How will you co-create with students?

At the beginning of 2020, Tricia Seifert, curator of the Supporting Student Success blog, asked: What are you doing in your practice that is interesting, innovative, or ground-breaking? How have you partnered with students? What have you done that missed the mark and you used the set-back to learn and move forward? David Ip Yam, from York University, shares his experience below.


What’s your institution’s innovation strategy and where do you fit? How and with whom will you collaborate? How will you balance students’ needs with the postsecondary systems’ needs and resources? What methods will you use?

These are some of the questions I wrestle with daily in my role as Director, Student Service Excellence at York University in Toronto, Canada. A few months into this job, it became clear that co-creating with students is a no-brainer for my primary initiatives. But in my experience, it’s not been simple.

Read on to learn about some of the practices that seem to be working. I’ll also share some of the challenges encountered and lessons learned about co-creating services with students.

1) Co-design with students

The service excellence program that I’m responsible for is about ensuring that we have the culture, capabilities and systems to deliver the highest level of service to students and the York community. We could attempt to design this program ourselves as a leadership team or as a staff team. Instead, we’re choosing to co-design with students by drawing on human centered design and design thinking methodology.

Understanding student needs and pain points

Early on, we formed a student experience design team to lead a stream of the project and to participate in a diary study. Over a period of three months, one group of students submitted diaries documenting their experiences with various services while the other group interviewed students at large about their service experiences. In the end, we collected about one hundred specific student experiences with our services.

Meanwhile, we formed a staff working group to lead a parallel study across the portfolio of over four hundred student services staff members.

Creating spaces for staff and student collaboration

From there, we invited the same students and staff to interpret the stories, identify themes, and draw out the student needs and pain points. Finally, a student skillfully analyzed the totality of the data collected from students and staff. From the data, the student developed a set of agreed upon principles that characterize the desired future-state student and staff service experience. Service experience principles serve as a foundation for service excellence when they are modeled and embedded. The diary studies and the co-creative spaces proved to be effective data collection mechanisms for developing the student and staff experience principles. Continuing the collaboration, these same students are engaged in reflecting our principles into actual service enhancements.

Copyright York University. Used with permission.

Potential challenges with co-design

Human-centered design may fly in the face of established bureaucratic and organizational norms. Many professionals are familiar with design workshops. They think of post-its, sharpies, and collaborative ideation alongside users (e.g. students). The ideas and energy generated from these workshops are seductive but only represent a fraction of the work involved in a co-creative process. Trust me, I wish that’s all there was to it!

As you can see from this design-thinking framework from the Nielsen Norman Group, the flow is meant to be iterative, cyclical and user-centered (e.g. students).

Copyright Nielsen Norman Group. used with permission from https://www.nngroup.com/articles/design-thinking/

Design thinking is used to innovate and transform, is done over time, and requires a balance between adopting the perspective of the user and the postsecondary system as a whole. In Design at Work, Dunne calls these the tensions of inclusion, disruption and perspective.

The implementation of such “design thinking” is rarely accomplished in a day.

It’s essential that your user-group (e.g. students) see the value in being involved and are offered multiple avenues to engage. It’s equally important that your senior leadership team chooses to champion and invest in long-term resources to sustain such a program and shift in work. Thankfully, mine have been supportive.

2) Be agile and responsive to student desires

The other initiative I’m responsible for is to work with a brilliant team at York and at IBM to build and launch a student virtual assistant. The potential to elevate student satisfaction, engagement and outcomes through a smart virtual assistant is exciting…and daunting. From the beginning, we’ve tried to implement a project plan that is structured, yet agile, and responsive to student desires.

Copyright York University. Used with permission.

Responding to student desires

Before it was a student virtual assistant, it was just an idea. The hope was to leverage artificial intelligence to enhance student experiences and outcomes. Instead of jumping to the solution, we sought to understand the problem from students’ perspectives.

We asked students to tell us what they needed through design thinking sessions. Based on their desires and our feasibility and viability analysis, it was determined that we would start by creating a student virtual assistant. Throughout our rapid building period, we periodically went back to students to test whether we “got it right”. Sometimes we didn’t, but in a responsive environment, we want to ensure that we aren’t building based on our assumptions of students’ desires.

Using an agile approach

After the testing period, we launched a proof of concept in which we engaged 100+ students for 12 weeks to help the student virtual assistant get better and better at responding to inquiries. Through incremental and iterative sequences (known as sprints), our team made daily tweaks, changes and improvements to the virtual assistant.

After a successful proof-of-concept, we launched the student virtual assistant to a wider segment of the undergraduate population. Yet again, in an effort to be responsive and enable a degree of agility and responsiveness, we launched it in BETA mode with built-in mechanisms for students to give feedback about the content. Students are showing us where to take their virtual assistant next.

Potential challenges with an agile and responsive (student) service design approach

In my experience, agile and responsive service design is resource intensive. I’ve found that it’s important for the project team and senior leadership to clearly articulate the problem to solved, the opportunity to be had, the scope of the proposed solution, and the resources required (including from

Concluding thoughts about co-creating with students

While co-creating doesn’t guarantee that you will be able to meet everyone’s expectations, our student participants have voiced that they feel more connected to the institution. Moreover, they’re demonstrating leadership, communication, information management, thinking and problem solving skills. In time, we’ll all benefit from the ultimate outcomes of this co-creative journey. For now, here are some student impressions of co-creating WITH us:

  • “It’s so rare to be asked what WE want, beyond a survey here and there. This [initiative] goes even further and asks us to literally be a part of designing the solutions from the ground up.” – Student involved in the service excellence initiative
  • “Opportunities like this support students as they become leaders and guide students to think beyond their own experience to the experiences of those who will attend York in the years ahead.” – Student involved in the service excellence initiative
  • “Being able to be a part of a group that is shaping something that will be so integral to the student experience is such an amazing opportunity.” – Student involved in the student virtual assistant proof of concept

Personally, I think the only thing that co-creation guarantees is learning (for individuals and for the organization). In my case, learning has been about being able to plan, act, and learn all at the same time, to embrace failure and ambiguity, and to use/encourage adaptive forms of leadership. I think this is helping me to be a better higher education contributor.

Now it’s your turn to share, how will you (or do you) co-create with students?

I’d love to hear from you @DavidIpYam on Twitter, LinkedIn or Instagram. If you’re interested in student success, check out my podcast, the Student Success Exchange.

Thanks for reading.

David Ip Yam is a higher education professional and leadership educator. You can learn more about David and his work at davidipyam.com

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