Design Models

Design Methodologies

Instructional, Thinking, Agile, System, or X Problem?

Design brings forth what does not come naturally. While science is concerned with how things are, design is concerned with how things ought to be.

“Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones. The intellectual activity that produces material artifacts is no different fundamentally from the one that prescribes remedies for a sick patient or the one that devises a new sales plan for a company or a social welfare policy for a state.” - Herbert Simon (Nobel Prize Winner & Carnegie Mellon professor)

The table below shows five popular design methodologies (Instructional System Design, Design Thinking, Agile Design, System Thinking, and X Problem). It includes definitions, visual models, primary focus and goals, values, main steps, and further readings. I don't claim these are the absolute parts that make up each design approach as the definitions, goals, primary focuses, and steps may vary greatly from source to source. However, the tables notes the key points that seem to separate them from each other.

Going from left to right, the models generally are designed for solving semi-structured problems to increasingly ill-defined problems, however, the type of problem and the skills of the designer will generally depict which model might work best for a particular situation. In addition, choosing a primary methodology does not mean you cannot borrow or change processes with another model as you are in control of the design, rather than the methodology being in control—design is both art and science.

If you would like to discuss any of these design models, please leave a comment on my blog post.



Design Thinking

Agile Design

System Thinking

X Problem

Visual Model

click the button below each model for a larger image

ISD model


Design Thinking Model


Agile Design Model


System Thinking Model


Problem X Model


A systematic approach for developing learning platforms. Applying critical and creative thinking to understand, visualize, and describe complex, ill-structured problems and develop approaches to solve them. A method for breaking tasks into small increments with minimal planning that do not directly involve long-term planning. The iterations are short time frames that typically last from one to four weeks. Problem solving by viewing "problems" as parts of an overall system, rather than reacting to a specific part, outcome or event and potentially contributing to further development of unintended consequences. Used to solve wicked or complex problems for 21st century challenges that defy conventional planning.

Primary Values

Obtains business results through improved performance. Focuses on the wider social space of systems and society rather than artifacts and aesthetics by expanding engagement, impact, and sales. Builds a vibrant learning environment through communication, collaboration, and small but rapid iterations in order to sustain agility that adapts to a changing environment. Uses a holistic approach to goal seeking rather than focusing on independent elements in order to build a systemic interaction that results in a goal or final state. Uses extreme adaptive approaches to innovate when solving wicked problems, rather than designated steps that normally do not work well when facing such problems.

Key Feature

An older methodology that has rapidly evolved into a robust model for solving more structured problems. While focus is primarily on the problem and product, the model does use customer feedback for solving ill-structured problems. The model relies heavily on customers being part of the team so that changing requirements can be adapted to. Best for complex problems that effect an entire system or organization. Used for wicked problems that borders on the edge of chaos.


This methodology relies on a viable model to build the design (think of a guru who is the best performer to seek advice from):
You have an Exemplary Performer or a model of one that informs you of how the task or process should be performed.
This methodology relies on the designers or experts for building a best design (think of the iPad that no one thought they needed until it was available):
There are no models of the task or process so the designers, and perhaps with the help of experts, develop a new task or process. Customer feedback is normally used after the initial model has been designed.
This methodology relies on customers who have the insight to be major collaborators in the design (think of a complex process in your company that relies on a number of employees and needs improvement):
There are no clear models of the task or process so the customers, designers and sometimes experts collaborate to build a new model. The design is built using small iterations so that the customers can ensure they are getting a viable solution that fits their needs.
This methodology relies on gaining an understanding of the organization as a whole (think of a complex process in your company that spans several departments or borders and needs improvement):
Similar to Design Thinking in that there are no models of the task or process so the designers and/or experts develop a new task or process. However, it is realized that the solution may have a detrimental affect on a large part of the organization, thus the solution must be fine-tuned to span the entire organization.
This methodology is used for extremely wicked problems (think of a solution that often brings more new problems than it solves, such as diversity training or a new performance feedback program):
The problem and its solution cannot easily be grasped by the customers, designers or experts. Thus a new set of “eyeballs” work alongside the employees with the purpose of gaining an insight. When a new insight is discovered, a “test” design or solution is tried to determine if it is viable (called a “Design Iteration”). This process is continued until enough viable solutions have lowered the problem to a desirable state.

Main Steps or concepts:

1. Analysis: understanding and then describing the objectives needed to correct performance deficiencies (identify goals) 1. Apply critical thinking to gain understanding of the problem 1. Select the project and develop the vision. 1. Tell stories that focus on a narrative that will aid in discovering the issue. 1. Immersion: soak yourself in the problem to harvest customer insights and gain empathy.
2. Design: a process to achieve the goals in order to correct the performance deficiencies 2. Observe to understand the operational environment 2. Initiate the project by obtaining stakeholder participation, funding, and build team. 2. Look for trends in performance patterns 2. Convergence: bring together all things such as physical, technology, software, and services into a logical design
  3. Development: building the initial discoveries into a process that will assist the learners to become expert performers 3. Solve the right problem by defining it 3. Deliver small working iterations that meet the changing needs of the stakeholders. Normally uses Release Iterations - although the release may not be fully completed or functional, the designers believe that it is good enough to be of use to the learners or users. 3. When a trend becomes visible, develop a focus question that describes the context of what you are seeking 3. Divergence: explore new advantages. Unlike Agile Design, which mainly uses Release Iterations, Problem X mainly uses Design Iterations — the iteration is performed to test a method, function, feature, etc. to a small population of learners to see if it valid.
  4. Implementation: deliver the learning platform 4. Ideate: imagine or conceive solutions to solve the problem 4. Release End Game (deliver the final package). 4. Look for key causes and consequences 4. Adaptation: stay nimble in a fast-moving environment by going in new directions when facing roadblocks. Use your recent learning's of the problem to help guide your new direction.
  5. Evaluation: ensure the learning and performance platform is delivering the desired results 5. Adapt to dynamic conditions by prototyping 5. Production — operate, maintain and support the system 5. Look deeper into the problem. Are beliefs and values causing the situation to persist?  
     6. Achieve the designated goals 6. Retirement — remove when no longer needed 6. Plan an intervention by basing it on your understanding of the structure. What approaches and actions are needed?  
        7. Assess the results and fine-tune.  

Additional Readings

ADDIE Timeline,   
Wikipedia entry,   
Design Thinking... What is That?
Agile Design: An Ethos for Creating Learning Platforms,  
 Getting Real About Agile Design
Wikipedia entry,  
 Overview of Systems Thinking
Extending ISD,  
Got X Problems?
Fresh Trouble