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Human-Centered Design in Higher Education


The EvoLLLution | Human-Centered Design in Higher Education
Human-centered design principles facilitate strong intra-institutional partnerships that help colleges and universities meet the high expectations of today’s students.

Accreditors and regulators are increasingly asking institutions to document their planning and   assessment processes in order to show that they are making good use of resources to provide a quality educational experience.[1] Many other factors are involved here, of course, but the reality is that the world of higher education is being held accountable for implementing strategies that are thoughtful and deliberate.

It is our opinion that schools of continuing and professional education have a unique opportunity to serve as planning exemplars for institutional effectiveness that work outside of the traditional models.

Over the past two years, the Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies has moved away from planning that was mostly tactical, reactive and inward-looking to planning that is, we believe, more strategic, predictive and collaborative. Throughout a series of pilot projects, we have embraced a theory of planning that incorporates elements of human-centered Design (HCD) to drive innovation, quality and productivity.[2] Successful companies of all types—such as Amazon, Apple, Netflix, Zappos, and Uber—have used HCD to redesign their work environments, their products and services, and their method of delivery, often leading to truly ground-breaking results that transformed entire industries (consider iTunes and its ultimate effect on music distribution; Netflix on video rentals; or Uber and its effect on transportation for hire).[3] Reflecting on these success stories, we asked ourselves, “How can we apply the principles and practices of HCD to achieve an equivalent level of transformative innovation within higher education?”

Human-centered design arises as a powerful tool for innovation because it provides a process for creative problem-solving and innovation that is:

  • Formal: There are steps, rules, conventions and best-practices, and these can be learned;
  • Process-driven: Repeatable and constant, regardless of subject matter;
  • Creative: The process is designed to cultivate imagination and surface original ideas;
  • Innovative: The result is a genuinely new, more effective solution that is feasible and viable.

From a practical perspective, HCD requires higher education administrators to build interdisciplinary teams that must begin their work focused intently on two important questions:

1.Who is our audience?

2. What are their needs and wants (desirability)?

The audience and needs will change depending on the situation. However, keeping these two factors in mind will help you engage your audience throughout the process and look beyond the raw data to the individuals and their experience with your product. Within a higher education context, this audience-focused perspective helps align innovation initiatives with principles of student centricity, faculty support and development, and staff empowerment. Building on this initial focus, the design team must address three additional planning questions:

1. Is our plan viable? That is, will the institution, accrediting body and governing boards support our plan?

2. Is our plan feasible? Does it identify roadblocks that can be overcome realistically?

3. Is our plan flexible? Does “success” allow for smaller wins leading to a larger goal?

We have found that the key principles of HCD help us remain focused and innovative, and that they help us solve problems productively. Three successful examples from our own recent experience at Georgetown help illustrate the range of initiatives to which HCD can be applied, and show how these formative planning questions guided the innovation process:

1. Online Program Development

We had high demand for online versions of our programs, but not the resources, tools, or culture to create them. Our audience included both students and faculty.

  • Desirability: Students wanted the same degree of the same quality as our face-to-face programs, but that they could obtain independently of time or place. Faculty wanted proof-of-concept, pedagogical quality, and guidance.
  • Viability: The programs had to be compliant with state laws, internal governance, as well as financially self-sustaining, profitable, and able to launch with minimal investment (building from scratch was too expensive; buying outright would lead to poor quality).
  • Feasibility: We paired existing technology (LMS, Application System, SIS), resources (program staff, faculty) and processes (admissions, enrollment) with an OPM provider for instructional design (a resource that we lacked), and national marketing.
  • Flexibility: We started with an integrated planning team, iterated through early mockups and demonstrations to a build-out of 1-week modules, to a full course, and finally to a full program. We took an incremental change approach (starting with a unified view of the program, with online as just one of multiple modality options) to rapidly move from no online programs to a suite of fully designed programs that are modality-agnostic, in under two years.

2. Digital Faculty Contracts

We had paper contracts that required physical signatures and mailing/scanning/emailing of documents. Our audience included faculty and staff. We wanted to replace this system with a digital one that would allow faculty to receive, sign and return contracts in a single system.

  • Desirability: Staff desired a system that was fast, provided financial controls, reporting and approval workflows, and that could handle an ever-increasing volume of adjunct contracts. Faculty desired contracts that retained the high fidelity of paper contracts, but that were easy to respond to.
  • Viability: We needed (a) buy-in from Finance, Legal, Academic Programs, and the Provost’s Office and (b) a system that was affordable, practical and easy-to-use.
  • Feasibility: Our internal team leveraged systems (Salesforce, which the university was already using, and Docusign) that we could afford. They mapped required information from paper contracts and tracking spreadsheets that other offices were using in their existing process. We met with every office to learn about the user experience, present prototypes to gather meaningful feedback, and iterated through an evolving solution over the course of a year.
  • Flexibility: We were approved as a pilot program for the university, and started with Summer School contracts to identify production issues and drive improvements in future iterations of the product. Our school-wide deployment is now in production for fall contracts.

3. Non-Standard Calendars

The university had a single 15-week calendar for each fall/spring term, while summer term had a maximum of 12 weeks. This initiative focused on our most diverse audience and included multiple student populations, faculty, staff and university offices.

  • Desirability: Our focus on student-centricity required us to create (a) half-semester online modules and (b) a year-round calendar with three equal terms.
  • Viability: The Registrar’s Office was initially opposed to creating new terms. We also learned that these changes could affect students differently on financial aid, receiving veterans benefits, and on university visas.
  • Feasibility: We created a team with members from each office (Financial Aid; Veteran Support; International Support; Registrar) to minimize the impact of any change and create advising sheets for our admissions and program staff. We also minimized the work for the Registrar by creating an Excel template to pro-rate refund schedules and provide a logical system for add/drop and withdrawal periods.
  • Flexibility: We received permission for the half-semester calendar and are now working on the year-round calendar following the same approach.

Human-centered design has allowed us to build collaborative relationships across the university and develop solutions and plans that meet the needs of our specific audiences, whether current or future students, faculty, staff or administrative units. Using these processes, we have been able to invest in our own agility, building in an ability to anticipate and adapt to changes more directly, while increasing our comfort level as an institution with change, transformation, and innovation – characteristics that will enable us to thrive in an ever-evolving higher education industry.

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References and Footnotes:

[1] All of the regional accrediting agencies include standards tying planning to institutional effectiveness. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges has a standard devoted to Planning and Evaluation. The Higher Learning Commission includes a criterion called Resources, Planning, and Institutional Effectiveness. Our accrediting agency, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, includes Planning, Resources, and Institutional Improvement, in its revised standards.

[2] “Design Kit: The Course for Human-Centered Design.” +Acumen / MOOC on Human-Centered Design, Accessed at

[3] Daniel Weinzveg, “The Era of Human Centered Design.” Daniel Weinzveg Blog, October 21, 2015. Accessed at