Book Club: Laura Fletcher on the Power of Design Thinking in Training Programs

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Olivia Fuller: Hi, and welcome to Book Club, a Sales Enablement PRO podcast, I’m Olivia Fuller. Sales enablement is a constantly evolving space, and we’re here to help professionals stay up to date on the latest trends and best practices so they can be more effective in their jobs.

Teaching reps new knowledge or skills is often easier said than done. The training process can be tedious, and often learning programs fail to bring about the behavior change necessary to help organizations meet their strategic goals. This is where design thinking can really make a difference. The book, “Design Thinking for Training and Development,” walks through how to apply the human-centered design thinking methodology to learning programs to improve outcomes and make learning stick.

Here to talk to us about this concept today is one of the coauthors of the book, Laura Fletcher. Laura, I’d love it if you could introduce yourself to our audience and tell us a little bit more about the book.

Laura Fletcher: Sure. My name is Laura Fletcher. I’m a senior program manager for leadership development at Salesforce. I think most people are familiar with Salesforce, world’s number one customer relationship management or CRM platform. My role there is to develop and manage learning programs.

Before I came to Salesforce, I was the manager of instructional design at a company called Bottom Line Performance, which is where I had the opportunity to first really get in and explore design thinking, and ultimately coauthor this book with my friend, Sharon bowler, “Design Thinking for Training and Development.”

The book really came out of that partnership and being able to experiment with my team and try some new things, see what works, see what didn’t. I would say the book is really a documentation of our experience and where we found best practice and where we found cautionary tales so that we could help our fellow practitioners incorporate design thinking and have some quick success with that process.

OF: Great. Well, we’re so excited to have you here to tie into those topics a little bit deeper. As you mentioned, your book really centers on how to apply design thinking methodology to the development of learning experiences for employees.

I’d love if you could just tell our audience what is design thinking and why is it important to consider in the context of training programs?

LF: Yeah, it’s a good question because I think as you start to get out there in Google land, it can feel a little bit ambiguous. If I distill it down to its core, design thinking is really a human-centered approach to problem-solving. That’s it. It really is designed to prioritize understanding the context and environment of the end-user. Because of that, design thinking became really mainstream and popular within the product development space, but it has obvious application to solutioning in almost any field, training included.
What made it really attractive to us at Bottom Line Performance as we started exploring it was noticing how absent learners typically were from the design and development process. Design thinking pulls learners into the thick of things from the very beginning, keeps them integrated throughout the process. I think what makes it really well suited to learning and development is, in the book we talk about finding the sweet spot, which is balancing what the learner needs and what the organization needs, and also the constraints of the project. When you think about it, it is a triple Venn diagram.

Seeing this in action, we did some empathy mapping with a pharmaceutical sales rep a few years ago. We noticed that this persona that we created, they were in the car half of the day, they were working mostly on an iPad, but as new training initiatives rolled out, those often defaulted to e-learning courses that were optimized for laptop. As practitioners, we know there’s a lot of advantages to using e-learning. It checks a lot of boxes like making it easy for us to meet accessibility standards, making it easy to track completion. Those are very organizational-based needs, and they are at odds with the needs of our mobile-first field-based learner.

Those kinds of initiatives we can see very easily, they’re not hitting the sweet spot once we start to uncover that learner’s context. At the end of the day, ultimately, the organization’s goal is for those field reps to implement whatever’s being trained, that’s why we’re here doing what we do. When we take that time to uncover details about the context where the reps are going to be learning and applying the new information, it helps us be able to make more win-win sweet spot decisions about the content and the format that we include in training solutions.

I think when you just say it, it doesn’t seem like a big deal. One format decision, Laura. So what, we put it in a podcast or a mobile game instead of an e-learning course. But when you start to think about the learning journey similar to the way you would think about a customer journey, and you start to appreciate that just like that customer our learner can opt-out of a learning journey at any time, it does prioritize that learning experience design.

You start to optimize the format and you start to improve usability and you strip out irrelevant content. One by one, those improvements remove obstacles and annoyances that impede a person’s ability or that rep’s ability to engage with the content, and not only add up to a much better learner experience, but also help you achieve better outcomes.
It’s that sweet spot mentality that I think really is attractive to us in the learning and development space.

OF: Fantastic. You mentioned there are some problems that you’re seeing with some of the other formats that you were encountering. I want to dive a little bit more into those.
What are some of the common mistakes that you’ve seen companies make in the design of training and development programs, and how can design thinking help avoid or overcome some of those mistakes?

LF: Yeah. I mean, that’s what it boils down to, how is design thinking going to improve what I’m able to achieve? I mentioned thinking about learning journeys very similarly to the way that we think about customer journeys. I think marketers spend a lot of time considering, how does my customer find out about my product? What’s their buying experience like? How do I keep them engaged with the company to build loyalty or frankly, to build sustained behavior over time? Which is very similar to what we’re trying to achieve.
In contrast though, learning designers, at least in the past, I think we’ve tended to focus on the learning event. The course or the workshop or the thing. We spend so much time thinking about how to optimize the thing that we tend to give insufficient attention to what happens before the event and even more importantly, what happens after that thing. That’s really problematic because, for example, I can create the world’s most gorgeous and informative reference resources, but if I have to put those on an LMS where the experience is not great, so maybe it requires a lengthy login or I have to search or I’ve got to go through multiple click paths to navigate to what I want, I know that would demotivate me from trying to access those, and it really devalues what I’ve worked so hard to create.

If the pre-event interactions can make or break my motivation and then the event is able to either build awareness or build some initial skill, then it’s what happens after a learning solution or event that really decides whether my learner is actually going to perform that behavior on the job. I could create the flashiest product launch event the world has ever known. Maybe I’ve done a really thorough job in planning this. I’ve created talk tracks that could sell sawdust to a lumber mill, but if reps leave that event completely energized and then they get back on the job and they don’t have great customers to pitch to, or their managers can’t answer questions about the new product, or it just turns out they figured out they can make a better commission just selling the simpler stuff in their portfolio without support reinforcement or continued practice opportunities, those are all points at which they may opt-out of that learning journey.

The things that happen before and after a learning event, I think as an industry, are our most underutilized opportunities to build motivation and retention and sustained performance. I think not so much about errors that people are making as much as missed opportunities. When I started thinking about my role more in terms of designing this learning journey and less like designing an event, speaking for myself, I feel like I noticed a few things.

Number one, I was forced to understand my customer, or my learner, on a much deeper level than I ever needed to just to design an event for them. It goes from just accepting content to thinking about, what is the experience to get from they don’t even know that they need this to they’re sustaining this behavior consistently.

Another thing I realized, I really have started designing much more for the points of need and much less for formal training experiences, like full workshops. When I start to think about all the touchpoints that are necessary to get from point A to point Z, a lot of times you realize that formal workshop or that big event or that big thing, does it move the needle as much as those tiny nudges along the way? That’s definitely been something that I’ve noticed changing in my own practice.

And then the third thing that I would say it has changed for me to recognize some of these missed opportunities is that I gained a much greater appreciation for all of the non-training factors that influence performance. I think about things like the role of manager reinforcement or incentivization factors, or frankly de-incentivization factors or process inefficiencies. All these things that are affecting people’s ability to perform.

Those then become either assets or hindrances to the learning experience that I’m trying to create. All of those things now, I am able to take into account as I’m designing the learning journey and focusing much less on just building a pretty thing.

OF: Definitely. You brought up so many great points there, but one thing that you mentioned is really thinking about the customer when you’re designing these things, which in this sense is your learner.

You also mentioned at the start of this that the key to design thinking is being human-centered. What are some ways that practitioners can involve learners in the design of training programs to ensure that learning experiences resonate with them?

LF: Yeah. One point of clarification that I’ll make is I think when you first start to read about design thinking, you’ll hear a lot about empathy or empathizing. I think sometimes there is a misconception that this process is very touchy, feely. We’re all talking about feelings, and how did you feel about that learning exercise? In the book, Sharon and I very intentionally referred to the process as gaining perspective rather than empathizing. The act of collecting insight into a learner’s context as one critical piece of the design.
To your question about what are some ways that you do collect that insight or uncover some of those contextual factors, I will say if time and travel were never an issue, and I know they are, but let’s just pretend for a minute that we live in a world where that’s not a problem, I would always want to start a project with a chance to observe my target audience on the job. I’d want to experience their work environment. I’d want to see when, where and how they’re actually performing the skill in question. See how you learn things on the job when you have to learn a new skill. How do you usually do that?

I did an observation once in a mining facility where between the ambient noise and the required ear protection because of that noise level, I couldn’t hear a thing. I was listening to my guide on the worksite, basically lip reading and realizing, if I were a new hire in this environment, a misunderstanding because I couldn’t hear well could just have dire consequences. I know that’s a very extreme example to prove a point, but today I think a much more common equivalent is mask-wearing. When everyone is wearing masks, how does that environmental or contextual change affect how customer-facing roles are performed? How is that performer then working around that new constraint?

Another benefit of using observation as a technique is that you get to see firsthand how people’s tools and processes are impacting how they work. I think about a university admin staff that I worked with, they were using what had to be at least ten-year-old computers and software. Those challenges are integrated as part of their day-to-day reality, but if I’m creating training for them half a world away, it’s invisible to me as the designer.

Observation gives you so many advantages that we’re blind to without doing something like that. Now, I said that was if travel and time were not major constraints, and the fact is they are. While observation isn’t always a reality or a possibility, there are two methods that we love for uncovering some of that context that we really talk about at length in the book, and those are empathy maps and experience maps.

Like I said, we go into this in-depth. We give you really step-by-step instructions for using those, point out some of the best practices that we’ve recognized, including virtual delivery. With today being very restricted on the amount of travel and face-to-face interaction that we have, there are really good virtual tools out there that make those two activities, empathy maps and experience maps, really easy to use.

I think about something like Miro that has built-in templates already for empathy mapping and experience mapping. To be honest, in a low-tech version, I’ve found that using a table in a Google doc actually works really well because it does pretty well in letting multiple people work in fairly real-time, seeing where each other are typing at any one time. It just makes it easy to collaborate. Lots of tools to choose from in order to collaborate that way.

Whether you’re using an observation or interviews or experience mapping, all of that work is to gain perspective that’s going to inform the format and the content of your training design. When you’re transitioning from design into development, one of the other great and probably underutilized methods for incorporating learners is to do some quick and dirty prototyping and get them involved in that activity. You can get early feedback about what seems like it’s going to work best in your design.

When I say prototype, to clarify, this can even be as simple as a sketch on a whiteboard. I think we often go a little bit too far in prototyping, thinking it has to be more like a first draft than a literal prototype. My gauge for myself is that I want to feel completely unattached to a prototype for two reasons. If I’ve gone too far with a prototype, it starts to feel like it’s going to hurt to throw it away. If I get to that point, then I’m less likely to get totally honest feedback from my stakeholders. If it looks like it’s very polished, then they’re going to be much less likely to offer as critical of feedback as they might otherwise have.

The other thing is I want to make sure I’m not inadvertently trying to hold on to anything that I’m attached to in case it’s really not working, and I’m the sticky wicket. If you involve learners at the start of the project, doing observations, doing empathy mapping, and then you also seek their feedback through the development process, doing things like prototyping or other review cycles, you have a lot more confidence that the solution and the experience you’re creating is hitting that sweet spot.

OF: In putting the learner at the center of learning design, how can practitioners also balance the interests of the business to ensure programs also help achieve leadership’s strategic goals?

LF: That’s really what it’s all about. At the end of the day, that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing. That’s where that idea of the sweet spot comes in, balancing learner needs, organizational needs and project constraints. Honestly, it’s really difficult to over-prioritize the learner’s needs over the business. That’s probably because training requests don’t usually originate from our audience. In our line of work, the genesis of most of our training projects is with that business stakeholder. Any weight that we’re giving to the learner, we’re doing that as more of a counterbalance, so it’s hard to go overboard.

Now that said, measuring outcomes of training is vitally important. This is something that should be planned into the project, starting from the very beginning. I will say, a project or a solution that doesn’t solve a real problem has no hope of hitting that sweet spot because that involves having to meet business need, and business needs are focused on behavior change that impacts the bottom line in some way or cuts costs in some way. It has to be based in that real problem designed to meet a real need and we have to measure in order to ensure that happens.

While design thinking doesn’t have a lot to say about measurement, this is where we can look to best practices from the learning industry and pull in that insight and perspective. We all know measuring training outcomes is really difficult and even if you have strong data points like sales numbers, it feels very concrete, but it’s still hard to pinpoint what exactly is attributable to training and really what’s caused by other environmental factors. My best suggestion, as we try to prove the value of solutions to the business, is to pilot new training initiatives using that experiment group control group model.

If you carefully select a group that’s really going to represent your target audience, for example, you’re not just pulling the super motivated people that always sign up for everything, but if you’ve got that fairly representative pilot group, then when you look and compare data between that pilot group and the general population, it helps you be reasonably confident that differences that you see in their results can be attributed to a training program.

I would say, just to editorialize, my two cents about evaluation are that we need to stop being afraid of what the results are going to be. I say that as somebody that of course is not in love with getting critical feedback any more than the next person. If I have something on the shelf that’s irrelevant or that’s not useful, I want to know about that because the thought of having large numbers of people consume training that’s a waste of their time, or that’s going to compromise the credibility of future training designs that I publish, I think that’s much worse than finding out that a pilot program didn’t meet its objectives after all.

I have a motto that I say in my head about, today is the cheapest possible day to fail. Assuming that we can’t go back to yesterday and make changes in the past, today is always the day. Even if your changes are a little bit painful, it’s always the best to make those sooner than later so that you don’t have solutions out there that are doing more harm than good.

OF: I love that motto. You also emphasize that learning is not a one-time event and you’ve said that throughout this conversation as well. How can sales enablement practitioners help to reinforce learning concepts beyond training sessions to ensure that they stick long-term?

LF: Yeah, I really hope that this is what the learning experience design conversation gravitates toward, this idea of a learning journey. I think once you get into the habit of designing journeys rather than just designing events, you almost start to have a collection, or a bouquet, of potential reinforcement options that you can pull from and reuse quite a bit.

There’s a spectrum. When you think about reinforcing more awareness level topics on the low end of the spectrum, where it’s really more about the learner just deciding to do something, it’s not that they need a particular skill it’s that you’re just trying to trigger a behavior. Reinforcement could be as simple as some follow-up emails, checking in and saying, “hey learner, it’s been a week since our workshop, did you do the action item you committed to?” Something like that.

As you move down the spectrum towards more complex skills, just like your customer journey, it’s going to take those multiple touchpoints to address different points of need that are going to evolve over time. For example, what’s your learner going to need the very first time they run into a non-textbook example? What happens when they start to lose steam, how are you going to share success stories? How do you bridge the gap between when they first learn a concept and when they actually have an opportunity to apply it?

I mentioned having a greater appreciation for all the factors that influence performance. One thing that I’ve started to really appreciate in the design phase is that not all reinforcement, and frankly, probably the majority of reinforcement is not about providing another thing. It’s not about providing another resource. A big part of reinforcement is tapping into the environmental factors, the social factors, the systemic or organizational factors that are present in the learner’s context.

I think about things like, what is our manager’s role in the learning journey? How am I going to make sure my learners have the best tools for the job? I see learners that have the tools and learners that don’t, how can we raise that equity for tool access? I also look at things differently when it comes to invisible obstacles, or I mentioned things that incentivize or de-incentivize performance. Where can I remove or mitigate some of those de-incentivization factors so that they’re not compromised and we’re not making it harder for them to perform the skill that I want them to?

When we start to consider all of the reinforcement factors that aren’t just another thing, it really brings it back full circle to this idea about gaining perspective, the knowledge of the audience’s realities. If there’s one thing that I can leave people with, it’s that having that understanding and uncovering that context is a little bit like the key to the magic garden. It can help to unlock understanding and strategies that make you much more able to communicate, connect, and engage with your learners far more effectively, and in doing so to realize better organizational results as well.

OF: Fantastic. Well, Laura, thank you so much again for taking the time to share your insights with our audience today. I learned so much from you.

LF: Thank you, Olivia.

OF: And to our audience, thanks for listening. For more insights, tips, and expertise from sales enablement leaders, visit salesenablement.pro. If there’s something you’d like to share or a topic you’d like to learn more about, please let us know. We’d love to hear from you.

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