One of the aspects I like best about the student affairs profession is that we are always willing to borrow and share with one another. Articles, theories, job postings, opinions, experiences, research and best practices, advice, successful programmatic elements, current events and breaking news. You name it, we share it. And we are okay borrowing these to others. After all, imitation is the most serious form of flattery, right?
With the same enthusiasm, I wish to share a useful framework from the design, business, and technology worlds that I came across last year when attending an alumni event in the Silicon Valley hosted by my alma mater. The framework is called DESIGN THINKING; since learning about it, I have thought a lot about how this way of thought can be and is already used in our practice and work with students.
In the name of borrowing and sharing, let’s explore the utility and innovative nature of design thinking in a student affairs context.
Design thinking is, simply put, a process of critical thinking that places the end user at the center of the problem solving equation. Many know this as user or human centered design. At its core, design thinking is used to spark innovation, to find hidden possibilities that will satisfy and surpass the end user’s needs. Think about wearable technology like Fitbits or products used to purify water in countries that otherwise might not have clean drinking water. Or take a look at this recent new voting system created for the people of Los Angeles. The needs, characteristics, emotions, and abilities of the end users shepherded the design and problem solving processes in creation of all of these contemporary designs.
Students are Our End Users
Let’s take a look at design thinking from a student affairs lens. I think that we can all establish that STUDENTS are the end users of the student affairs world. Parents, faculty, and staff members are not at the center of our decisions. And while we work within the confines of policy, law, current events, and our institution’s history and culture, students still remain our top priority.
Five Modes of Design Thinking
Now that we have that determined, envision an issue you notice on campus or a problem that your office may be having. What do you notice at your institution? Do you need to breathe new life into a failing program? Or maybe it’s time you introduced something very new, different, or even a little bit outrageous (gasp!) to the students on campus.
For a bit of inspiration, consider this example from NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service that sought to enhance the overall student experience. Keep this issue—or your very own—at the top of your mind while we problem solve together through the five modes of the design thinking process:
Empathize. Student affairs practitioners are empathizers. It’s in our nature. Our formal training and theories direct us to center ourselves in the experience of our students. In the design thinking context, empathizing is exactly this. It is the work you do to understand people within the context of your problem or issue. In our NYU example, campus partners and researchers immersed themselves into the graduate school’s community and engaged in dynamic conversations about the current student experience to best understand.
To empathize as a design thinker, observe your end users and their behaviors in their own environments, like their classrooms or residence halls. Interview and get to know them. Watch and listen to them. What are they saying? What do they need in order to rectify the issue at hand?
Define. The define mode is all about “sensemaking” through creation of a succinct problem statement and point of view. What have you learned about the challenge you are taking on from the users’ perspectives? At NYU, researchers made sense of the student experience through a series of frameworks that identified students based on their “motivation for returning to graduate school and the clarity of their professional goals.”
Now it’s your turn—what insights about your students did you unearth as you entered their space and truly listened to them?
Ideate. Now that you have defined a clear-cut issue, it is time to generate ideas. Lots and lots of ideas. At NYU, university staff worked with IDEO team members to imagine numerous design solutions that would fulfill the intentions of each student described in the framework.
So what does ideation look like? Brainstorm. Make a mind map. Sketch it out. Take your narrow focus area and go broad. What are all of the possibilities? What would the world look like if your students’ issues were reconciled?
Prototype. Take your ideas one step further and create prototypes that will achieve your users’ end goals. A prototype is anything—as simple as it may be—that the user can interact with. Prototyping will start a conversation with your students and develop a rich, deeper connection with their experiences.
Test. Finally, put your prototypes to the test in the users’ real context. Take for example NYU’s efforts to create quiet study rooms, development of comprehensive “welcome” communications, and the introduction of an academic networking website to enhance graduate students’ experiences.
The next step will be to get these students’ feedback and take a moment to regain their empathy. After all, testing is ultimately a chance to refine point of view, solutions and find the best answer for your students.
The beauty of the design thinking process is that it is malleable and ever changing. It does not necessarily have to be a linear process.
Do what works best for you and your students and their context--make it your own. Maybe you test a few prototypes out with no solution. Go back to the drawing board and brainstorm even more possibilities for the students. Innovation is the key to this process and it, like many challenges we face as student affairs practitioners, does not come easy.
Put it to the Test
Now that you have taken a journey through the design thinking process that one university took to enhance its graduate student experience, reflect on what you might use the design thinking process to address at your own institution or organization. Keep the student experience in mind. Inject innovation into your practices and adopt the process to design a world full of possibilities!
Design Thinking Resources
Design thinking may be a newer term or way of thought for you. Here is a collection of resources to inform your practice and spark innovation in your students’ lives:
- Tim Brown’s TED Talk on Design Thinking
- Change by Design book
- Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, more affectionately known as the d.school
- IDEO, a design and innovation consulting firm
- Design Thinking Resources for Educators
- Design Thinking Comes to Age from the Harvard Business Review
About the author: Danielle Croegaert oversees over 100 student organizations at Sonoma State University in Northern California’s picturesque Wine Country. In addition to advising student leaders, her current interests include staff development and training, organizational creativity, and leadership/professional identity development. Danielle is originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin and enjoys sharing her love for cheese and craft beer with anyone who will listen! Beyond her foodie tendencies, she also enjoys shopping and pop culture, cheering on the Green Bay Packers, and contemplating the beginnings of her very own blog.