Unit 1 | Identifying and Defining Design Needs



Creating meaningful digital learning resources begins with identifying a problem of practice in your context followed by an exploration of your end user’s needs. In this unit, you will review the five phases of the human-centred design process with a focus on the Empathize, Define, and Ideate elements. You will build on the knowledge gained from LRNT524 and explore a variety of human-centered methodologies and approaches for needs assessment. You will develop a design pitch video with a Design Note that communicates the problem you’ve identified, what you have learned from your users, and how a digital resource that you create may help solve your problem of practice. 

This Unit addresses Course Learning Outcome A: Identify a need that can be met by a digital learning resource.

Learning Activities and Assignments

  • Activity 1 – Review of Design Thinking and Design Notes
  • Activity 2 – Framing a Problem of Practice
  • Activity 3 – Empathy Methods: Learning from Users
  • Reading and Viewing for Assignment 1 – Informed Ideation: Pitching a Design
  • Assignment 1 – Digital Learning Resource Design Pitch with Design Note

Activity 1 – Review of Design Thinking and Design Notes

In LRNT 524, you were introduced to the notion of human-centred design in the form of Design Thinking. In this course you will build on prior knowledge. You will review and apply the Design Thinking process to produce a digital learning resource that helps solve a problem of practice that you will identify. Each of the activities in this unit will lead you toward completion of Assignment 1, so reviewing the assignment details and the unit activities below will help you to consider how to frame your design challenge and complete this course successfully.

There are many variants of the Design Thinking process in use today. For purposes of this course you are going to focus on the five-stage model (Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test) proposed by the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford (d.school). To begin a review of the Design Thinking model, watch the videos (or copy and read the transcripts from YouTube) for the videos below created by Patty Hastings (2018) that summarize the five design phases:

Design Thinking and Doing

Design Thinking: Empathize

Design Thinking: Define

Design Thinking: Ideate

Design Thinking: Prototype

Design Thinking: Test

Design Notes

Design Notes are not well described in the literature or processes of Design Thinking, but they represent useful constructs for purposes of the design of academic digital learning resources. Rather than providing a pre-set reading for this obscure topic, you are encouraged to explore some ideas for what a useful Design Note might look like in the context of communicating (documenting) your thought process as you explore the elements of this unit: 

  • Framing a Problem of Practice (PoP)
  • Determining who your stakeholders are (Users) related to your PoP
  • Accessing Users effectively to learn from them (Empathy Methods)
  • Analysing data gathered from Users
  • Developing a proposal (Define and Ideate) for a digital learning resource

Some related concepts and topics for this exploration may be field notes (in the context of qualitative research), design documentation (used in software and other product engineering), or mapping (workflow, project management, or concept mapping for example). Consider what type of process might work for you and ensure you have a justification for your choices.

Two additional resources you might explore for creative ideas are the How do You Design a Design Doc Medium post by John Saito (2018) and the Documentation post by Krisztina Szerovay (2018) there is a terrific diagram that accompanies the article.

Take Action

Share your exploration about Design Notes with your Peers in the Unit 1 Activities Discussion Forum in the Moodle Course shell and ask for specific types of feedback on your ideas that will help you to create an effective product.

Activity 2 – Framing a Problem of Practice (PoP)

Before you fully jump into the Design Thinking process, it is valuable to spend some time framing your initial design challenge from the perspective of purpose. Asking yourself why are you creating a digital learning resource is a good process to help ensure you are using your time effectively. A well-conceived design stems from a problem you want to tackle, and the problem (and potential solutions) are what guides and anchors you through the different phases of design thinking. Using whatever tools you prefer (digital or analog), think about your current instructional context and brainstorm some problems that you would like to tackle that could potentially be addressed by the creation of a digital learning resource.

The following readings for Unit 1 were selected to help you explore and define a problem of practice related to your professional or study. Review each for its approach to defining and articulating a problem of practice that you can then use as a foundation for the creation of a digital learning resource.

Ma, Fitchman, Adams, and Kennedy (2018). Understanding the problem of practice: An analysis of professional practice EdD dissertations.

Seelig (2013). How reframing a problem unlocks innovation.

Western University (2016). Problems of Practice for an Organizational Improvement Plan.

Take Action

As part of your Design Note for Assignment 1, articulate a PoP that you are actually experiencing, ensuring that you include your professional or study context, the context of your learners and other stakeholders, and how a digital learning resource may help to solve your PoP. A problem of practice can be as simple as the following statement:

“The use of open educational resources (OER) by Ontario educators is not widespread.”

This was my opening salvo in a doctoral dissertation leading to an amazing journey, a great research project, and significant learning about leadership and innovation in a mixed methods action research context. It is the type of statement that can inspire a simple digital learning resource or a much larger project. Share your PoP with others in the Unit 1 Activities Discussion Forum

Activity 3 – Empathy Methods: Learning from Users

Once you have defined a PoP, it is time to consider your stakeholders. In particular, Users that you believe need to engage with your digital learning resource to help solve your PoP. It is important to gain a deep understanding of your Users’ needs in order to design effectively. Empathy is the capacity to step into other people’s shoes, to understand their lives, and start to solve problems from their perspectives. This process involves observing, engaging, and immersing with the people you are designing for to understand their experiences and motivations in order to gain a deeper personal understanding of the issues, needs and challenges they face.

Before you dive fully into the first phase of Design Thinking, Empathy, take a moment to read and consider Kimbell’s (2012) counternarrative to the rush to embrace Design Thinking as a panacea for human-centred design success. Reflect on some of the problems and concerns that Kimbell raises about Design Thinking and consider your own context and situation as you begin to take action for your problem of practice with potential users of your design.

Read the Kouprie and Visser (2009) article, which proposes the following four-phase framework for empathy in design:

  1. Discovery – In this phase, the designer’s curiosity is raised which creates a motivation to understand and explore.
  2. Immersion – In this phase, the designer takes on the user’s point of view and, without judging, internalizes the user’s experiences.
  3. Connection – In this phase, the designer connects with the user on an emotional level by reflecting on the user’s experiences in relation to one’s own.
  4. Detachment – In this phase, the designer detaches from the emotional connection and steps back into the role of designer.

This framework demonstrates that empathy includes both affective and cognitive efforts, where stepping in is needed for the deep emotional resonating, and stepping back is required for cognitive reflection and understanding. Consider how you might be able to apply this framework when engaging in the Empathy phase of the design thinking process for your design challenge.

Please review the Empathy methods described in the IDEO (2015) Design Kit (i.e., Interview, Group Interview, Expert Interview, Extremes and Mainstreams, Immersion, Analogous Inspiration, Card Sort, Peers Observing Peers, Collage, Guided Tour, and Draw It) and think about which methods you feel would be most helpful to understand the needs of the users you have in mind related to your problem of practice

Worsham and Roux (2019) and Brescher Cook and Worsham (2018) have developed a design process and rapid prototyping framework (complete with Toolkit) that provides templated activities related to the learning design process. This model, including the Empathy phase of human-centred design can be used as a foundation for your work in this course. Review the associated webpages, with a particular focus on the Design Values pages (the Manifesto is a great activity) and the Design Process through the Empathy phase. Explore the concept of a manifesto on your and see what types of inspiration you find. Use the Empathy Map template to explore and articulate your findings from the Empathy method you choose.

Take Action

Using the Let’s Build Something toolkit, create a mini-manifesto that expresses your values related to the design of learning resources and an Empathy map that condenses your findings from the Empathy method you choose to collect and analyze data from potential users. Share your artifacts, along with some reflection on these processes as a Unit 1 Activities Discussion Forum post. Provide feedback and comment to your peers through their posts. The Empathy method you choose, the users you define, data you collect and analyze should all contribute to your Design Note and the contents of your Video proposal for Assignment 1.

Reading and Viewing for Assignment 1 – Informed Ideation: Pitching a Design

There are a variety of digital resources you might consult to inform the process of recording, editing, and finalizing a pitch video. The Techsmith advice on Explainer videos may provide support, and a smartphone tutorial from Jeff Tranchemontagne at Cambrian College are places to start. Key (2015) provides an additional walkthrough, but you are encouraged to find additional resources that inspire you to creatively fulfil the assignment instructions for this task.

Assignment 1: Digital Learning Resource Design Pitch with Design Note (Individual)

The purpose of this assignment is to provide you with the opportunity to frame a work or study-based problem of practice (PoP) that might be solved, in part or in full, with a digital learning resource. Toward this purpose, this assignment will provide you with practice conducting a human-centered needs assessment to learn from potential participants that may engage with your proposed resource. An additional element toward fulfilling the purpose of the assignment will be the creation of a video that could be used to pitch your idea to your participants, work team, or manager, The final element of this assignment will be a Design Note that helps explain your rationale and evidence you have gathered that support your design proposal. This assignment helps determine your achievement of course Learning Outcome A – identify a need that can be met by a digital learning resource. Instructions for the assignment are found on the Assignment 1 page.


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