Toward a Peer-Powered Resource for Teaching Human-Centered Design Projects at the University Level

Two figures share a brain. Illustration by Misa Yamamoto.
Back to top

By Eugene Korsunskiy, MFA; Kim Hoffmann, MS; Gray Garmon, MArch; Wendy Angst, MHA and Claudia Roeschmann, MFA

As the human-centered design approach to solving problems in the professional world grows, so does the teaching of this approach in higher education. However, there isn’t a comprehensive guide for teaching human-centered design that is peer-curated, dynamic and adaptable within higher education. To meet this need, a group of educators propose a peer-powered research repository that shares case studies and best practices for teaching design thinking. 

The value of applying a human-centered design process to solve “wicked” problems has become well established in the world of professional practice over the past several years. As demand grows for graduates who are versed in human-centered design (HCD), the number of university courses that teach HCD has exploded. Instructors teaching these courses come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are research faculty who conduct traditional research in established disciplines, and others are design practitioners who bring industry expertise to the classroom. Many fall somewhere between these two groups and find themselves creating their project-based courses from scratch, iterating on their curricula as they learn what works and what doesn’t.

As the years go by, the base of knowledge associated with running HCD projects at the university level grows tremendously, but there is not yet an easy way to share that knowledge across universities. In many fields of study in higher education, there are textbooks, compendia of best practices and teaching guides to help scaffold student learning, but faculty who teach HCD projects in a university classroom don’t yet have the same wealth of established materials. So we are writing to pose a challenge—and to offer our way of thinking about a potential solution—to start a dialogue. 

Because the HCD process is used to address problems that are ill structured and lack a clearly defined historical approach, there is not an obvious source of answers to questions like: 

  • What is the best way to scope a student design project?
  • How should deliverables and milestones be structured to scaffold students’ journey to a successful outcome?
  • What techniques work best for evaluating student work and for assessing the students’ attainment of the desired learning objectives?

There are, of course, certain places to which we can turn for guidance: there already exists a scattered multitude of resources that provide tools and techniques for creating and managing class projects. But in our review of these resources, we found that most guides and toolkits live rather closely to one or the other end of a spectrum. On one end are thoughtfully composed but static documents such as IDEO’s Field Guide to human-centered design. On the other end are dynamic resources such as democratically organized wikis, Google Drive folders shared among small groups of colleagues and similar collections of peer-generated tips and artifacts, which are usually full of freshly updated content, but often nearly impossible to navigate.

We want to create a shared collection of artifacts that exists at a “Goldilocks” medium between these two extremes. We imagine our ideal solution to be a peer-curated, dynamic collection of teaching techniques, assignment examples and other useful collateral that is intuitively organized, easy to update by contributors and simple to navigate. 

Consider, for example, the potential utility of a repository that groups peer-generated artifacts into three categories: those that pertain to questions that need to be considered Before, During and After a design project:

  • Before students can start working on a project, a specific challenge needs to be selected, scoped and articulated. Possibly, a client or partner organization needs to be recruited and primed. Usually, a student team needs to be assembled. What are some great guidelines for selecting and scoping a project topic? What are the best ways to recruit partner organizations? What are some successful algorithms for assembling student teams?
  • During the course of a project, a lot needs to be carefully orchestrated. What is the ideal length of a project, and of each of its phases? Which interim deliverables should be assigned, and at which points? What mechanisms can be employed to deal with interpersonal teamwork issues when they arise? What are the best formats for final deliverables?
  • After the students have presented their project and submitted their final deliverable, our work as educators is not over. By what rubrics should we evaluate student work to ensure an unbiased review? What is the fairest way to assign individual grades in team projects? How can we assess which learning objectives a given project has been able to accomplish, and what tweaks we should make the next time to accomplish them better?

Most of us who have been teaching for a while have our tried-and-true practices, and our own ways of answering all of these questions, but many of us also wonder whether others have perfected techniques from which we can learn. We know we have a lot to gain from a more seamless wisdom exchange. So can our teaching artifacts live in a conveniently searchable repository for the benefit of all of us?

We have some thoughts about what our ideal resource should look and feel like. For example, the Before-During-After structure is only one potential organizing principle. There should probably be tags to cross-categorize different pieces of collateral (e.g., to allow a given tidbit to live somewhere inside the Before-During-After categorization, but also be findable by other criteria). There should probably be a series of filters of some sort (e.g., to screen for beginner, intermediate and advanced skill levels, or for short, medium or long project timelines). There should probably be a way for any user to make additions and edits, as in a wiki, but there should also be a way to curate and sort by quality the best pieces and ideas, perhaps by using a rating system. There should be a way for different types of collateral to exist on a level playing field (e.g., lesson plan templates, rubric examples, worksheets, project briefs, feedback forms, samples of student work, etc.). We clearly have many unanswered questions, and we are beginning to work through drafts of ideas, structures and interfaces. We would love to include your voice and your ideas in our project.

As we think about how to position our new resource in the landscape of what exists already, we have decided to focus on higher education, rather than K-12, and on an audience of expert educators, rather than novice educators—not because any of these categories are more meritorious than any others, but because this one is nearest to our hearts, and it’s the one in which we sense a clear unmet need that we want to attempt to fill.

The future depends on our upcoming leaders’ abilities to solve “wicked” problems across all domains and industries. Human-centered design projects provide the hands-on experience that these innovators need to gain proficiency in empathizing with people, reframing problems, approaching them with a creative mindset and delivering impactful solutions. So let’s work together to build a shared resource for educating tomorrow’s innovators.

If you are interested in participating in this project, we would love to collaborate with you! Drop us a note at design.working.group@gmail.com.

An Ideal Resource

We have some thoughts about what our ideal resource should look and feel like. Here are some features we think would be particularly helpful:

  • Tags to cross-categorize different pieces of collateral (e.g., to allow a given tidbit to live somewhere inside the Before-During-After categorization, but also be findable by other criteria).
  • A series of filters (e.g., to screen for beginner, intermediate and advanced skill levels, or for short, medium, or long project timelines).
  • A way for any user to make additions and edits, as in a wiki, but with a way to curate and sort by quality the best pieces and ideas (perhaps with a rating system).
  • A way for different types of collateral to exist on a level playing field (e.g., lesson plan templates, rubric examples, worksheets, project briefs, feedback forms, samples of student work, etc.).

Eugene Korsunskiy is a Lecturer at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College.

Kim Hoffmann is a Clinical Assistant Professor and Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern Univeristy.

Gray Garmon is an Assistant Professor of Practice and Director of the Center for Integrated Design in The School of Design and Creative Technologies at The University of Texas.

Wendy Angst is an Associate Teaching Professor and Assistant Department Chair, Management & Organization at Notre Dame University.

Claudia Roeschmann is an Associate Professor and Communication Design Program Head at Texas State University.