My contribution on this project was as a Design Researcher. Dr Iona Pemberton-Billing was the tutor of this research project, providing great guidance during its development.


1. Brief

A document to outline:

  • The design challenge: Assess and improve the overall experience of International Postgraduate Students, who represent the main income of an English University. 
  • Main goal: Apply Design Thinking and Design Management theories to assess and improve the student experience. 
  • Planner: Create a Gantt Chart to define and schedule key dates and tasks.
  • Limitations: Cultural and linguistic differences, experience, time.

2. Primary Research

The step to collect relevant information that will be used to inform design decisions, around three topics: the design challenge, the University’s context, and the users: International Postgraduate students.

An example of questions used to start collecting crucial information at the beginning of the design process:

  • Who is the end user (target audience)?
  • What needs to be done?
  • When does the solution needs to be finished?
  • Where will the design solution be used?
  • Why does the client think a solution is required?
  • +How will the solution be implemented?




Gaining a better understanding of the student’s motivations, behaviours and aspirations is the best foundation to generate a distinct solution.

A detailed research on the users, the International Postgraduate students, was conducted. It helped the researcher to find patterns, understand the student's perspective, and uncover their context.

The following frameworks were used to visualise the information:

  • Personas
  • Character profiles
  • Empathy 360º 


A collection of significant elements that the students used in their daily lives was selected and arranged to create a mood board. The researcher adopted a curious mindset, finding inspiration and new perspectives about the end users.

The Mood board works as a visual reminder that builds empathy with the students, and their lifestyle.



The step to make sense of the collected data. It involved a lot of categorising, grouping data, finding overlaps, looking for patterns, naming clusters, discovering contradictions and finding themes.

Themes regarding the International Postgraduate Student Experience:

1. Academic challenges
2. Faculty and staff
3. Adaptation to British Lifestyle
4. Chinese postgraduate students outnumber UK, EU and all International Postgraduate students combined.


6. Insights

Also known as Insight Statements, they are a concise expression of what was learnt from the research and the inspiration steps. They help the researcher find a clear direction for the project.

After defining the Insights, diagrams, illustrations and frameworks were used to visualise the insights, specially:

  • Journey maps
  • Relationship maps
  • Venn diagram



7. Refine: the design challenge

It is between rare and impossible to define the design challenge on your first try. Revising the challenge from time to time enables the researcher to define the challenge more precisely.

The following changes were made:

  1. Narrowing the scope of the research project. Focusing in the Art School, and their 388 International Postgraduate Students, that represent 97% of the total Postgraduate Student Population.
  2. Breaking down the design challenge into smaller items. This step is known as Hills in IBM Design Thinking. The insights were turned into “How might we” and “How best to” questions.
  3. Trying innovative methods to assess the student experience, paying special attention to avoid mistakes made on previous research projects, where the attention was on the University, instead of on the students.  

1. Brainstorming

The researcher conducted an idea generation session and invited a group of students to collaborate.  
Brainstorming is a focused activity, that involves careful preparation. A set of rules was outlined in order to: provide a comfortable scenario, stay on topic, defer judgement, encourage wild ideas, and achieve as many ideas as possible. 


2. Select Ideas

Combining and sorting out the ideas allowed the researcher to select the ones that would provide the best solution for the students. The selection process included discarding some ideas:  a suggestions box, a trip, a karaoke night, etc.  Looking for the ones that better solve the design challenge. Afterwards, the students voted for their favourites: 

  1. Survey
  2. Interviews
  3. Workshop


Sketching is thinking, and it enabled the researcher to take the conversation with the students and stakeholders to a different level. At this step only simple drawings are required, sketching involved graphs and maps to better organise ideas and start developing concepts. 



Transforming ideas into physical objects. 

Low-fidelity prototyping
Quickly-made prototypes of the student survey. The paper prototype included a wide variety of questions: open questions, multiple-option questions, scales, drawing and filling the blanks.

High-fidelity prototyping
After working on the questions and the sections, the survey was printed. It was tested with a group of individuals, who answered the survey and evaluated it. 


5. Feedback

Testing the prototypes and asking for feedback confirmed the hypothesis that conducting an online survey was the best medium to provide the students with an anonymous and private scenario to share their student experience.

Observing the students interacting with the prototype incremented the levels of empathy towards their needs and concerns.


6. Refine: the prototype

Getting to the solution is an iterative process; for the researcher it was more important to test the solutions, fail, learn from it, and start again.

The Student Experience Survey was refined, combined and expanded several times. Seven versions of the survey were created, with testing and feedback sessions in-between.  The main changes made to the Survey were:

  1. Topics and categories
  2. Phrasing of the questions
  3. Number of questions

To include the client (The University) in the research and co-creation process, the researcher planned informal interviews. In addition, the researcher administered the  "Performance of the student experience" test to the University Staff in charge of managing the Student Experience. 

To provide an innovative approach to assessing the student experience, the researcher analysed and selected the Design Thinking Toolkit by IDEO. 

1. Learning Launch

Taking the developed concepts to the field. Writing a plan of action to test the key design solutions:

1. Design Thinking Toolkit
The process and findings were condensed in one written research project. Presenting a: Five-stage Design Thinking Toolkit, adapted from IDEO's Toolkit for Educators. It has proven to be a highly adaptable and replicable tool, that can be used by the University stakeholders. Timeless and scalable, the Toolkit was applied to one School during the research. However, it can also be applied to all the University' Schools, and to other Universities across England.

2. Online Survey
The Online Survey was sent to all the students. Afterwards, the results were analysed, and interpreted.

3. Informal Interviews
The Informal Interviews were conducted, separately to a group of students and two full-time Teachers.

4. Guided In-depth Conversations
A set of in-depth conversations was conducted to a group of students, an atmosphere of confidence and anonymity was provided.


2. Feedback

Gathering feedback is a never-ending process, and it is crucial to push the ideas forward. It is a key step to have a clear idea of what solutions resonated with the final users (the International Postgraduate Students from the Art School), and what was valuable for the stake holders (teachers, student services advisors and staff from the Student Experience Unit, SEU).

The feedback showed that including the stakeholders into the project was a key decision. They provided a new perspective of the problematic, as well as valuable inputs to the solution. 

This confirmed the hypothesis that Design Thinking is well received as an innovative tool to solve complex problems.

The participants reported that using the Design Thinking tool was fundamental to sharing their experiences. This approach to collect data made them feel valued, and listened to.  It confirmed the relevance of adopting a student-centred approach.


3. Evaluate

An opportunity for the researcher to measure the impact of the solution, and learn from what happened throughout the Design Process.

This research project is the first registered attempt (at the time the research was conducted) to adapt IDEO's Design Thinking Toolkit to a Higher Education Institution. It successfully assessed the student experience. In addition, a set of recommendations was outlined to improve the overall experience of International Postgraduate Students, offering a replicable Toolkit. 

It represents an innovative advantage for the University to understand and enhance what they currently offer. The research project Integrates theories from Design Management, Design Thinking, Agile and Education, to solve one of the main challenges of the English Universities.

This approach provides opportunities to be innovative in how to collect primary data, using quantitative and qualitative research methods to gather data. It offers a clear and practical tool for the different stakeholders to assess and improve the student experience.  


4. Refine: the solution

The final solution was presented to the University, receiving positive feedback. Yet, the researcher acknowledges that there is more work to be done:

  1. Keep iterating. The solution is never truly finished, more upgrades can be made, and further versions of the tool can be generated. Furthermore, it is important to test each version, and keep the end users at the heart of the project. 
  2. Extend. The University could implement the solution to other departments, broadening their understanding on International Postgraduate student experience. Moreover, any University within a similar context may apply the solution to find specific needs and expectations from the students, and target them to enhance their student experience.
  3. Further research. This research can be used as a reflective case, adopting a user-centred approach when assessing the student experience. Future research can be conducted on PhD International Students and Undergraduate International Students.

5. Share

Delivering a solution to the design challenge is not the end of the project. Sharing is fundamental to spreading the word and helping others solve complicate challenges. The research process and findings were registered in a written document. A printed copy is available at the library of the University of Southampton.

The digital document is available online on Academia. By making the research available online, stakeholders and researchers can easily access the research done. It may inspire people to conduct further research on the subject, or apply Design Thinking tools to improve the student experience on their own Higher Education Institution.

The researcher is highly interested on sharing the findings of this project, connect with researchers, and with Higher Education Institutions both in the United Kingdom, and around the world. She is keen to give talks and workshops on the subject. If this is something that may be of interest to you, or someone you know, please contact her to talk about it and collaborate.