Redesigning Higher Education

Design @ Higher Education

My mom always asks me the same question around the holidays, “what do you want for Christmas?” As a child I was quick to name some toys I admired: Furby, the scary robotic owl, or a pair of platform sneakers from the ’90s. But my mom would ignore my requests and buy me something practical for my room like brand new bed sheets. Even as a 23-year-old today, my mom still asks me the same question. And no matter what I say, I am always delighted. Not because I got what I wanted, but because I got something I didn’t even realize I needed.

The process my mom goes through to give me a gift is similar to the design thinking process. Design thinking is taught differently wherever you go, but generally, there are five main stages: empathize with your user, define the problem, brainstorm solutions, create a prototype, and then test your solution. Even though my mom does not go through each stage in order, it’s close. She empathizes with me. She asks me questions about my life throughout the year. She observes my behavior. Around Christmas time, she defines the “problem.” The problem in this case was outdated bed sheets. She brainstormed gift ideas, and then “prototyped” it through a purchase. Testing her solution? It’s my reaction to opening the gift. It’s how much I use the gift in the coming weeks and months. She uses that information to inform the purchase of next year’s gift.

In tech, great products are created everyday using the design thinking methodology. Understanding your user’s needs other than their wants requires more diverse skills than just being experienced in tech alone. However, even though more companies are adopting this methodology, their employees are not prepared for the design-minded abilities required of them in the work place. To tackle this problem, Andrea Anderson and Rana Chakrabarti, of SAP’s Design X team, decided to redesign the higher education space. Their goal? To empower university students with the design thinking skill set, with the promise that they will become the creative leaders of tomorrow.

December 2015, Andrea Anderson [pictured right] from the SAP DesignX team talks with professors to find out what is wrong with the higher ed system.

To begin the higher education redesign, the SAP Design X project team (along with Rohit Kapoor, Michael Yang, Michele Morris from UCSD Design, and team of design students) set out to understand the higher education system. They held eight workshops with five universities. They traveled to UC San Diego, SF State University, Notre Dame, and UC Merced and conducted 45 interviews with students and professors. To empathize with students, the team created a journey map of the average student’s experience in the higher education system.

Student Journey Map

It showed that students were losing interest throughout their journey in the undergraduate system. During the first two years in school, the student goes through a mix of emotions known as “entry shock” and “class roulette.” This is the time they are trying to find themselves but are limited by the classes they are required to take. Their junior year is the “light my fire” stage, which is a period of excitement from the beginning of their junior year lasting until the beginning of their senior year, but it quickly declines due to constraints and limitations in the education system that gives them little room for self-exploration. When they exit into the real world, many students feel unprepared for the workplace and are not used to corporate world culture whatsoever, also known as “exit shock.”

The constraints and limitations that students encounter during their undergraduate journey are associated with constraints placed on the professors as well. In the university system, the pace of education increases and many classrooms are overpopulated with more than the professor can handle. Research is incentivized instead of quality teaching, leaving professors with a high load of research to complete. Teaching assistants are then left to conduct the classroom. Professors become distant from their students and are too busy to create any new teaching material, especially with any design skills incorporated.

After empathizing with students and educators, the Design X team identified three key problem spaces in the higher education system: the classroom space, the real-world space and the hiring space. The classroom space needs to be designed in a way that the professor can implement new material to inspire students and teach them innovative skills necessary for the real world. The real-world space refers to real-life experiences, both inside and outside the classroom. To prepare for a career in industry, students need to be exposed to real problems, and they need to practice solving them in multidisciplinary teams. This gives students the experience they need to thrive in the workplace after college.

These key findings led to Project Moonshine, a project that is aiming to shape undergrads into design minded intrapreneurs. A design driven employee is in high demand in the job market, which is why early exposure to the design thinking skill set is so important. However, to be successful in transforming the undergraduate learning experience, Project Moonshine needs to be equipped with a curriculum that is classroom ready.

Class Lab: prototyping how to teach, UC San Diego, Sept 12–15.

Currently, a “Cookbook” is being prototyped, which will teach professors design thinking methodology and how to incorporate those principles into their class. In order to test its usability, the team traveled to UC San Diego and held a workshop with professors and students to prototype a real-life cookbook. After obtaining validation and feedback, the team is creating a website called which will make each method more obtainable and easier to follow.

UCSD Design Students — our secret weapon. From left: Tori Duong, Rahul Ramath, Grant China Chinn, Rana Chakrabarti, Rachel Chen, Elmer Barrera

The job market’s demand for design-minded talent is high. Companies know that they have to do a better job understanding their customers. They need to produce products that address their customer’s core needs. They need to be a little more like my Mom when it comes to gift giving. And by collecting design thinking knowledge from industry experts, for the higher education system to consume, the Design X team hopes to produce more supply.