All posts by Brandon Carson

How to Apply Design Thinking to L&D (Part 1)

To create meaningful learning experiences, it helps to have a deep understanding of your users and their lives. Most of us rely on the ADDIE process to gain this understanding. ADDIE has served us well, however, there are three key aspects of what is referred to as Design Thinking that will enable you to gain an even deeper, richer understanding of your user’s performance problems:

  • Engaging in radical collaboration with your internal team, stakeholders and users
  • Iterating quick solutions internally and externally
  • Designing, developing and testing smaller prototypes “in the field” more often

Design Thinking is a 5-step process to help you design more  useful, human-centered learning experiences. Creators Tim Kelly and David Brown of IDEO define Design Thinking as:

a discipline that uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.

Design Thinking has been primarily used in product design, but as you’ll see in this series of posts, there are parts that can enhance the process of training design.

Design Thinking consists of five “modes” or steps:

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

As we explore each mode, you’ll find several similarities to ADDIE. Design Thinking also has an inherent connection to the Agile methodology, which you can carefully leverage throughout your process transformation. Agile methods are great for software development, but tread carefully when applying it holistically to L&D. There are some aspects of training that’s difficult to iterate.

The main idea I want to stress when contemplating Design Thinking is for you to focus on the idea of human-centered design. This graphic shows you the three key components in human-centered design:

  • Business viability
  • People
  • Technology
The Human-Centered Design Process

You can see that they all intersect. You start with the needs of your audiences. Once you understand their needs, you can envision the opportunities your solution can offer, and then you can respond. Design Thinking as a practice evolved from human-centered design.

Mode 1: Empathy

When thinking about Empathy, let’s be clear: empathy is not sympathy! Empathy is placing yourself in another person’s shoes and feeling what the other person is feeling. You seek empathy to discover people’s explicit and implicit needs so that you can meet those needs through your design solutions. Seeking empathy for those you support fosters in you a personal commitment to their success.

To gain empathy, focus on real people and their stories. Not use cases, surveys, or inauthentic personas – but real people YOU have observed in their context. A lot of this mode is about tearing down the barrier between you and the performer. Too often, we sit in our cubicles and gather information from secondary sources on what our audiences’ lives are like. If I’m chartered to design a training solution for FedEx drivers, I will need to go on a ride-along, and not for just an hour. I’ll need to ride-along for the whole day, and maybe longer. I need to observe what their life is like across the workday, and experience multiple situations where their knowledge and skills are put into play as they perform their job. If you interview a person outside the context of real-time observation, you will get a “flavored response”. People rarely lie, they just don’t always tell the truth about what they do. You want to capture their real-life situations so your design can be informed by the truth in their tasks.

Gaining empathy involves these steps:

  • Observing
    • View users and their behavior in the context of their work.
  • Engaging
    • Interact with and interview users through both scheduled and unscheduled encounters.
  • Immersing
    • Experience what your user experiences.

The Empathy mode is not entirely different from the Analysis phase in ADDIE. However, the basic tenet of Design Thinking requires you to experience your user’s situation as deeply as you can. This leads to primary research – and is more useful for you in the long run. You won’t just rely on secondary information to inform your design solution.

What resonates the most with you about the difference between Empathy in Design Thinking and Analysis in ADDIE?

In my next post, I’ll discuss the Define mode.

Guiding Principles of Effective Instructional Design

 To help formulate an effective instructional design strategy that addresses the changing needs of business and learners, use the following guiding principles:

  • Foster a culture of learning
  • Translate expertise
  • Measure, reevaluate and measure again

These principles can form a framework to help increase workplace performance while driving business results.

Foster a Culture of Learning

Learning is a process, not an event, so a move from “delivering training” to fostering continuous learning is critical for a pervasive culture of learning. Typically, people commit to learning when they are given opportunities to learn by doing, to engage in collaborative construction of knowledge, to participate in meaningful activities, and to experience mentoring relationships. Start with these design ideas as you begin to evangelize the need for continuous learning:

  • Design rich learning environments that include challenge and the possibility of failure.
  • Avoid use of “slidejunk”: presentational material flows through learners’ minds, is retained just long enough to perform on a test, and then forgotten.
  • Allow learners to engage in participatory, memorable experiences instead of merely listening to or reading others’ materials.
  • Provide opportunities for immediate feedback and discourse via social networks.

Also consider more systemic change, including:

  • Moving Beyond Classroom Thinking
    Studies show that on average, classroom instruction does not lead to increased performance over other forms of instruction. Social learning mediated by technology can provide opportunities for continuous learning that move beyond the formal classroom setting. Much of higher level processing and learning comes from discussions and explorations in unstructured social interactions. Create opportunities for learners to seek out experts to consult with outside of their learning cohort and reward the efforts of both parties.
  • Enabling Self-Directed Learning
    Provide learners with contextually meaningful tools and resources and deliver it to them “just–in-time” based on who they are, where they are, and what they do. Leverage tools such as

    • Wikis
      Learners can use wikis to work together to build knowledge bases, synthesize research, write papers, and present project-based work.
    • Blogs
      Blogs provide learners an audience for their writing, encouraging thoughtfulness and clarity, and enable learning through online debate, peer modeling and peer review.
    • Journals
      Journals are effective tools in learning retention. Use journals to engage participants in reflective writing within their own private space.
    • Podcasts
      Mobile learning is popular at the moment, and most people have connected devices. Podcasts can facilitate learning-on-the-go by disseminating recorded lectures and supplemental course material.

Translate Expertise

Instructional designers create a bridge between the experts’ and the learners’ knowledge. Experts often don’t know how they know what they know. Work closely with experts to translate their knowledge into content “chunks” that learners can fit into their own knowledge base. Expertise is not just about “doing the job” — it is also about providing the opportunity to achieve maximum potential. Not everyone will become an expert; in fact it is not necessary or desired in a high-performing workplace. For those who can and should achieve expertise, mentoring and performance is crucial, so you will want to identify and leverage them. Consider these design techniques to help translate expertise across your organization:

  • Encourage Learners to Model Mastery
    Developing in learners the ability to use problem solving processes similar to those of experts is challenging, but provides powerful evidence that learners are gaining the skills they need.
  • Build Immediate Feedback Loops
    Instigate immediate feedback via social networks such as Twitter. Immediate feedback loops should be provided as often as possible.
  • Place Learning Technology in its Proper Context
    Many instructional designers tend to rely on learning technology (authoring tools, learning management systems, content delivery systems) as a crutch merely because of visibility, resource allocation, and convenience. Not too many years ago, a VCR was considered the latest learning technology; overhead projectors, film projectors, audio tape, even chalkboards. There is no substitute for quality instructional design, and over-reliance on technology to help solve instructional problems will only make bad instructional design more apparent. If you start with learner needs and desired outcomes, the use of technology is more likely to end up in the proper context and the learning outcomes you seek will more likely occur.

Measure, Reevaluate, and Measure Again

Measurement provides data about what the learner needs to learn and has learned. Each kind of measurement provides important information that should influence the design of the instructional material. While multiple choice, true/false and fill in the blank are typical assessment tools, they are not the only ways to measure learning, and certainly not the most effective. Simulations, portfolios and writing can be used to assess deeper understanding. The best measurement tools can actually create further learning opportunities.

  • Simulations
    Simulations dramatically raise engagement and motivation levels. With learners assuming authentic roles within the experience, learners can demonstrate successful task completion.
  • Portfolios
    Portfolios collect and display artifacts created by the learner. This provides a real look at work the learner has completed.
  • Writing
    Writing in the form of short essays, blogging or even tweeting, can focus and reinforce learning, while demonstrating mastery of the subject matter.
  • Real-Time Observation
    When possible, observe performance in real-time. Feedback at the time of performance is one of the most powerful instruments in changing behavior. You’ll need management support, but this is a powerful measurement tool.

Using the measure, reevaluate and measure again sequence allows training to be responsive to learner needs. By measuring first, with a variety of tools, reevaluating and reapplying instructional methods and material and then measuring again, it becomes a learning track rather than a series of disparate training sessions.


Learners get excited when exposed to learning experiences that go beyond teaching-by-telling. However, learning is a complex process that requires, for each learner, a repertoire of multiple types of instruction. The instructional designer’s role is to discover what motivates people to increase their knowledge and skills and improve their performance. Before and during design ask yourself: I am creating a learning experience. Experiences change people. How is my design changing people for the better? For the worse?


Applying Persuasive Expression in Learning Design

Research shows that people often perform tasks and make decisions after only minimal information processing; however, in persuasive settings, such as online learning, most cognitive effort is first placed on the media presented. The human brain comprehends images almost instantaneously, as opposed to text, which prompts the brain to systematically process its meaning first, which is often a slower process than with imagery. Images also ignite a more visceral emotional response, which affords us the ability to motivate the viewer more easily than plain text. Advertising is an industry that primarily relies on the visceral response inherent with imagery to motivate viewers to purchase a product or service.

In online learning, we too often “miss the boat” when using imagery. We tend to rely on imagery as ornamentation to text, possibly because we lack the resources or time to effectively design imagery to convey the entire and/or appropriate message. In lieu of that, we often highlight specific portions of available stock imagery to achieve a desired message (via cropping, selective editing, zooming, etc.).

Ian Bogost has done considerable work in the area of imagery as persuasive rhetoric. He argues that visual fidelity implies authority, and likewise, simplistic or unrefined graphics are often an indication of mediocrity. Consider low-resolution or “poorly designed” product packaging, for example. It often fails to attract the consumer. His argument should resonate for those of us in learning design, simply because we are facing a more media mature audience, and are tasked with attracting, engaging and motivating audiences through a visual medium they have grown accustomed to and often are masters of. Poorly designed or inappropriate imagery will force this audience to exert considerable cognitive effort to process the lower resolution media, or worse, fail to appropriately attract and motivate them at all.

One thought, especially for resource-drained learning functions, is to rely on the heuristic model developed by Dr. Shelly Chaiken. The heuristic model relies on less systematic processing in the persuasive setting, and requires less cognitive effort on the part of the learner. Since heuristic processing is relatively effortless for the learner, it is likely you will have more success in attracting and engaging them than with the systematic model. Source of truth elements are key to the heuristic model. A short video or an interactive content object delivered or designed by a subject matter expert will potentially be more quickly seen as valid on the part of the learner.

For those of us lacking deep-craft skill in media design on our staff, consider reducing the amount of media elements that only serve as ornaments to other elements, and instead, try to rely on the heuristic model to design more valid visual content objects. You do need to always consider the resolution of the media elements you display, but you do less harm with immediate perceived expertise than with ornamentation.

The heuristic model for media design supporting the idea of persuasive rhetoric.
The heuristic model for media design supporting the idea of persuasive rhetoric.

The State of Instruction 2014 (so far)

Many in the corporate training industry spend a lot of time demystifying, myth busting and wading through jargon, buzzwords, trends, and rumors. Before we can determine what technology, tools, and processes to investigate and implement, we need to ensure we have the fundamental framework of effective instruction in place first. This is what I would see as the most critical element in your learning function. Here at the ASTD TechKnowledge conference in Las Vegas, I have seen a number of presentations, chats, and both formal and informal discussions around the basic instructional strategies that form the foundation of everything you do. First, determine if your approach to instructional design includes these three principles:

  • Relevant learner context and motivational challenge
  • Activity design that enables meaningful association to the learning goals
  • Constructive and action-based feedback as hyper-personalized as possible

Based on the type of instruction you’re delivering, you want to create safe-zones for learning. Learners should be able to fail fast and often, practice as much as they need, share and reflect on what they’re trying to achieve within the constraints of the framework itself, and walk away with a feeling of satisfaction and completion.

Before you worry about the technology that delivers your instruction, be sure you have the fundamentals of effective instruction in place first.

The State of Mobile Learning (2014 so far)

I’m at ASTD’s Techknowledge conference in Las Vegas, and just attended a session hosted by Kevin Oakes of i4CP and Tamar Elkeles, the CLO of Qualcomm. The session was kind of a “state of mobile learning” in 2014, and both presenters shared some great information about what’s going on and what they’re doing with mobile learning. Some highlights:

  • The provision of device to employees in companies is growing. When queried, most attendees said their company provides them at least one mobile device. Several stated that it depends on their job type or job level. Companies handing out tablets to employees is also rising: 46% of companies in a recent i4CP survey said they provide tablets for their employees, up from 39% in 2012.
  • The corporate resistance to “bring your own device” or BYOD is coming down, with most attendees saying their companies now support their personal choice of device. Mr. Oakes stated that 65% of respondents in a recent i4CP survey now support BYOD, up from 45% in 2012.
  • The corporate implementation of mobile learning is slower than i4CP thought it would be, but there is movement with more companies starting to deliver mobile learning to employees. Of those companies that are implementing mobile learning, most are choosing to offer web apps over native apps. Native apps for mobile learning is still in its infancy. 82% of mobile learning apps are being designed for Apple’s iOS platform, and tablets are targeted more than smartphones.
  • When asked, about 1/2 the attendees currently developing mobile learning are internally developing. In the i4CP survey, 59% of companies are developing their mobile learning apps internally.
  • Sales is the biggest area where mobile learning is being developed companywide, and a majority of people are repurposing existing content for mobile use.
  • The most popular types of learning content for mobile devices are: reference material and video. Performance support comes in third, with the “full courses” category following. The leading uses of mobile learning are for just-in-time training, job aids, on-the-job support, and audio/video content.
  • 54% of i4CP survey participants said they believe mobile learning can improve learning in their companies.