Applying human-centered design processes to build successful teams

February 25, 2019

This post is republished from Into Practicea biweekly communication of Harvard’s Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning

Beth Altringer, Senior Preceptor in Innovation and DesignBethanne Altringer, Senior Preceptor in Innovation and Design and Director of the Desirability Lab, uses personalized approaches to students’ learning in courses like The Innovator’s Practice: Finding, Building and Leading Good Ideas with Others and Design Survivor: Experiential Lessons in Designing for Desirability, focusing on individual-level growth that leads to team effectiveness by grading both process and product.

The benefits: Altringer’s research shows that “an important differentiator of success and failure is interpersonal relationships on teams.” Her targeted approach to building relational effectiveness creates longer-lasting impact than giving feedback to teams or the whole class. By grading both process and product, she teaches students “to recognize and consistently work on their own skill gaps over time,” so that they learn “adaptability, in a domain-specific way.”

The challenges: Students don’t always see how important relationships are to product success: “our students aren’t going to sign up for a class on interpersonal relationships, so this is a product design class but at least half of it is about the relationship building.” In addition, having individualized feedback conversations can be time-consuming, and emotionally taxing if students become defensive: “I tell them, the stakes are very low for this conversation; try to work on this before the stakes are really high, like in your start-up or new job.”

Takeaways and best practices

  • Cultivate student choice but within a structure. Altringer creates project teams based on students’ survey responses, aiming to “minimize reliance on friend groups or popularity, and maximize for diverse skills and mutual core interests.” Additionally, students identify specific skill gaps they want to address, choosing relevant readings from a curated list: “this recognizes that we’re all sort of broken in different ways—we all have something to work on.” Throughout the course, students submit reflections on their discoveries.
  • Identify and optimize factors of success. Altringer optimizes three out of the many variables shaping the success of a design product: time, resources, and motivation. She views the course “as a motivational system where I’m trying to keep engagement as high as possible for all students and help them move efficiently through conflict.”
  • Build feedback on data, not hunches. Altringer synthesizes multiple sources to shape her individualized guidance, including a student’s written reflections and behavior in class, as well as peer feedback from team members. By contrast, in the past Altringer found class or team-level feedback “was very hunch-based and wasn’t going to help those who needed it most.” Even if both she and the students might prefer to avoid these sometimes difficult conversations, “if it’s data-driven, we can both get through it.”

Bottom line: “These classes aren’t only focused on top design students; they’re an attempt at personalized education that enables all students to learn, connecting with each of them at different starting levels, and grading them based on the degree to which they’ve managed to improve.”