From design thinking to learning experiences

From Design Thinking to Learning Experiences

Designing a learning experience isn’t just generating content. The process also involves thinking about how that content will look, feel, and be valued by users.


To create valuable and meaningful experiences, learning experience designers must work through the complicated and messy backstage activity that enables practical, pragmatic front stage success. Consider the design behind helping learners book a hotel room online, assemble a piece of furniture from Ikea, or acquire a skill in a classroom. Regardless of how the instructional information is delivered, the learner’s experience of “figuring it out” should be as enjoyable and hassle-free as possible. To achieve this end, designers must understand learners—seems obvious, right? But this means more than simply acknowledging a variety of learning styles. Effective Learning Experience Design (LXD) also aims to understand learners as “users.” How do they process, reflect, interact with, and contribute to the learning experience?


Let’s clear something up. I’m not going to dive deep into theory. Lots of great literature already exists for that purpose; I’ve compiled a list of our team’s favourite inspiring resources at the end of this post. As you browse that list, you’ll see some oldie but goodie design models such as ADDIE, Universal Design, Backwards Design, and Understanding by Design.


We also threw in Fink’s Taxonomy of Significant Learning, which integrates many of these models and includes specific criteria for determining whether a learning experience is well designed. What we like best about Fink’s integrated model is that it begins by analyzing situational factors about learners—in other words, designers should understand who learners are, what they need, and what they bring to the learning experience before making decisions about what they will walk away with after the experience is done.

The learning journey should be enjoyable, relevant, and tangible and, at its very core, should exemplify a well-thought-out and informed design.

Fink's model for integrated course design
(Fink, 2003)

These foundational models, processes, and frameworks are often mixed, matched, and adapted. This enables instructional designers and curriculum developers to ensure learning content and objectives are aligned, relevant, and accurate. Learning Experience Design draws from each of these models but takes it a step (or two) further by merging core instructional design principles with those found in design thinking and user experience design. The result? A more holistic learning experience for which the content, activities, and learning environment are deliberately designed around the end user (aka, the learner).


To sum it up, this series on LXD will focus less on theory and more on tools, resources, and strategies—so be ready to get your feet wet and your hands dirty!


Pijl, Patrick van der., et al. Design a Better Business: New Tools, Skills and Mindset for Strategy and Innovation. John Wiley & Sons, 2016.

Dam, Rikke, and Teo Siang. “5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process.” The Interaction Design Foundation,

Stiehl, R., Lewchuk, L. (2012). The Mapping Primer: Tools for reconstructing the college curriculum (2nd ed). The Learning Organization

CAST. (2015). Universal design for learning guidelines

Wiggens, J., McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. ASCD.

Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. Jossey-Bass

Quinn, C. (2019, February 5). David Kelley on the 8 design abilities of creative problem solvers. IDEO.

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