake holders at different levels
  • It takes the learning agenda as close as possible to the business agenda; learning is positioned as an enabler and partner to business
  • It will ensure better involvement of business at execution stages
  • It enhances planning and frontloads a lot of efforts leading to better utilization of all resources and seamless execution

Design Thinking in Designing Interventions

In this section we will take a deeper look at how the process can be leveraged while designing interventions. Seamless application of this will ensure that we design and deliver learning that is robust leading to lasting impact.


This corresponds to the first stage of ADDIE, Analyse. However unlike analysis or diagnosis, Empathise has a more positive connotation and puts the customer at the centre of it. This involves gaining a deep understanding of the macro and micro context with respect to the intervention.

Just like for any product or service there are multiple levels of customers, when it comes to learning, there are two key customers that we deal with, the business and the learners. Empathising with both is important. What are their pain points, what are their aspirations, how much time can they spend for learning are all questions for which the designer needs to have convincing answers. Creating a pen profile of both is important. This would ensure that the right need is addressed using the right methods and methodologies.


This stage involves articulating the exact needs or objectives to be met through the intervention. The objectives need to be defined at three levels

  • Business objectives – the business needs that this intervention will enable
  • Performance objectives – what will the learners do differently and better at work after the programme
  • Learning objectives – to achieve both the above what should the learners learn in the session


Once the objectives have been firmed up and signed off, ideation around how can these objectives be met in the most and effective and efficient manner needs to happen. The detailed solutioning happens at this stage and involves aspects like should it be a classroom based intervention or a digitally enabled one or a blend of both, what methodologies to be used, duration of the intervention etc. This stage leads to a broad design of the intervention.


In line with the philosophy of rapid designing, prototyping would give key stakeholders as well as the designer a feel of what the final intervention would look like. The end to end intervention is designed with blow up of important elements. It enables everyone to visualise the intervention and deeper discussions around what is ideal vs practical can happen. For example, with respect to the duration of the learning journey, while 12 months looks ideal from a practical perspective one may have to reduce that. Similarly the journey might look conceptually overloaded and the need to enhance implementation elements might come up. In addition to giving a snapshot view, mock sessions into certain elements can be a part of the prototype.  In one of my earlier organizations, before launching an on-boarding programme for senior leaders, we created a board model of how a senior leader would go through the 120 days journey with powerful visual displays. The same was run past business leaders as well as some new joiners and changes incorporated. That ensured that the intervention was successful on launch.


Basis inputs at the prototyping stage, building the final product begins and culminates in testing. Prototyping is a mini, level one test. This involves testing the final product. This happens at two stages.

Testing Course Elements – The various content aids like videos, case studies, role play scenarios etc along with session content are run past relevant stake holders for their inputs. This happens on a concurrent basis as the content gets built.

Pilot Run – After course elements are validated, especially in case of large scale launches, pilot runs become essential. This happens at the end. If the earlier steps have been carried out diligently, the need for changes at this stage gets minimized greatly. This is the final stamp that is needed before launch.

Design Thinking can be a powerful tool in the hands of a learning professional. It will ensure that we are able to launch First Time Right interventions on-time. It will also enable us to deliver business impact and build learning as a strong business function while delivering a powerful experience for learners.

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Hemalakshmi Raju, Chief Learning Officer at Reliance Industries Ltd (Hydrocarbon Division). Hema brings in 2 decades of rich experience and she is a Talent & Organizational Development expert, driven by a strong passion to create a positive impact on individuals and organizations. She is a certified in executive coaching and psychometric tools like Hogan, MBTI and Thomas Profiling. She is an expert user of Six Disciplines of Breakthrough Learning and has written multiple case studies on this. Coaching and mentoring young HR professionals is dear to her heart and she writes regularly on topics pertaining to Organizational Culture, Positive Living, and Learning & Leadership Development.



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