About the author: Kevan Gilbert is the director of the 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.