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The 5 steps of Instructional Design Thinking [INFOGRAPHIC]

Training is a big part of any company’s L&D strategy. With e-learning becoming pretty much the norm these days, when a new learning intervention is necessary, designers most often take a look at the material they already have and build on that. It is one of the best features that online learning presents – the possibility to adjust, add and modify according to need.

Yet there are instances when something completely new is required and everything has to be thought of from scratch. It’s of course a great opportunity to come up with something extraordinary but it also poses the challenge of where to start from.

There is a lot of academic literature on the innovation process, how it works and what techniques we can employ to get our brain to create new and different ideas. As far as the design process is concerned, Herbert Simon’s article from 1969 is still very influential today. In The Sciences of the Artificial, the American psychologist described the word ‘design’ as the ‘changing existing circumstances into preferred ones’.

The 5 steps of Instructional Design Thinking

Design Thinking is always connected to innovation and improvement. It’s a creative process rooted in building ideas and it applies in all areas. It involves five steps, as illustrated below:

 Design Thinking by Hebert Simon

  1. Empathize

    The first stage of the Design Thinking process is to get an empathetic understanding of the problem you are trying to solve — in the case of instructional designers, the learning gap that needs to be filled.

    This involves conducting a thorough training needs assessment, consulting team leaders, taking a look of a company’s short and long term goals and get a good understanding of people’s previous experiences and present motivations.

    Empathy is paramount to a human-centered design process such as Design Thinking, as it draws the designer away from his own assumptions and into the reality and needs of the beneficiary. Depending on time constraints, a substantial amount of information is gathered at this stage to be used in the next step.

  2. Define

    This stage is about putting together all the previously gathered information. Analysis and synthesis are necessary for identifying and defining the main learning gaps. It’s ideal to formulate the conclusions in such a way as to be very clear and empathetic.

    For example, if you found that the issue is poor sales results, one way to state that would be “there is a need to improve the results of the Retail department by training employees in a set of sales and persuasion techniques.”

    The Define stage is meant to help the designers put together a list of ideas to establish themes, techniques, and any other elements that will allow them to create optimal learning material and help employees and organizations reach their desired outcomes.

  3. Ideate

    During the third stage of the Design Thinking process, designers should be all set for coming up with ideas. The issues were thoroughly understood in the first step of the process and they were set on paper (or screen) in a clear manner during the second stage.

    Having all this information, it is the time to become creative, think outside of the box and find the best innovative solutions. There are many techniques for achieving this : there’s the good old fashioned brainstorming, the more intricate SCAMPER or mind mapping just to name a few.

    It is important to get as many ideas or angles as possible at the start of the Ideation phase. Later, an elimination and prioritization process will help sieve what is really valuable.

  4. Prototype

    Getting to work on the actual learning material, this is the time to produce a beta version of the modules. Since this is still an experimental phase, the point is to design the programs without spending a lot of time on the details. If possible, it’s best to produce several versions and involve several members of the team in evaluating them and giving feedback.

    The various modules should be subject to examination and improvement based on user experience. It may be a frustrating phase with some amount of work getting tossed but it is necessary in order to ensure a very qualitative result.

    Once the most suitable version is agreed upon it’s time to work out the tweaks and make something that will be very similar to the finished material.

  5. Test

    The fifth and final step is to launch the modules online and see if they are indeed a good solution for filling the learning gaps. The best way to test their efficiency is to choose a group of employees that represents the main audience, enroll them in the courses, collect feedback both from participants and from their colleagues and team-leaders and most importantly, allow for some time to see how the learning intervention gets translated into actual business results.

    Even if most modifications will be done in the prototyping phase, it’s very possible that alterations, additions and substitutions in content and design might also occur once the materials are tested.

The 5 steps of instructional design thinking INFOGRAPHIC


Even though in cartoons bright ideas are amusingly represented by a light bulb suddenly appearing on top of a character’s head, real innovation takes time and effort. Design thinking may not be perfect, but following the above described process can allow instructional designers to create valuable material that will make a difference in organizations.