Art Center College of Design straddles two campuses on opposite sides of the 134 freeway in Pasadena, California. The school enrolls just shy of 2,000 students, a mix of undergraduate and graduate, who pursue degrees in various creative and urban design fields from illustration and film to environmental design and transportation. The catalyst for change at Art Center is its strategic road map—a plan to drive the college forward to keep the institution a leader in the education of individuals pursuing careers in the creative economy.
ArtCenter is experiencing a generational shift with a student body that is bringing a different set of expectations, interests, and orientation to education and career. The physical separation of students across multiple campuses, the diversity of studies offered, and other technical and facilities-based limitations combine to stage new challenges for the college, who wanted to better understand how students, faculty, and staff navigate the physical and digital environments on campus in terms of work and information flow as well as community relationships. A need for change was identified, but how to go about it was less certain.
Leading by Doing: Design Thinking as a Solution
To arrive at a plan for what changes they might want to make, ArtCenter knew they would be well served to deeply understand a key stakeholder: their students.
With a need to gather firsthand information, ArtCenter determined the practice of design thinking was the right approach. Accordingly, the college looked to Continuum to further their goal to dig into how students were evaluating their experiences and to create a vision to improve Art Center’s future campus experience.
As Maggie Hendrie, Chair of Interaction Design at ArtCenter, notes, “We teach human centered design as a practice. It was important for us to embody the process to show our design leadership. Having a partner who allowed us to explore that positioned us for success as we invested in change initiatives.”
Going Social to Gain Fresh Insights
To tackle the ethnographic research that would be required for in-depth knowledge of ArtCenter’s students, the project team relied on traditional ethnographic research techniques. Additionally, they piloted a new research methodology within the context of an educational institution; looking to understand, candidly, what students liked and disliked about the campus experience they looked to social media.
With undergrads averaging 23 years of age and graduate students 28, the majority of ArtCenter’s student body is comprised of Gen Yers. With 95% of college students across the U.S. using Facebook and plugging in to social media networks consistently throughout the day, the project team opted to meet students online where they would be comfortable, and used Facebook and Instagram to connect with them.
To track the student experience across a term, Continuum created a private Facebook group and invited eight students to join. Dubbed “The AC8”, the group included a cross-section of undergraduate and graduate students of various ages, geographic backgrounds, departments, and concentrations. These participants were asked to check in on a weekly basis during the 14-week school term and leave a video diary entry to share what went well that week, what went terribly, and what they were looking forward to in the week ahead. They shared anxieties about midterms and finals, frustrations about time management and class registration, and positives about their growth over the course of the term.
What surprised the team about this Facebook community was the students’ commitment from the outset. While they expected difficulty in getting students to open up about their experiences, they instead received video diaries of the full fifteen minutes in length.
With the community facilitated by Continuum strategists, students replied to prompts and uploaded photos of systems and facility infrastructures to provide a better understanding about the technology challenges they referred to in their diaries. “What surprised me was the consistency in student diaries,” Hendrie noted when she reflected on the approach. Continuum was similarly impressed with students’ dedication to the task at hand, and also observed that these eight students rallied around the opportunity, commenting on posts and engaging with each other. The community took on a life of its own, requiring much less supervision and moderation than the team expected.
An immediate benefit of this research tool was that the student diaries provided commentary on upcoming ArtCenter events and activities, enabling the Continuum team to proactively seek out specific campus spots to test new ideas for improvements and witness challenges firsthand, such as the overcrowding of a shared campus space for modeling and prototyping.
While not as pervasive as Facebook, Instagram’s mobile photo sharing application is growing in popularity, boasting 300 million users in late 2014. Aware of the degree to which Gen Y has embraced Instagram as a platform to share their experiences, the Continuum team turned to the platform to gain specific insight about what aspects of campus life resonated with students and where there were areas for improvement. They created two hashtags—#ACCDWin and #ACCDFail— and posted flyers around campus urging students to upload images of the best and worst of Art Center life in real time.
At the time of this publication, there are 275 posts tagged as wins and 106 as fails. Wins include a student buffet featuring bacon, the addition of an oculus rift headset to a classroom, an emergency phone system, critiques with professional artists, and views from the rooftop of a building known as the Wind Tunnel. A flyer itself was Instagrammed with the caption, ” Listening to students. #accdwin.”
Gathering real-time feedback from students was a daunting proposition and required ArtCenter’s administration to be on board. This process required transparency and Art Center welcomed it because they knew we were collecting honest feedback from their students.
Modern-Day Methodology, Real-World Outcomes
The Continuum team translated this raw data into actionable insights, aimed at validating their hypotheses on improving student engagement on campus. Having a visual data set illustrated these insights, truly bringing them to life.
Recommendations around redesigning the school’s website as well as its intranet structure informed Art Center’s kickoff of a web redesign project in the fall of 2014, with an anticipated launch date in early 2016. Opportunities to better use campus space influenced design and programming decisions, such as the development of more flexible maker spaces with better natural light that various departments can access, open areas for messy, collaborative work, wall space for ongoing exhibition of student art, and the expansion of library resources across multiple locations, all concerns raised by students through Continuum’s social media research efforts.
The Facebook community and Instagram hashtags are still active today, with students furthering their conversations on Facebook and continuing to share what’s working and what isn’t in their daily lives via Instagram. Members of the Continuum team see opportunities for similar tools to be leveraged in other contexts, including corporate business environments. Leveraging social media platforms that are well known to the stakeholders one wants to learn from is a way to take a community that already exists and isolate a portion of it into a smaller segment that can be monitored to track behavior, opinions, and suggestions over time.