Revamping a design thinking learning program for an EdTech startup

Audit, redesign and facilitation of a cohort-based online course and series of practical workshops on Design Thinking to improve interactivity and practical application for 500+ participants.

Learning Experience Design, Facilitation


Challenge: Revamp an existing introductory Design Thinking course to make it more dynamic, up-to-date and practical

Results: Significant improvements in learner satisfaction, retention, engagement as well as influence over startup’s training standards and technology practices

“Sandra fully understood our objectives and created an excellent lesson plan with the greatest professionalism, sharp expertise and extraordinary people skills. Her intelligence, active listening and proactive recommendations helped us take a great leap beyond our current training standards."

- Mathilde Beauge, Editorial Project Manager

The Client & Business Challenge

Unow is a French EdTech startup founded in 2013 that has trained over 20,000 professionals in small private online courses hosted on their propriety online learning platform.

A glimpse at the Unow learning platform and catalog

The courses consist of four content modules spread out over 6 weeks, embedded discussion forums moderated by a subject matter expert, virtual classes, and assessments leading to an official certification.

As a design thinking expert, I was enlisted by an Editorial Project Manager on the team to revamp the platform's Design Thinking course, which was developed years prior by another expert and was primarily video-based.

My goals were to steer the content toward the latest developments in Design Thinking and to make it more practical and engaging.

The Approach

With the client, we defined a strategy for the course revamp framed around 4 key phases (Planning, Content Development, Production and Implementation) that aligned with their typical course development process. As subject matter expert, I would assist with planning and own content development, while their team would take care of the rest.

I started with an audit of the existing Design Thinking course and a series of exchanges with key stakeholders to understand the overall business context and expectations for the revamp.

As a result, I identified the key problem areas to address: an overreliance on video formats, limited real-world applications, limited interactivity with the content, virtual classes centered on Q&A rather than practice of the methodology.

Matching learning ambitions with the realities on the ground

After reviewing internal playbooks and participating in numerous co-creation sessions with the Editorial Project Manager to align on the lesson plan, however, I was faced with two key challenges.

  • First, the goals for the course were vaguely defined and misaligned with the realities of the practical application of the methodology, the standardized scope of the courses and the resources allocated.
  • Second, there were no instructional designers involved in developing individual courses.

To ensure that the client would achieve its desired outcomes in learner satisfaction, I proactively stepped into a strategist and instructional designer role (in addition to subject matter expert) to:

  • Reframe unrealistic learning objectives toward discovery and initial practice of the methodology, which were more adapted to the needs of a novice learner
  • Recommend an intermediate-level training that situates itself in a longer learning journey to address future learning needs of certified participants 
  • Anchor course development in user-centric instructional design methods
Infusing learning experience design into the process

Once the lesson plan was squared away in collaboration with the Editorial Project Manager, I rigorously curated a library of comprehensive reference material on design thinking from primary and secondary sources, including my own work.

To facilitate a concrete application of the methodology, I decided to center the course around a fictional case on reimagining the airport experience, which was modeled after a real-life service design case at the Helsinki Airport. 

Rather than working on a text-centric content outline, I introduced the team to an iterative storyboarding approach that facilitated the design of a more immersive and visually rich learning experience for a novice learner and that provided ample opportunity for exploration and innovation.

A nearly finalized storyboard slide visualizing an interactive activity

I evolved a bare-bones storyboard with baseline content and visual placeholders into multiple drafts of written content, video scripts and rough mockups of visuals and activities that were refined and polished over time through ongoing feedback loops with the team.

The final storyboard was then handed over to the client's team for translation, editing, technical production (activities, videos, visuals) and implementation on the learning platform.

The final result: a rich, dynamic and interactive course

The end result was a rich course with varied learning formats to adapt to different learning styles and a series of interactive learning activities and assessments, which was improved and optimized over a 12 month period based on user feedback.

A practical activity on empathy mapping as tied to the course's central case study

Key content and experience elements include:

  • A rich assortment of content on theory, history, concept and concrete examples brought to life with witty writing, stock photos, custom illustrations, slideshows, demonstrative videos, synthesized module summaries and curated resource libraries
  • An organizational maturity assessment at the outset for the learner to assess design thinking readiness of their team or organization and practical recommendations that followed throughout the course across 3 different levels of maturity
  • Interactive activities and knowledge checks with real-time feedback for the learner to drive direct engagement with the content and the case
  • Challenges tied to learning objectives in each module aimed to promote real-world application in the learner’s personal and professional life
  • Regular prompts for the learner to participate in the case and to upload user-generated content (storyboards, sketches, etc) in the discussion forums for asynchronous personalized feedback from me and for comparison with peers
  • Instructional scripted videos that I wrote and that were filmed by the startup’s production team (some featuring actors, some featuring myself)
  • Inspirational video interviews and podcasts with design professionals, who I recruited and briefed
Reorienting Live Classes toward Hands-On Practical Workshops

Lastly, as the key facilitator and community manager on the course for over 12 cohorts since the launch of the revamp, I’ve embarked on a 15+ month journey since November 2019 and into 2021 to develop a complementary live workshop experience that builds upon the online course and offers opportunities for practical application.

Guiding a breakout group through an ideation workshop

My numerous iterations and experiments over 30+ workshops has led to the creation of a dedicated community workspace for each cohort (Le Bureau, a virtual workspace hosted on Mural) with templated activities centered around a second practical case on remote work. I leverage this workspace and remote collaboration tools to embed gamification, hands-on practice in small groups and real-time feedback into each workshop ranging from 7 to 30 participants.

« Le Bureau », a dedicated community workspace for the live workshops

In the face of operational and organizational challenges, I have also taken the initiative to drive change in the startup’s processes and technology to advocate and secure better learning experiences for learners. This includes influencing the startup to add breakout group functionalities to video conference technology, to break the convention model of 2 virtual classes by splitting them into 3 separate workshops, and eventually securing an additional workshop for participants for more practice. The design of my live classes has inspired a revamp of all virtual classes across all training courses on the platform to make them more engaging, structured and participatory.


Overall, the course revamp has been a success since its launch in November 2019, leading to clear improvements in engagement, satisfasatis

  1. Reach: 500+ certified professionals across disciplines, levels of seniority and industries
  2. Engagement: 600+ comments and interactions with the course content
  3. Retention: Completion rates hovering above 80% for most courses
  4. Satisfaction: Average satisfaction ratings of 4.5 for the overall course (4.7 for the most recent cohorts after numerous enhancements) and 4.6 for my interventions as facilitator

From a qualitative standpoint, the impact for the client included the successful adoption of improvements and increased standards in learning program design, workshop design, technology, and learning experience.

Select feedback from learners

I greatly appreciated the quality of the content and the comments and prompting from the trainer -- very encouraging and empathetic!
- Participant
I really enjoyed the course overall, particularly the diversity and richness of the content and the trainer’s guidance.
- Participant
I liked the richness of the proposed content, the possibility to dig deeper, the discussions with our trainer, the chance to work in a group (even if time constraints and remote working don’t make this easy) and the autonomy the course provided me.
- Participant

Take a closer look at how we can work together.

I help teams align their business practices with their values by harnessing the power of inclusive design. All it takes is an openness to change and a willingness to evolve your culture and practices.
"I strongly recommend Sandra for any job that requires strong analytical skills, an innovative mindset and leadership."
Muy Cheng Peich, Libraries without Borders