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Design thinking and learning: Why is design thinking important to L&D, with Arun Pradhan

The first interview in the design thinking and learning podcast series is with Arun Pradhan, on why design thinking is important to L&D at the moment. Arun is leading a new way of working in L&D. A key topic we discuss is that understanding the context of work through design thinking can lead you to design learning within the flow of work. In later parts of the interview we talk about L&D people becoming performance detectives, and how design thinking gives us some of the tools to do this. We also touch on core tools and approaches in design thinking, such as journey mapping and co-design with end users.

Download the Design thinking and learning eBook

To go along with the podcast we have released an eBook with all transcripts of the interviews.  

The interviews are: 

  • Why is design thinking important to L&D, with Arun Pradhan
  • Learning experiences from a service design viewpoint, with Simon Goodrich
  • Designing thinking and instructional design, with Connie Malamed
  • The mindsets needed for design thinking, with Huddle

The introduction to the eBook gives an overview of design thinking and demystifies some of the terms used in the podcast, like ‘ideation’.  

 

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Useful links from the podcast

 

Transcript - Design thinking and learning: Why is design thinking important to L&D, with Arun Pradhan 

Robin:

Arun, welcome to the Learn While Working Podcast.

Arun:

Thanks Robin. Thanks for having me.

Robin:

Why do you think design thinking is important to L&D at the moment?

Understanding the context of work means you can design learning in the flow of work

Arun:

Well, I think L&D professionals are looking to designing learning in and from the workflow. So, we're actually – rather than just providing these little training bubbles, whether they be workshops or elearning – we're actually looking at understanding a context and understanding an audience more than we ever have before and then finding innovative solutions for them. Design thinking is a perfect tool to enable that.

Robin:

‘Bubble’ is a lovely term for elearning for most training and interventions. So, you see design thinking as a way to expanding beyond just working in these sort of bubbles and looking into the context of how learning might happen in the flow or work?

Arun:

Yes, definitely. I used to call myself learner-centric. I think many of us call ourselves learner-centric and really it was only when I started using design thinking, when I took that level of empathy to a whole new level, that I really understood. I think that it works best when you understand people's needs and you express them, and often people haven't even seen or expressed those needs yet. That's when you really make that breakthrough. So you're actually looking for those underlying needs, which requires a deep level of empathy and understanding, which takes it to a new level, I think. For me, anyway.

Robin:

I think of it as being in the shoes of the learners and seeing the world from their viewpoint. It's also interesting that sometimes as a designer, you see the problem differently to how someone actually sees it, and by articulating the problem, it becomes clear to them.

Designing and empathy – getting to the underlying problems

Arun:

Yes, there's an example I often use where – basically this is the way I explain design thinking to someone who's new to it. Imagine coming home and you're exhausted and you just collapse on your couch and then your partner comes home and sees the dishes on the kitchen sink. He or she, they just crack it and they say,

‘Oh my god, I thought you were going to do the dishes. You promised me you were going to do the dishes. I can't stand this anymore,’ and they go in the bedroom and they slam the door.

As a designer, as a creative person, you might immediately think,

‘Well, I can solve this,’ and you'll think of 10 ways you can solve it. You obviously can just do the dishes but you might think, ‘I'll buy two dishwashers and I'll just rotate the dishes between the two dishwashers.’ Or you could say, ‘I'll get plastic plates and screw the environment, we’ll never have to do anything like this again, we just throw it away afterwards.’

You can actually get quite creative, but it's only when you start from a place of empathy and you think,

‘Well what's actually happening beyond that request?’

What's going on underneath that, when you might actually realise that there's other stuff happening besides just the fact that there's dirty dishes. That your partner might want connection, they might want ease, they might want to feel supported because they had a big week, and the solutions you came up with are irrelevant, they're not going to solve the underlying problem. I think that empathy is crucial to finding what's really going on.

Robin:

And you've expressed what I think is the difference between design thinking and creative thinking. Creative thinking is about opening things up but design thinking is thinking with the purpose to solve problems.

Arun:

Yes, totally, and I do like the combination of convergent and divergent thinking in design thinking. Multiple times in the process you're getting very specific, you're actually defining things. Whether it be through a problem statement or later on in the process through a prototype, you're actually getting quite narrow before you get creative. I like it too because for people who say, ‘I'm not creative’, it is actually quite a guided process to be able to show them that they can be creative and that they are inherently creative.

Robin:

Yes, and just to go back to the context for a moment and it's an interesting question because a lot of the tools of design thinking are really about helping build empathy with learners. What tools do you use for thinking about the context that the learner is working in?

Journey mapping is a key tool for understanding and explaining solutions

Arun:

Journey mapping is my go-to tool for understanding context. Sometimes we'll use other diagram representations of an ecosystem, for example. But the most consistent tool that looks similar each time is a form of journey map. We use journey maps in two ways. If it’s something like an induction process, where it's all about the experience – obviously it's about training and getting people to competency, but it's also largely about trying to ‘show, not tell’ the values and trying to give that experience.

Doing a journey map up front about the current state is a must. We use journey maps at the end of a process to look at what's going to be the new experience of the learner – often it’s an ecosystem that we're creating, or this blended learning experience, or just changes to the way people work. Yes, journey maps combined with personas are probably my go-to tools.

Robin:

So making the existing context visible by mapping it out physically, you get to understand how that system works and what's really happening in that specific context?

Arun:

Exactly, yes.

Robin:

I think the visual tools for that part of the design thinking toolkit are really powerful because they essentially allow people to collaborate and co-create in a different way to classic instructional design.

The co-design process – guiding the learning design process

Arun:

Yes, that's been a bit of a game changer for us because the co-design process really is, I find, one of the most empowering elements of design thinking. I've gone through stages of this. When I first started doing it about four years ago my version of co-design was really me as a facilitator and the group coming up with everything. Now I think I'm getting much better at strategically putting in my opinion and guiding it much more hands-on as well.

Often we’re working in a co-design process with people who – they're not professional L&D people but they are experts in their life and their work and that's what they bring to the table. I think what I've appreciated more recently is that there's real room in an L&D context to have those learning specialists and those learning experts to be able to put forward ideas because they don't know what they don't know. I've gone through a shift of, this is all about them designing it for themselves, to now, this is all about them being part of a design process and my expertise has to come to the table as well.

Robin:

It's interesting. There was a really nice bit of guiding recently during a session, when I asked, ‘What would this be like if it was a game?’ It triggered really different thinking for this particular project. It was interesting because it was an engineering organisation and they got really excited. We didn't actually build a game, but it was a useful question because of the thinking that it triggered. There was a little bit of leading in the discussion and being the expert in the room, rather than just letting the group try and design the solution.

When should the design thinking process be used?

Arun:

Yes, that's been a shift I've definitely made over the last couple of years. I have a few criteria for whether a job should actually involve what I would call the full process of design thinking that we use, which is quite an involved process, or we just use elements of it. Some of the criteria is the scale of the job, and that includes the finances behind it. Is it worth while putting the money into actually doing this? Like getting 15 people in a room over three sessions over a month and so on, and doing all the interviews and everything that we do.

 

The other thing is, do we have access to the actual audience group, our learners, to participate? The last one is, are they open to innovation? Are they actually open to one crazy solution? Another way I describe it to people is saying, ‘If you have complexity or an unknown, either the audience group, the context, or the solution, then it might warrant design thinking.’ There's been ones I've knocked back where it's clear that they've got a view of what they want at the end and I might cherry pick from some design thinking elements or tools but it's not that full design thinking process – because there's not much point if they already know the end of the journey.

Robin:

That's a really nice framework about when to do that full, complicated, time-consuming process.

Arun:

They need to be open to where it goes, otherwise there's not much point. Similarly, there was one client we did it with and I thought it was going to be a full design thinking process. We had the usual stakeholders and they actually refused to have the audience group in there because they said, ‘We've done a focus group like two years ago.’ For me it was actually a glorified brainstorming session. It wasn't a design thinking process because we didn't actually go out to the audience group or involve them. So I've got those criteria now.

Sometimes that's appropriate. A glorified brainstorming session is something that you need to do, but it's trying to go in with your eyes open about what you're trying to get out of the process and exploring how far you're trying to go with the design.

The evolution of design thinking

Robin:

I just want to go back to something. The subtle thing is, you've said before you have been using design thinking for four years, but your background is as an architect.

Arun:

Yes. When I say design thinking, I use the term as this body of thought put forward by people like Tim Brown, and IDEO, and Stanford school and so on. My background is in architecture originally and then I was actually trained as a multimedia designer. I lectured in multimedia design for some years before I made the shift into instructional design. My background is in design and it's certainly something that I've done all the time. My first job was as a – we didn't call it UX design back then, but we called it interface design. I was the interface designer for one of the first LMSs in Australia. Design has always been part of me. We used to do the paper prototypes for interface design, where we'd draw up the interface and we'd hold it in front of a user. Then then the user would say, ‘Yes I would do this.’ Then we thought, ‘No-one thought they were going to do that,’ so we'd have to quickly redraw that screen. We did those sorts of things back in the day.

For me it was unconscious and a bit haphazard. It's only been, probably the last four or five years in particular, where I've really brought – and all credit to people like Tim Brown and so on who have really put it together in that robust model that design thinking is.

Robin:

They've given a shape to it, put a mindset around it, put together some tools that everyone can use as well.

Arun:

I'm sure a lot of people would say, ‘I've used elements of that,’ but I think that's part of its strength. It does build on the familiarity and it does tie things together. It's the most powerful if you allow it to challenge your mindset around it too. For me, the challenge was that I perceive myself as someone who is learner-centric, and using design thinking to take that to a whole new level.

How is design thinking different to ADDIE?

Robin:

There's a lot people in the learning industry that call themselves designers. How do you think design thinking is different to traditional ADDIE-style processes?

Arun:

I've had this discussion with a few people who say that what you've described as design thinking is what I do anyway and shouldn't everyone do that as ADDIE? I think some people who are doing ADDIE are going to involve and ask their audience group in similar ways to design thinking. I think the things that are missing from ADDIE is that design thinking fundamentally helps to reframe the question often. It actually helps reframe it from a learner-centric or a human-centered point of view. From that point it’s possible to come up with a much more innovative approach. It's quite different to a process where you're trying to understand your audience group just so you can make better things for them. It's actually trying to say what are these people's underlying needs and how can we involve them in the process to co-create something for them? I think theoretically someone out there might have been doing ADDIE to that level, but I certainly haven't met them.

Robin:

It's interesting because essentially, ADDIE is a design process. It's about analysis and it does have design thinking elements to it. I don't think it should be dismissed. What we're talking about is the deep, richer way of gaining empathy with the learner where, as you drill into what someone's problems are, you find solutions that might not have even been seen through a traditional instructional design analysis situation.

The four key elements of design thinking

Arun:

I agree. I think there's probably four elements that mark out design thinking as – it's probably emphasis but the emphasis is so strong in design thinking. What design thinking for me really emphasises and puts up as a spotlight, these are the crucial things.

Firstly it's about starting with empathy and coming from that place of totally understanding your audience group, almost better than they do. It's about trying to get to their understated needs, so a deep level of empathy is crucial.

Number two out of four is the collaborative design, and as you say Robin, being visual, having these things up on the wall. It's all about being collaborative and being able to involve people and really extract those ideas out of them.

The third element for me is failing fast and being able to quickly prototype ideas, get them out into the world as fast as possible, and see them fail and learn from that.

The fourth element, which I think is quite different, is design thinking takes a very experiential view. Rather than seeing here's one elearning module or here's one face-to-face workshop, it's really about designing the whole end-to-end experience. That's where design thinking comes into play. It's looking at the context, and looking at that end-to-end experience. They're the four elements. It's empathy, collaboratively, failing fast, and experiences.

Designing learning experiences and learning ecosystems

Robin:

Just to pick up on that idea of designing experiences a little bit. It's interesting that design thinking came out of a product design company – IDEO – that then moved into service design. The nature of service design, it's holistic. Then by the nature of where L&D needs to be at, it’s that holistic thing, thinking about solutions that involve performance support, and manager involvement, and designing. Using the ‘ecosystem’ word in what we do.

Arun:

Yes, totally. We've got this irony at the moment. We've got this contradiction where theoretically, as learning development professionals, we should be in demand. There should be red phones on CEOs’ desks, they pick it up and it's us on the other end. Change is happening at such a rate and their organisations have to be so innovative and adaptive. We should be the ones who are enabling that. Yet, if we choose to just fixate on these narrow training courses as our bread and butter, we're just going to be doomed to irrelevance. At the same moment in time when we've got this opportunity to step up, it seems quite ironic that we're stuck with a provider mentality.

I think for me, as you say, how can we actually impact on their ecosystem? Ross Dawson, who's a futurist, talks about designing for serendipity. I really like the idea of how can we actually create serendipity around people. So when you're trying to do a task, you're actually around other people who have done it previously or around people who might be able to help. You might have a ‘work out loud’ culture to help with that. This is how as learning architects we are going to help develop organisations more, beyond just training.

L&D as performance detectives

Robin:

This is a fairly open-ended question that's maybe a bit off topic from design thinking. If there's one thing that you think L&D could do to shift from just being focused on designing more holistic solutions maybe through design thinking, what do you think it could be?

Arun:

I do think design thinking is a brilliant start because it's really hard to get into design thinking and not start thinking about experiences and context and the more holistic view of what's going on. You could walk in there and be fixated on this product, but as soon as you talk about design thinking, you're thinking of that whole contextual piece and suddenly all these other elements come into play. It's about what technology they're using, about how they're actually interacting with people in meetings, and other things that are coming up become part of that. It's a lot for any individual to hold and we don't have to hold it all. My model of the future of L&D is going to be that we're almost these people who are performance detectives, if you like, your performance consultants who are using tools like design thinking. Then we're having to draw on cross-functional groups to actually get the solutions happening. It's not like L&D is going to be able hold on to it all. We're going to have to access other people across the organisation to really make these things work.

How to shift the mindset of L&D people to become performance detectives

Robin:

That's a really nice sentiment. As you were talking, I was thinking, in some ways this also means a real different mindset for a whole a lot of people. Mindset is about personal change and changes to the way we exist in the world. What's the biggest mind shift, do you think, that L&D people need to make to start becoming performance detectives?

Arun:

There's a few. You're right and I think partly it's starting with the personal and seeing ourselves as people who have an immense amount of learning agility and are constantly learning and unlearning and looking to improve ourselves. I think we've got to start with that and be the champions that we're trying to support other people to be. Another factor I think is crucial is we've got to shift away. Something went wrong with L&D back in the day. One of the reasons for this is that knowledge was easier to measure. You could actually do a multiple choice question and you can see how much people have memorised that piece of knowledge.

Actual behavioural change, actual performance, the things that actually matter, were harder to measure. We focused on stuffing knowledge into people's heads. For me, one of the biggest mindset shifts is getting back to that performance focus and almost performance focus by any means necessary. Being creative by how we support that performance, with learning as being one element. I think that's probably the biggest shift, is being performance obsessed and being quite creative in how we support that.

Design thinking and performance-focused solutions

Robin:

Design thinking gives a really powerful set of tools to think about: what is the performance problem, what's going wrong here, and then what could be the innovative solutions for that as well?

Arun:

It does it from that learner-centric point of view. Rather than from the business, ‘This is what we need,’ it's starting from the audience group, ‘This is our reality.’ The reason we do design thinking at Deakin Co is because I was interested in it for some time beforehand but I didn't have the business buy-in to do it. The change that happened was we did a large telco job, it was almost half a million dollars, and we basically screwed it up. We totally failed. It was because we designed this – in theory a great 70:20:10 solution. The latest stats was that after 12 minutes you were going – this was four or five years ago – you start multitasking when you're listening to a webinar. We designed 15-minute webinars as little bites.

We had these two-minute videos to support on-job learning. We had coaches assigning badges. All this sort of stuff. It didn't work. It didn't happen. Even to the point where the delivery team didn't want to have to deal with all these little webinars, so they packed all the webinars together into a two-hour monster webinar. My initial reaction was, ‘Goddamn that delivery team,’ but I never took the time to actually understand their situation. I never took the time to understand the context, to understand the current culture, and I took it at face value what the L&D people in the organisation were telling me. How managers were going to do this, ‘Yes we can do that.’

That was the shift. We can't trust our opinions of what's going to happen when we throw this into the wild. We need to really get in there and be pragmatic. That for me is what design thinking does. It's innovative, but it's incredibly pragmatic because it starts with the reality of these people’s lives.

Getting started in design thinking

Robin:

That's a really nice story. I'd really like to wrap-up the podcast with a gem of advice for people who want to get started in a particular area. For an L&D person, what do you think would be the best way to get started in design thinking?

Arun:

I think the empathy piece is probably the best place to start. When you start with empathy, I think asking questions which prompt stories. There's a lot of truth in stories. If you say to someone, ‘How best do you learn these things? What's the most effective way for you to learn this?’ they're going to be biased, they're going to jump to a solution, and you don't want that. The best phrase for me in those interviews, empathy-based interviews, is, ‘Tell me about a time when …’ You say, ‘Tell me about a time when you had a challenge that seemed out of your skill set and you had to overcome it.’ They have to go to a specific example, and they tell you about what happened, and you can learn about how they solve problems and how they learn from that context. ‘Tell me about a time when …’ It helps extract stories and there's so much wealth of information to be learned from people's stories. That's how you really get into that empathetic frame of mind, I think. That's what I'd recommend, is asking, ‘Tell me about a time when …’

Robin:

That's a great piece of advice. We'll make sure that sthe notes that will go along with this deal with the storytelling – empathy and prototyping as well.

Arun:

That'd be great because that's really powerful. Much more than just asking straight out opinion. Using those stories to capture that information is so much more honest.