Visual Thinking and UX Design


Research inquiry on visual thinking and UX design. Two instructional design frameworks that interest me. 

Visual Thinking

I first heard of visual thinking during my first semester in my Instructional Design masters program. This framework for delivering complex information using visual media helps organize thoughts and improve our ability to think and communicate. It is especially a great method for instructional designers and educators when designing curriculum to externalize thought processes, making them more clear, explicit and actionable.

As a corporate trainer for a small healthcare call center in Colorado, I began to implement visual thinking strategies (VTS) when designing training and eLearning courses. Today, I continue to use pen and paper, dry-erase boards, and lots of sticky notes. I need tools that are tangible enough to quickly record my thoughts and ideas but also move or erase them during the design process. I tried using software tools for this process but I ended up spending too much time formatting and not really thinking creatively. Take a look at some of my design process examples (process in action / course structure). Using paper to draw out my ideas seemed more natural to me. 

To some people, the thought of having to draw is daunting; however, I don’t believe you have to be an artist to go through this process. Drawing is a natural process for thinking, exploring ideas and learning. Visual thinking, when used to externalize internal thinking processes, is not about drawing perfectly.

Visual thinking is not only used when designing courses or presentations. VTS can be used to strengthen learners’ communication and critical thinking skills, including creativity. By using visuals and asking the following questions, learners will feel encouraged to freely share their perspectives and thought process out loud:

    • What’s going on in this picture?
    • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can you find?

It is best to start with a question that prods viewers to consider the visual in an open-ended way. Then, follow with a question that challenges learners to support their views using evidence in the image. During this process, remember to give viewers time to study the image and formulate initial thoughts, then ask questions that will aid them in communicating their thoughts out loud. Finally, the third question implies that there is more in the image to be uncovered, contemplated, and discussed.

More on Visual Thinking

Inquiry Method

I had a general idea of the keywords I wanted to use when searching for information about visual thinking. I began by doing a Google search of “what is visual thinking?” which found 370,000,000 results so I decided to try something else. I knew I wanted to be more specific with my results so I searched “visual thinking for design” this providing me with 272,000 results. I was drawn to the second result, a PDF article with three book reviews by different authors. The book review of “Visual Thinking for Design by Colin Ware” mentions a chapter which focuses on the process of design which led me to my next inquiry “visual thinking in the creative process.”

By this point, I began thinking about how I practice visual thinking when I design courses and training material for my job. This thought triggered a current need, increasing critical thinking skills for our employees. I searched the university’s library for articles, books, or other resources regarding “visual thinking AND critical thinking” – the articles I found also mentioned problem solving so I added that keyword to my search.

I felt comfortable with what I had found so far but made note of a few articles to further my research. I’m particularly interested in implementing data driven critical thinking assessments to create measurable objectives.

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User Experience Design (UXD or UED)

This is a topic that always created more questions for me because it’s a concept that is applicable in various frameworks or modes of thinking when designing instruction. I always thought that I was always designing training for users; however, I learned that there is a process that can be followed to create effective instructional material that enhances the users’ satisfaction by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction with the product.

After all, as instructional designers and educators, we want learners to retain the knowledge we introduce. To do this, we must think like UX designers.

The UX design process (Minhas, 2018):

    1. Understand: The UXD process begins by first understanding the requirements, creating user personas, and define use cases. Get to know the users by meeting, talking, and observing them in their environment.
    1. Research: This process involves getting to know the competition and researching the latest UX trends. Knowing this information is key because it generates ideas.  
    1. Sketch: This is where you gather ideas and begin using creativity to draw and create wireframes. How do you want the product to look? Evaluate your ideas/sketches and re-draw.
    1. Design: Design images and create prototypes. This is also where UX guidelines are defined.
    1. Implement: Time to implement functionality and build experience. Technical functionality can be done during the early stages of the process, while design phase is in progress.
  1. Evaluate: After implementation, it is imperative the product is evaluated for its usability, ease of use, flexibility, purpose/intent, and user engagement.

More on UX Design Process

Inquiry Method

Again, I chose to begin my research about user experience design by doing a Google search. My initial search provided me with 1,340,000,000 results! Although top results were helpful, I wanted to be a bit more specific so I added quotation marks to my search keywords. “What is user experience design?” provided me with 40,100. When reading through the first few results, I saw a post from UX Planet that described the user experience design process. This is what I wanted! I thought I should look through the university’s library to see if I could get peer-reviewed articles about UX design process. When searching for “(user experience design) AND (elearning)” I found 4,410 results. Through this search I found an eBook that focused on creating eLearning courses so I downloaded it. Quite honestly, I was impressed by the UX Planet post I had found through Google because it simplified the entire UX design process.

What frameworks or methods help you when creating instructional material or other media to deliver information? 

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Brumberger, E. (2009). Technical communication, 56(2), 188-189. Retrieved from

Gray, D. (n.d.). What is visual thinking? Retrieved from

Hubbard, R. (2013). The really useful elearning instruction manual : your toolkit for putting elearning into practice. Retrieved from

Minhas, S. (2018, April 23). User Experience Design Process – UX Planet. Retrieved from

Moeller, M., Cutler, K., Fiedler, D., & Weier, L. (2013). Visual thinking strategies = creative and critical thinking. Phi Delta Kappan, 95(3), 56-60. doi:10.1177/003172171309500312

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