Design thinking for behaviour change

In this new blog for Brightwave, scriptwriter Sophie Dodds thinks like a designer to uncover how different ways of conceiving digital learning projects can deliver radically different results.
You’ve probably read the title of this article and fallen into one of the following two categories:

1) You’re a know-it-all (or near enough). You know all about ‘design thinking’ and you’re already using it to inform and improve the way you develop and deliver digital learning projects. Like a magpie greedily coveting its next jewel, you’ve swiped past this post in the continuous hunt to find something newer and shinier to garner and gorge on.

2) Or, fortunately for me, you’ve not heard about the evolution of this revolutionary approach, and you’re curious to learn more…

So, if you’re in the latter camp, you might be wondering what exactly is this fancypants model of so-called ‘design thinking’? What does it do, and more importantly, how can L&D use it to change behaviour?

What is it?

Design thinking is a human-centred, problem-solving methodology used by designers. It was popularised initially by Rolf Faste in the 1980s and in recent years by David M. Kelley and Tim Brown of IDEO. It’s a ‘hands-on’ approach that focusses on producing changes in human behaviour through strategies of experimentalism, innovation, and iterative prototyping. Although conventionally applied to the principles of design, the concept has now moved beyond the exclusive remit of the design world to inform project development more generally, and has been applied successfully across various disciplines, settling fondly in the business and tech scene in recent years.

Design thinking is used by Apple, the most valuable company in the world. It transformed AirBnB from a failing startup to an incredibly lucrative organisation that now offers more lodging than any other hotel chain in the world. It opened up the world of experimentation and risk-taking to San Francisco Opera, a business whose success relies precisely on its longstanding cultural heritage and ability to deliver unwavering perfectionism.


The other thing to mention about design thinking is that it’s not necessarily new-fangled at all; rather, it’s a concept that has been around in practice long before the name was coined or gained popular usage. Charles Eames, a tireless experimenter and one half of the iconoclastic designer duo that gave us the Eames chair (and many more wondrous inventions), believed that identifying the need was the primary concern of design.

© 2016 Eames Office, LLC (

In a questionnaire distributed at the exhibition “qu’est ce que le design?”, at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Palais du Louvre 1969, designers were asked:

“To whom does Design address itself: to the greatest number? To the specialists or the enlightened amateur? To a privileged social class?”

When asked this question again years later by Mme L’Amic, Eames responded: “Design addresses itself to the need.”

This brings us to the first stage in the process of design thinking:

1. Empathise.
There are various interpretations of the design thinking process, but whichever variant of the model you look at, the steps don’t need to be overly complicated or granular. It all distils down into core components: empathise, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

This first stage of the process is all about empathy. This means defining your client ‘need’. Use this step to understand the client and their learners, the context of the challenge ahead and to gain awareness about the way people do things and why. This might involve observation, or even immersion and close consultation with the client to truly put yourself in their shoes to properly understand their priorities.

As Hasso Plattner of Stanford’s affectionately known ‘’ puts it:
“Observing what people do and how they interact with their environment gives you clues about what they think and feel. It also helps you learn about what they need.

By watching people, you can capture physical manifestations of their experiences… These insights give you direction to create innovative solutions.”

2. Define.
The second stage is defining the problem at hand. Similarly, the first step in learning design is pinpointing our clients’ end goals and exploring the ways these can be achieved. This means identifying exactly what behaviour(s) you want to change or, ideally, ameliorate. Doing this does not necessitate using complex terminology, undertaking rigorous Freudian psychoanalysis of your clients or sifting through reams of data. Keep it simple. What does your client want, that they don’t currently have?

3. Ideate.
When you’ve clearly defined what your challenge is by honing in on your client need, you then need to know all of the different ways that can you tackle it. Be brave, be outlandish even, and be open to ideas you’d usually reject. In organisations in developed knowledge economies change is likely to be frequent or constant, and may require behavioural changes to be adopted quickly. In these instances, it’s easy to rely on tried and tested methods for rapid and guaranteed results. However, design thinking dictates that new possibilities are explored and that as many solutions are created as possible, all for equal consideration. Great ideas and real innovation can only truly flourish in conditions that are conducive to growth.

4. Prototype.
This is the iterative stage which begins initially by making cheap and easy representations of one or more of your ideas, culminating in higher-resolution prototypes which help you draw closer to the final solution. A prototype can be anything that can be interacted with, and is a much more realistic way to tease out reactions and opinions from people than simply storyboarding. The best way to get started is by just building something tangible. Grab some playdough, Lego, foam, or even just plain ole’ blue-tack and let your inner child run riot.

5. Test.
Test mode is canvassing feedback about the prototypes you developed earlier. Talk to learners and use this as another opportunity to empathise with them. Words of caution here are to refrain from being too leading; ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’. Ideally, prototypes should be tested in situ, and you should allow people to implement it as part of their normal routines wherever possible. Remember, sometimes experiential learning is the most useful.

Discuss what worked and what definitely didn’t, and try to “prototype as if you know you’re right and test as if you know you’re wrong” to ensure that what you’re making can really go the distance.

With its proven track record of enabling successful project management, and with some of the world’s largest organisations adopting it as a powerful framework for delivering creative solutions, if you’re not already familiar with design thinking it’s worth checking out. It helps enable a dynamic creative process for designers who can mould it to their media, their industries – and their advantage. Looking through the lens of design thinking can give you focus while paradoxically opening up digital learning design to ever more panoramic possibilities of innovation and creativity.

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