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How An Iterative Process Facilitates Empathetic Learning Design

by Angel Green, senior instructional strategist | @LearnerAdvocate


This past spring, I delivered a premium training webinar entitled Design Thinking for the Instructional Designer. If you’ve done any reading on the subject of Design Thinking, you’ll know that there is a huge emphasis on the importance of empathetic design.

In the product development world, an empathetic design often starts by attempting to replicate the target user’s experience to better understand their current world, collecting stories and narratives to paint pictures, or conducting focus groups, observations and interviews for ways to probe into current product deficiencies or unmet needs. These are all excellent practices that we, as instructional designers, can (and should) do as part of our due diligence.

In many traditional approaches to the design and development of learning interventions, those research activities listed above and more (task analysis, gap analysis, etc.) are included as part of the analysis phase of our process. I share frequently of how I thought that I, in my previous roles before Allen Interactions, did a good job getting to know my learner audience. I did all of those things: focus groups, observations, living a day in the life, generating stories, etc. in my up-front analysis. So, if this was the criteria to creating an empathetic design, I would have said, “You bet I create empathetic designs!”

But, I would’ve been wrong. You see, I was creating sympathetic designs, not empathetic designs.

To understand the difference between a sympathetic design and an empathetic design, look no further than the basic difference between those two words. According to dictionary.com, “You feel empathy when you've ‘been there’, and sympathy when you haven't.” Don’t get me wrong, a sympathetic design is certainly better than a design void of any consideration to the learner or their needs, feelings, and daily activities, but it won’t be as good as an empathetic design.


In order to truly create an empathetic design, the learning intervention must be, in part, designed by the end user because only the end user has “been there.” In my old world, I spent a lot of time analyzing my learner audience. I would gain sympathy for their experiences and then I would thank them for their time and never return to them again, until perhaps a pilot or user testing.

The involvement of the learner in an iterative, agile development process like the Successive Approximation Model (SAM) allows you to move beyond sympathetic design and into empathetic design. You, as the instructional designer, facilitate a conversation and a brainstorming session (in a Savvy Start) and immediately begin sketching and prototyping the training intervention, involving the end user in the design of the training intervention. Be sure, though, that after the Savvy Start, the learner doesn’t disappear. Learners should remain a member of the project team through all iterations of the design and development of the program.

I believe we all strive for an empathetic design―an e-learning course that truly resonates with the learner audience and addresses their hidden needs.

I believe we all strive for an empathetic design―an e-learning course that truly resonates with the learner audience and addresses their hidden needs. The best chance of this happening is through learner involvement from the start through the release of the final product. When you do, instead of creating a course that feels as if it was birthed from a cubicle, a computer and a stack of analysis reports, your create something that feels as if it has been designed for users, by users—because it has!

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