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A lot has been said about design thinking recently, and a lot of it’s really really technical. That strikes me as ironic when design thinking is supposed to teach us to do the opposite of being geeks!

Like all fashionable terms, it’s nothing new. Like so many other exciting ides, you will know you have got the idea when you stare at this screen and think something along the lines of ‘duhhh’

It boils down to teaching in a way that starts and ends with the audience; we begin by empathising with them, we follow a process to determine how best to teach them, then we talk to them to find out how we can do better. Sure there are things to think about and a process along the way but much of that is best understood by taking a look at the tools that are available such as  The Learning Ecosystem Canvas, rather than wading through long (empathy free) articles that essentially say the same thing.

Pause that thought…

I want to give you a puzzle. If you think you can can solve it, great. Otherwise, feel free to skim over it.

According to Monty Python, it is part of his kingly duties for King Arthur to know off-hand the speed of a European Swallow in both the case where it has to carry a coconut, and where it was un-laden. The speed has been much debated online and a figure of 11 metres a second is now accepted.

So, our unladen swallow (let’s call her Jane) can cover 11 metres every second. If she flies a kilometre (one thousand metres), it will take her 1000/11 seconds or about 91 seconds.

Now, let’s suppose King Arthur releases Jane and starts walking towards Camelot. He is pretty fit from all those battles, but has some pretty heavy armour on and so let’s say he can stride along at 5km an hour. Camelot is a kilometre away and so Jane gets there  in just 91 seconds. She turns around and flies back to meet Arthur who is now part way towards Camelot but as soon as she reaches him, she turns back and flies to Camelot again.

Without a pause, trusty Jane turns back and flies to Arthur to make sure he is okay, and finding that he is, that he is now much closer but still walking at 5km/h, she returns to Camelot.

Jane repeatedly flies between the ever approaching Arthur and Camelot without pausing, and flying directly between the two.

How far does Jane fly?

A spoiler will be presented below, so if you want to try it, I would encourage you to have a go at solving this before reading on. If you do, I would be interested to read your solution (before you get to the spoiler that is!)

What does this have to do with design thinking I hear you ask?

The puzzle above is one that some of you may be able to solve instantly. Others will need to get out a pen and paper.

That’s because I used anti-design thinking ™    … hey! I now have a catch-term of my own!

Let’s look at this same problem in a design thinker’s way… To do that, we must start with empathy.

Who are my learners?

  • Well, I know that readers of this blog come in many shapes and sizes.
  • Most are working in an area linked in some way to training.
  • Some will have done maths, many will not have done it for some time.
  • Some will get the Monty Python jokes, some will not.

It is safe to assume that the way I presented this puzzle will alienate people.

Fun as the Monty Python reference is for some, it is not relevant and simply adds complexity for others. Why add all that additional wording to a maths problem?

Don’t get me wrong, linking learning points to learner experience is often valuable, but not for its own sake!

With this case study, I can hardly claim to have been attempting to cast the situation as real world to allow me to train someone to deal with a situation they might need to deal with. Adding humour can aid recollection, but the only humour here is for that portion of my audience who is in on my Monty Python joke. Worse, the humour for them is in reliving the experience of seeing that film – my story is not in the least funny. If anything, the humour here will cause people to think about the film, not my puzzle and actually be a distraction from effective learning.

So in summary, I ignored my audience persona and embellished a problem for no gain whatsoever; I showed no empathy to you, dear reader!

What do they bring to the lesson?

Our learners will always learn in a way that has context. What they have seen, heard or done in the run-up to the lesson makes a world of difference, and it’s our job to consider what that might be, Equally it is our job to frame up the material accordingly.

In this example, I created context that was guaranteed to get a lot of users onto the wrong track…

So, our unladen swallow (let’s call her Jane) can cover 11 metres every second. If she flies a thousand metres, it will take her 1000/11 seconds or about 91 seconds.

I tempted you to start thinking about a particular type of calculation… the time it takes for a bird to fly a particular distance, and relate it to the distance of one of the bird’s laps.

Not surprisingly, a number of you may have started with that first 1km flight and 91 seconds, then the time and distance back to meet Arthur, and gone on to work out more lap distances in ever more challenging calculations.

What if I had said this at the outset instead?

The bird can cover 11 metres every second. That means that if she flies for ten minutes (or 600 seconds) she will have flown 11 x 600 metres = 6600 metres.

I would have encouraged very different thinking. With this as our ‘previous experience’ we are led to think about how far the bird flies in a particular time. Immediately after that we hear about Arthur and his 1km walk at 5km an hour.

Perhaps some of you are now seeing a different approach to the problem?

More empathetic treatment 

Here is another puzzle…

A bird can fly 11 metres every second. That means that if she flies for ten minutes (or 600 seconds) she will have flown 11 x 600 metres = 6600 metres.

If her keeper releases her 1km from home and starts walking directly home at the same instant, and if the keeper walks at 5km an hour the bird will fly back and forth between him and home for the time it takes for the keeper to arrive home.

How far does the bird fly?

That’s a fair bit easier! Yet all I have done is change the wording a bit to be a little more empathetic. I have eliminated some red herrings and I have chosen a frame up sentence that will cause readers to approach the same problem differently.

In the classroom, that frame up iwill have come from experiences over which we have no control such as the work environment, the policies of the organisation, traditions, practices, culture, personalities etc. Yet your choice of frame up governs how your participants apply it. They bring existing lines of thinking to your classroom that might seem applicable to them, but might not represent the line of reasoning you expect, so the challenge is to anticipate and work with or adjust those lines of thinking.

As we see from my example, one’s preparation might alter dramatically what people learn, cause simple ideas to become complex and have people give up altogether (hands up those who gave up on the first version of this problem…).

Nobody should design training unless they know their audience, understand their context, and have gone further to use empathy to anticipate the practiced lines of thinking that might appear applicable for the challenges you pose.

Are we there yet?

Okay so I suspect more readers (but still not all) have a distance for the bird’s flight.

… but there has to be a ‘but’ right?

Earlier I said that design thinking does not only start with the audience, it must also end with it. Our job is to assess whether we have successfully taught people the most effective way and then to iterate our design. (That’s why I would love your feedback).

But for now let me start by saying that the best solution to the bird problem is not to work out how long it takes to walk a kilometre at 5 km/h (12 minutes) then ask how far a bird flies at 11 m/s over 12 minutes (720 seconds).

Sure, it gives the right answer (11 x 720 = 7920m), but there is a vastly better approach.

This puzzle is still framed so as to prepare you to think in a way that overcomplicates it.

So here is my puzzle to you. See if you fan see a better line of reasoning for the bird problem and send me your solution. When you have found the best approach, look at my wording to decode how it leads you away from the simple solution to the less simple one. Knowing that, how should this puzzle be framed?

This is precisely what an instructional designer must do when creating learning empathetically.

Solution next week…

P.S. a really thoughtful quote on design thinkers from Don Norman :

“…the more I pondered the nature of design and reflected on my recent encounters with engineers, business people and others who blindly solved the problems they thought they were facing without question or further study, I realized that these people could benefit from a good dose of design thinking. Designers have developed a number of techniques to avoid being captured by too facile a solution. They take the original problem as a suggestion, not as a final statement, then think broadly about what the real issues underlying this might really be (for example by using the “Five Whys” approach to get at root causes). Most important of all, is that the process is iterative and expansive. Designers resist the temptation to jump immediately to a solution to the stated problem. Instead, they first spend time determining what the basic, fundamental (root) issue is that needs to be addressed. They don’t try to search for a solution until they have determined the real problem, and even then, instead of solving that problem, they stop to consider a wide range of potential solutions. Only then will they finally converge upon their proposal. This process is called “Design Thinking.”