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Research + Design, Summer 2016

Designing for higher education

The Design Lab partnered with SAP to reimagine how design is taught in higher education. We prototyped a platform that matches educators to real-world projects sponsored by industry and community organizations. Our goal was to enable students to gain mileage with design-doing.

I worked in a team of 3 alongside an SAP design advisor. I led the interaction and visual design of the platform. Our work culminated in a 3 day design education workshop. Here we were able to validate the concept with 20+ design educators.


The American college experience is a bubble

Students leave university qualified on paper, but missing critical skills demanded by industry. The emergence of hackathons and project-based clubs show a bottom up demand for solving real-world problems. However, this is not enough to prepare students for the realities of the workforce.


Matching educators and classes to real-world projects

Solving real-world problems while in school can help students develop and reinforce a design-doing mindset. We propose Matchmaker, a system that matches educators and courses with real-world problems for students to work on.



Since 2015, SAP's design team had been researching the education space, which ultimately led them to partner with The Design Lab. After interviewing 20+ professors at 6 different colleges, SAP came to the following fundamental insight –

"Students are coming out of university unprepared for the challenges of the workforce"

Students described their college experience as a fixed roulette of classes that left little room for exploration. It wasn't until their 3rd or 4th year that they found a pursuit.

Despite best intentions, there was a disconnect between what was being taught in the classroom and what industry expects. Oftentimes students went elsewhere – hackathons, consultancy clubs, etc – to build the skills needed to stay relevant.

Mapping out the college experience based on interviews with students

Diving into the problem space

To understand the problem, my team conducted interviews with design educators and students. We coupled this with a competitive analysis of products in a similar market to identify opportunities.

We learned that –

  • Project-based courses are crucial for applying knowledge to labor, however, they are confined to the university bubble.
  • The emergence of hackathons and industry-focused clubs show that students are aware of the issue, however, this is not enough to solve it.
  • Educational institutions that host capstone courses, where students can work on corporate sponsored projects have an advantage, however, these programs are costly and limited.
Sorting out competitors in a petal diagram

Understanding the needs of educators

Our findings made it clear – the capstone project model provides opportunity to build relevant skills. Naturally, we thought, "what's stopping educators from connecting with local companies or community organizations to introduce real-world challenges in their classes?". We storyboarded the idea and invited educators from UC San Diego to provide feedback. This led to fundamental insights surrounding the perception of collaborating with industry.

Here is what we learned –

  • Working with industry is tricky; educators don't want their students to be seen as free labor
  • Previous successful engagements with industry involved alumni that the educators already trust
  • To make it work, educators would need freedom in reframing the "industry problem" into a "teaching problem"
Mapping out key moments facilitated feedback on our idea

Defining jobs to be done

We created 2 personas based on the people we interviewed – Industry Client and Design Educators. However, we recognized the problem with guiding our design solely based on personas. It is easy for personas to become collages of random user demographics which don’t situate the user needs within a pertinent context. We opted to use a "jobs to be done” framework to direct product features. Each job to be done followed this pattern –

When (Key Moment), I want to (Job), so I can (Outcome).

By framing stories in this manner, we get context about the situation (When), the user’s motive (I want to), and the expected outcome (so I can), which was crucial for our design reasoning.

Jobs to be done mapped out by Rana, our design advisor

Solution Space

Our bet was this –

If we matched Educators and classes with real-world problems with appropriate flexibility and commitment then Educators would be encouraged to try out new and different cornerstone projects in class resulting in students coming out better prepared for the real-world.

Our embodiment of this hypothesis was the Matchmaker. Key to this solution is lowering the barrier of entry to introducing real-world projects into the classroom by ensuring a match between the levels of commitment and flexibility industry is willing to offer and the availability and flexibility that educators need.

Envisioning a two-sided market

We envisioned a two-sided market, where educators put up classes and industry puts up real-world projects. Once a match is made the system automatically pulls the project and class "off the market". Once an agreement to collaborate is made, then it is permanently pulled off the market. We create a feedback loop by encouraging the collaborators to submit a case study of their engagement upon completion of the project.

Check out the educator storyboard and the industry storyboard. Key highlights of the idea are listed below.

  • Automatic matching between client and educators based on type of work needed, flexibility and commitment levels
  • Templates to facilitate negotiation and communication
  • Rating system to close the feedback loop and lower the barrier of entry for new parties

Designing the landing page

I designed the landing page of the platform to be presented at an upcoming design education workshop. The goal was to communicate the value proposition of Matchmaker to both industry affiliates and educators, and ultimately get them to sign up.

A key design decision was the inclusion of case studies that featured previous successful engagements between industry and academia. Our target audience needed to learn what getting involved might encompass.

Landing page and case study design

Designing the onboarding flow

Question flow, matches and project page design

Validating the concept with stakeholders

The sum of our work culminated in a 3-day design education workshop hosted by The Design Lab. We presented a revised storyboard with 20 design educators from 7 different colleges and had them comment on each stage of our concept with post-it notes. Our value proposition held – albeit it with the need for refinement. We recreated this feedback system digitally and had the idea validated by network of corporations through SAP's Design@Business forum. Since then we handed off the project to a team at the Hasso Plattner Institue in Germany for further iteration.

Snapshots from the design education workshop