Design Thinking at U Prep

In a previous post, I described a history of design thinking in independent schools. This article describes how we are beginning to use design thinking at University Prep and explores the differences between learning about design thinking in a workshop setting and using it within the daily operation of a school.

This past summer, three adults and four students from U Prep participated in Learning Is Leading, a workshop for educators to learn about design thinking and practice it with students. I served on the jury for Learning is Leading and had previously participated in two design thinking workshops through the Santa Fe Leadership Center, the first with IDEO and the second with Don Orth of Hillbrook School. We entered U Prep this fall curious to apply design thinking at school. Our librarian and athletic director have continued to meet with their summer cohort during the year.

Our athletic director introduced us to Thoughtstream, online “engagement software” that extends the traditional online survey by incorporating design thinking concepts. In a thoughtstream, the organizer asks open-ended questions, and respondents reply with “thoughts,” ideas that they generate. Once the thoughts are collected, the site sends a second link to respondents, asking them to rank submitted ideas. Compared to a traditional electronic survey, a thoughtstream is much more adaptable to participant ideas. It is similar to the inquiry stages of the design thinking process, when designers collect ideas from prospective users, generating insights that might not have been obtained otherwise.

Our first experience using Thoughtstream with the entire faculty reminded me that even seemingly small changes in user engagement require explanation and attention. The organizer setup is relatively straightforward, but we made a slight misstep by sending the respondent link to our faculty distribution list, rather than addressing it separately to individuals. This interfered with Thoughtstream’s ability to track and customize user interaction with the survey. From the user side, the interface is very clean, but when teachers accessed it from their phones, it required them to download an app to participate. This proved a significant hurdle for many teachers, who were expecting a more conventional web experience. These practical obstacles got in the way of our first Thoughtstream, so we were not able to gather the level of thoughtful input that we had been seeking. Also, it felt very different to solicit input electronically than face-to-face. Participation rates were lower, and the the conversational dynamic of an interview was missing.

In my next article, I will describe the application of design thinking to the creation of a new computer science course plan.



  1. Hi Richard,

    It’s Jamie, from Thoughtstream :-)

    Thanks so much for recognizing the relationship between the Thoughtstream and inquiry processes. Our goal IS to help groups of people generate insights that may not be evenly shared in a face to face group (due to bias, distance, etc) or captured via traditional survey. We also use an inquiry approach and design thinking internally and I think that is reflected in how our platform works.

    I’m also really glad you posted that “even seemingly small changes in user engagement require explanation and attention”. How true is that!

    If people are involved then it’s a complex adaptive system and even small changes can, and often do, make waves. And downloading an app, while second nature to some is a barrier to others. We need to recognize and remember that. So thank you for the reminder.

    If you don’t mind I’d like to link to this post in our next blog post. You’ve brought up some really good points about the engagement process and I’d like to share some ideas around that.



  2. Richard says:

    Jamie, thanks for reading my post and writing a thoughtful reply. Feel free to carry this forward in your blog. I am sure that we will continue to experiment here with Thoughtstream and refine our approach.

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  4. Thanks Richard,

    It’s posted here

    I’d love to chat with you more about design thinking too. Maybe do a interview? You clearly have lots of experience in the area. I’m kinda jealous of the IDEO workshop :-)


  5. Richard says:

    Happy to. Just let me know a good time. I’m not really an expert in design thinking but would recommend Greg Bamford for additional perspective. He’s doing (or just did) a free webinar today on design thinking.

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