Will Design Thinking Replace Instructional Design? No. Here’s Why…

Charbel Semaan
Jun 3, 2017 · 5 min read

I received a question recently that I’m sure several other people are asking as well, “Is design thinking going to replace instructional design?”

While design thinking has the power to completely transform the way we approach learning and development, this question shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what design thinking really is.

I want to clarify how it works, how you can apply it to your programs, and why it matters.

Quick Background

First, there’s a key distinction we need to make here: instructional design is a practice, whereas design thinking is a methodology that solves something creatively.

They’re not mutually exclusive. They’re compatible. They work together.

In the 1960s, engineers and architects found themselves struggling to solve complex problems in a rapidly changing environment.

Design science was the first attempt at applying design principles to larger problems. It focused on bringing the best experts across disciplines to create measurable solutions for complex, global problems.

Newer approaches developed, such as participatory design and cooperative design, which involves all stakeholders in the design process, not just the experts.

From here is where our current understanding of design thinking emerged over the last twenty years.

Only recently has the conversation started to popularize in learning and development.

Design thinking won’t replace instructional design in the same way design thinking would never replace something like graphic design.

You do graphic design within the design thinking methodology.

You can apply design thinking to anything (including your curriculum design or training programs) because it’s a mindset — a way of approaching any challenge.

How It Works

Design thinking consists of five main steps:

Empathize → Define → Ideate → Prototype → Test

Let’s break down each step and look at how you can use it with your team.

(Check out a more detailed explanation in “An Introduction to Design Thinking” from the d.school at Stanford.)


Before doing anything else, sit down and empathize with the end-users.

Observe, engage, watch, and listen to the actual learners themselves.

The goal of the empathy step is to extract stories from the people you’re listening to — stories that could lead to insights and discoveries about what they think and feel.

Ask, “Why is this happening?” and learn about their experiences, perspective, and needs.


The next step is two-fold: 1) define the problem; 2) convert it into a design challenge.

1. Define the Problem
After talking to the learners directly and clearly defining the problem, you need to reframe it into a design challenge. You can do this by asking a question such as, “How might we…?”

For example, at Yahoo, we had a problem with low signups and attendance for IT training.

After speaking with many employees (end learners), especially veteran Yahoos who’d been around a long time, I discovered a pattern/sentiment:

Yahoos like to figure out stuff on their own and research on their own. They don’t want to sign up for workshops or watch a bunch of videos.

2. State the Design Challenge
How might we provide resources that are highly targeted, relevant, and quickly consumable so Yahoos can get what they need, when they need it, within their workflow and productivity?

The risk we faced if we did not distinguish the problem from the design challenge was continuing to crank out more workshops and lengthy screencasts that never fully solved the problem.


Take the design challenge and brainstorm solutions.

Generate as many as ideas as possible without considering any constraints like budget, resources, etc. The goal here is quantity, not quality.

Stanford’s d.school describes ideation as the “transition from identifying problems to creating solutions for your users.”


Take one of the ideas from the previous exercise and prototype it.

Don’t waste time trying to develop a full-blown end product — the prototype is simply a blueprint, a realistic model of what the final version could be.

The information you gathered during the empathy stage will give you all the content you need to get it done.

(You can also consider doing a design sprint at this stage to get a prototype out in a matter of days, but I’ll give you more on that in a minute.)


Put the prototype in front of the user and get immediate feedback.

By this point, you’ve spent far less time than usual getting to the testing stage, and you can make adjustments as needed.

No more waiting months for feedback only to discover your solution didn’t really solve the problem.

Use a small group of people on whom you can test the prototype, and you’ll be surprised how quickly you get a final version out the door.

A Quick Story

When I worked with Medallia, we were tasked with providing training for new managers.

We approached the challenge using design thinking and prototyped a 5-day email drip course.

Essentially, we created micro-lessons of the hottest, most relevant tips new managers needed and wanted to know.

Our conversations during the empathizing stage gave us everything we needed to develop the five emails, and we successfully tested them on a small group of people after asking if they wanted to opt in.

It took us a matter of days to create.

Remember how I said I would talk about design sprints again?

We conducted a modified sprint for this challenge at Medallia, and it allowed us to shortcut the time it takes to build and launch an idea.

We made the prototype and went straight to the learning stage to get feedback.

(You can learn more about design sprints here.)

So What?

Imagine…if you can build a prototype in five days, what could you do in five months?

Design thinking is a powerful and proven methodology that stems from the idea of human-centered design (HCD), which involves a human perspective in every step of the problem-solving process.

Too often, talent development teams will start creating a training program — usually using an outdated approach like ADDIE (analyze, design, develop, implement, evaluate) — without ever tapping into the deeper needs of the learners and the business.

They get their direction from executives or other stakeholders and make decisions based off their own opinions.

Three to six months later, they finally get to the “E” (evaluate), but the workforce has moved on and is no longer interested.

Conversely, design thinking keeps the business and employees front of mind and gets better results, faster.

Using design thinking as a methodology equips L&D teams to communicate more effectively and confidently with executives and stakeholders.

Design thinking enables you to start prototyping faster and stop wasting time creating a solution for the wrong problem.

Is design thinking going to replace instructional design?

In short, no.

People seem to be looking for the “next big thing” that will sweep L&D off its feet and into the next (or rather, current) century.

While there won’t be just one thing that upsets the industry, methodologies and strategies like design thinking can have a significant impact on the success of your programs.

What matters is how well you apply them to what you already do.

Thanks for reading. After scaling talent development at Google, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Medallia, and more, I created Sprintwell’s Talent Innovation Toolkit to share all the frameworks and strategies that worked and the mistakes to avoid.

Charbel Semaan

Written by

Founder+Designer @Sprintwell. Mentor @500Startups.

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