April 8, 2020

Using Service Design to Transform Higher Education

Designing Experiences

By Elliot Felix

American colleges and universities inspire their students, conduct game-changing research, and contribute to their communities, but there are major demographic, technological, and economic changes affecting higher education.

Service design can be a tool for organizational change. In this article, we will explain how brightspot uses service design to effect change by sharing lessons learned from our work transforming the student experience at more than 80 American colleges and universities. We’ll provide five guiding principles and five ways to help for colleges and universities adapt to change.

We hope to enable service designers to join us in transforming higher education so that it continues as an engine of opportunity and tackles some of our world’s most complex and pressing challenges.

Service Blueprinting Workshop at Florida International University
Why Higher Education Needs to Change

Who students are has changed: Today, 46 percent of students are the first in their family to go to university, 42 percent are students of color, and 37 percent are 25 or older. Technology has changed how and where students learn: Approximately one-third of students take at least one course online. The economics of higher education has changed: Tuition at American public universities has tripled in 30 years, student loan debt is now $1.5 trillion, and about 150 non-profit institutions have closed in the last five years.

Many institutions are not adapting well to these changes. Many institutions are risk averse, afraid of implementing ideas that peer institutions haven’t already adopted. Decision-making is slow. Leadership, staff, and faculty often lack the mindset, tools, and skills to imagine a new way of doing things, or adapt to a changing world.

The results are sobering. Only 60 percent of students graduate within six years. Overall, 26 percent of students leave after their first year, a figure which more than doubles when looking at those who are the first in their family to pursue higher education. Only 40 percent of students are academically engaged and only 33 percent of faculty and staff are engaged – what Gallup defines as “involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work.”

brightspot’s Approach to Service Design
How Service Design Can be Tool for Organizational Change

In the face of these challenges, service design can be a powerful tool to effect organizational change. At brightspot, we use the mindset, tool set, and skill set of service design to help colleges and universities redesign their offerings, the operations, and their organization – often all at once.

Student learning experiences can be redesigned to actively engage students working in teams on real-world problems – the kind of active learning that has been shown to cut failure rates in half. Student services from admissions to career advising can be redesigned to be more accessible, seamless, and responsive, and to be physically and digitally centralized into one-stop-shop student service hubs – which have been shown to increase graduation rates by an average of 6 percent. The spaces where students live and learn can be reimagined to be more inclusive, flexible, and sustainable. Staff can be reorganized and retrained to be more collaborative and change-ready. Along the way, service designers can inspire colleges and universities to adopt new ways of working for even greater impact.

Five Principles to Guide Transformation

To transform higher education, service designers should use a participatory process, have a holistic perspective, create common ground for different groups, find inspiration internally and externally, and use prototyping to test ideas and make the case for change.

We use these five principles for service design to effect change in colleges and universities:

  1. Have people shape their own future. For change to happen, you need a participatory process, solutions that are both innovative and practical, and a way to prototype them. Creating an inclusive process in which people feel heard is critical to their acceptance of new ideas, even if ultimately you go in a different direction. It’s also the best way to enable accountability. As organizational guru Ed Schein stated in Process Consultation Revisited, “It is the client who owns the problem and the solution.”
  2. Design inside-out and outside-in. Think about the user experience and the staff experience together; don’t optimize one at the expense of the other. A simple way to do this is to create personas and journey maps for both – maybe users and staff share pain-points? Another technique is to use consistent metrics. You’d be surprised how often performance targets for staff satisfaction are lower than targets for user/customer satisfaction. We even made this mistake initially at brightspot!
  3. Start with ‘why.’ Collaboration among staff must inevitably increase because resources are limited, problems are complex, and students want to go one place for help rather than be sent from office to office across the campus. John Kotter long ago established that change doesn’t happen unless the status quo is no longer viable. Our corollary is that staff collaboration doesn’t happen without first establishing a shared service philosophy rooted in shared values and experience. Without that, there’s no hope of groups like the library and IT working together.
  4. Find inspiration internally and externally. In his classic book Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers analyses how and why new ideas are adopted. He provides a useful checklist for a change: enable people to understand it, observe it, relate it to their life, try it out, and then see its relative advantages. Finding inspirational examples within and outside of higher education accomplishes many of these. For instance, there may be ‘lead users’ on campus who are doing today what
  5. Prototype ideas to make the case. Like many sectors, higher education can suffer from ‘analysis-paralysis’ and the false hope that collecting enough data will make a hard decision easy. Because this is rarely the case, institutions can instead test ideas through prototypes and pilot projects – and these kinds of experiments are particularly apt given the culture of higher education. These experiments enable you to refine your ideas, gather data to make the case for change, and build momentum. 
Hunt Library Service Point at NC State (Architects: Snøhetta and Clark Nexsen)
Five Ways Service Design Can Transform Higher Education

Service designers can train university staff in service design and use service design to rethink student services, spaces, and organizational structures. Furthermore, this can all be done in a way that demonstrates the agile and collaborative ways of working that many institutions so desperately need.

Here are five ways we put these principles into practice:

  1. Train staff in service design. Service designers can train university staff directly in the philosophy, process, and toolkit of service design. By designing learning experiences for staff in which they apply service design to their work, they are more excited and become empowered to solve their own problems, and then teach their colleagues. For example, we trained a technology group at Stanford University to rethink their learning spaces and services. Moving from principles to personas to journey maps to service blueprints to prototypes, we enabled them to identify and address gaps in their services. Similarly, the iZone Innovation Lab at the University of Rochester has applied to its operations many of the service design techniques we used to plan its services and spaces. Now, the lab offers workshops in topics such as prototyping to help students explore their ideas.
  2. Treat space as a service. The way space is planned and run on most campuses is outdated: There is limited input from users, solutions are rarely prototyped before construction, and design teams deliver a ‘product’ in a process that ends when people move in – when the real work operating and activating a space begins! Not only is this unfortunate because peoples’ needs are unmet, it affects the bottom line as well – our research indicates that facilities have the second highest correlation with students’ likelihood to recommend their university (r = 0.45). Instead, university spaces can be designed as services, making them more user-centred, responsive, and effective. This happens through using service design tools such as personas, journey mapping and prototyping, and by employing service design principles like co-creation. For instance, we designed a flexible work program for the University of Minnesota that enabled greater efficiency – staff response times to queries decreased by 67%. We planned a flexible academic workplace for the University of Michigan where different academic centers could share spaces and ideas, resulting in a work effective workplace – each staff member experienced an average productivity gain of 4.26 hours per week.
  3. Redesign student services. Student services have been typically slow to respond to changing student needs beyond adding new standalone, specialized functions such as an ‘Office for First Generation Students.’ Not surprisingly, the cost of student services has increased 22 percent in the last ten years. Students are unfortunately shuffled from place to place for online and in-person assistance. Institutions often have outdated systems, policies, and processes as well; such as paper-based forms. Instead, colleges and universities should create student service hubs which are more effective and efficient for both students and staff, and can reduce student attrition by about 10 percent. We brought together two dozen different advising services in one place at the University of Virginia to – in the words of our client – “interact with students in new ways and to reach students they might otherwise miss.” Likewise, at Portland State University, we uncovered the need for an updated online portal that would centralize student services, and this new site was rated the best platform by students.
  4. Reorganize staff for collaboration. Resistance to change and the tendency to add new functions without removing or rethinking old ones leave many university organizational charts outdated. Often, there are groups of services that don’t correspond with the groups of people providing them. This is not only inefficient but is bad for morale, leaving staff who are motivated by the mission feeling like their structure, spaces, and systems keep them from making a difference. Service design can define and categorize service offerings so departments can better align. We used this process at Florida International University’s business school to organize student service departments based on the student journey: marketing, recruiting, admissions, student experience, career services and alumni engagement. We’ve also used it to help Miami University Libraries reorganize their staff to better deliver existing and new services in a process they called ‘game-changing’ because it freed them from a perfectionist mentality and enabled them to experiment with ideas.
  5. Show new ways of working: One reason that staff have difficulty adapting to change is that they are using outdated tools and processes to get their work done. Instead, in the course of redesigning services, systems, and spaces, service designers can demonstrate agile, collaborative and user-centered processes that inspire institutions to work differently. This can be as simple as introducing new scheduling and collaboration tools, but it can go beyond that. For example, the participatory workshops and prototyping exercises we used with the University of Miami helped them reimagine their library services and spaces because we brought together previously disparate groups to support students more collaboratively. Our client noted that the process “fostered the development of a community of practice that continues to thrive today.” 
Service Point Prototyping at Adelphi University
Service Design as a Tool for Change

Higher education is at a crossroads. Many of our most valuable institutions are also amongst the most vulnerable as they try to adapt to social, technological, and economic change. Service designers can make a difference. We can train people in our craft and show them how to work differently. We can redesign services, staffing, spaces, and systems to work for people.

The encouraging part of this is that service design is a proven approach that’s safe for colleges and universities to try, and is a great way to get institutions ‘unstuck.’ One of our favorite examples is the pop-up service desk we created with Adelphi University. We identified a lot of uncertainty about a change towards a one-stop-shop model for technology support, research support, and the checking-out of both books and technology. A one-day, pop-up service desk created using temporary signs, foam core mock-ups, and movable furniture answered many questions, set many minds at ease, and got great feedback from users in real-time.

Service design can holistically transform a college or university’s offerings, operations, and organization.

Done right, service design can better connect people to a purpose, place, and each other. It can help level the playing field in the face of systemic inequities so that all students have the same access, opportunity, and achievement. It can ensure that the learning and discovery create economic, social and cultural impact on the campus, in their communities, and around the world.

Note: This article originally appeared in the March 2020 issue of Touchpoint: The Journal of Service Design. The full issue is available here.  

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