Design Thinking in Higher Education

This workshop was put on by the University of Portland and PDXHCD as part of Design Week Portland 2018.

This workshop was hosted by David Lemus and Matthew Oliphant and WeWork Custom House kindly shared their event space for the workshop. Two faculty members from University of Portland (UP) were also in attendance: Jennette Lovejoy is an Associate Professor of Communications at UP where she teaches a course in design-thinking. Ian Parkman is an assistant professor in the Pamplin School of Business who is working to incorporate design-thinking into his classrooms.

The facilitators, Sara Mesing and Patrick Sharbaugh, outlined expectations, kept the plan moving forward and tied back the principles of this quick workshop to how attendees might apply the methods in their actual professional lives. Each section of the workshop was timed to keep people on task and on schedule.

At workshop’s end, attendees left having experienced a high-level look into how to structure a plan to build empathy and start the road towards proper framing and eventual solving of a given issue.


The workshop began with David offering some quick introductions to design thinking, it’s origins and a high-level history of the guiding principles. I don’t recall if the classic hexagonal slide of empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test were shown but that concept was made clear.

Following this introduction, Matthew gave a high-level overview of The Portland Human-Centered Discipline Collective’s mission to unite the groups and people that promote human-centered disciplines in the Portland area.


Following the introductions, the group was presented with an overview of the challenge for the day: begin to understand the college “onboarding” experience; or, more specifically, how the new student orientation experience at UP affects students for better or for worse. To do this, a group of about a dozen current UP students had volunteered to be interviewed by workshop attendees.


Any amount of genuine empathy is beneficial when framing human issues. One of the best (only?) ways to build empathy is to interact directly with those affected by the issues. For this workshop, the facilitators took the necessary step of requesting that students from UP attend the event and be available for questions. The facilitators gave a brief overview of how to ask open questions, how to listen actively and how to encourage the participants to talk openly and think out loud. A short interview guide was provided to attendees interviewers to guide us through the process.

As soon as students began to enter the room quickly filled with the buzz of conversation as the groups made introductions and launched into their Q&A. Interviews were set up with 2 attendees facilitating the interview: 1 primary “question-asker” and 1 primary note-taker. The interviews lasted about 20 minutes and there was rarely a dull moment. Each group appeared to be having stimulating discussions as the workshop participants listened to the students, digested what was heard and developed strategy for their next lines of questioning.

Solo Framing Synthesis

Following the interviews, each individual attendee spent time analyzing their results. This activity was done by each attendee alone without input from teammates. Participants were asked to focus on making observations based on 4 kinds of important touchpoints: people, information, tools, and workspaces. Stacks of sticky notes were supplied and attendees wrote one observation per sticky. The goal of this personal synthesis was to build a stack of observations to contribute to the next group exercise: building a New Student journeymap.

Collaborative Journey Mapping

Taped to the walls around the room were large sheets of paper laid out about 2 feet tall and 4 feet wide and divided into 3 rows. The top row was labelled with a smiling face to indicate positive experience touchpoints. The center was neutral and the bottom was frowning, indicating negative emotional experiences. The horizontal axis represented time across the roughly 4 days of new student orientation. The teams took their sticky notes and placed them on the timeline. Duplicates were overlapped on top of eachother. Discussion was encouraged to ensure each team agreed on the orientation of the stickies across the journey map.

Problem Framing: How might we?

Patrick gave an overview of problem-framing through developing “How might we” questions: an approach to phrasing problem statements that invites broad, collaborative exploration by turning insights and themes into actionable questions. A challenge at this step it to avoid building solutions into the problem statements.

A great example given by the facilitators was replacing something like “How might we use facial recognition to detect people?” with a more open-ended question like “How might we know who is in the building?” Workshop attendees spent time on their own writing a few “How might we” questions based on their team journey maps. Once these were assembled, the groups reconvened and posted their questions to the maps to share and discuss amongst their team.

Voting on Divergence

Once the “How might we” ideas were posted, shared, and discussed it was time to elect preferences. The goal at this step was to come to a shared understanding of what questions were really hitting the problem and merited further exploration. After all, it’s not just about assembling a pile of questions and seeing what sticks, it’s about diverging based on empathy then using the shared knowledge of the group to converge on what is most relevant to the shared understanding of the problem at hand.

By making a small dot on the notes with a sharpie, each team member made a total of 3 votes. These votes could be all be applied to 1 note or shared among 3. Using the votes, the most relevant problem statements could be identified and used as a focus for additional divergence while moving closer to the solution space.

While we didn’t move into the solution space, it was easy to see how this might look. Following this round of convergence, another round of divergence would occur surrounding the problem-statements and moving into identifying possible solutions. Further group reflection, sharing and voting would lead to a better understanding of collective agreement on possible solutions and additional discussion would keep the problem statement in line.

Wrapping Up

There were several things I found unique about this workshop. One was that while it was chock-full of design-thinking approaches to empathy and problem-framing, it didn’t try to cram the solution space into a 3-hour window and instead focused on a deeper understanding of how to build empathy through user-interviewing and then use that newly found knowledge to collaboratively break down and frame the problem.

Additionally, I really appreciated the readily-recruited interview participants. By bringing the students into the room at the outset, it pushed the groups right into the interviewing phase with pre-qualified test subjects. Granted, in a more sophisticated study there would be screeners and some understanding of participant diversity and planning, but this was 3 hours and merely meant to illustrate a point: talking openly to real people who are experiencing a problem is the best way to work towards solving that problem.

Finally, what I always appreciate in any design-thinking workshop is the ability for the facilitators to tie back the workshop material to a real-life scenario someone might be aiming to solve for in their professional careers. Patrick and Sara did a great job here by spending time to open the floor to discussion about how workshop attendees might use this new found knowledge in the future. Multiple participants shared, including myself, and as a closing statement I will share the gist of my insight here…


I was once employed at a company that had lost the ability to truly empathize with its users. Long-standing structural norms had built a wall between clients and designers and created a game of user-needs telephone that ran through account managers. This structure resulted in loss of sales and loss of time designing solutions that didn’t work.

In order to change this, a small team from UX (including myself) set out to build user-interviewing and design-thinking into the standard design process. We were guided by a veteran consultant and the work we did was exceptional. Not only did we generate fresh ideas based on real user insights, but we created a detailed, long-term roadmap aimed at salvaging a keystone product.

The problem was that it was only us, the small team, that understood the value of what we were doing. The buy-in from up top didn’t come in the way we had hoped for. We built a huge amount of genuine empathy externally but failed to build empathy internally. This would have been an excellent time to use the knowledge gained in Design Thinking in Higher Education in bettering the internal understanding of our goals.

These short, 3-hour workshops run internally amongst our stakeholders could have been designed to learn more about our stakeholders and simultaneously expose them to user empathy and design-thinking. In design, there are always multiple sides to every coin and experience.

By focusing on empathy for our internal stakeholders in addition to our users, our work could have been much more valuable.

Words & Pics by Chris Martuza

Chris Martuza tells people-centric stories across a range of mediums.

Utilizing his background in character development and traditional storytelling, he works in web development, UX and video to create experiences grounded in structure. As a former bartender, his understanding of character and human needs allows him to script cohesive, motivated journeys through web interactions and moving-image experiences.

Chris believes in planning to solve first for the who before thinking about the how. He advocates for stepping to back to confirm that issues are framed appropriately and that the right problems are being solved for. “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.”