Category Archives: instructional design approaches

Needs analysis with feeling

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to problem solving. It’s an iteratve and responsive process. For instructional designers (IDs), design thinking should be part of what we do. Despite pressures to develop learning experiences as “one-and-done” events, our designed experiences should be intentionally learner-centered and dynamic.

Even though there’s a natural synergy between ID processes and design thinking, many of the methods developed for design thinking aren’t consciously part of our routine.

During needs analyses, I’ve encouraged my team to apply a technique called “empathy mapping“. This involves going beyond the statements of subject matter experts (SMEs) who, while having valuable insights, are typically not representative of your target learner population. After getting access to representative learners–admittedly  a challenge under tight timelines– a needs analysis that’s informed by design thinking methods goes beyond dissecting process shortfalls. (Note that while I’m using the word “process” as a reference point for a particular problem-solving skill set, you could just as easily consider how a target learner is interacting with a particular technology, product line, or customers.)

This requires going beyond the surface and deeply understanding our learners. By asking…



….we begin to develop true insights into what learning needs are and what organizational supports need to be in place, or at least in the works, to complement any learning experiences we develop.

It’s important to connect with a spectrum of participants in a particular process including “extreme users”–the superstars and those who find the process challenging–as well as the more average sort. You can then develop one or more learner personas who represent your typical learner and take lessons from the extremes for good or to identify barriers that need to be overcome.

From empathy mapping to insights

Insights are your “Aha!” moments so its hard to give much prescriptive advice here except that as designers, we need to create personal spaces to have these insights. You can synthesize your observations using brainstorming, either as an individual or as a team or using some combination of individual and team work. The discipline to reflect and allow ideas to incubate during a synthesis phase can be difficult given that we tend to work in production environments and this effort can feel “nonproductive”.  This effort is nevertheless essential because this upfront work (and it is work) creates a more robust learning solution.

Problem statements

If empathy mapping is conducted for developing a new product or service, you’d  try to synthesize your insights into a problem statement. For example: My potential user (of the product or service) needs to _________ because _______________.

In the ID world, your organization typically has a particular set of performance goals it wants a learner to align with because of an organizational need or strategic goal.  Going into the project, you already may have something of a mandate that goes something like, “Staff needs to [get better at some type of performance] because [the organization needs a certain type of output].”

But what’s the WIIFM (“what’s in it for me?”) for the learner? It can be helpful to consider the pain points the learner needs to overcome and reframe that as a positive. “My learner needs to [overcome some challenge by applying a particular type of problem-solving skill] so s/he can [accomplish something that’s a perceived benefit to her/him.].” This can naturally lead you to the development of objectives that resonate with the learner and as Cathy Moore notes, these types of learning objectives are motivators.

An “aha” moment for me lately is how ID can and should borrow from many fields that put its intended audience at the center, whether it’s design thinking, video game design, Ux design, human factors engineering, marketing, or just plain storytelling. What non-ID fields are inspiring you these days?