Design Thinking Improves Stakeholder Engagement

Design Thinking Improves Stakeholder Engagement

Design Thinking offers an approach to stakeholder engagement for schools and universities. The University of Exeter in the UK is an example of what one educational institution is achieiving by using design thinking.

The stated vision of the University is to be “the most accessible and connected university destination”. To realize this vision, university leaders embraced digital technologies and digital skills development. They made a commitment to investing in these technologies and skills. Did faculty, staff and students agree with this lofty vision? Did they understand how they would participate in its realization? Did anyone care?

The University formed a digital design team to investigate these questions. Before long, team members realized they did not know much about institutional stakeholders. They decided to adopt human-centred design to understand and … improve our user … experiences.”

The team began the process, applying design thinking methodologlical principles of empathy, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

What did they discover?

Empathy: Initially, Exeter’s design team brought staff and students together in workshops that focused on “empathy mapping (visualising user attitudes and behaviours).” They wanted stakeholders to be more aware about how to “build cohesion and community, create joint value for colleagues and the strategy team, and generate buy-in.” Easy and straightforward, right?

Define: Not so much. The team found that there were low levels of understanding about the University’s digital vision among stakeholders. In fact, staff members shared a general “perception that someone else is deciding the future.” Faculty, staff and students did not agree on the meaning of digital technologies and skills and why they were important to an Exeter education. Understandings of digitial technologies and skills needed to be redefined based on the needs of the users, to promote a common understanding among stakeholders. No one had bothered to ask stakeholders what they thought.

Ideate: To address these issues, the team gathered together stakeholders for sessions to generate ideas. Sessions could be as short as 30 minutes or as long as two hours. It was cruial for stakeholders to pitch many ideas; quantity trumped quality. Once group members shared their ideas, the team decided to “cluster, group and merge ideas.” There is a higher chance of success when stakeholders are included “right from the start” to discuss ideas and solutions in ways that are non-judgemental.

Prototype: Prototyping was a crucial step to give shape and form to ideas. The stage revealed that many stakeholders continued to find it difficult “to visualise what the [digital] strategy means for them and their users.” The prototyping process provided stakeholders with “examples of what their experiences and interactions could be and help them to visualise the future.”

Test: Testing prototypes allowed team members to determine if generated solutions were feasible to bridge the gap between “vision and reality.” Design thinking allowed the team to bring together stakeholders and leaders to work together toward bringing a “digital strategy to life and take our staff and students along on the journey with us.”

Exeter’s vision of becoming “the most accessible and connected university destination” is still a work in progress. However, the design team can claim that the “digital strategy was co-created with our students, staff and the wider community,” allowing stakeholder engagement to manifest in “many ways” such as “creative storytelling techniques.”

By 2030, Exeter is committed “to being agile, user- and data-led, to using design thinking principles and to involving our students and staff in every step of our digital transformation.”

Problems and challenges faced by educational institutions vary widely. By using design thinking, leaders have the opportunity to engage stakeholders to envision and build together the future that matters most to them.


Karen Collias

My name is Karen Collias and I founded Knowledge Without Borders™ to infuse creativity and innovation into the most salient educational issues affecting global contemporary society. I attribute my enthusiasm to cross the borders of traditional knowledge domains to the multi-disciplinary nature of my education and professional experience. The first in my family to go to college, I have a Ph.D. from Columbia University. My professional experience focuses on interdisciplinary research, teaching, and strategic thinking at a variety of institutions, including Princeton University, the Smithsonian Institution, and the U.S. Department of State. I currently am crossing borders to write about creativity and innovation in education and philanthropy.



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