Transform your learning experiences with design thinking

Ideas to respond to today’s non-traditional learner

Jacqueline Bhavaraju

Jacqueline Bhavaraju

Director Advisory, Human Capital Advisory, KPMG US

+1 212-872-6639

Fadi Salem

Fadi Salem

Director Advisory, Human Capital Advisory, KPMG LLP


Today’s business environment is fast paced, with new technologies changing industries seemingly overnight and market shifts forcing organizations to adapt on the fly. The COVID-19 pandemic only accelerated what many learning leaders already knew: Business functions must operate at the speed of change and address needs in real time, and the learning and development (L&D) function is no different.

“There’s nothing traditional about today’s learners.”

Although learning agility is an imperative for many training organizations today, it’s easy to fall back on traditional instructional design processes—especially when you are looking for a tried-and-true answer. But there’s nothing traditional about today’s learners, who may be working with team members in other countries or tasked with managing entirely new lines of business. Modern learners are looking for training that is catered to the unique challenges they’re facing in their role, whether it’s learning a new coding language or understanding how to build trust in virtual sales meetings.

While the science behind instructional design remains the same, its structured approach leaves little room for flexibility and, as a result, can lead to generic, one-size-fits-all program. Design thinking, an iterative problem-solving process to create innovative deliverables, can transform your training initiatives into tailored learning experiences that drive lasting results. Follow the tips outlined in this article to get started.

 “Design thinking is a way to uncover the truth.”

Step 1: Consider Your Audience

As a learning leader, your goal is to improve performance through learning. To achieve this goal, you must first consider your end user. Just as a marketer would consider his or her audience before developing a new product, it’s important to take the time to consider the challenges your organization is facing and how they show up in learners’ individual roles.

Empathy mapping, a tool used in human-centered design, is one way to gain insight into your learners’ individual needs and pain points. It also helps inform individual learner personas, which guide the learning experience design process.

Just as learners may complete prework before attending a course, empathy mapping provides the background information you need to deliver successful training. For example, an empathy map might reveal that a high-potential employee on the cusp of a promotion into management is struggling to consider others’ ideas and opinions. A learning experience for this employee might home in on active listening and empathy, two essential soft skills for leaders.

Step 2: Use Macro- and Micro-design Principles

From a design thinking perspective, your learners should remain front and center throughout the learning experience. But there are other factors to consider for training consistency across the enterprise, which is a common challenge for learning leaders.

Designers often look to micro- and macro-level principles when creating innovative programs. In L&D, macro-level principles include look and feel, language, energy, and other branding-related considerations. Additional macro-level considerations include your organization’s commitment to creating a learning culture, how individual learning experiences shape that culture, and how business goals are reflected in individual learning journeys.

Micro-level principles are more specific and tangible, such as designed data sets that reflect your organization’s brand and delivery formats that consider how learners feel, think, see, and perform in their role. In other worlds, micro-level principles help bring broader, macro-level ones to life.

Remember that design thinking is an iterative process. Continuously assess whether your principles make sense as your learning program evolves. If they don’t, pivot.

Micro- and macro-level principles enable consistent learning journeys, but only if stakeholders support them. Connect your principles to L&D’s ability to drive business impact and articulate this connection to your stakeholders. In doing so, you’re more likely to receive the support and resources you need to develop and deliver innovative ideas.

Step 3: Measure Early and Often

When it comes to training measurement, it’s best to start early. Before diving into the intricacies of your learning experience, consider what you’re looking to achieve and its connection to broader business goals. Then, determine which metrics will help you measure success.

When training on technical processes and procedures, knowledge checks and/or assessments may be adequate measurement tools. However, measuring the impact of more nuanced training efforts, such as diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) or soft skills programs, requires a closer look at the initiative’s impact over time, which is where design thinking comes into play. Think of measurement as a feedback loop. Just as you iterate throughout the learning experience design process, collect data and insights throughout the program’s creation and eventual deployment. This way, you can make course adjustments proactively, in real time.

Step 4: Trust the Process

On the surface, a design thinking approach to developing and delivering learning may seem time and energy intensive, but it’s worth the investment. It helps ensure that training addresses learners’ most pressing needs so they can do their jobs better.

If you’re used to the traditional, waterfall-like instructional design process, be patient. Learning experience design requires frequent iteration and testing, but because the learning is targeted to learners’ specific needs, it translates to outcomes that work.

Ultimately, design thinking is a way to uncover the truth. Don’t be surprised if your learning program takes a different shape than you originally intended. While developing a sales training program, for instance, you might find that the true problem at hand is not a lack of selling skills but of supportive sales leadership. Take a leap of faith. Trust the process, and see where learning experience design takes you. You might just surprise yourself.