Design Thinking in Higher ICT Education? Why Not!

By Hazleen Aris


Design thinking is an innovative problem-solving process rooted in a set of skills.  The approach has been around for decades, but it only started gaining interest from others outside the design community in 2008.  Since then, design thinking process has been applied to developing new products and services, and to a whole range of problems, from creating a business model for selling solar panels in Africa to the operation of Airbnb.  In Malaysia, a number of support groups are known exist that advocate design thinking in solving problems at the workplaces or coming out with new ways of doing things.

Claimed to be able to cultivate creativity and innovation, the key idea at the heart of design thinking is ‘user-centricity’, i.e. to always ask and wanting to find out what the users want, to put ourselves in their shoes, to empathise.  Thus, empathy is the first phase in design thinking that drives the other phases; define, ideate, prototype and test.  Empathy is not as simple as asking the users what they want because they might not know one!  One of the key principles is to be conscious of the surroundings and keep asking, 'how might we?' help of improve them.  At the define phase, answers to the 'how might we' questions are now turned into the exploration of customers' wishes with the aim to come out with point-of-view statements such as X needs B because of C where X is the user (of course).  Ideate is the phase where wishes and opportunities identified are transformed into potential solutions using brainstorming or 'brain dumping', i.e. brainstorming done individually.  At this phase, we let the mind go wide and wild, and beyond the conscious mind (reason) into the unconscious mind (imagination) in exploring the solutions.

Related to this, something that I remember till date, and most likely till death, is the tip by my late mathematics teacher to always bring a small notebook and a pencil everywhere (we didn’t have smartphones back then).  They have to be really small that you can take them virtually anywhere because you just don’t know when ideas are going to pop up.  I found this to be very true, and very effective too.  You’ll be surprised at how fast the idea is going to leave you (and never come back) if you don’t jot it down.  An opportunity lost.

The prototype phase transforms ideas into a scaled down version of the proposed solution.  It allows us to visualise how the solution is going to be like and allows for early detection if there is anything wrong with the ideas.  If a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand pictures.  Finally, the test phase puts the prototype to test.  Prototype as if you know you are right but test as if you know you are wrong.  I think this philosophy is akin to software development (pardon me, I am from software engineering background).  Like software development too, the phases are iterative.  Test phase will usually bring us back to the earlier phases for refinement.

Having said this and having realised the immense creativity and innovation potential that can be cultivated through design thinking, there is just no reason not to bring the practice to the higher ICT education level such that the skills can be cultivated earlier.  ICT job market is becoming more and more competitive of late.  Graduates don’t only compete with other humans, but with robots and AI too.  However, with extra creativity and innovation, they will be able to fare well.  Here in Universiti Tenaga Nasional (UNITEN), a number of ICT courses have been piloted with design thinking through the ICT-INOV project in partnership with the European institutions, and we can already see its positive impact in unearthing students’ creativity and innovation potentials.

The skills obtained through the repeat application of the design thinking phases help them apply creativity to effectively solve real-world problems.  They can be readily learnt but take effort.  For instance, when trying to understand a problem, setting aside your own preconceptions is vital, but it’s not easy especially if you have been holding to them for years.  Once the skills central to the design thinking approach are mastered, they can be applied to solve problems in daily life and any industry, making the graduate a sought after one.

Adopting design thinking in the higher education demands blood, sweat and tears.  Road to realisation is long and can be winding, but it ought to start somewhere in order to get to the destination.  The connection between universities that practice design thinking and the number of unicorns that they produce should be an eye opener and a strong motivation to go for it.  Perhaps, it can be the answer to why Malaysia still has none so far too.  Something that we can look into.  Formation of a support group or community is vital towards its sustainability.  For this reason, the project has also come out with a framework for collaborative design thinking implementation that can help to ensure sustainability of the practice in higher education.

So, tired of the same conventional approach of teaching and learning that produces the same conventional ICT graduates?  Well, design thinking can be the approach to explore.  Why not?


About the author: Associate Professor Ts. Dr. Hazleen Aris is a senior lecturer with the Universiti Tenaga Nasional (UNITEN) and also the manager-cum-leader of the Modernizing ICT Education for Harvesting Innovation (ICT-INOV) research project at UNITEN.  The project is funded by the European Union under the Erasmus+ CBHE Programme.  She can be reached at