What If We Designed College Around Students?

By Richard Culatta and Sandy Speicher

While there might not be obvious similarities between a Silicon Valley start-up and a public college in Rhode Island, taking a page from the tech- industry playbook may be the key to the future of higher education.

It doesn’t take long during a conversation among app developers before someone mentions the term UX — user experience. The term refers to the interaction between a person and a tool or system. Understanding the user experience guides the decisions that developers make as they design apps: Do users intuitively know how to use a particular app, or does it leave them confused and disoriented? If they have a bad experience, people simply won’t use it, regardless of its capabilities. Successful companies make user experience a top priority.

It’s not just the tech sector that realizes the importance of designing a good user experience. Businesses and organizations across many sectors, whether Facebook or Target or Kaiser Permanente, have user-experience teams that constantly seek to understand their customers’ needs and to redesign their services when necessary. Lately there have been serious discussions about the need for more innovation in higher education. The traditional higher-education model has remained, in many ways, static for more than a century. Yet our institutions often remain “provider focused” rather than “user focused,” even as they struggle to evolve.

What would happen if every college in the country created a user-experience team?

A focus on user experience could be transformational for colleges. The team’s human-centered process might include steps like these:

Understand users’ needs and motivations.

The primary role of a user-experience team would be to understand who the “users” are. Are they traditional full-time students, or part-time, returning, or transfer students? Are they working adults with children? Are they first-generation students?

A typical UX approach would be to observe students throughout their daily activities, a practice known as user shadowing. Last year Stanford University and the design firm IDEO began the Shadow a Student challenge to help K-12 leaders focus on the user experience in their schools. Thousands of school leaders from every state followed students through the day to observe what the school experience felt like for them. They then reflected on how their schools’ designs might affect students in unintended ways. School officials were surprised at how much time students spent waiting in lines, how little interaction they had with teachers, how little integration there was among classes, and how physically exhausting the school day was. Some commented that they learned more in one day of experiencing school as students do than they had during their entire professional careers.

For higher-education leaders, this may be a useful approach for understanding the needs of nontraditional students in particular. Students are generally happy to volunteer to be shadowed in order to help improve the design of their college. And it doesn’t take long for common themes to emerge: What are students doing when they’re not attending class? How do they balance home and work responsibilities? How do academics fit into their other priorities?

While this approach is becoming more common in the K-12 sector, however, it is rarely employed in higher education. When it is, it can be particularly effective. For example, through student shadowing, Meghan Hughes, president of the Community College of Rhode Island, discovered how badly misaligned public-transportation schedules were with the college’s course schedule, leading to hours of unnecessary travel time for students.

A user-experience team shadowing college students might seek to understand details such as: How do students approach registering for classes? Do the class times offered meet their needs? Do they have the data necessary to make informed decisions? How much are they paying for textbooks? What do students understand about the financial- aid system? Is it intuitive or confusing?

User shadowing is, of course, just one approach in the UX toolbox for helping colleges know their students better. Interviews, surveys, and data analysis can also help fill in the picture. However, a survey administered at the end of a course may prove less useful than catching students on their way out of class and asking what keeps them up at night.

Identify patterns and opportunities by creating “personas.”

After shadowing students, a user-experience team would try to identify underlying patterns relating to their needs and motivations. Many teams create personas — representations of students based on real people and their circumstances. These personas serve to remind the UX team to make students’ needs their top priority. Effective personas embody three basic components: needs, wants, and challenges. As a user-experience team considers how to redesign the college experience, it would consider what that experience would mean for each student persona. For example, “James” might represent a first-generation, full-time student who has not yet determined his major. “Laverne” might represent a part-time working student who wants to impress her young children by getting a degree but is conflicted about the time it takes.

The team’s next step would be to turn the needs of the personas into design opportunities. Creating questions that begin with “How might we … “ is a simple way to start solving students’ needs. For example, how might we help students like James choose a major in which they are most likely to excel? How might we set course schedules at times that are most convenient for a working student like Laverne? How might we help students like James and Laverne understand their financial-aid options? How might we enlist the support of their families?

Imagine and create prototype solutions to problems.

At this stage, the “How might we” questions become prompts for brainstorming solutions to the problems identified. It can be tempting to quickly decide on a solution without taking the time to explore all possible options. The art of prototyping — quickly making ideas tangible — is a special skill for user-experience teams. In the tech industry, a team might create a rough version of a new app in a single day to get feedback before investing significant development resources.

Just as apps can be prototyped, so can educational experiences. New instructional approaches might be tested with a small group of students to get feedback before they are adopted more broadly. A mock-up of a new financial-aid website could identify points of confusion before costly programming time has been used. New physical spaces might be prototyped by moving existing furniture into new configurations before knocking down walls. Prototyping can help a design team understand what steps might be missing or what assumptions are incorrect while it is still easy to make adjustments.

A college UX team would be in constant interaction with students, learning from them and enlisting faculty members and others to understand the goals of new programs and to integrate them in their work.


Colleges may say they care about their students, but caring isn’t the same as understanding their needs and designing for them. We believe that colleges that place students at the center of their decision-making will have the best chance to close the gap between what students need and what they are getting.

Creating a UX team or a chief of user experience could help a college accomplish this quickly. And what if colleges across the country adopted the use of such designers to address some of the longest-term challenges in our higher-education system? Together we might be able to create colleges that truly meet the needs of today’s learners.


Richard Culatta is chief innovation officer of the State of Rhode Island. Sandy Speicher is managing director of the education practice at IDEO, a design-and-innovation firm.

Originally published as “Shadow Those Students, for Their Own Good” in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 10/25/2016