Jul 09

Why Is Observation Crucial?

July 1st marks the beginning of a new fiscal year for most institutions of higher education. University leadership teams are hard at work developing and executing strategies that will help the university move closer to its vision, mission and goals after articulating their “why”. Given declining job outcome statistics, establishing robust and sustainable “career pathways” is top of mind.

For colleges part of #UNCFCPI, the implementation planning process is well underway. Knowing the implied challenge of establishing career pathways, it’s understandable that planning teams may be a bit overwhelmed. Questions such as “where do I begin” or “what do we want to implement” may be questions that are being asked amongst team.   

With first-hand experience, I know it’s easy to become ingrained in the mechanics of the initiative. That why I thought that it might be helpful to define and clarify the problem or challenge that you are attempting to solve. A question I like to ask is “what has to be true for my objective to be met?”

Countless case studies throughout the digital age have shown that the best way to answer this question is to observe, engage and, immerse yourself into the problems of each audience you serve, in your case: students, employers, and fellow colleagues at your university.

When I started Better Weekdays, I realized that there was a tremendous amount of friction between students and their process to obtain gainful employment. My team and I spent a significant amount of time researching and gaining insights into the challenges, particularly from everyone’s experiences with existing technology. When my VP of Engineering joined us, his fresh set of eyes helped me understand the issues even better. We immersed ourselves into each user experience and observed people use applications built to solve their problems. We leveraged relationships to observe different cohorts of students, employers and university leaders, which started to inform the features and design elements of our platform. You may be wondering “what was our big insight?”

After observing, we interpreted that students need to be engaged early and often through quick user experiences that are digestible, informative, high touch and on-demand in nature. The stories we captured led us to believe that students need trusted mentors/advisors that provide bite-sized, personalized advice to support their job discovery. One student informed us that she wished career services would help reduce the pressure of inherent competition in the job application process. We also learned that it was difficult for students to raise their hand when they needed assistance because either they didn’t know what to ask for and they felt if they asked a simple question, advisors would present too many steps to handle at one time.

The question of how does one effectively engage students if all of these things are necessary uncovered a philosophical difference between the universities (career centers specifically) that agreed with an active approach for engaging students versus a passive approach.

On the employer side, we observed companies spending time and resources visiting campuses, attending career fairs, and hosting information sessions to showcase their employer brand and opportunities to relevant students. We dove into the tools recruiter use to establish a “candidate pipeline” and the limitations they face in executing key strategies to generate awareness around their open opportunities. The stories that stuck with us were told by the chief diversity officers who had limited resources to make campus visits to HBCUs to attract the bright, diverse talent to their organization.

The way my team came to these insights was through a well-adapted discipline for unpacking tensions, contradictions, and surprises of user experiences called “Design Thinking.” User experience guru Tim Brown explains design thinking best by defining it as “a discipline that uses a designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs.” It’s a structured approach to generating and evolving ideas. Five phases help navigate solution development from identifying the design challenge to finding and building a solution. Our discussion today will focus on the first two phases: Discovery and Interpretation to establish an understanding of design thinking.

A quick example of a company that has adopted this discipline to create incredible value for their consumers is Apple. The designers at Apple rigidly follow a key step in design thinking, which is observation. In the 1980’s, by observation, the designers found that in order for consumers to actually become fully engaged with technology, it needs to connect with the user’s senses. People have to feel their navigation through the interface. This remarkable insight has led to countless inventions over the last 30 years including products as basic as the mouse and the touchscreen.

Getting into the Mindset

Gaining Empathy

Empathy is the foundation of a human-centered design process. The Webster’s Dictionary definition of empathy is “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions: the ability to share someone else’s feeling.” In other words, it’s going through the full scope of observing, engaging, and immersing. To have the sensation of feeling anything, you must experience it.

Start observing how your students currently go through the job search experience. Watch how employers recruit talent for available job positions. See how your colleagues interact and follow up with students with regards to career preparation. Document these interactions from quotes to different behavior tics. The stories that people tell and the things that people say they do, even if they are different from what they actually do, will allow you to connect dots, and interpret insights.

Part of empathy is keeping in contact with those you are listening to and watching. Maintain engagement and have conversations with those you have observed. It can be frustrating for anyone if you do not check-in to see how things are going, especially if you can lend a hand. If you keep engaging, they will feel understood, and will continue to offer information. This information will help you further dive into their needs, which will guide your design solutions for that particular audience.

Have a Freshman’s Mindset

Remember the “first day of school” feeling? The overwhelming fear of the unknown. Then four years went by and you were equipped with the confidence—and a degree—to take on the world. Until the first day on the job and the cycle repeated itself. Of course, these feelings have not changed for any batch of students that come to your campus. This makes it critical for you to have a beginner’s mindset when empathizing with their challenges and employers who hire them. After all, none of us know what we don’t know.

That said you do have a lot of personal experiences under your belt, so how do you forget and start from square one? Try to purely observe and not insert any opinions and judgments. When students come to you seeking help, don’t immediately unload resources or explain 50 steps they need to go through to be successful. Rather, start from the beginning to understand what they have done. Anything that strikes you as out of the norm, seek origin and meaning to. The more questions that you find answers to, the likely you are to discover patterns. Be truly curious in circumstances that seem either familiar or uncomfortable. The answers may not be ones you anticipate, so start without expectations. Simply learn.

Embrace the Extreme

Certainly not all students and employers are frequently engaging with career services at your institution, but there are likely a number of folks that engage often. Leverage these relationships to help gain insights as the needs of these people are amplified and the workarounds they use to achieve their goals are notable.

According to the “Diffusion of Innovation” theory, as popularized in a book by communication studies professor, Everett Rogers, there are five categories of adopters that we all fall into: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. The innovators are the extreme users that you should be observing. The needs of innovators are often needs of the rest of the adopters.


Better Weekdays recently worked with international students at one of top universities in the country. The focus on this cohort of students allowed the career services champion at the university to collect data she needed to make her job easier. We worked with her to formulate ideas to solve the critical issue international students face, which is finding employer that sponsor their visa. By positioning the message to students around the specific challenge they face and how their user experience is set up to try to overcome that challenge, over 60% of the student population in this cohort engaged. Not only did this exercise provide key insights for innovations in our product, but it also informed the career services team of how to prepare and evaluate students’ needs across the board.

It’s possible you will get some crazy ideas, but sometimes a little bit of crazy becomes an innovative solution!

Mapping It Out

You want to have an implementation plan that is strongly rooted to the needs of your audience. Before putting everything in ink, try mapping out the various experiences and journeys you have observed, engaged, and immersed in. Share these experiences with your colleagues and develop an empathy map of your students and employers.

Here is an example of a job seeker journey map created after collecting data points to fill the empathy map template below.


My team used the journey map to visualize, and identify gaps (or needs), to create a roadmap for turning every “frowny face” experience to a “smiley face” experience. If each step in the journey results in a positive experience, we found that students would be better able to connect their skills gained in the classroom to competencies needed for a job when interviewing and actually starting to work.

Two Key Insights for University Leaders

1. Observe. Engage. Immerse. Interpret. Repeat.

Start by making observation part of your regular routine, and continue to adjust your schedule as you build upon that. Engage with your audience and document these interactions often to share them with your team. Find out what they are doing on a regular basis, and immerse yourself in those same actions. Then, interpret your findings.

Observations, or just a simple conversation can be great inspiration—but finding meaning in that and turning it into actionable opportunities for design is not an easy task. It involves storytelling, as well as sorting and condensing thoughts until you’ve found a compelling point of view and clear direction for ideation. Find themes between your extreme users (students and employers) and write out full statements from the headlines captured. For example, my team wrote out the following statements for our client above:

Students: “There is not a high-touch service out there that relieves the pressure of competing for a job.”

Employers: “Student should have exceptional written communication, problem solving and quantitative reasoning competencies for my open opportunities.”

2. Think About Career Services as Uber Would

Uber set out to make transportation accessible to people regardless of time and location. They realized that the most significant pain point in the user journey was waiting for a taxi and that represented a radical paradigm shift. Miraculously, the company made transportation an on-demand service. Career services can also engineer this type of innovation.

Without making significant investment in resources, you can begin experiments to connect with your extreme users with proactive, high-touch assistance, such as crafting an effective thank you note to an employer, sending a “Tip of the Day” to each student that pays a visits to you or shortlisting students for highly engaged employers. These small services can increase engagement, and will validate reallocating your time to specific activities that could be more successful over time.

Think about the story that needs to be told by your office to students and employers and ensure that you generating your own success like Uber did by making their drivers their evangelists for passengers.

Get Started. See What Happens.

You see how design thinking is a crucial discipline for solving for your audiences’ needs? Stories of successes and pitfalls in these journeys are all around you, either on-campus or through email exchanges with employers. A great idea may be carrying around a notebook specifically for the purposes of your UNCF implementation plan segmented into three different sections for each audience. Write down experiences you observe, stories heard, and ideas as they come up. Capturing these and sharing them with your colleagues will help transform your stories into meaningful insights.

This way of innovation that looks at what is a viable strategy and tactic for your career center that can convert into value for all audiences is the same process can be used in creating a successful career pathways implementation plan. First and foremost, it’s essential to start with observation. So start observing today.

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