Designing The Learning Experience

Design methods are conquering various industries as a customer-centric approach to drive innovation. It was only a matter of time that design thinking would leak into the educational sphere. By “design” I mean a structured approach of exploration, ideation and iteration, that puts the user/customer at the beginning of the development process.

At iversity, we implemented design thinking methods in the development of our online courses, as it helped us to achieve the following: 

  • It brings the learner to the table and helps course creators adjust their course offerings to the learners’ needs.
  • It makes course concepts more tangible for the team before the content gets produced, so that improvements can be made in quick iteration cycles.
  • It helps course creators to easily switch perspectives between the big picture and the detail level of a course.
  • It gets stakeholders on the same page and improves collaboration through active engagement and co-creation.
  • It makes the nitty-gritty part of the development process more fun.

Exploring the Learner

At the beginning of each course development process, we take a look at the learner. Believe it or not, but before we implemented design thinking principles, it was standard in our industry than online courses were designed by instructors with a very vague idea of who they are educating. For many or our partners it required a big mental shift when we told them we needed to talk to some learner representatives before even thinking about the content.

Any proper design project is based on real qualitative data, e.g. from interviews or a focus group. In projects with short budgets and tight deadlines, an in-depth research phase is often difficult to squeeze in. However, this step does not have to fall short, even under difficult circumstances. In contrast to scientific research that needs to be representative, design research is used to support the creation process by providing a deeper understanding of the users’ needs. Any input from outside that extends your own perspective and lets you grasp something about your target audience, can make your project better, as it sheds light on something that hasn’t been explored before. Even the smallest attempts of user discovery can have a positive impact on the creation process.

In design, any research is better than no research.

There are many ways to gain real-life user insights without a large research budget. Here are some approaches that we found useful and applicable:

  • Go to where your target audience meets and talk to them directly, e.g. conferences, fairs or university cafeterias.
  • Find people in your personal surrounding who match your criteria and invite them for a coffee.
  • Go to online forums and blogs and collect insights what people talk about.
  • Look for ethnographic studies on your target group.

For a learning product like an online course or hybrid program, your research should focus on the following points:

  • Does your target audience actually care about your intended topic? (Just because you care, it doesn’t mean they do, too.)
  • What would be a personal or professional motivation to participate?
  • What would be their expectation in regards to credentials like a certification?
  • What does their daily life look like and how much time can they spare for learning?
  • What prior knowledge do they have about the topic?
  • What technical equipment do they have available?
  • How experienced are they with the learning format you have in mind?

Creating Personas

Once the research is done, we turn it into personas. Personas are fictional characters that represent the target group of learners. They are an easy way to foster empathy for an otherwise abstract target audience by turning the gathered data into a personality with a “real” life and a personal story. If you have different learner types, that differ in central needs and characteristics, each group gets their own persona. Here is what a persona should contain:

  • Give the person a name, age and a face (image).
  • Give them a family status and some personal interests.
  • Describe what the persona is doing everyday (profession, family), what they are striving for and what challenges they face.
  • Describe their motivation to participate in the course.
  • Take a look at the persona’s infrastructure and skillset that is required to participate in the course.

Learning Journey Maps

One of the design tools we’ve been using extensively at iversityare Learning Journey Maps. They are a derivate of Customer Journey Maps, a service design method that is used to capture the experience of a customer along all touchpoints of a service. 

Originally, journey mapping is a descriptive method that is used to explore the real-life experience in an already existing service process. However, it can also be used as a creative rather than analytic tool. The big advantage or journey mapping for creative processes lies in the collaborative potential. You can build a complex structure of ideas in a visual and even tactile form and literally think together in a team while using your hands. If that sounds weird, give it a try. You will get what I mean.

The goal of the learning journey mapping process is to collect and structure for content elements and activities while staying flexible on the structure. Discussing the building blocks of the learning experience in your team, you work your way towards a logical course structure in a messy and iterative manner, all while keeping your ideas well organized. Journey maps allow you to switch between bird’s eye view and detail view easily, which is a big advantage in course design.

You can do the journey mapping in physical or digital form, though I recommend the physical version that requires brown paper, lots of post-its in different colors and some Sharpie pens. I recommend you to schedule 3 to 4 hours for a journey mapping session.

A journey map consists of a horizontal and a vertical axis. The horizontal axis represents the order in which the learner is supposed to go through the experience. The vertical axis will be filled with additional information relevant for each experience point. The information will be organised in different cateories and displayed in stacked lanes of post-it notes. 

Here are some categories that you can use:

  • Learning Objective: What is the learner supposed to understand, comprehend, realise, do, build… through this stage of the course?
  • Expectations: What are potentially the learner’s expectations at this point?
  • Input: What is the input that is needed at this point?
  • Activity: What form of activity are we planning here to support the learning objective? 
  • Medium / Touchpoint: How will the content be delivered? What medium do you need?
  • Ideas: A place for everything that comes up that does not fit into any other category.

Additional to the core elements of the learning journey map, I recommend to add a lane for the emotional journey of the learner. Once you have completed the creative process of content and experience planning, you can present your course concept to your target group and gather their feedback for each touchpoint. Mapping their emotional feedback can be a great way to show you which part of your course design could use a little more work to make it more interesting or engaging for the learners.

Prototyping a Course

Prototyping in course development can be challenging but is invaluable for testing and refining ideas. Walking people through the learning journey is one way to approach this. At iversity, we experimented with some other ideas for prototyping course concepts and found that paper mockups worked well for us. Rough paper mockups of the platform interface allowed us to display contend ideas that the test users could annotate or even play with.

Video and audio elements can be prototyped using storyboards. For video, you can make sketches to show what will be seen in a video sequence and add a short description of the narrated message. For audio, a storyline summarizing the key points of a narrative might be enough do get some feedback.

Prototypes are a medium to spark imagination and conversation.

The detail level for a content prototype is less relevant than one might think. More important is the interaction it sparks with the test users. Any prototype is a medium to help your test users imagine what the course might look and feel like and what the core messaging will be.


Design thinking has not just transformed how we develop courses; it has redefined our understanding of the educational experience. By placing the learner at the center, engaging in empathetic and iterative design processes, and continuously prototyping and refining, we create online courses that are not just educational but also deeply engaging and responsive to the needs of our learners.