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Human-Centered Design: Part 1

In times of crisis, colleges should ask different questions than they do in a traditional strategic planning process.  My client and friend Dave Haney wrote an article just published in Inside Higher Ed. Here is a long excerpt that speaks to our work together and the first three of his six principles of result-based strategic design. 

Next Tuesday, I will post the other three principles defined in the article. Please email me if you want to see the full articles, including the introductory framing paragraphs and links included in text.


In times of crisis, colleges should ask different questions than they do in a traditional strategic planning process

By David P. Haney

…“Human-centered design” is now used worldwide for designing everything from organizational pivots in corporations to microloan programs in developing countries, often through the influential work of IDEO, whose chairman Tim Brown wrote Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation over a decade ago. When I used this approach to strategic planning as a college president, I added to the mix a sharp focus on outcomes rather than activities, based on the work of Hal Williams, former CEO of the Rensselaerville Institute. I’ve been fortunate to work with him in higher education administration, and he has helped me see how, despite the recent emphasis on outcomes assessment, higher ed is still burdened with a focus on activities that should be changed to a focus on results.

For example, why do we count student community service hours when we could be documenting the results of students’ community service work? Why do syllabi still list activities to be undertaken instead of results for student to achieve? Why do we have meeting agendas that list the topics to be covered instead of the outcomes we want to see? Why do job descriptions list expected activities (slavishly described as “duties”) instead of what employees should be expected to accomplish? (In fact, if working remotely, where activities are relatively invisible to colleagues, continues in popularity, outcomes may provide the best and perhaps only way to measure employee performance.)

The combination of human-centered design and Hal Williams’s outcomes focus produces what I call “results-based strategic design.” Here are six of the basic principles of this approach and how they can apply to higher education. Much of this involves asking questions that are different from the ones asked in a traditional strategic planning process.

No. 1: Recognize that planners plan and designers solve problems. Instead of asking, “Where do we want to be in five years,” it’s better to ask, “What problems do we need to solve?” That helps shift the focus from what we by definition can’t know (the future) to what we can do(solve problems and produce results).

For two reasons, it’s not always easy to identify the problems. First, we often jump to potential solutions before defining the key issue. For example, “Our enrollment is too low” does not state a problem. Increasing enrollment is a solution to different potential problems, such as unused capacity or most commonly an operational deficit. Increasing enrollment may be a solution to a deficit, but it may also drive up the discount rate and create additional expenses, so it may not be the appropriate solution, or it may need to be considered in concert with other solutions. As long ago as 2015, some colleges decided to address financial problems by shrinking rather than “chasing volume.”

Second, we worry too much about what designers call “gravity problems”: issues that are not really problems because, like gravity, they are going to be there no matter what. For example, current demographic trends that reduce applicant pools are not problems but rather inevitable facts. A low yield — too few accepted students who enroll — can be fixed, and the pool can be increased by looking in new places. (For example, people that would benefit from what you offer but don’t know it yet.) But the demographics are facts to be dealt with, not problems to be solved. Balance is key: some leaders resort to firefighting mode and jump to solutions too quickly, while others demand to understand all the variables before acting, and their response is too slow.

The difference between a designer and an engineer is that an engineer has a problem with a single solution: you need to get people across a river, so you build a bridge. Designers solve “wicked” problems: multiple and sometimes ill-defined problems that have multiple solutions. Higher ed is clearly rife with wicked problems. The problem-solving mentality can filter through the entire process. For example, instead of a strategic planning committee focusing on curriculum, create a design team to identify specific problems in the curriculum and create solutions.

No. 2: Use constraints to encourage creativity. Designers have learned that truly innovative and useful results come not from “blue sky thinking” but from working within a particular set of constraints. A smartphone can only be so big and cost so much, or it won’t sell. The familiar and new constraints in higher ed — changing demographics, increased competition, public skepticism and now the disruption of an as-yet unknown number of semesters by COVID-19 and the resulting human and economic consequences — need to be seen not as obstacles to planning but as catalysts for creativity and innovation. The three general constraints on new initiatives that design thinking identifies, and that can spur creativity, are: 1) viability (can it be sustained long-term?), 2) feasibility (do we have the capacity, tools and know-how to do it?) and 3) desirability (does it fit our mission and can we embrace it as an institution?).

For example, an enrollment-related result for one tuition-driven small college in the Northeast, with that region’s declining college-age population, was to attract, retain and serve students who didn’t know they would benefit from attending college in general or this institution in particular. This is potentially viable because it recognizes the decline in population while building on the fact that more students in that smaller pool need what this institution has to offer. It is feasible because there are many ways for an experienced admissions staff to reach to new areas and kinds of schools. (For example, this college started working with technical high schools and inner-city college-readiness programs.) And it is desirable because it will increase revenue as the institution continues to do what it does best — as opposed to simply lowering standards, trying to increase geographic reach or pursuing other enrollment-enhancing techniques. Keeping these constraints in mind also makes it much easier to link strategic design to resource allocation, since both viability and feasibility depend on resources.

No. 3: Determine constituents’ needs, which may not be what they say they need. This is what is called the empathy stage in design thinking, in which you observe people’s behavior in order to find the best solutions. It’s not enough to ask them what they need; as Henry Ford probably did not say, but is often quoted as saying, “If I had asked people what they needed, they would have said ‘faster horses.’” When your students complain that they face a byzantine bureaucracy, follow some of them around as they leap through the registrar’s and the financial aid offices’ hoops. Then simulate potential solutions. Or if your value proposition is not getting out through admissions and marketing, observe students’ and potential students’ responses to current and potential new messages.

I once embedded myself with a summer leadership camp for entering students and discovered that many of the reasons for their choice to attend our institution had nothing to do with what we said in our expensive marketing materials. This is not treating students as customers within a corporate model but simply respecting them as users of the services we offer. (An entire subdiscipline called user experience or UX has occasionally been recommended for higher ed planning.) Especially now that our students are changing from a traditional 18- to 22-year-old cohort to a constituency of all ages with varying and complex life situations — and will be emerging from the trauma of the pandemic with a host of new and different concerns and needs — we should carefully observe the quality of their experience. We all pay lip service to the needs of the students we serve, but strategic plans still tend to focus on the self-preservation and growth of our institutions.

David P. Haney is the former president of Centenary University. He and Jeremy Houska, director of educational effectiveness at the University of La Verne, will present on results-based strategic design at the SCUP 2020 Virtual Annual Conference, sponsored by the Society for College and University Planning. For more resources on results-based strategic design, see davidphaney.com.


Come back on Tuesday for the other three points Dave makes and how I use them with many organizations.

By Hal's Results First

Hal Williams 
Outcome Guide

… is a resource for foundations,
governments, and nonprofit
organizations that seek to define,
track, verify, and communicate the
results they achieve.

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