How to Leverage Design Thinking in Education Products for Better Learning Outcomes

Sean Oakes bio picture Sean Oakes

As edTech product designers, we have a unique window into empathizing with the teachers and students who use our tools. The design thinking approaches we use to solve problems already appear in classrooms under different names. 

We can leverage design thinking principles in education to build more effective edTech tools, achieve better learning outcomes in our products, and make our products even more engaging. 

Below, you’ll learn what design thinking is, how the approach looks in the field of education, and which edTech features and user flows support design thinking in the classroom.

Let’s dive in!

What does design thinking in education and edTech look like?

According to Ideo, a leader in human-centered design, design thinking is an iterative process of:

  • Asking questions
  • Gathering inspiration
  • Generating ideas
  • Making ideas tangible
  • Testing
  • And sharing your findings

Central to this process is the importance of empathizing with your audience or the users of your tool. From a place of empathy, designers can ask stronger questions, develop more creative ideas, test out their solutions, and continue to make improvements.

Design thinking also happens to dovetail with the way many teachers approach education. For example, you’ll find the cycle of hypothesize→experiment→report in a science class, and the process of draft→incorporate feedback→revise in most English Language Arts classes. 

Because design thinking is closely aligned with project-based classroom practices, your learning tools can support both teachers and students in ways that feel both recognizable and growth-oriented.

Why design thinking approaches in education support SEL skills

Design thinking practices are inherently social. After all, you can’t empathize with users without learning more about them, and you can’t test out ideas without engaging others in the feedback process.

This collaborative approach is also integral to social emotional learning (SEL). Skills like empathy, communication, and teamwork are key to positive social outcomes for all students. Like design thinking approaches to education, SEL frameworks give students a chance to practice these vital skills.

In order to empathize in the context of an ELA project, for example, students must recognize that they’re writing for an audience with particular needs—for context, explanation, and argument. As they share drafts with their peers, students also learn how to collaborate with others and integrate feedback.

Quite simply, design thinking approaches to education and supporting students’ SEL skills go hand in hand.

Since the start of the pandemic, finding ways to improve students’ SEL has become ever more important. edTech product owners and designers can better address this need by integrating design thinking principles into learning tools. 

More on this below!

4 ways to create better edTech products using design thinking

Done right, edTech products can leverage design thinking in a way that doesn’t just feel like a buzzy grab for professional development dollars or a meaningless trend in education circles.

Instead, consider design thinking approaches at the earliest stages of UX strategy to maximize your product’s impact. Here are 4 ways to incorporate design thinking in education products to support the needs of teachers and students:

1. Build supportive teacher-facing prompts and templates

Because a design thinking mindset is already integral to how many educators teach, then edTech products that reflect this mindset back to users will feel relevant and exciting.

Product designers and content engineers can achieve this by:

  • Giving teachers prompts and tools for designing lessons or projects based in design thinking
  • Building wizards that help teachers customize and distribute design thinking-based projects
  • Providing just-in-time professional development that demonstrates how to extend lessons with design thinking principles

In addition to being powerful time-savers, these UX features and user flows help teachers find more ways to spark creativity, prompt empathy, and encourage intellectual risk-taking in their students.

2. Make your product a hub for project-based learning

Project-based learning, in which students investigate a problem and work collaboratively on a solution over longer periods of time, dovetails with design thinking approaches to education, too.

edTech products can support these learning and SEL objectives in tools built to facilitate project-based approaches to education. Meaningful ways to do this include:

  • Helping teachers understand and follow student thinking and process skills in digital environments
  • Providing real-time feedback on student interactions using AI
  • Designing templated interactions or offering ways to resolve conflict and overcome challenges with the assignment

By helping students develop context for their work in the real world, project-based learning makes education more meaningful. It also helps students produce their own knowledge, which is a big motivator for student engagement.

edTech products that adopt these principles aren’t just using design thinking to support real needs and approaches to education. They’re also facilitating proven-effective ways to teach and learn that result in better product outcomes and higher user engagement.

3. Help students embrace a design thinking mindset

Design thinking approaches provide a built-in structure for students who need to tackle an assignment. 

This structure can easily be reflected by the user flows in your edTech product, giving students step-by-step ways to:

  • Use data to uncover what their audience needs, wants, or has questions about
  • Support how they find data on the internet with strong source material
  • Survey their audience
  • Create prototypes, versions, or drafts of their final product
  • Test their ideas and gather feedback from their peers by receiving and sharing comments
  • Track versions of their project over time

Just as this approach results in stronger product design, it will also help students produce a better, more meaningful final project.

4. Create features that improve SEL

Developing any creative solution requires emotional intelligence. Students, like designers, need to understand their audience and be thoughtful about when and why something fails.

In the same way that players of traditional video games don’t think of “failing” as negative, students can also be encouraged to see failure as part of a process that results in success if they stick to it.

These are learned skills that can be supported throughout the UX of your edTech product. For example, you can:

  • Prompt students to reflect on ideas or tactics that didn’t work
  • Ask learners what or how they might change about their project to get a different result
  • Create feedback systems that seem less judgmental and that promote failure as a part of the process

Learning tools that integrate SEL frameworks for students aren’t just supporting design thinking in education. They’re also building student engagement and improving efficacy, all while helping learners to practice crucial social-emotional skills.


By facilitating the ability of teachers and students to adopt design thinking practices in education, you’ll design edTech products with better learning outcomes, higher user engagement, and more value. Plus, you’ll make the entire learning process more meaningful, which speeds your chances of product adoption. 

From supporting SEL growth to helping students get complex projects off the ground, design thinking principles are a winning approach in digital education products. How will you use it in your tools?

Interested in learning more about the best SEL features to include in your learning tool? Download our free competitive audit to gain industry insights and feature ideas!

Let’s build the future of digital products together.