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How I Applied Human-Centred Design Principles To Learning Design

Updated: Apr 30, 2023

I’m going to start this story by going back to good old constructivism. I know it doesn’t sound as sexy as human centred design, but guess what? It’s the grandfather… In the past, we had behaviourists, who took the view that students are passive recipients of information which contrasts with the constructivist, notion that they should take a more active approach to learning, creating their own conceptual understanding (Douville and Pugalee, 2003; Ormrod, 2000). So constructivism shifted the learner to the centre of the learning experience. Bostock (1998); Walczyk and Ramsey (2003) explain that it is the learner’s own engagement, experiences and interaction that promote learning. Now, in my experience, where HCD comes in, is that it expands on constructivism. It can be used as the “how” of designing for humans, in our case learning experiences, but the application is really limitless. Unless we had a zombie apocalypse, then we’d need to change it to ZCD. My introduction to human centred design and design thinking started with our team running a four week series of virtual design sprints where we lead a client cohort of business experts through the steps of the design thinking process, creating concepts to improve real business processes. This included research, ideation, concepting new high level journeys, prototyping, pitching and then testing the concepts on key stakeholders. Luckily I was teamed up with some of the best and most passionate in the business, I had not only an experienced UX/business strategist, but also a senior colleague who has been both practicing and teaching HCD and Design Thinking for many years. They taught me the value of key concepts like divergent and convergent thinking- where we push our team to get creative and think outwards, then diverge back on the best ideas. Double diamond anyone? I was given the freedom to explore novel ways of running virtual sessions through Miro- challenging my team by designing a novel idea factory concept, which involved first visual creativity, then collective brainstorming followed by group synthesis and clustering. Qualifying the merit of these ideas was a critical step of the process- this is where we used the “Kill zone” during rapid ideation, where all bad ideas go to die… typically because the idea hasn’t been formulated properly or is not addressing the problem statement. Conversely, wild and wacky ideas should be encouraged, because whilst they might not be the optimal solution, they are a great trigger for creative thinking that leads to those awesomely innovative solutions.

Learning design Case Study #1 In my next learning design gig we were focused on rolling out training around changes to processes and systems as a result of new lending legislation. I was super keen to adapt some of these design thinking concepts to my own learning design practice. Luckily, my colleague who I was working for, was all systems go. So, first up was run a team based ideation session on the best training, change and supporting comms activities we could use to really make a big impact. I then ran a virtual, gamified collaborative session with some key audience members. Sounds awesome right? Well… it was an epic fail! They didn’t want to play, they wanted FACTS, FAST! These guys are traditional, they make loads of money and they have ZERO time to waste on new toys. Big slap across the wrist for me… and lesson learned: innovate in ways that suit your audience… OK… back to the drawing board… With lots of ideas buzzing – think outward diamond, we realised that audience feedback was even more critical at this point, so we set up sessions with key people representing our learner group and asked very specific interview questions to get a better understanding of their current learning experiences, what their preferences are and where the opportunities for improvement lie. This was then synthesised into a report, which we used to tailor the learning and change strategy to their needs, of course within the project constraints, like a ridiculously short timeline and inability to deliver face-to-face during covid. Our solution was now centered around our learners- research on current state and pain points, well defined problems, ideation on solutions. We followed each learning activity up with feedback surveys, which provided great insight into any gaps or opportunities for improvement. The project moved forward with slightly less gamification but loads of success.

Case Study #2: Learning discovery Next gig I got to flex my HCD capabilities started with a discovery session. The goal was to convert facilitator led training into a virtual offering, that would still provide the same impact and benefit to the learners, whilst having the flexibility of asynchronous learning AND be delivered during the midst of a pandemic. Where to start? First up, obviously was interviews with the experts to find out the goal and outcomes of the program. One challenge was uncovered that there was a site visit that perhaps due to the appeal of getting out the office for half a day, was one of the most popular aspects of the course. How could we replace this virtually? The next step was to interview the participants, which was where the real insights could be surfaced. I started with 3 simple questions- What did you enjoy about the course? Which areas of the course did you find most useful in your role? What do you feel could be improved? With learners across the entire organisation, ranging from data scientist, to project coordinators, it became very clear that these varied profiles drew vastly different knowledge and benefits from the program. How then, could we design a program that would appeal to all? The new program design not only utilised existing topics, but introduced critical new end-to-end overviews that would better bridge people’s understanding with a high level view. Technical detail was de-prioritised over conceptual understanding, and further interest in specific topics was supported with links to extra detail. During the development phase, the benefits of independent learning were further explored, with the self-paced learning enabling the participant to focus on or skip over certain topics based on their individual interests. Summary To summarize- if you are seeking to use Design Thinking methods in your learning design, some steps you can use are:

  1. Do the research on what the current learning is, what it aims to achieve, what are the pain points and issues of the learners.

  2. Collect information- both anecdotal and data from actual learners on what they thought of the learning and or what their preferences are.

  3. Ideate on solutions with the learning team & key business stakeholders, taking into account learner preferences and pain points, while focussing around the desired outcomes of the learning.

  4. I think most learning designers are familiar with the concept of a pilot, which is an effective way of prototyping a solution- don’t forget to include meaningful evaluation and feedback mechanisms.

If you would like some help implementing learning solutions using a human-centred design approach, please get in touch!


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