We love going into old style bookshops and seeing “staff recommendations” of favorite books. Expert and personal curation goes a long way in the algorithm age. We thought we‘d carry the tradition over to the Education Design Lab and ask staff members to share their favorite design tools that they have used this past year which has brought the most clarity and focus to their design work with schools and universities.

 

1. Design Question

Reframing design questions is all about more questions: How does it work? Who is serving? For what purpose?

Reframing design questions is all about more questions: How does it work? Who is serving? For what purpose?

Recommended by: Gabi Schiro, Graphic Designer

What it is

A design question is the “How might we…?” question that addresses the project purpose. Capturing the essence of the core problem and opportunity—the “design challenge”—the question should be revisited frequently and anchor all of the team’s activities. Question reframing is often thought to be the core work of design thinking.

Example of it in action

In 2015, the Lab worked with Lumina Foundation and HCM Strategists to create innovation tools and design capacity for large public universities, a project titled Traditional Model Redesign. The original Design Question asked,

How can growth-driven public universities create adaptive operating models that harness advances in teaching and learning to help more 21st century students earn meaningful degrees and certificates?

After revisiting, rethinking, and reframing it, this question iterated into a new version:

How can growth-oriented public universities develop operating models that capitalize on advances in teaching and learning to expand capacity to serve and graduate more students of color and high-need students?

This new version set the stage for work that was more impactful and action-oriented. While in this case the reframing of the question made it more specific, it is also acceptable to reframe a question that is too specific to become more general.

Why it matters

Every design challenge at the Education Design Lab is initially framed by a design question. Often reframed several times, this evolution documents what we’ve learned so far about what problem we need to solve. The “living” question provides each member of the team with a thorough understanding of the problems and goals. And because it’s designed to evolve, the questions allows the team to align on the people, systems, and contexts associated with the project over time.

 

2. Design Criteria

Recommended by: Ricardo Goncalves, Designer In Residence

What it is

Design criteria are derived by drawing themes from research into a design question’s people, systems and context. These themes suggest insights into what a solution would need to generate in order to be successful. Critically, design criteria indicate what a design should accomplish, not how. And, they act as guard rails throughout the design process.

Example of it in action

Last year, Ricardo ran a series of workshops with students in the US, India, and China, all organized to identify a new learning process. During the workshops in the US and in India, they created cards describing the design criteria and which explained the intentions of the project. In showing them to the Chinese students, Ricardo and his team wanted to determine how what they were building might fit into the context of China, rather than just the US or India. They had students consider the criteria and evaluate their projects accordingly, pushing them to think from different needs and angles.

Why it matters

These experiences, of pushing folks to consider criteria and evaluating their projects from those criteria, empower people to share what they think. Often, people do not have the experience of shaping the criteria which define one’s design experience. That is why it is important for them to define, discuss, and redefine the criteria, thinking and challenging assumptions. Anytime a process asks people “What do you think? What is your experience?”, then they will feel empowered. This is where the real opportunity for creating novel solutions comes from. Tools like design criteria create the space for new perspectives and new thinking. And this is where the opportunity for creating novel solutions comes from.

 

3. Student Journey Maps

Recommended by: Alex Williams, ReDesign Associate

What it is

To better understand a user's experience, we build journey maps of their actions, thoughts and emotions.

To better understand a user’s experience, we build journey maps of their actions, thoughts and emotions.

In design thinking, journey maps are used to understand a user’s experience more clearly through mapping their thoughts, actions, and emotional highs and lows. We’ve adapted this tool for education as a student journey map, to understand how a student experiences their higher ed journey. As opposed to storyboards, journey maps are reflective and look at what is or was.

Example of it in action

When we worked with the University of Maryland to understand what support students might need by 2020 as learning becomes more digital, these maps helped us empathize with student’s needs and behaviors through key stages of the learning process, allowing us to identify valuable design criteria.

Why it matters

Whether it’s a professor better understanding the academic obstacles facing her students or an admissions officer learning the decision-points a potential applicant faces when they visit campus, student journey maps are an effective tool for visualizing and making sense of the student experience. It’s a strategy for empathy, highlighting opportunities and emotions students experience in order to inform our work.

 

4. Storyboarding

Recommended by: Binh Do, Director of Projects

What it is

A storyboard is a graphic organizer in the form of sketches developed by teams or individuals. Like a series of panels in a comic, the sketches are displayed in sequence for the purpose of pre-visualization to help demonstrate how users (such as students and staff) might interact with possible solutions to a challenge or problem. Included are prompts to help teams consider how the prototype solution will be used and what behaviors and feelings users might exhibit while using it. As opposed to journey maps, storyboards are predictive and look at what can be or might be.

Example of it in action

While working with Western Governors University (WGU) to redesign their students’ peer-to-peer engagement experiences, we organized a Prototyping Session that brought together industry professionals, design partners alongside, and WGU students and alumni. We asked teams to sketch a storyboard to tell the story of how a student might encounter a problem and how they would interact with different prototype to solve this problem. at each stage of the storyboard. Each of these became a panel that, when sequenced together, helped participants to empathize with those students. It also can be used to pressure test a problem solving approach.

Why it matters

Storyboards help create empathy, which can be used to ideate, decipher, and interpret how students feel, as opposed to just building solutions that respond to their technical needs. Storyboards can also be used by university teams to think through how students would interact with a prototype, providing feedback to iterate and build towards a solution.

 

5. Pressure Tests

Recommended by: Don Fraser, Higher Ed ReDesigner

What it is

Here, students in one of our badging cohorts test and discuss a prototype, a step in assumption testing.

Here, students in one of our badging cohorts test and discuss a prototype, a step in assumption testing.

Have you ever felt so deeply mired in a project, that it’s too difficult to step away and think about it clearly? A pressure test resolves this. You bring together a few potential users and present your work to them, recording their reactions, concerns, and any emotions they present and feedback they provide. This is all done before a project kicks off, giving you insight on whether the design of the project is heading in the right direction.

Example of it in action

Throughout our work on Connected Pathways, we have regularly brought together end-users—students, teachers, employers, and others—of pathways in order to consider whether what we’re designing resonates with these users. On one occasion, we created a board game so students could “play” their way through a pathway, recording obstacles they imagined they would encounter and opportunities to overcome these obstacles. We never directly ask, “Does this work?” Rather, a pressure test is an opportunity for us to see how something works, and in this way discern whether something will work.

Why it matters

In higher education, everybody has to build a case for why they make a decision, why we build this program, or why we divert resources from that budget. We use data and research to help build our case. We think, generally, that’s good enough. But pressure testing allows you to make a small bet. In higher ed, every decision matters. Pressure tests are quick and easy ways to see, for example, whether students will actually use something. They provide early validation, helping you know whether you’re even in the right ballpark. And you can do all of this before investing in an entire pilot.

 

6. Growth Mindset

Recommended by: Dawan Stanford, Design Director

What it is

Design tools: Dweck's research has found that when individuals "believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger. Therefore they put in extra time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement."

Dweck’s research has found that when individuals “believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger. Therefore they put in extra time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement.”

Discovered and championed by Stanford professor Carol Dweck, a growth mindset is when “people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work–brains and talent are just the starting point.” A growth mindset is juxtaposed to a fixed mindset, where people think their abilities are set and can be used, not developed.

Example of it in action

Part of the training we offered to participants in the Academy for Innovation in Higher Education Leadership was exposing them to growth versus fixed mindsets. The simple step of just being self-aware was enough to get them to think about their work more deeply and with greater ownership.

Why it matters

One way to frame the purpose of higher education is delivering learning environments where people develop the ability to wrestle with the complexities of designing a life and shaping the world. In dealing with those complexities, analytical reasoning only gets you so far. Creating novel solutions requires an openness to new ways of thinking, behaving, and building. Understanding a growth mindset develops self-awareness around choices and behaviors. Design thinking offers a way to experience and learn from rapid feedback on those choices and behaviors. Connecting growth mindset to design practices offers participants in a design project a reflection tool that supports growing into thinking like a designer.