Design Thinking for Admissions: An Introduction

This article was originally published as "Growth by Design" in the Spring/Summer 2018 issue of The Yield, the magazine of the Enrollment Management Association.

 

Four years ago, Watershed School faced a real enrollment challenge. Despite an innovative educational model, we had high attrition and a poorly understood identity in our market. Today, Watershed’s enrollment is up by 82%. I believe that design thinking is part of the reason for that turnaround.

What is design thinking? Simply put, it’s adopting the mindset of a designer to solve challenges that we don’t typically think of as “design.” Thinking like a designer to create a better bottle opener? That’s design. Thinking like a designer to improve the first week of school? That’s design thinking.

In this article, I’ll share four parts of the designer’s mindset. While they’re relevant to all areas of school operations, I’ll focus on how they’re relevant to enrollment professionals.

Starting With Empathy
We started our design process by collecting stories, seeking insight into how families really made decisions about where to attend school. Data are wonderful, of course. But surveys often flatten the granular details that show how life is truly lived.

Approaching your school as an anthropologist allows you to collect unique insights into how your users—kids and parents—really experience their life at your school. Keep your questions open-ended. For example, when calling families who decided to leave the school, we asked for detail and noted sequence: When did you decide to leave the school? Who made the decision initially? Where were you when you made this decision? What happened next?

By encouraging our families to include details, we gained a deeper understanding of the reasons for our high attrition rates. We learned, for instance, that there was rarely one big moment that led to departures, but rather an accumulation of experiences that built up over time.

Using a tool called an “empathy map,” our admission committee identified trends in our families’ experience. Some of what we mapped was explicit, such as what they were saying about us. But more was implicit: what were they feeling, and when? What were they seeing around them that shaped their perceptions of our school?

Needs Before Solutions
One habit of design thinkers is defining the human needs you want to meet before you start designing solutions. It’s an expectation that needs to be firmly enforced, since it’s so contrary to our normal problem-solving orientation. By defining needs before solutions, you ensure that you’re solving the right problem—and that your entire team is pointed in the same direction.

When we used design thinking to rethink our progress reports, for example, we found that parents had a deep need to feel connected to their child’s experience.

Meeting that need would mean a better educational program as well as a better parent experience. By clarifying that need prior to brainstorming solutions, we were able explore many possible directions, rather than narrowing our choices too quickly.

Generating Ideas
While most of us are familiar with brainstorming on some level, it often doesn’t work as well as we’d like. Designers consciously alternate cycles of divergent and convergent thinking, seeking to get the most value from each phase. In other words, spend some time consciously generating more ideas—then some time consciously winnowing them down.

One approach is to bring teams together across functions. Our brainstorming team included admission professionals, but also teachers and program leaders, to bring together a diversity of perspective that generates more creative ideas. Another method is to give your team a specific provocation: How would Amazon or Target meet this need? What solutions would drive our biggest cross-town rival crazy?

Perhaps the most important principle is to truly defer judgment until the very end—and make sure everyone takes turn holding the Sharpie, so that everyone’s ideas get a chance to be recorded.

Building Prototypes
At Watershed, we had a graphic designer create a wide range of possible logos to redefine our school in the marketplace. We weren’t sure in what direction we wanted to go—we just knew that we wanted a logo our students would embrace, as they’re often the decision makers about high school in our market. Prototyping helped us develop our thinking.

While the word “prototype” often conjures images of a sleek new concept car, prototyping is simply making something tangible as a way to develop your thinking rather than waiting for your idea to be complete before putting pen to paper.

Printing sheets with three possible logos at a time, we brought students in and asked them specific questions about how it might be used: Which of these would you put on a skateboard? On your water bottle? Between rounds of feedback, we used scissors to trim (or tape to combine) elements of our prototypes, creating new prototypes that reflected the feedback.

What was critical was our ability to show our ideas concretely: it allowed us to get feedback faster, really honing our visual identity. Today, when I see our logo on a student’s computer or bike helmet, I know that prototyping paid off.

You Already Use Design
Thinking Most enrollment professionals have always been design thinkers, even if subconsciously. This human-centered mindset is a natural part of our humancentered profession. But by embracing these habits more intentionally, we all have the opportunity to become even more human-centered, creative, and effective in our roles.

Starting slowly—practicing one new tool to guide your thinking, and then adding another—can pay big dividends. Our enrollment turnaround is proof.

Greg Bamford