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July 28, 2021

Suzanne Howard: How IDEO U designs transformative learning experiences


We had another incredible guest on last week’s Disco Livestream! Suzanne Gibbs Howard, partner at IDEO and founder and dean of IDEO U, joined me in conversation to share an inside look into how one of the world’s leading design firms crafts incredible online learning experiences.


In her words, IDEO U is “a learning platform where anyone can learn to solve anything creatively.” Under her leadership, IDEO U has served over 80,000 learners in 100 countries around the globe and pioneered a model for community-driven, transformational learning at scale.


I was blown away by Suzanne’s insights for our community of creators, including the key tensions to think through when designing online learning, how to build an experience that unlocks learning, and the connection between inclusion and psychological safety.  


Read on for our biggest takeaways from our conversation with Suzanne and scroll to the bottom to watch the full episode!



💡 1) 6 key tensions to balance when designing a learning experience - When designing a learning experience that is human-centric, Suzanne shared the key tensions IDEO U thinks through to unlock transformation in their learners:

  • Structure and flexibility
  • Personalized and social
  • Scaleable yet engaging
  • Hybrid model between digital and in-person
  • Making learning smaller yet still transformative
  • Balancing time working and time learning


Here’s Suzanne on the idea of tensions:

"We’re constantly looking at other learning experiences and thinking about how we design great learning and I think a lot about the tensions that we're balancing in a learning experience. There's this delicate balance of structure and flexibility, and we know everyone will always say they want utmost flexibility. But we know if you don't provide pupils structure and deadlines, no learning happens. We know it needs to be personalized and get social, we know it needs to be at scale, but also engaging.”


💡 2) IDEO U’s core pedagogy focuses on human-centered learning and the magic of try and share - Community and real humans are at the heart of everything IDEO U puts into the world. Their core thesis around learning is to unlock incredible moments for learners through the magic of try and share, along with the core tenet that you get better by doing - something we believe here at Disco as well.

“The real magic happens in try and share. That's where we're incredibly thoughtful about what it is and we practice what we preach. We prototype and test constantly. Then we also add in another ingredient, which is IDEO U is human-centered. We needed the right amount of human touch. So we have team members and alumni, coaches who are real humans on the platform, facilitating the dialogue amongst that cohort of learners.”


💡 3) Three key elements IDEO U thinks through for designing a course: Desirability, Feasibility, and Viability - Suzanne took us backstage into how one of the best in the business approaches creating learning, and how IDEO U evaluates its course concepts in three phases:

  • Desirability - is this something that learners want?
  • Feasibility - is this something IDEO can deliver on with a successful business model?
  • Viability - is there enough scale behind the idea for us to bring it to life?

And as Suzanne shares, the answers to these three key areas comes from constant communication with their learners:

“So with our topics we think through the classic for design thinking: desirability, feasibility, and viability. So it has to be desirable. We have to hear feedback from learners that they want it at a big enough scale. It also has to be viable, it can't just be five people who want to learn it. And then feasibility, we have to make sure that we have people and content inside of IDEO who are credible and that we are teaching something that's not just out in the world for free."


💡 4) The connection between psychological safety and diversity and inclusion - Designing for innovation means designing for diversity - and this needs safety.  Suzanne connected those dots so powerfully for our community, between how inclusion enables psychological safety for learners, which leads to innovation and stronger outcomes.

“There's very few people who would doubt that innovation gets better with more diverse perspectives involved. That's a major tenet of our approach. You need collaboration, you need diverse perspectives, you need people coming together, and then you will get more out of the box thinking."


💡 5) Designing incentives that go beyond accreditation - I loved the framework Suzanne shared of the course needing to be set in the context of the larger learner journey. This includes creating incentives along the way that goes beyond a certificate, and incorporates motivations and outcomes you want your learners to have:

"Learning has friction in it. So people need incentives, they need to be motivated, and they need an outcome that's worth it for them to go through that learning experience. And I really admire a lot of learning experiences that are connecting directly to a job market. Learners want to know even if they've only done the first step that there is another step that they could do, and that there's something larger that they're working toward”


Huge thank you and gratitude to Suzanne Gibbs Howard for joining me on the Disco Livestream!


Watch the full session with Suzanne here:

Disco Creator Sessions is a series of free workshops highlighting the creators and leaders at the forefront of designing learning experiences. Tune in each week as Disco Co-Founder, Candice Faktor is in conversation with a new guest where you, the community, will have the chance to join the conversation!