“Human-Centered” Design Never Mattered More
by Ryan Burke

Leadership+Design’s origin story is of two organizations coming together. Santa Fe Leadership Center was doing leadership development work. Leading is Learning was doing experiential professional development experimenting with the mindsets and skillsets of designers, but the throughline was that both organizations saw the people involved as the most important part of the work. This is the source of the valence that drew the two organizations together and eventually led to forming Leadership+Design.   

Today, as we reflect on the educational landscape, impacted so greatly by Covid-19, we want to punctuate the need to stay laser focused on the “Human-Centered” part of the design and problem solving work we are engaged in.   

  • We need to redesign our school calendar and schedule to adapt to a potentially hybrid (in-person and online) experience for our students.  
  • We need to re-imagine how we staff the school. 
  • We need to re-imagine assessment so that what we do translates to this hybrid and online environment. 
  • We need a new system of professional development.  
  • We need to design a new Senior Prom that is online. 
  • We need to… (the list is long, and just using our current clients, we could list at least 50 more on this list) 

Despite how these sentences start, these are not needs, they are solutions. Each one of these need statements is actually based on current assumptions. The power and magic of “Human-Centered Design” is in the work done prior to generating solutions, busting through assumptions and building insights which challenge much of the thinking that props up these proposed solutions.  

The list above does help us understand what we can’t do. We cannot assess students in the same way that we did in the past. We can’t hold Prom as usual. We can’t just staff the school in the same way with 20% less students or in a hybrid learning scenario. We cannot hold graduation in the traditional way, so this list above becomes a list of design constraints. The human needs are not apparent in the constraints. So, this begs the questions, what are the needs, and whose needs are we designing for? These two questions have never been more important.    

Human-Centered Design starts by exploring specific personas and then doing deep empathy work to understand and investigate the underlying human needs for those specific people. Do not confuse deep with slow. School leaders can do deep empathy work quickly. We call this work design sprinting. The resulting needs and insights are what lead to innovative, new or unique solutions.  

Covid-19 has produced some large scale constraints. These constraints have disrupted the way we normally work, but it has not changed the underlying human needs. In fact, Covid-19 has reminded people of what they care about in education, and the time is ripe to learn more. One thing we have learned from designers is that needs tend to be verbs, and solutions tend to be nouns. The human needs related to, for example, re-imagining assessments are more personal:  

  • The nervous parent: needs reassurance that their child is on track. 
  • The learning disabled student: needs to feel seen and challenged, but also loved unconditionally and not labeled as smart or not based on any one piece of work. 
  • The quiet introvert needs to be seen and validated without being embarrassed and the extrovert needs to feel seen by his or her peers.  
  • The overwhelmed parent needs to feel like school has their child’s education in hand without their help and attention, but also they want to be included. Their needs are a paradox, as needs can often be.   
  • The teachers need to feel like their time means something and is adding value, and also confident in themselves and their work.   
  • Teachers, students and parents need to feel seen individually, not as numbers or lost in a system that is impersonal and unattuned.  

These human needs, if made explicit, should frame your work of re-imagining systems and structures. The constraints change with Covid-19 and other circumstances, but the needs are human and while they are different for different people, they transcend circumstances and the most innovative and creative solutions to problems are rooted in addressing these human needs.

So, here is a short list of human-centered recommendations for schools that are deep in the work of planning, problem-solving and re-imagining for this summer and next year: 

  • Design solutions for specific users and look for solutions that not only work for that user, but for others as well. Often a solution built for one small part of your community will translate to others as well, but you will not be able to create the same solutions if your target user is the general population. Specificity helps grow innovative ideas.   

  • Parents have all sorts of unmet needs right now, and designing with parents in mind can pay huge dividends in regards to the perception of how your school is doing. Sometimes the best way to take care of kids is to take care of the people they live with. Combine this recommendation with #1, and see what you come up with.     

  • Don’t ask people what they need? They don’t know. Ask them to tell you stories about their Covid-19 life and then listen for the underlying needs embedded in those stories. Storytelling has been around longer than any other form of history, and this is because stories hold meaning. The morals, needs and heart are locked in the stories, and schools can learn a lot from listening and then extracting the needs embedded. For more on empathy interviewing, click here.   

  • Ask for feedback before you are done designing. Get your work in front of students, parents, teachers as soon as possible. If they don’t like your work, try and understand the need that is not being met. You might find that the need they have is not what you designed for. It doesn't work to convince others to adopt the needs you thought they had, it only works to meet their needs with your solutions. Don’t spend one second explaining why your solution is actually good. Instead, design for the actual need. It will slow you down at first, but you will be happy when your hard work pays off.      

  • Spend synchronous time with your team comparing and getting feedback on work instead of co-creating together with precious Zoom time. There is not enough time to co-design everything, so in every meeting, have people bring solutions they have designed and use quick easy protocols for feedback like: I like, I wish, What if. 

  • Spend time throughout the process asking your design team how they are doing, what they need and recognize that the task is important, but how people feel while completing the task is what will sustain them and make the work possible. Designers have needs as well, and nurturing the solution finders is paramount right now.     

Without a human-centered design process, schools will do all of the work to redesign amidst Covid-19 constraints without actually solving for the underlying needs that are at the heart of a learning organization. The result of this will be burnout, attrition, blame and turnover. These four horsemen are the undoing of any organization serving people.        

Never has there been more need for Human-Centered Design. We have been disrupted institutionally, systemically, but we are as human as we ever were. Maybe 2020 is the year that education becomes more human-centered? 

Let us know how we can help.   
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