Jul 15

Experiment, Fail, Learn, Re-try, Fail, Learn again, and Win!

Most educators are motivated to make a difference in the lives of young people. It can be manifested in support services, curriculum enhancement, or out-of-class initiatives to develop life skills. Whatever the case, the activities that support these strategies to establish career pathways don’t always work. Should we just throw up our hands and call it quits? Of course not! We must learn from our observations, adjust and continue to pursue our goals. Experimentation and “failure” get us closer to our goal by helping us learn what not to do.

The #UNCFCPI seems to call for a revival of experimentation so that innovative solutions are discovered; solutions that lead to sustainable career pathways. Remember, it is critical to begin by defining the problem (challenge) and validate it through observation. The validation process produces data, but not necessarily a solution. The next step is to experiment with potential solutions that can be implemented and scaled. This is what drives innovation. While that word is constantly thrown around in speeches and articles – I’d like to define it for the purpose of clarity and simplicity. Innovation is a process that improves the human condition. Let’s innovate.

The Airbnb Experiment

In an increasingly expensive San Francisco housing market, founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, were looking for ways to subsidize rent. Similarly, visitors and tourists were seeking luxury (or near luxury) lodging without falling victim to price gouging. The problem experienced by folks that had a supply of lodging and those that demanded lodging were distinct, but related. Brian and Joe asked:

  • How might we safely fill available residential space?
  • How might we provide cost effective solutions for lodging without sacrificing quality?
  • How might we connect residents and visitors who are strangers with each other?

The answers to these questions led to a low cost, high value experiment designed to understand if they had a viable business opportunity.

The scrappy founders uploaded images of their loft-turned-lodging space and promised home-cooked breakfast for anyone that stayed. On the first weekend, three renters showed up, and paid $240 bucks in total. Joe explained that at this point, they “started to brainstorm what a larger, international version of the site would be. That was basically our market research. People told us what they wanted, so we set off to create it for them.”

What’s most interesting to me is that the company is the largest “hotelier,” but does not own a single piece of real estate.


While Airbnb has come a long way since their first experiment, it was essential for them to get a solution prototype out the door to inform their business plan; a business plan that has helped them raise $2.39 billion to implement their strategy. There is virtually no difference between your implementation team and the founders of Airbnb.

Bringing Your Defined Problem into Design Thinking

By now, you have defined your problem/challenge and now it’s time to design optimal solutions around it; solutions that are focused on your primary users and based on their behaviors and needs. You want to focus your lens on the most important “how might we” questions for your university. For example, based on your defined problem, you may ask:

  • How might we get students to engage in career management in the most cost effective way?
  • How might we leverage our employer relationships to enhance our curriculum or executive intentional extra-curricular activities?
  • How might we track our data in real time for continuous improvement?

Asking these questions to your constituents would generate many ideas. Those ideas will ignite user stories that should lead to experiments to conduct and prototypes to create. This is the Reflection phase of Service Design Thinking.

Where Do I Get a Prototype and What Do I Do with It?

Executing on any idea requires a prototype. This doesn’t mean manufacturing a new appliance, or writing code for software. Prototyping means that you take your ideas, and design quick experiments to test your hypothesis in the most realistic setting. Prototypes can be absolutely anything that can be put in front of the audience you’re trying to serve. It can be a tip sheet to read, mock session with a script, a drawing on a napkin, or more advanced wireframes of an application experience.

To demonstrate this, let’s go back to the journey map that we introduced last week, which describes the process that a student goes through when looking for a job opportunity.

At Better Weekdays, we identified one problem with establishing sustainable career pathways is an inadequate user experience for the students along their journey map. Through observation, we saw students engage more with their apps, like Tinder, Snapchat, and Instagram. These types of apps gave them a better user experience to achieve their intended objective, whether it was staying in touch with friends, finding new relationships or sharing the best parts about their life with the world. For instance, the user experience of Tinder enabled users to view dating prospects one at a time, versus a list of prospects like traditional dating sites such as Match.com (Tinder is now valued at $3.36 billion). Social media apps, such as Snapchat and Instagram, showed attention grabbing headlines from friends and easily consumed content like pictures and videos. Finally, all of these applications employed a “mobile first” design philosophy.

To test concepts that were aligned to the more popular apps that effectively engaged our intended audience, we started prototyping possible solutions that took the best user experience practices to heart. My team created “job cards” with engaging headlines and standardized information about the company. We put these cards in front students just to see what they would do with them.

Would they spend time glancing at the details on the card and moving onto the next one? Would they take their time looking at the details? Would they create two piles? Would they mark on them with a pencil or marker (two options we put next to them)? What were they really reading and comprehending? And what was their reaction overall to this exercise?


We learned that students could consume job content in a card format, and take an action of “Thumbs Up” or “Thumbs Down” by placing the card in one of two stacks before moving on the next job quickly. By putting these prototypes in front of students and observing the engagement, we discovered a new way of displaying jobs. It solved a key problem of student engagement in potential career paths.

Continually identifying gaps and friction points along the user journey has helped us maintain objectivity and empathy to create prototypes.

Two Key Insights for University Leaders

1. The Scientific Method is Your Friend: The Solution Won’t Always Work, but Your Prototype Can be Refined.

We’ve often heard the story of Edison’s failed attempts to produce a light bulb. His failures provided insight into what wouldn’t work, and eventually moved him closer to one of the greatest inventions of all time. Walking through the seven steps of the scientific method, not once, but continually will eventually lead you the invisible eighth step: the final product. This process will mitigate the financial risk of scaling the wrong solution – one that does not produce your desired outcome. The activities planned for implementation can be prototyped and tested for effectiveness among your constituents.

IDEO, the consultancy firm who pioneered design thinking, promotes “Fail often in order to succeed sooner.” Remember, your experiments are not always going to work. But, you will have answers about something is not going to work and it affords you the ability to try a new idea. This iterative practice to create innovations is the most important component of your school’s career pathway initiative.

2. Your Students and Employers Will Teach You. Learn from Them. Experiment with Them.

While you may be used to bestowing wisdom and guidance onto your students, embrace what you don’t know about them. Learn about the apps they use everyday, the frustrations they have when applying to a job, and how they’re communicating with their peers. Similarly employers are always changing their recruiting tactics. Learn about why companies like Goldman Sachs have decided not to interview on campus anymore. Add another specialization to your field of instruction by becoming an expert in design thinking, which is just becoming an expert in observing your audience.

Get Started. See What Happens.

Try a simple brainstorming session with your colleagues. One way to do this could be by taking post-it notes and sticking ideas on a wall with “how might we” questions.”

Start building prototypes as you would with any art and crafts activity. Be as scrappy as you can be. Try role playing scenarios with students and colleagues that focus on answering your “how might we” questions. Unexpected answers could be used to inform and design your next experiment.

Don’t be fearful of the drawing board as it doesn’t always mean starting with a clean slate. Parts may be erased, but that means a more appropriate design is being generated. Embrace wild ideas and think big in order to achieve a masterpiece!

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