Get started using design thinking in Higher Education with these 10 steps

In the Incubator’s recent Innovation Lab, academics and students used the principles of design thinking to innovate and improve aspects of education and student experience at Exeter. Each project team worked with a Design Coach to support them with this new way of working. One of our Design Coaches, Dr Bo Kelestyn (The University of Warwick), reflects on how to get started with using design thinking to enhance university education.

Design thinking is exploding right now in HE. From discussions on the SEDA mailing list to various open-source sprints being shared, and JISC naming design thinking as one of the key capabilities for an HE leader in their 2030 strategy framework. As we are emerging from the pandemic, there is a strong need for new ways to co-create education, engage our learning communities, and define excellence. Design thinking is the perfect tool to help us think differently. In a recent Wonkhe article, co-authored with Warwick’s Dean of Students Professor Freeman, I shared my reflections on how to design our way to a better future. Design thinking has so much potential when applied in HE, but it can be overwhelming and difficult to know where to start. I have observed many reasons why this is the case. Some have past experiences with design thinking that achieved little more than innovation theatre. Others face resistance to trying out a tool from industry. Colleagues tend to think it either won’t work in HE or that it brings that marketisation of education argument too close to home. Many do not know where to start and what design thinking can really do.

I am here to say design thinking is perfectly suited to HE and can create lasting change. But change starts small and requires experimentation, which is often counterintuitive to the way we think in HE. Striving for perfection and the sharing of ideas only when they are fully formed might have gotten us academic excellence but it is an outdated (and counterproductive) way of thinking about innovation.

After having tested design thinking in a number of contexts, used it openly and by stealth, with staff and students, I want to share the ten key steps to help anyone get started. What follows below is not a lesson in a box or a toolkit. There are plenty of amazing resources out there, and it is fantastic to see them shared openly. But until we address our thinking and the ways in which we are set, design thinking will continue sitting on our wish list or a ‘to do’ list that we never tick off. So, here are a few simple steps to help you get started:

Step 1: Reflect on your current challenges

Begin by identifying the challenges you would like to address and thinking about the parts of your learning community that are touched by these challenges. The scale or the degree of difficulty do not matter here (or at least for now). Just list what bugs you or your students. Many design thinking practitioners do exactly that. They use something called a Bug List and note down things that they would like to change, daily. Actually write them out, do not just think about them. It is important for you to do this because it will allow you to articulate your thoughts, ideas, as well as share them with others. If you can, do this on a whiteboard or post-its (or Miro/Mural). Once you have taken all of those frustrations out, take a step back. What are you noticing? What are the patterns? Who is at the centre of these? Why do these problems matter? Where do they present themselves? Really sit with this list and note down any thoughts, ideas, questions that might come up about what you are observing. If you are tempted to skip this step (and I expect you might be), please don’t. This is the foundation, and I implore you to do it.

Step 2: Reflect on your mindset (and get ready to play)

Bias, assumptions, even our expertise can all easily become our enemies when it comes to design thinking. Let’s face it, we love the status quo in HE! So, as the next step, I invite you to think about where you are protective of institutional ways, legacy or even your own or collective view of how things should be or have been for the past x number of years.

Most of us can recall a time when we tried to create change and were told ‘this will not work’ or ‘we tried it here and it did not work’, or even the worst one to use in design thinking ‘I am just going to be the devil’s advocate for a second’. Whether you found yourself on the proposing or the questioning side of that, have a think about why that was the case. Try using these with yourself and colleagues to open up a dialogue, rather than allow it to be shut down:

  • What would make this idea better?
  • What can I add or do to make it a great idea?
  • What new ideas does that suggest or bring about?

Design thinking is a mindset and until you open yourself up to truly wanting change and looking at things differently, none of the toolkits or sprint methodologies will make sense or work.

As your mindset starts to shift, this step might challenge you to wake up your playful and creative side. The exact opposite might also be the case. You might feel stuck and in need of help to break out of a routine. In either of these scenarios, I suggest you start with Crazy 8s or the 30 circles challenge. These are fantastic for inviting creativity and  seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary. Try them with your students, your team, or even with your children!

Step 3: Find a critical friend

After reflecting on your blind spots and gaps in knowledge, it is all about looking to fill them. The only way to do that is through empathy and cognitive diversity. Once you are ready to pick up some tools and try out design thinking, make sure your team is as diverse as possible and ready to hear from the members of your learning community. As part of this guide, I encourage you to start small and find a critical friend. Preferably someone from a different institution, in a different role or pay grade. Schedule in some (virtual) coffee breaks and help each other with the steps in this guide, or simply share current pains and gains. You will be amazed at how much there is to learn from this process. Plus, you will constantly be exposed to new ideas and thinking, whether you notice it or not. 

Step 4: Timebox

We are all busy and finding time to work with design thinking is another major barrier. You do not need to find several days or hours, at least not at the start. Begin with 15-30 minutes and box that time off in your calendar. Timeboxing is a core technique in design thinking. Setting restrictions on time does wonders for creativity and productivity. If you do not believe me, search ‘enabling constraints’ or ‘Parkinson’s Law’. Having regular time to think and practice, even if really short, is better than a few hours once a month/year. Strive for consistency, not perfection.

Step 5: Narrow down to expand

At this point, you might already be questioning who you are looking to serve and why. If not, sit with those questions. Go back to Steps 1 and 2, if you need. The answers will all be there. Examining your point of view and understanding will point out more gaps in your understanding that you might like to fill with observations, conversations, informal or formal interviews, feedback, literature, etc.

Ego is going to be your biggest enemy here, so do go back to Steps 1 and 2 when you might sense resistance and reflect on why that might be the case for you. Or go to Step 3 and share your frustrations with your critical friend, who might help get a sense of candid perspective.

Step 6: Stay mindful

Empathy is a constant theme in design thinking, which is why you might have heard it being called human-centred design. The focus is on the people. This requires staying alert and mindful of the needs and wants of others, particularly the needs and wants that might be hidden or non-obvious but can be uncovered with research and empathy. Listen more than you talk or do (at least at the start of your journey). Forget that you are an expert, academic, grade or level x. Listen and look for patterns. You are creating new, not repeating what you already know, so listen. Staying mindful will help you fill in the gaps about the challenge and potential solutions, as well as gathering knowledge about different groups of people and yourself, generating insights for the immediate and future projects at the same time. So, stay mindful and empathetic, keep listening and observing, and tune into the things that might remain unseen or unspoken.

Step 7: Get inspired

As well as looking inwards, also start to look outwards more. There are so many interesting and inspiring examples of solutions out there. Which ones inspire you? The way your online banking dashboard works? Or maybe a restaurant ordering system? Perhaps a game app that your friend is using? Look for inspiration in things that excite you, or ask around for interesting ideas. These can be from any industry, location, etc, as long as they can give you something interesting and insightful that can be useful elsewhere in your work.

A great way to give this step a bit of structure is to do it in a team using  Lightning Demos. IDEO Inspiration Walks are great if you want something more solitary and different.

Embrace the messiness and the uncertainty. You do not need to have clarity on the outcome. Your goal is to remain open to possibilities, ideas and diverse viewpoints. Not to shut them down and move towards a predefined and single outcome.

Step 8: Pause and reflect

Once you have done the seven steps, pause and reflect. This is going to be a constant theme in this process and when using design thinking later on. Design thinking demands perspective, questioning, listening, and self-awareness. Pause to note down what you learnt so far, what you discovered, what others taught you and what else remains to be learnt. Journal and note this down if you can. This will really help you track your progress and articulate what is going through your mind as you are learning to be a design thinking practitioner.

Step 9: Curate your own toolkit

At this stage, you are probably peaking at the different tools and becoming really impatient to get started. What you might be seeing is that design thinking has many steps and iterations. There are also many schools of thought and ways of doing it. It can be overwhelming to narrow down to one that is best or most appropriate for your context. From my experience, the best tools and toolkits are the ones that work best for you. Mix and match, or work with just one activity, take a full week or a day, do it in a team or spend some time on your own reflecting. Neither are wrong when you are getting started. So, work out what you are comfortable with or excited by in the tools or methodologies you are coming across, try them in many small ways, and then gradually build up your toolkit and experience. Design thinking and its outcomes are tools, not works of art. Use them to serve you and move on easily if something does not work or is less than perfect. Experiment and share your results with others.

Step 10: Get started > test > reflect

Design thinking is a misnomer. It is more about doing than thinking, so just go ahead and get started. Test some of the steps out and reflect on these little experiments. The steps above are to be revisited and repeated frequently. Release yourself from working linearly and try to think of your work more as a spiral or a cycle. That’s all we do as educators. Think of an academic year or your institution’s student lifecycle. Design thinking is the same, it is about iteration and constant movement. Whatever you do, keep the momentum going. Finally, when it comes to design thinking, we are not thinking to build, we are building to think. So, go back to Step 1 (or any other steps where you sense resistance or need more time) and see what else comes up. Now, go ahead and get a team of willing critical friends to test out one of the tools or methodologies. You should have plenty of challenges, a mindset to get this right, and light the fire in others.  

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The University of Exeter’s Education Incubator scheme. Promoting pedagogic innovation and collaboration with an aim to enhance learning across the University and beyond.

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