Design Thinking: What is this? Can this be used in Nursing Education? It sure can!

Design thinking has been a topic of conversation in the business sector for the past few years. Not surprisingly, I am hearing and reading about it more and more in the healthcare space-especially over the last 1-2 years. It is trending so much (and since I love trends) I felt it necessary to dig deeper :) My digging yielded a very high level of intrigue for this concept...this framework. I wanted to know, what is Design Thinking anyway? Why is the buzz getting louder and louder these days? It has been sighted in articles in Harvard Business Review, The New York Times, just to name a few. Once I learned what it was, my wheels started spinning as I thought some more as to how this framework is currently being used in healthcare, and taking it a step further, how can it be applied in a meaningful way to Nursing Education.

In a nutshell, Design Thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation and problem solving. It allows businesses to see issues and challenges from the clients perspective. In healthcare, our clients are the patients...but what if we also thought a little bit more about our nurse learners and their learner experience?


It is an iterative process that begins with one somewhat simple concept: Empathy.

In Design Thinking, empathy is that understanding of what is going on in peoples' lives and how we can use this to design innovations and solve problems. Whether it is looking for a new approach to an existing challenge or starting a new process, with Design Thinking, it is stated that we start with the people in which we are trying to help and empathizing with their concerns and needs. Just as we put the patient first, this is the same concept. Its about having an empathic mindset and a new, creative way at looking at problems. It makes sense why Design Thinking is making waves in healthcare as we tend to be inherently creative and often due to resources ( or lack thereof) we need to get crafty and use good ol' fashioned workarounds!

Before we go much further, I think it is important, especially for those who are new to this framework, to understand where it originated. Designing, as a science, has been around for decades, dating as far back as the 1950's and, as the framework is considered, after many iterations and adaptations, it landed in the hands of David and Tom Kelly from, what is known as the d. school at Stanford University (for the purposes of readability, I jumped to the current lead people behind Design Thinking, to date). David Kelly, Founder of IDEO U, a design consultancy firm, and the Stanford, put forth a six-step model and since it has come out there are variations to how many steps are in the model and what each step is called. Although the names and number of steps or phases in the various models are slightly different, they all have the same concept in mind: creatively solving problems by having a deeper understanding of the users which then leads to better outcomes.

Now that we had a very short history lesson, back to the stages of the model. The model that I will review in this blog is the one adapted by the folks at UPenn Nursing, in partnership with the Rita and Alex Hillman Foundation. They created an amazing array of courses, tools and takeaways on Design Thinking in Healthcare ( The model that they work with has 5 stages, with the first being Empathy, as I previously mentioned. Really immersing oneself with the clients, the people that are ultimately going to be impacted by your innovation. In Nursing Education, this would be our nurse learners, staff or students. Learning how they want to learn, what works for them, what doesn't, paying attention to their evaluations, making our education more learner centric.

The next stage is Define. Defining your key problem areas that need attention, based on all the conversations you are having with people and the analysis of their issues, challenges and feedback. The Defining stage helps prepare us for the next stage of Ideation as it helps you start to generating ideas of how these challenges can be managed or what new approach can be used. You've spoken to your clientele, you've listened to their issues, you have analyzed and now its time to ideate...brainstorm if you will. And this should be any and all ideas, big or small, budget or no budget...always better to work with bigger scale then trim down...

Once that has taken place you can now begin to create a prototype. A very inexpensive prototype (a plan if you will) that can be implemented and tested. This is pretty much where you get experimental to see which solutions may fit for your current challenges.

The last stage would be testing, where the prototype or plan is put to the test with of course many revisions all along the way. When looking at all this from a staging perspective it seems like its done in a linear or sequential fashion, but in fact it is not. It is very flexible and non-linear, as changes and more testing is done throughout all the steps.

I could go on and on about Design Thinking as I think it is a fascinating approach and more importantly, as nurses and nurses in Education, I think we can relate to a process like this as it so closely mirrors the Nursing Process as well-just as one of the prominent instructional design models did that I mentioned in my last blog.

As Educators, how do you see this type of framework working for you and your course offerings or orientation classes? This is a perfect way to break away from how "things have always been done" and looking at our education from a different lens. I am hoping that we are assessing our learners and taking it a step further and understanding the best way they learn in order to convey our information but I also know that time is not always on our side, especially as an Educator in practice. That still should not stop us from using an approach like this that puts our learners in the drivers seat, centering them as the owners of their education. And this doesn't have to take a long time--no need to over analyze with this model as it involves rapid trials of ideas and innovations. Asking ourselves what other ways can we improve the learners experience to maximize their retention of content and improve the patient care they deliver. Perhaps putting ourselves in our learners shoes to see how we would rather learn, sitting in on colleagues classes to see what seems to be working with their learners...and whats not.

Definitely a topic I plan to delve into some more!

Until next time...


Dam, R.F., & Teo, Y.S. (February 2020). 5 Stages in the Design Thinking Process. Retrieved from

Experience Point (2019). Design Thinking 101. Retrieved from

Ideo U. (n.d.). Design Thinking. Retrieved from

Szczepanska, J. (2017). Design thinking origin story plus some of the people who made it all happen. Retrieved from

University of Texas (March 2018). Design Thinking for Nurses. Retrieved from