Ian, Robert, and Rebecca sat down to discuss all things human-centered design in higher ed, including how it should be considered from the initial conversations with prospects to the application process, the classroom, and even student services.
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Summary of the Discussion
Human-centered design (HCD) is a core principle of the creative process and should be a part of all strategic thinking. HCD puts human needs and desires at the forefront. Human-centered design is trusting human intuition, and empathy is one of the cornerstones of that mindset.
The idea of human-centered design feels like a relatively new concept, but it can be traced back to the 1950 and 1960s, when human psychology was being heavily researched. But around the year 2000 is when online platforms started to receive regularly occuring feedback, so people started to think, "How do we involve users in the process?" Human feedback is one of the critical components to ensuring that you're developing great human-centered design.
Just look at any website and you can see human-centered design in action. One example is a "call-to-action" (CTA) button on a website such as "Apply now". It was not too long ago when you had often to hunt around a university's website just to find where to complete an action like that.
How does someone implement human-centered design? The first questions to ask are, 1) Who is your audience? And 2) What are they thinking, feeling, and asking? You should diagram all of those questions in a way that maps back to our communications. Doing user research and testing in-person can be even beneficial because it gives you a well-rounded view of the person. On the design side, you need to do extensive accessibility testing to ensure that the content is perceivable by everyone. Anytime you're developing a campaign of any type, whether that's creatining ads, web design, a user experience, an on-campus experience, or an in-classroom experience, you need think about who your audience is.
But human-centered design goes beyond just user testing. Creating a good user experience (UX) means considering the human at the center of the experience. "Bad UX" is what to call a user experience that never actually considers the user.
One of the challenges with human-centered design is that users are often a diverse group. There are ways that you can raise the barrier from the lowest common denominator to a personalized experience. Google Analytics can help designers put themselves in the shoes of a user by looking at the typical user-flows. That information can be used as another way to deploy human-centered design.
Gen Z in particular does not navigate websites, they search for whatever information they're looking for. But oftentimes the people behind a website haven't even considered their search results page through a human-centered lens. (The best university websites are implementing a hierarchy navigation to try and budge users away from search.) If you don't consider the human in the end result, you run the risk of coming off tone-deaf and potentially alienating and insulting your user.
Human-centered design touches every aspect of what you create and what you deliver to the end-user. It goes from your messaging strategy, to your brand positioning, to the user experience on your website, to your ad creative. When you simply put the human at the center of your thinking for all of that, and you understand this basic principle, you can effectively communicate with your audience.
Robert Johns: Ian, I'm hoping you can start by defining human-centered design. What is it?
Ian Evenstar: Let's define it right up front. Human-centered design, HCD, is a core principle of our creative process and strategic thinking here at Unincorporated, but it's also a term or phrase that's pretty popular right now. A lot of people think of it as the modern way to market or do your branding, HCD, or Human-Centered Design, it's really just an intuitive way of thinking about your strategy, your messaging, and your creative. By putting the human or the user, at the kind of the central point or the focal point of your efforts, it puts the human needs and those wants or desires at the forefront. Anytime you're developing a campaign, advertising creative web design, a user experience, an on-campus experience, an in-classroom experience, anytime you're thinking about your brand messaging, and from a practical perspective, it really just requires the higher education professional or administrator or agency partner to think about who is our audience. Who is that perspective student and what are their needs and wants? What are they trying to accomplish? How do they see themselves in our campaign? How do they see themselves on our website? And really just designing around that experience around those needs and wants.
Rebecca Koller: I like to think about human-centered design as a mindset. More than anything, it's really just trusting human intuition and thinking about, as a human, what you respond to positively and negatively. What are your, what are the humans at the end of the relationship or the other side of the creative or the other side of the messaging? How are they going to react to their lived experiences? What are they bringing to that interaction and how are they going to react to what you're presenting? positively and negatively. So it's a pretty intuitive process. I like that Ian mentioned that because you do have to trust yourself and your experiences, but also rely on what other experiences people are bringing to that interaction.
IE: Empathy is one of the cornerstones of that mindset. So being able to empathize with the other person, the person that you're engaging, or the person that you're designing an experience for. And that can be very intuitive. We're all humans, right? So if you can just put yourself in the mindset and in the place of that end user. Then you're doing human-centered design just by virtue of empathizing with, where they're coming from. This is, why is it modern? That's, I think a question, why has it taken us so long to do this? An intuitive way of thinking or develop this intuitive way of thinking? It used to be that marketers, advertisers, and even designers, would be like talking to their audience, expressing, these are all the best reasons why our college, our campus, and our university is amazing. These are all the best reasons why our product is amazing. Whereas human-centered design is more about how we engage in a conversation with the other person and how we think about their needs, their concerns, the questions that are running through their mind, and how we meet them basically on their turf and engage them with a conversation so that we're not speaking at them, but rather speaking with.
RJ: I've heard you say "user experience" a lot. I know we're gonna get to that a little bit later on, but this idea of human-centered design feels like a relatively new concept, like last maybe five years or so. Where did this idea come from?
RK: I actually did a deep dive on this recently trying to figure this out because it's such an interesting concept. Some people were attributing it all the way back to Plato's Republic and the idea of democracy, grassroots democracy, people taking part in designing the community and the system that they're living in. That obviously. Changed and evolved over thousands of years at this point. So we trace it back to the fifties and sixties when human psychology was happening and that's also when technology started changing and people could actually take part in testing the products that were being built for them. It continued to evolve from there a little bit. First, it was user testing is this actually going to work for the end user? This was that kind of the omnidirectional relationship that Ian's describing where we're like, I am producing this product confirming that it works for you.
And then I'm hands-off from there. I think around 2000 is when we started thinking like, how do we involve users and humans in the process throughout, like from the beginning assessing what it is they're actually looking for and building a product around those needs rather than making sure that product fits into their life.
IE: Yes, and there are a handful of white papers and a lot of research around, okay what was the moment? Why was there this shift in the marketplace? Why was there this shift in the way that marketers, communications experts, and advertisers, why did they move away from talking at the consumer? And why did they start to empathize with and engage the consumer? And the reason is that online platforms started to receive feedback. So you had a platform like Yelp where you could no longer just ship your product and deliver it and whatever. End of story. We are now getting feedback and reviews and user feedback is actually one of the critical components to ensuring that you're developing a great human-centered design. But right around that time of the shift, it's because we started to receive the marketplace, and started to receive user feedback directly and publicly, which of course made advertisers, marketers, service providers, et cetera, more receptive to that feedback.
RJ: And I mentioned UX a second ago. That's the kind of term that I'm maybe most used to. It sounds familiar. Are these the same thing? How do UX and human-centered design, how do they play together or how are they different?
RK: Yeah, I can take that. I think UX is a part of user-centered or human-centered design. honestly, in today's society, they're used a little interchangeably.
Even the way that we're talking about it, we're saying humans sometimes, and users, sometimes user experience is typically considered specifically for products and services. I think human-centered design considers it a little more holistically beyond user testing and beyond making sure things work. We're thinking, okay, what is their mindset? What is the empathy of it? What is their emotional state when interacting with this product, service, messaging, design, or whatever it is? So making sure it works. That UX piece is definitely part of it, but human-centered design considers it a little more holistically. I would say that's the primary difference in how we talk about it but with the caveat that this is an ongoing discussion in today's society, and I think that we'll see these terms evolve, and continue to evolve. And it'll be interesting to see five years out how we talk about the differences between the two, if at all.
IE: Good UX is always considering the end user. It's always considering the human at the center of the experience, bad UX, user experience that doesn't. And we have all had these experiences, right? We go to a website and it's broken on our mobile or we tap on a button and a pop-up covers the thing that we were trying to read, or we go to scroll and it doesn't respond right? So the user experience is a spectrum. Good to bad, to great even, and what makes great UX is the capacity at which it delivers on the human-centered experience, the capacity at which human-centered design is driving that user experience. Because it puts the user in the driver's seat. And so great UX is delivering exactly what every user wants, whatever the user expects, and whatever the user is thinking and it delivers on that.
RJ: That's such a great segue. Thank you for saying what you just said, because I think we've done a good job of defining what it is, what human-centered design is, but we haven't talked about the how. How do you, how does someone implement human-centered design? Is there a process involved? Is it pretty straightforward?
Like what? What does the actually doing human-centered design look
Ian: like? Yeah. Rebecca and I both have a few examples and I think probably our examples relate to the type of work here at the agency. For example, I'm largely responsible for the communications of the larger message that a university is trying to put out, and in order to design the message with the human at the center.
Oftentimes what we'll do and what I'll guide the client through is, first asking, we call it empathy mapping, but it's basically mapping the empathy or the mindset or the questions to the message. So we're gonna ask the university partner what questions are top of mind for your prospective student. Again, the two questions are, who's your audience and what are they thinking? What are they feeling? What are they asking? Ultimately, is the outcome of that? So prospective students in your MBA program, what types of things are they thinking about? Tuition, location, course load, what courses there are, and how this benefits them. So we map that we diagram all of those questions in a way that maps back to our communications. And so we use empathy mapping and outlining those particular questions in a way that informs our communication. Another way we do this is, oftentimes, let's say we're designing an online curriculum or we're thinking about a design for a classroom. We might actually go and observe that class as a silent participant, and we call this an ethnographic study. So we're actually gonna watch and learn how the class interacts with the course material, how the class interacts with each other, how the class interacts with the professor. And by doing this ethnographic study, this silent observation, you can actually pick up a lot of cues about that user experience and figure out ways to optimize that experience by observing the humans within that experience.
RK: Yeah, in-person is always great cause it just gives you such a well-rounded view of that person. What they're bringing to that classroom can even be informative. The clothes they're wearing can be informative. On my end, I'm more on the design side and less on the branding and messaging side. So I'm thinking about what are people looking for, not only in terms of messaging but what is accessible to them. What devices are they using, and what screen sizes are they operating on? Any kind of data I can get from the actual audience can really inform design decisions that can even figure out their route to work to figure out which billboard we should design for. Other tactics that we use on the design side are really any kind of user testing we can do. So whether it's paper prototypes that we can put in front of either our client or a prospective user and see how they interact with that card sorting and affinity mapping to see how they group different areas of information, such as whether it's admissions information, like where they're looking for that on a website or where they're looking for. Events or ways to get involved with a university. One of the biggest things in the digital space and design space is accessibility and ensuring that we are considering all of the fringe cases to make sure that people can interact with the content, no matter what. So we do pretty extensive accessibility testing to ensure that our content is perceivable by everyone and that everyone can. Or operate that information or that product appropriately given their own limitations. So that's one of the biggest ones I would say. And then obviously we're always pursuing more diversity and inclusive occlusion as part of that. So on the visual side, ensuring that we are using not only diverse photography but also a diverse set of people to respond to any design, mockups, or design options to ensure that it is resonating with that more inclusive audience.
IE: One of the challenges with human-centered design is that you have a diverse group of users typically accessing your website or accessing your mobile app, and oftentimes what you have to do in the design process is. Think in terms of generalizations, right? You have to reduce the experience to the lowest common denominator, so to speak. So how do you personalize it? If you truly want the best and most ideal human-centered experience, then you have to personalize it. So I think there's a number of ways, like an assessment form, again, thinking. The prospective student applying to that MBA program. Maybe there's an assessment form that does a little intake, and then the communications that follow that intake are more personalized. So there are ways that you can raise the barrier or I guess the baseline standard from the lowest common denominator to a personalized or ideal hyper-personalized experience. I know you asked for practical things that you can do. We're gonna have a whole list on our blog that lists out all of these practical things. But what we covered is the ethnographic study of empathy mapping, using a StoryBrand methodology that's putting the prospective student as the hero of your story or of your communications. Rebecca mentioned doing stakeholder interviews or intake interviews, any kind of user testing or prototyping where you can actually get real live feedback. Measuring accessibility standards and looking at that data. And then, of course, measuring or looking at the diversity and the inclusivity of the experience. I wanted to also add to this that a simple review of your analytics, your Google Analytics will tell you the user flow, and it will tell you where those cliffs are when your traffic is dropping off, or those pages where people are, where their attention is remaining. And through that analysis, you can also start to design the experience, putting yourself again in the shoes of the human through that user flow on your Google Analytics and thinking, okay, at this point we lost a handful of people. Why is that? How can we make that experience better? Or on this page, we have a lot of human interest and people are staying here for a long time. So how do we leverage that and how do we lean into that? So analytics, I think, is another practical way to deploy human-centered design.
Robert: I was glad to hear you mention StoryBrand because something you said earlier stuck out to me, which historically or maybe in the recent past, marketing was all about talking at people, right? It's like us to them. But StoryBrand is a way to help bring the person, the user, the human, to use our terminology into the story, put them at the center of the story, and we're bringing them along with us instead of just saying, Hey, here's who we are, what we do, you need us. I'm glad you mentioned that. And you can learn a lot more about StoryBrand on our website. Reach out if you wanna know more. So we've covered what it is. We've covered how you can start to do human design. I wanna talk about some examples. How do we see this play out in our daily lives? What are some ways that we are, we're seeing human-centered design without maybe even realizing it?
RK: I think the first thing I'll say is like every product in your life, everything you interact with, has been designed by someone. , and I don't think we fully realize that sometimes, whether it's, just looking around my desk, the monitor that I'm looking at, my keyboard, my mouse, like all of those have been considered for probably way more hours than I ever realized to make it optimal for my experience.
So when we think about it, obviously that doesn't touch our work. We're not into the physical product design at this point, but the human-centered design is a throughline in everyone's life. From our end, we're obviously talking more about like digital projects with messaging, but it's, I recommend everyone look around at the things that they surround themselves with cuz you chose that mouse for a reason because it fits your needs versus the mouse that fits someone else's needs better. I think we see it everywhere actually.
IE: There it's in plain sight, right? You just have to turn to any website and you can see the human-centered design at play. One example is a CTA. "Apply now", right? It was not too long ago when you had to hunt around a university's website in order to find the get started now or apply now call to action. Now, obviously, that's gonna create some friction in the user experience for the prospective student that's ready to apply now are ready to apply to financial aid. So if you just make that a little more accessible and that call to action more visible, you are in fact doing human-centered design. You're making a clear call to action. So when a human is ready to take action, they don't have to spend any time looking for it. Now, here's the somewhat slippery slope of human-centered design. Actually, Rebecca just did a presentation on this yesterday and I've flagged this for our group. The thing is, with human-centered design, ultimately you're appealing to the human to get them to act in a certain way or make it easier for them to act in a certain way or believe a certain thing about your product or service. And so it opens up this risk of manipulation. You have to do design for good. Because you have the power to influence human actions. So putting a CTA visible is good for the user, but it's also good for business. It's a little bit manipulative, right? So just a word of caution. And I know that my mentor, Don Miller talks a lot about this with StoryBrand. The moment you learn how to put your audience as the center of your story, it runs the risk of bending the hearts and minds to your will, so be careful with that.
RK: There are entire websites dedicated to essentially bad UX. And we saw a lot, a few years back when every newsletter pop up, the opt-out button was something like, "No, I don't wanna save money today." It's super manipulative. But they were using essentially human-centered design thinking. People want to save money, so let's manipulate this and force them to like intentionally opt out of this quote-unquote positive thing. It's super interesting and their entire library is dedicated to tracking this now and calling brands out. So I think it's gotten a little bit better, but it's definitely something to keep an eye on.
IE: Yeah, it's great that there is that level of crowdsourced accountability if you will, but if you're slick with human-centered design, no one's gonna flag it for you, cause it's gonna feel natural to the user. I guess your own accountability is required at times there. There are some really simple examples of this too. I don't think people would imagine their emojis as human-centered design, but there was once a time when you had to type out laughing out loud, which became LOL, which now became an emoji, right? So at some point, the designers or the design industry realized that humans want to communicate effectively exactly what they're feeling, so how do we enable that communication more effectively, more seamlessly, and quicker? And now we have emojis, which I think were born out of a human-centered design need. Same thing we see in terms of the number of clicks that it might take you in order to get to an application or the number of clicks it may take you to get to find the major of your choice. So just simplify. The journey or simp, making it easier for someone to communicate with you or making it easier for someone to find information is a big facet of human-centered design on websites in particular.
RK: One that I've been really hot on lately is the search functionality. When we think about how humans search online, it has totally shifted in the last, five, or 10 years. Gen Z in particular, they do not navigate websites. They search for whatever information they're looking for. They're very, they grew up in the age of Google, I would say. And Google has gotten better about answering questions rather than having people need to type in. The exact precise language to search for the right page. And so we're seeing this with university websites where a lot of them are implementing search fields and placing them fairly prominently. Kind of where I think it's dropping off is the search result page hasn't been as considered through that human-centered lens, so it often feels just like a Google listing that's unsorted and un, like there's no hierarchy to it. The best universities, I think, are implementing hierarchy and saying Hey, here are the programs that match that search term. Here are the news articles that match that search term. Here are the faculty members, which one of these are you looking for? And I think when you could put that level of human-centered design thinking into an experience we know that everyone is using, that's when something really magical happens.
IE: So true. Let's repeat that so everyone heard it. Gen Z, and I think even if that could be up-leveled to everyone on the internet now we search, we don't navigate. So design your search capability or functionality on your website in such a way that enables the fact that we search, we don't navigate.
RJ: If you take anything away from this conversation, maybe take that's the thing. We've talked about a lot about we've talked about a lot of examples of how we see this play out for colleges and universities already. Do you have any other specific examples of how human-centered design gets deployed in higher ed? I'm thinking back to a specific conversation we had recently about the design of classrooms and how the way classrooms were. Historically was about efficiency costs. Let's make it cheap and easy to put together. And Ian you had this conversation, I'm sure you have way more insight than I do, but just re-imagining how a student uses a classroom can increase the amount that a student can learn.
IE: Yeah, so there's a huge opportunity for human-centered design improvements within classrooms, within the curriculum. That in itself could be a whole separate conversation if we're thinking just purely say on recruitment marketing. Side of the equation. Cause I know a lot of our listeners are higher ed professionals and they're responsible for finding those best-fit students and maintaining their enrollment numbers. One thing that, that we saw and we were actually able to collaborate on that I thought was really effective with human-centered design is we developed a whole campaign. around key questions. So we did empathy mapping around key questions of financial aid, and those questions led to a series of videos that were sent out via text instead of email, or instead of embedded pages on a website. So when a prospective student was interested in the program and said, opted in, I'd like to learn more about financial aid. They received a series of messages delivered by students, fellow students, and college students, about how to apply for financial aid, the dos and don'ts, what's at risk, what to avoid, the best way to leverage, and the best way to look for money. And that was deliver delivered via text message. And in that sense, it did two things on the human-centered design front. One, it addressed a significant need, which is how do I pay, and secondly, it delivered it in the modality of communications that students of today's era, they're most likely to receive.
RJ: A few other things about that particular project that I think lend themselves towards human center design. One is we put students in the video. So students were actually the ones delivering the message. So it felt like peer-to-peer communication. The second thing we did was we shot the video and cropped it vertically because we knew we were gonna be delivering it via text message.
So to watch the video vertically made far more sense than shooting a standard video and having somebody rotate their phone. Third thing, every video was captioned, so people who maybe couldn't hear as well, or whatever the case may be, needed to watch it on silent, they had that ability. And finally, we did all the videos in both English and Spanish. So no matter what type of student that video was going to, it made it easy for basically anybody. That was a way that we could make it as personal as possible for everybody who might possibly receive that information.
IE: This is like a case study on human-centered design and the style in which the videos were shot, edited, and scripted felt like a TikTok video. So they had that edutainment. It was like education, but also sizzle and entertaining to watch, which again, just plays into how does the user expect to consume this information? How do we keep their attention in a way that's meaningful to them? And so the TikTok flavor of these videos, I think is also a component of that.
RJ: So some people who are listening might be hearing this conversation and it sounds like a quote-unquote "nice to have." Maybe it's a little, "Hey, I've got, bigger things to worry about than human-centered design." So I'm curious if you could answer the question, what's at risk? If someone does not apply this principle or this way of thinking to their work at a college or university.
RK: I think the ultimate risk is that they will just not connect to that prospect or to that human who is reading that message, seeing that Instagram ad, visiting that website, they're gonna alienate their perspective audience and ultimately hurt. enrollment numbers hurt their brand perception and kind of be worse off. When you don't consider that human in the end result, you run the risk of coming off really tone-deaf and potentially alienating and insulting your user. Just giving them a really negative experience overall. So we just want everyone who interacts with our clients, our brands, and the university partners that we have to have a really positive experience and really build a positive relationship so that you don't come away with your bad taste in your mouth essentially.
IE: Whether, regardless of whatever you're trying to sell, if you're trying to sell your latest research, if you're trying to sell your endowment, if you're trying to sell the naming right of your building, if you're trying to sell your curriculum, if you're trying to sell the new program that you just launched, whatever you're trying to sell, at the end of the day, it comes down to one thing and one thing only, and then, and that is, are you connecting with your prospect? It's about connecting, even if you're trying to sell the learning outcomes as a faculty, and we're not supposed to sell anything, right? But at the end of the day, we are selling knowledge, or at least trying to connect with the user to sell the learning outcome, to sell as humans. A great book by Daniel Pink, by the way. This is in our nature, and it comes down to connection. So if you're not doing human-centered design, you're not connected. , what's at risk is the lack and the inability to connect with others, and that's at the root of everything that you're selling.
RK: Honestly, it reminds me of what Ian first said about how this sort of started. It started happening when people started having other options. Essentially if your program is up next to another program that's of similar nature, people are gonna gravitate to the ones that connect to them. If there's one that's alienating them, that's the one that they're not gonna go with. So yeah it to sell is human. And we live in a society where we are in competition and we are competing for attention.
So the more that you can connect and the more that you can build a strong relationship with your prospect, the more chance you have of, guaranteeing success for yourself and for your institute.
RK: This has been a great conversation and I'm hoping, Ian, you can maybe put a bow on this for us and talk about some other resources or books, ways that people can learn more about human-centered design. Final thoughts, key takeaways.
IE: The most important thing that I can leave you with, leave the listeners with is just remembering that human-centered touches every aspect. It touches every aspect of what you create, of what you design, of what you deliver. And that's from your messaging strategy to your brand position, to the user experience on your website, to your ad creative. And when you simply put the human at the center of your thinking for all of that, and you understand this basic principle, you can effectively communicate with your audience in a meaningful and lasting way.