Human-centred design in higher education is a culture change challenge

Human-centred design in higher education is a culture change challenge

A growing number of higher education institutions are adopting human-centred design but implementing that cultural change is challenging.

Higher education (HE) institutions like universities are complex ecosystems, with strategic objectives that span research, education, and impact.

They are places where people study, research, work, eat, exercise, socialise, and live their lives.

They are often deeply rooted in their history while also looking to the future.

They are grounded in a specific place and form part of a community network, as well as belonging to a global network of institutions.

They are often not a single unit but composed of myriad smaller colleges, institutes and organisations.

So, clearly, implementing culture change is not a matter of flicking a switch.

Why human-centred design works in HE

What we’ve seen over the last few years is HE institutions increasingly turn to human-centred design (HCD) to review, analyse, and challenge existing approaches.

It not only helps them make sure digital transformation delivers the intended benefits but also allows then to differentiate themselves in an intensely competitive market.

But the change needs to happen across the whole ecosystem. It’s no good if some parts of the institution are bought into HCD, and practicing it, if others are resistant and taking a contrary approach.

Tailoring HCD to the needs of individual universities

Taking a holistic approach requires us to weave together multiple disciplines and practices to create something new that works for that specific HE institution. No two are the same.

To achieve digital transformation we need a blend of skills including HCD practitioners, such as service designers and user researchers, supported by strategy and transformation experts.

The human-centred design approach is grounded in design thinking.

That’s an iterative process that helps us understand the needs of users, reframe problems, challenge assumptions, and come up with truly innovative solutions.

It’s usually built around the double diamond model which takes us through four stages:

  • discover
  • define
  • develop
  • deliver

For this approach to ‘take’ in HE institutions, it needs to be visible. When people can see the process in action, and participate, they are more likely to embrace it.

We also need to invest time in understanding the challenge and exploring a wide range of possible solutions. Again, transparency is vital, so that people can understand the thought processes that lead to those conclusions and ideas – and contribute.

Then, finally, we need to narrow our options to focus on the most impactful, feasible, and sustainable solutions. This is the point when we shift from the creative abstract to pragmatic reality. It is, in a sense, the payoff.

Going deeper on human-centred design

While putting users first, by definition, the HCD approach in HE has to balance the needs of:

  • users
  • business functions
  • organisations
  • systems

It encourages the creation of user-centric and sustainable products and services in the following ways.

1. A value-driven and strategic view of challenges

Taking an asset-based approach, we consider the organisational, market, and business context.

That ensures the value proposition will deliver business value, be operationally and technically feasible, and be sustainable in the long term.

Creative methods uncover latent needs, challenge future thinking, and support the co-design of value streams.

2. Adopting best practice in human-centred design

Service design in education is now a well-established practice with a body of referenceable case studies. It even has its own hashtag – #SDinED.

We can layer this sector-specific practice with ongoing development from the private, health, public, and charitable sectors.

HCD practitioners also like taking on insights and best practices from other related practices such as customer experience (CX).

The most important thing remains engaging with stakeholders and users to create accessible and efficient services that deliver great outcomes.

3. Community and place-based design

While the focus is usually on digital transformation, HCD practitioners also place a great emphasis on place-based design.

We need to consider the specifics of the institution we’re working with, such as:

  • physical setting
  • social context
  • community context (internal, local, national, global)
  • what it means and to whom

We also emphasise interactive ‘doing’ approaches, blending digital and in-person interactions, such as workshops. Or, to put that another way, we like to spend time on the ground, immersed in the culture.

Transitioning to delivery

The challenge that human-centred design projects often face, across all sectors, is getting decisions made.

As we move through delivery to roll out to deployment, there’s a risk that at each transition point, or decision gate, momentum will drop, or people and priorities will change.

In our experience, a good way to reduce these risks is to think about scale and feasibility from the start and keep a tight focus on value.

Testing propositions early and continuously through a lean product approach helps maintain that focus.

Building HCD capability in HE

HCD projects are always an opportunity for institutions to increase their design capability based on the ‘See one, do one, teach one’ model.

People observe experienced HCD practitioners, then take a turn themselves, and finally spread their knowledge to colleagues.

This leaves HE institutions better equipped to adopt HCD at scale, as part of their business-as-usual approach.

It’s a key benefit of working with HCD consultants and important to bear in mind when calculating the return on investment from an HCD engagement.

The concept of time in higher education

Where universities differ from most organisations is in their perception of time. Many of them are millennial organisations, even older than the government.

While they’re on fast and challenging transformation journeys right now, they have stood the test of time and many of them take the long view.

In that, their transformation experience benefits not only the institution itself but the rest of society and the economy.

By sharing their experience, they can teach us about transformation in ways that could benefit our cities, ways of living, economy and the complex systems we need to improve in a volatile world.

Want to explore further?

Get in touch with me on LinkedIn. I’m always happy to connect with new people in higher education and would love to chat.