Thoughtful Data Strategy Requires a Human-Centered Design Approach

The need for comprehensive data to support student success has never been greater. Mega-forces in higher education from enrollment dips and concerns over affordability to political headwinds and changing workforce demands make this the moment that universities need to take careful stock of their data strategy.

Data for data’s sake helps no one. Even if a campus’s data ecosystem is rich, robust, and unified, it is useless without a thoughtful data strategy, and the surest way to effective data strategy is human-centered design.

Comprehensive data is necessary but insufficient

Advanced student experience analytics can provide campus leaders with extraordinary insights from recruitment to graduation and beyond. The latest data governance, data security, advanced analytics, and other solutions hold the potential to revolutionize how data can be used, enabling campus leaders to better support student success and other strategic goals.

These capabilities go to waste if a campus’s approach isn’t thoughtfully rooted in empathy and built on clearly articulated problem statements. This approach is commonly called “human-centered design” (HCD) and can be traced back to Stanford professor John E. Arnold. Think of it as a problem-solving method that places real people at the center of the development process. By keeping people’s pain points and preferences top of mind throughout any design process, you end up with a product that not only solves their problems but helps them thrive.

Human-centered design to the rescue

HCD means a shift in approach, but the transition doesn’t have to be disruptive. Three guiding principles can make a big difference in how campus leaders build a thoughtful data strategy.

1. Practice compassionate empathy.

Einstein is often quoted as having said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” Turns out, Einstein didn’t actually say that, but the principle is nonetheless relevant. And truly understanding a problem starts with understanding people.

Empathy doesn’t come in just one flavor, however. There are different ways to think about empathy, including cognitive empathy (putting yourself in someone’s place logically, understanding their perspective) and emotional empathy (feeling someone’s emotions along with them). At Resultant, our goal is to always try to balance the two with what we call compassionate empathy. This means asking questions like “How does that make you feel?” and balancing that with open but pointed questions that help us gain a deep appreciation for the problem at hand.

If you are a campus leader focused on improving retention rates among a specific student population, it’s critically important to spend time earnestly listening to the lived realities of the students you’re seeking to support. Humans are messy, and we all approach problems with biases we may not even see. Beginning with empathy means approaching problems for what they really are rather than the way we assume them to be or the way we wish them to be.

2. Relentlessly refine your problem statement(s).

At its core, innovation is simply a new solution to a new or existing problem or opportunity. Easy enough, right? But too often, we pursue technological advances without truly understanding the problem(s) we’re trying to solve. We talk about this a lot when our employees (Rezzers, we call them) participate in our Design Thinking workshops. We share an example from Simon Sinek, who once described the way we all needlessly replaced pull-down projector screens with motorized ones that are almost always less reliable and less convenient. What problem were we trying to solve? We created a solution to a problem that didn’t exist.

Your campus may be rich with data, but if you fail to employ HCD principles into your strategy, you may end up creating solutions that are misaligned to the problems they’re intended to solve. Problems in higher education are seldom one-dimensional. More often, we find that problems are surrounded by a constellation of context, causes, and factors that need deeper examination and discovery to build an effective problem statement.

For example, a campus leader may have data showing a statistically significant correlation between low academic performance and low academic support center participation and be tempted to conclude the solution has something to do with increasing awareness of the academic support center’s services. But this is where problem-solving techniques like the Five Whys (asking why repeatedly to get to the root cause of an issue) can be helpful.

Here’s how this may look:

Why #1: Why are our retention numbers beginning to drop?

Answer: There has been a strong drop among students in X student population.

Why #2: Why do we see such high attrition among these students?

Answer: Because they are not experiencing academic success.

Why #3: Why aren’t they experiencing academic success?

Answer: Our data shows they are not using the academic support center.

Why #4: Why isn’t the academic support center being used?

Answer: Because students cannot attend during the hours of operation.

Why #5: Why can students not attend during operating hours?

Answer: It appears many of these students have work-study commitments during operating hours.

In this example, increasing awareness of the academic support center’s services would not have solved the problem. Digging deeper enables leaders to draft clearer, more cogent problem statements and in turn, employ other data and strategies to find the best solution.

3. Think of HCD as a team sport.

Once you’ve done the work to create a concise problem statement that is rooted in compassionate empathy, you’re ready to put your data to use. But not without one more element of HCD: inclusion.

You can have a perfectly worded problem statement, a flawless set of goals, and an airtight data strategy. But failing to clarify roles and expectations is an almost certain way for any project or initiative to fail. It can sometimes be easy to lose sight of the human-centered nature of what we do when we get wrapped up into metrics, measurables, and data. But it always comes back to people.

Things like RACI charts and Agile methodologies may be helpful ways to ensure there are clearly defined roles and expectations for any type of project or initiative. It’s also important to consider developing value/feasibility matrices to help you score quick wins as you build momentum early in a project. These approaches will not only help you garner support and collaboration, they will almost certainly ensure that you’ll achieve the goals you’ve established for the problem you’re trying to solve.

A Thoughtful Data Strategy Isn’t “Nice”—It’s Urgently Important

Problems in higher education are deeply human at their core. That’s why it’s no longer enough for a campus to claim it operates using data-driven or data-informed decision-making. Today’s campus leaders must recognize that a thoughtful data strategy encompasses far more than access to clean, accessible, dynamic data. It requires a human-centered approach where problem statements and the potential solutions are as deeply human as they are technical.

Building your organization’s data strategy through the lens of HCD is more than a mere competitive advantage. Simply put, it is the most efficient and effective way of doing business. Click here to learn more about the ways we support colleges and universities optimize student success.

Learn more about our higher education services



Find out how our team can help you achieve great outcomes.

Insights delivered to your inbox