What Training Leaders Can Learn from a Design Thinking Approach

When one comes across the notion of “design thinking” for the first time, the initial thoughts that jump to mind might be about a design team at work. Well, it’s partly true.

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works,” Steve Jobs once said. Designers learn from things that we use (whether we find them comprehensible and user-friendly, want to use them again or not, etc.) rather than from things we simply consider beautiful but hardly applicable. In other words, design focuses on meeting people’s needs, and this human-centered principle is the cornerstone of design thinking. From literature, art, and music to business and science, this approach is used to simplify user experiences, making them enjoyable as well as helping to develop creative ideas and cultivate innovation.

Let’s see how implementing design thinking in your organization’s training program can make a real impact.

Enter design thinking when developing a learning experience

When we’re speaking about design thinking within the business framework, we imply a set of principles that define the way work is done. In other words, it’s a continuous process of creating meaningful, intuitive, and functional experiences that lead to innovation, more effective problem-solving, and business sustainability as a whole. Tim Brown, CEO of the global design firm IDEO, describes design thinking as an approach that “draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.”

The Design Management Institute has developed a market index to track how design-focused companies perform relative to the S&P 500, and the results were impressive: the former outperformed the latter by 219% over the past 10 years.

So, what are the working principles of companies that implement design thinking in their organizational processes?

In general, design thinking includes five imperative steps that might alter slightly depending on the objectives a company pursues.

design thinking

Solving Organizational Problems with Design Thinking, WSOL

All in all, the approach includes defining a problem, collecting and analyzing data (e.g. in the form of feedback), quickly creating ideas and prototypes, testing them in real-life situations, and the final implementation of a solution (the idea or prototype that worked best).

Furthermore, design thinking is based on three principles which are:

  1. Empathy for the individual.

The goal is to deeply understand the needs of employees and customers: what they need, what they lack, what challenges they face, etc. This will be the basis for defining a specific problem you are solving.

  1. Iterative learning by doing.

To find the best possible solution, companies need to adopt the “build fast – fail fast – build again” mode. It’s all about coming up with ideas to solve a challenge, testing them, and in the case of failure, apply another solution. In short, learn from failures and don’t wait until the last day to test the system.

  1. Flexible and holistic thinking.

When you think like a designer, you need to see the whole picture while working on even the most insignificant or smallest elements. You need to know how those pieces will fit into the big picture, contributing to a sustainable solution.

By sticking to the above-mentioned essentials of design thinking, companies can become responsive and flexible towards any emerging changes and challenges.

The ultimate tool for enhancing the employee experience

The employee experience is the so-called “from pre-hire to retire” individual’s journey that includes a number of elements: onboarding; relationships with fellow workers and managers; learning and development opportunities; physical environment and available resources to get work done, among others.

Design thinking puts the entire employee’s journey as the focus of how work is done while taking away all the unnecessary workplace complexities. It’s worth noting that two-thirds of companies believe that complexity is an obstacle to business success. That’s why 79% of executives rated design thinking as a crucial strategic step in increasing productivity.

In terms of enhancing employee experience, design thinking influences three cornerstones: talent management, ongoing learning&development opportunities, and the redesign of HR.

  • HR initiatives

The adoption of design thinking was one of the reasons why Airbnb decided to completely remake its HR department, broaden its function, and introduce a new title to run the department—the global head of Employee Experience.

The thing is that when HR leaders start thinking as designers, they become experience architects, focusing their attention on the entire employee journey to make it compelling, meaningful, and full of opportunities through a variety of tools and resources. Hamish Deery, Talent business line leader at Willis Towers Watson, compares this new HR role with being a movie maker: “It’s about writing the script and delivering the experience by piecing together different scenes with a variety of actors and editors to create a consistent whole.”

Following the principles of design thinking, HR leaders have to study employees’ journey maps within a company, define critical touch points, and gather feedback to check whether any challenges are apparent, determine what processes are working and which aren’t, and so on. Then, by developing ideas and prototypes, HR professionals can see what needs to be changed and what they should work on next to improve the employee experience.

  • Talent management

Talent management is the ongoing process of helping employees perform at their best. Proactive leaders will rely on empathy, one of the core design thinking principles, to know how to manage their teams as well as every individual while keeping in mind their needs and professional aspirations.

Design thinking takes an analytical approach to talent management, since it focuses on real-world data, to offer the best possible prototypes and ideas to solve challenges. Stanley Wood, design director at Spotify, visited twenty leading software companies to explore their design thinking to understand how people, processes, and tools work together at different levels of organizations.

This was an important lesson for me. I learned to sell the problem before the solution to activate change. I’d always sold change by selling solutions and then finding myself stuck debating and defending why it was so much better than what existed. I now try my best to always ensure there’s a demand for the problem before supplying any solutions.

Managers that embrace design thinking will work on real challenges and promote changes that will lead to innovative culture, simplify the work process, and remove barriers to creating high-performing teams.

  • Employee learning

Design thinking puts learners’ experiences ahead of training content. Having employees’ feedback on hand and real-time analytics provided by a learning platform, L&D leaders can offer more relevant and meaningful training material to power up their people and greatly increase productivity. If the data starts showing a decline in course completion or if the majority of feedback is about not easily digestible content, this is a red flag for a training leader to implement a change.

Design thinking is also focused on intuitive and user-friendly experiences. That’s why when it comes to learning, L&D professionals need to pay attention to the tools and technologies they use while delivering knowledge and updating skills. Such well-known companies like Nestlé and Qualcomm have used design thinking to develop highly intuitive, experiential learning programs. As Deloitte writes, “These programs are much more stimulating, engaging, and they lead to higher skills retention.”

How companies win over customers with design thinking

Design thinking can be a great tool for taking employee experience to the next level as well as increasing customer loyalty and competitive ability in comparison to other brands.

“Being a design-led marketer means prioritizing a holistic customer experience over siloed strategies, understanding customers in context and promoting empathy for their needs,” says Martha Cotton, group design director at Accenture Interactive’s Fjord Design. According to the Accenture Research, organizations that practice design thinking in the workplace gain more loyal customers than their competitors.

This user-centric approach, based on customer feedback, which creates multiple hands-on ways of handling a challenge, is used by many leading companies across different industries. Here are just a few examples.

  • Intel

Intel has adopted a design thinking approach in an attempt to make businesses more user-centric. It collaborated with more than thirty companies from software developers to retail shopping companies who wanted to crank up their customer experience.

Having studied customer shopping experiences and defining the problem, Intel and its software partner Volumental, launched a body scanning service with Intel’s RealSense 3D camera to significantly improve the way users buy shoes online. Now customers can scan their feet with a tablet and order the perfect fitting shoes, in this way getting rid of the issue of the high level of footwear return&exchange from ordering the wrong size.

The same approach can be applied when developing learning journeys for your employees: You might not use a 3D camera to measure the feet of your employees, but if you find a way to deliver the right training that fits perfectly with each of your employees, you will get a workforce that continuously learns and grows along with your company. Once you collect and analyze employees’ feedback to generate prototypes that work best at meeting learning needs with further solution implementation, you will get engaged, long-standing learners.

  • Ford

Designing a new car is a really challenging and responsible process since it deals with not only the customer experience in general but also with people’s safety. For this reason, Ford relies on the design thinking approach. Particularly, for the Sync 3 infotainment system, the company collected 23,000 pieces of consumer feedback on the Sync 1 and 2 to precisely determine what customers wanted from the new product. After redesigning the desired features, Ford invited consumers in order to introduce a prototype and see how they would handle a new platform.

Don Butler, Ford’s executive director of connected vehicles and services, explained the process: “We use what’s called a technical development kit. It sits on a stand or table and there’s a screen, along with other vehicle controls, so we can see how they [consumers] would use the car’s entire system. Subjects are monitored as they complete basic tasks such as entering navigation info or fiddling with the climate settings. They are then asked about their experience.” After this, Ford designers worked further on the improvement of product experience, taking into account consumer feedback.

When developing a training system, make sure to collect feedback from your people on how they feel about the interface, experience, content, and other aspects of the learning system. Leveraging pre-implementation reviews of your training program from a small test group will save you tons of time and resources by giving you a sense of whether the training works or not. When the test group tells you that they don’t understand a specific learning activity, find some content irrelevant or experience difficulties in completing certain training tasks, you will be able to make changes and eliminate issues right from the start.

  • Capital One

Capital One has made use of design thinking to exceed their customers’ needs. One of its effective solutions was the creation of Capital One Labs that served as a center for collecting user feedback and led to the redesign of various financial processes from signing up for a checking account to the ATM experience.

Richard Fairbank, CEO at Capital One, went even further. He decided to eliminate a recurrent issue with the overdraft fee, which customers viewed as a punishment, and not as a service (though the bank allowed customers to spend more money than they had in their account). The company opened Capital One 360 Cafes, a hybrid coffee shop/bank branch, so that employees could directly speak to customers and understand their real problems, not just preconceived ones. This initiative resulted in the creation of “a suite of options to replace the overdraft fee, depending on how customers wanted the bank to help them mind the gap between their savings and spending.”

What training leaders can learn from Capital One is that the continuous analysis of the newly- and long-standing established processes can uncover a lot of useful information leading to substantial improvements in the way training is done. By analyzing learning and performance data, one will see what activities employees don’t complete, where they’re stuck, what they skip, what content format works best, etc. to introduce needed changes (solutions) into the existent training program and to continuously keep refining it.

By embracing a design thinking approach in developing a learning system and even managing the organization, you will be able to remove all unnecessary workplace complexities as well as drive innovative solutions and business success.

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