Design Thinking Tackles A Three Headed Monster

The only way to tackle bold challenges is to accept them and dig into the real story. This is a reflection on how I engineered Design Sprints to help AFFORDABLE COLLEGE understand how to go after one of the biggest challenges facing America….. AN AFFORDABLE EDUCATION.

AFFORDABLE COLLEGE entered the Learn Launch Accelerator located in Boston Massachusetts with an ambitious goal “To disrupt the traditional path that many students take. One that leads them to lost credits and staggering debt”. How might we provide students with resources that allow them to obtain the cheapest and most efficient means to graduation?  Affordable College had focused in on helping Community College (2 Year Institutions) Students seek cheap paths to transfer in which they would not lose a large number of credits (See the problem here). At first glance that might seem like the clear path to start down but as “Presentation Day” quickly approached in January, AFC was starting to feel that they didn’t understand the whole problem.

Partnering with them we quickly realized that this problem didn’t deal with one user. It dealt with three: Students, Community Colleges & Four Year Institutions. Understanding one user or customer can be a challenge but when you have to tackle three it takes a dedicated commitment to suspend judgement and empathize.

We started our first sprint on a windy December Tuesday in Boston. Having flown in team members from across the country we dealt with a condensed schedule and the normal wrenches that go into any well planned Design Sprint (we were thrown out of one college and had to interview students as they boarded the train). We crafted a series of well thought out questions that tackled certain assumptions we had about how CC students looked at transfer, graduation, advisement, finances & work life balance. We met them where they were at inner city and suburban schools. Like most sprints, you quickly find out that your assumptions are usually off. We curated their stories that night and developed an array of personas to deal categorize their needs, wants, pains & gains. We targeted stories we wanted to dig deeper into and repeated the deep dive (iteration is a must). Day 3 led us to a long brainstorming session dealing with six key insights in 15-20 minute sprints. We crafted this brainstorming into a dozen opportunities for change and placed our different personas into storified pitches (we filmed it, it’s awesome and proprietary, sorry). We wrapped up the sprint with prototypes of different ideas ready for feedback from students over the next week and of course we finished our last meeting from a car as I was exiting to get on my return flight home. It wasn’t the finish line but it left the team invested in the lives of these students, a few team members decided to enroll in Bunker Hill Community College.


With an understanding of one side of the puzzle the team worked remotely across the country in January and February on an extended sprint. I tested change of behavior with students in Atlanta while product began refining concepts on multiple MVP’s. We then turned our eyes toward the needs of Community Colleges and Four Year Institutions. With Four Year Institutions I crafted relationships with industry mavericks such as Bridget Burns the Executive Director of the University Innovation Alliance she directed me right down my own street to Georgia State University whose new student retention initiatives were netting the school $3 million for every 1% increase retention. The same story played out over and over again as we surveyed large schools in person and at conferences, enrollment and retention matter.

Our final piece of the puzzle was to bring the team back together this time in Atlanta for a week long sprint tackling the needs of Community Colleges. We had surveyed the country and through the experience of experts had painted a picture of what the ‘less progressive models’ looked like. We wanted to focus on an institution that was a leader in tackling the challenges that Two Year Institutions face and we took a deep dive into Chattahoochee Technical College. We spent two days interviewing leadership in all aspects of the school trying to understand where we could merge our students needs. We learned about a staff who every year has to do more with less resources and where they saw needs. Thanks to the support of the Cherokee County Economic Development team and their new innovation center partnership with the school we were able to immerse ourselves in the community as we curated and brainstormed (there is nothing better than being able to get rapid feedback by walking down the hall). We left the week with what Affordable Colleges leadership felt was an effective path to step into product and partnership development.

Affordable College‘s goal is epic, but they took the time to understand the problem from more than just one point of view. This saves resources in the long run and as they go forward I am excited to see what they do with the opportunity.





Design Thinking Tackles A Three Headed Monster