Design Thinking in elearning: “The craft of creating delightful experiences”

A couple of weeks ago I attended a workshop with Designer and entrepreneur Devin Hunt. Devin is a product designer and web designer. Not really my field, I thought. Or is it?

Devin has a background in architecture and what he does is Design Thinking.

Design thinking: A creative process that helps you design meaningful solutions to problems.

Here on the Elucidat blog we’re on our way to serving 500,000 learners and along the way we’re sharing the stories of that journey, especially what we learn about the processes, engineering and design methods that underpin practical, easy-to-use tools for producing exceptional elearning.

In this post we want to take a look at building a culture and way of thinking that can help you make elearning that will delight your customers. We know that success is often dependant on interpreting your customers’ requirements accurately and translating those interpretations into end products which solve their problems. This requires good design skills which interrogate your clients’ problems, iterate solutions and reach a product or service which is useful and address those problems. Good design is no longer optional.

So today, we’ll delve into Design Thinking and see what it can teach us in the elearning world.

Design thinking is a human-centred approach. It’s about visualising the problem through the eyes of the end-user. A lot’s been written about applying design thinking in elearning. Cammy Bean describes the process applied in an elearning context very well in this article. The essence of design thinking and the tools and techniques it draws on resonate with me in my role as an instructional designer: wireframing, clickable prototypes, user testing, to mention a few.

We spent a lot of the session with Devin sketching ideas, creating wireframes and sticking post-it’s on walls.

It was fun. But more importantly, it was PRODUCTIVE. Just half way through the session, we’d already improved several well-known web sites, pitched our new killer app ideas and created a whole new social media application. Watch out Facebook! How we did this was to PROTOTYPE rapidly, aiming to arrive quickly at our MVP (minimal viable product) so we could test our concepts quickly, discard what wasn’t viable and move on with developing the ideas that did work.

In elearning, even though a crucial part of our jobs involve design, the prevailing instructional design models have been based on systems thinking, which promotes an analytical or engineering type of mindset. Connie Malamed, the Elearning Coach has posted about this.

But it it doesn’t have to be that way.

There’s a lot I do as an elearning instructional designer that is similar to what designers in other fields do: create user personas and user stories to help me get the perspective of the problem I’m trying to solve from the end users’ point of view; I wireframe solutions; I sketch learner journeys and I PROTOTYPE ideas for designing the solutions.

And that’s pretty much what Devin does.

A Design Thinking Process


Source: Connie Malamed

Researching and ideating

In design thinking, much of the 99% of what Edison described as “perspiration” goes on researching the problem (what it is, how it came about, who it affects, what needs to change), and ‘ideating’ (brainstorming alternatives, thinking through solutions).

Here are some practical guidelines for doing this in the context of elearning:

1. Think through who your product is aimed at and how they will use it to solve the problem they have. One method to help you do this is creating PERSONAS. These help you to create examples of actual people who will use your product:

Design Thinking in elearning: “The craft of creating delightful experiences”

2. Another method is USER STORIES, which help visualise how the end user will interact with the product. An example could be work flow for a user taking an elearning course on a learning management system.

All this takes place before a single bit of the end product is produced.

Key takeaway: If possible, schedule some of your project time and budget to interviewing end-users. Get some time with the people who will actually be using your product or service. Sometimes, the problems they experience will be different from what your client has described. It’s good to get it from the ‘horse’s mouth’. This exploratory phase can be done as one-to-one interviews or as focus group sessions. The data from these interviews or focus groups will help you formulate ‘personas’ and user stories that will in turn help guide your design process.


One of the phases of the design process in Design thinking is PROTOTYPING.

Prototyping should be quick and dirty. It should be incomplete. The point is to get a visualisation of potential solutions without actually making something that you’ll find difficult to throw out if it doesn’t work.

Here are some guidelines:

1. Focus on user experience, not content.

2. Iterate over a short period of time (e.g. couple of days, not weeks). Wireframes and sketching are great ways to iterate your prototypes. You don’t need to be great at drawing, simple lines and written explanations can really work.


3. Review with stakeholders and end users (keep the team small and representative).

Patrick Dunn covered the benefits of rapid prototyping earlier in this blog.

Rapid tools make building functioning prototypes easier. You can build out a functioning wireframe using authoring tools on the fly while you are doing your initial research. Don’t spend any time on the detail in these iterations – don’t for example spend hours creating the perfect image or the button. Remember, prototypes are trashable. So you don’t want to create anything at this stage that you’ve spent so much time on – you won’t want to throw it away.

Key takeaway: Traditionally, much of the time (and budget) went on the programming phase of a project. Using a ‘design’ centred approach try putting more of your time up front in getting the ideas right. Get your programmers, designers and creative director around the table and try working up ideas together with pens and paper or post-it notes. Throw away your first ideas and iterate on those to move nearer to a viable solution.

Thinking like a designer and using design thinking can transform the way elearning teams develop products, services, processes and strategy. We’d love to hear your thoughts and experience about design processes: what works well, what tools and aids you like using. Or if you’ve been swotting up lately, we’d love to know what you’ve been reading on the subject of design. Get in touch by leaving a comment below.

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