Create Responsive Learning Programs with Design Thinking

Create Responsive Learning Programs
With Design Thinking

In the spring of 2020, when stay-at-home orders went into place, I found myself going through a sudden transition: I had added two six-year-old “colleagues” to my home-office environment. This change turned previously manageable work meetings into a stressful juggling routine of trying to manage my household off-camera so I could look like a professional, well-oiled machine on-camera – not ideal conditions for productivity and focus.

Sudden changes can be difficult to manage, and many Americans abruptly saw a lot of them. While I and other professionals were adjusting to WFHWP (working from home while parenting), others were dealing with sick loved ones, isolation, and fear of job loss. For almost everyone, the context had changed.

In the world of Learning and Development, a new context can make training experiences that used to work suddenly ineffective or impractical. And while a global context shift like COVID-19 changes the game for everyone, individual learners are going through their own context shifts all the time. The spring of 2020 made it clear that the learning programs of the future need to be responsive—adaptable enough to meet each learner effectively, no matter what their environment, state of mind, stress levels, or priorities might be.

Think for a moment about all the ways your organization has changed in response to outside events. As you review your organization’s training initiatives, consider how the answers to these questions impact your materials:

  • Is the information still relevant? When a big change happens, priorities shift drastically. In the wake of the pandemic, reskilling became an instantly pressing need. Initiatives that were essential months ago may have been deprioritized into oblivion. In the frantic rush to virtualize programs, program managers may not have stopped to consider (or ask) whether their programs were still relevant to the audience or their business.
  • Is the delivery medium suited to a new context? Shortly after the stay-at-home order began, I participated in the pilot of a workshop redesigned for virtual delivery. The facilitator was great and the content was engaging, but I found myself dreading each session. Why? Each session was 3-4 hours long, and ignoring my parenting duties for a half day created family stress. A half-day session may have worked well when participants were in-person, but in a virtual environment it created stress and fatigue that detracted from the program’s goal. While trainers have been innovative in using electronic tools for training delivery, some skills warrant in-person practice that is difficult to simulate virtually. Not all programs will deliver the same results when the medium changes – their design may need to be rethought completely.
  • Are learners struggling to care? A poll conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in April 2020 reported that 45 percent of adults said their mental health was affected by the pandemic. If a learner is experiencing a period of anxiety, depression, or extreme stress and fatigue, their motivation to engage in training activities or apply what they’ve learned can become compromised. And that’s a problem: as Dr. Ina Weinbauer-Heidel explains in her book, What Makes Training Really Work (2018), “If participants have no interest in applying what they have learned, transfer success is virtually impossible.”

To make training that’s responsive to learners’ changing realities, take a cue from design thinking. Design thinking is a human-centered problem solving approach that starts by gaining the perspective of the audience. Once you understand their reality, you can be much more confident that a solution will meet their needs and, ultimately, the needs of the business. There are four actions we can glean from a design thinking approach to help clarify learners’ new contexts and create responsive learning programs.

  • Define your audience. This can be harder than it seems. Sometimes it’s an easy answer – for an onboarding program, for example, the answer might be “all new employees.” But pay attention if you struggle to come up with an answer or struggle to narrow your answer down. The program may not be relevant to anyone at the moment, or it may have multiple audiences that need different things from it. Now is not the time to perpetuate obsolete or overly-generic content.
  • Gain perspective on learners’ context. Once you’ve defined the audience, it’s time to listen to them. This could take many forms – for example, maybe you have an existing learner persona that target learners can react to and modify, or perhaps your organization has done recent wellness surveys you can pull data from. Tools like an empathy map or focus group are easy to facilitate virtually, and can quickly yield meaningful data about what learners’ new normal means for them. Be sure to uncover what information is most relevant to them right now, clarify their preferences for format, and get a sense of the external pressures siphoning their attention.
  • Give them a choice. Whenever possible, give people a choice. Autonomy is one of the key factors for motivation, (which in turn is essential to the learning process) so give your audience as much control as possible over when, where, how (or even IF) they participate. I took this approach with a program I was redesigning for virtual delivery. I sent a message to enrolled participants explaining the advantages of going virtual, as well as the commitment and engagement that modality requires. Then I let the participants re-decide whether they felt they were still in a place to realize that commitment and benefit. Happily, the majority of them affirmed their interest in the virtual program, and three of them deferred participation until the next cohort. It was great to take a pause and reevaluate not just what the program would offer to them, but what they could manage to bring to the program.
  • Adopt a “perpetual pilot” mentality. Based on the current outlook, I can only assume the business landscape will continue to shift for the next year or more. The design thinking process involves prototyping and testing solutions before diving into development. Training and development must apply that strategy and acknowledge that – for now – many of our programs are an experiment. We no longer have the luxury of a “design, launch, maintain” process. Instead, we must keep an eye on the ongoing context changes and maintain the beginner’s mindset to learn and pivot after each iteration.

There are lots more ideas, tips, and tricks on how to implement a design thinking approach to learning in the book Sharon Boller and I wrote, Design Thinking for Training and Development. While it’s hard to find the time to implement new approaches, I also know that in my development process, I can’t afford inefficiency. Taking the time to understand the audience perspective and create responsive learning decreases the risk of developing solutions with no hope of reaching their goals, while also improving solutions’ relevance and usability.

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