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Education needs design thinking leaders

Design thinking

About the author: Kevan Gilbert is the director of engagement strategy at Domain7. A facilitator, strategist, writer and coach, Kevan is a “co-creation evangelist” who has helped Domain7 and its partner organizations bring empathy-focused, human-centered design methods to the core.

The signs of life are springing up all over, and I’m realizing the potential is bigger than I had originally constrained myself to believe: We’re ready, I think, for a higher education leader to embrace the design thinking process, end to end.

I’ve seen admissions directors jam on student journey maps alongside athletics directors. I’ve seen deans and presidents share sharpies and Post-it pads. On our Acquia partnership with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, we saw staff of all stripes collaborate on a brand experience workshop that was foundational for teasing out a new design approach. These blossoming collaborations are showing me we might be ready to embrace design thinking, not just as a component of a digital redesign project, but to tackle some of the bigger institutional challenges we face.

Higher education is one of the key sources of personal transformation and enlightenment in our world, and it is facing a well-documented mix of challenging pressures. Meanwhile, entering stage left, is design thinking: at its heart, a practice of innovation. It has established itself as a proven method across various industries to solve problems, foster innovation and gain a competitive advantage.

I suggest that when design thinking and higher education finally connect, embraced by leaders within higher ed, we will see an approach adopted that has the power to lift us out of our institutional and industry-wide cycles of slump and decline, and truly embrace our potential.

What would that look like? Imagine a cross-disciplinary higher education collection (of leadership and technology and communications and admissions and academics and beyond) using design thinking to approach a higher ed problem at its root, choosing to ...

1. Identify the opportunity first, not the solution

Many higher education groups will kick off a project with a statement or belief like this: “We will restructure our academic offering to deliver on the president’s four key learning strategies” or “We aim to redesign our website in order to serve students and improve internal satisfaction” (Conventionally articulated through a large RFP).

At first glance, this seems OK. The statements identify an audience and provide parameters for a defined project. The problem is that the initiator has already decided on the solution.

Design thinking offers a different approach. It suggests the first step is identifying the true need of the user, before zeroing in on the solution.

We start by creating a simple brief. A healthy design thinking brief will contain the following elements:

  • It starts with the phrase “How might we.” This embraces openness (how), possibility (might), and collectiveness (we). With this phrase, an open-minded, constructive, collaborative approach is cued up from the outset, which is critical for all innovation.
  • It specifies the user group we desire to serve. It means not (exclusively) prioritizing the organization’s need, but instead a focus on providing relevant value for real people—a key ingredient for generating value in the market.
  • It indicates a future state for the user group. What journey are they on?
  • It doesn’t include the solution. We’ll get there. We must be patient.
  • It includes a paradox: what is challenging and worth solving?

Here are a few sample “How might we”-briefs for higher education:

  • “How might we better help prospective undergrad students feel more at ease during the admissions process by streamlining their digital experience?”
  • “How might we prepare 18- to 21-year-olds to become adaptive, nimble, continuous learners and find meaningful work, through an immersive, short-term experience?
  • “How might we help our 100-plus digital content editors to have a smoother administrative experience on our main.edu property?”

By articulating who we want to serve, and what we want their end-state experience to become, it sets our teams up to explore new creative possibilities that we may miss by deciding on our solution too soon. I’d love to see a higher education leader ready to start an undertaking this way.

2. Begin by talking to real users

Often, higher education leaders choose to act as the proxy for the communities they serve: “Our admissions team always talks to prospective students, they can represent their views,” we might say. Or, “Our communications team consists of alumni, and we’re already co-located on campus, so we can speak to the student experience.”

A design thinking process would begin, after the brief, by actually interacting with the intended audience. This might come in the form of interviews, focus groups, or other forms of qualitative and quantitative research. The aim is to understand their motivations and needs, their journey and their experience, before converging too quickly on a proposed solution.

3. Revisit original assumptions

From the brief to the user interactions, the design thinking leader in higher education would then revisit that original “How might we” question to see if it still stands up. How does what we’ve learned change what we thought we knew? How would we refocus this project to focus on the community’s true needs and provide the most value? From here, the design thinking leader would rearticulate the “How might we” question in the tightest possible way to guide the rest of the exploration.

4. Engage in divergent ideation

In higher education, the solution is often pre-decided: we need a new X. We need to redesign Y. And through this mode of thinking, new projects are undertaken.

But this assumes that all of our existing problems can be handled by applying a previously thought of approach. What if the problems facing higher education are complex? What if our industry is experiencing change, turmoil, turbulence or threat? Do the previously thought of solutions still apply? Can we be confident that unrolling a known approach is the way to tackle a newly emerged issue?

If we already knew how to solve the problem, the problem wouldn’t be here anymore. This phase of design thinking is about considering truly unexpected, unorthodox combinations and influences to arrive at new solutions to our new problems. It’s an unfamiliar, often uncomfortable mode of problem solving, but from the dozens of tools in our toolkit for facilitating a breakthrough ideation process, it’s often one of the most rewarding.

5. Test and prototype

The design thinking leader in higher education would connect back with users to show early iterations of the emerging idea and get direct feedback to influence the direction. It’s a rare show of humility and engagement and often the most powerful moment — showing our constituents we are serious about listening and adapting to their needs.

* * *

I would love to see higher education institutions choose to embrace design thinking from start to finish. In my mind’s eye, here’s what it would look like:

  • A brief would be created, instead of a stakeholder group starting pre-committed to a specific direction, and it would be human-centered, open-minded and collaborative.
  • User research would occur, in a way that enables the input to shape the overall project direction.
  • Ideation would occur — and not just contained to a specific area or element within a solution that has already been decided.
  • Testing would occur — and not just as a measure of quality assurance but meaningful input.

Don’t get me wrong, design thinking is no silver bullet. It’s really hard work. But it does provide organizations with an actual, formalized process, so we don’t have to wait for inspiration to strike, or for a hero to arrive, or for the threat to simply go away. The true power of design thinking and the design thinking process lies in its focus on people: by listening deeply to stakeholders, customers and audiences, we can shed the blinders of assumptions and push out of stubborn organizational ruts. Design thinking re-humanizes both the workplace and the end product or service, and gives us a chance to reimagine what is possible.

We’re on the cusp of industry-wide transformations that begin putting people first again, and higher education has a chance to strike the posture of leadership in showing how it’s done. This isn’t about “responding to the threat of technology” or “adapting the academic offering to becoming more competitive”— although perhaps that’s part of the puzzle. It’s about helping higher education continue to offer its tremendous transformational power by joining forces with a methodology born for transformation.

It might sound daunting, but it’s possible. Some of you reading this are more prepared than you think to put a team together that’s empowered and ready to take on an institutional or existential challenge at its very root. Here are some tools to get you started:

Get in touch with us at Domain7 to start co-designing a workshop to explore design thinking with your own school, university, organization or institution.

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