Human Disciplines Guide Student-Centred Design

How methods from Anthropology influence the Innovation Hub


By Victoria Sheldon, Writer

The Innovation Hub takes a student-centred approach to improving campus life. Since launching in 2016, we have provided campus partners with insights into the student experience: how students navigate the university; perceive their time here; and respond to institutional services, policies, and spaces. To get these insights, we use several methods, including ethnographic thinking.

Ethnos means “folk, people, nation,” and grapho means “I write.” These words combine to form ethnography, the central creation of cultural anthropology. Ethnographies draw upon long-term, intensive fieldwork to represent people’s lived experiences and how they are shaped by many factors: history, social structure, religion, economics, and politics. By viewing the world through the lens of culture, anthropologists avoid easy assumptions about the meanings and motivation of human behaviour. They seek to understand and “make the world safe for human differences.”

As the Innovation Hub seeks to understand human experience, we draw upon key principles in ethnographic practice. We’re indebted to the Anthropology and Sociology students, past and present, who have helped to develop and refine our methods. Over the last four years, they have carefully blended social-science and design-thinking methods to create interview, observation, and group-discussion techniques that guide our ongoing work with students. Underlying these methods are three key commitments: empathy, collaboration, and lived experience.


The Innovation Hub highlights students’ own voices and narratives to foster empathy for student needs. By integrating ethnography’s focus on empathetic narration with design thinking, we ignite awareness of other people’s conditions. According to Shirin Gerami, Senior Research Assistant and Anthropology PhD candidate:

Part of empathy is signaling something that is happening to others, which is different from your own life. Innovation Hub reports allow readers to decentre themselves and become more reflexive on an issue they are not familiar with. You are able to see other people, where they are coming from, and empathize with those challenges. That is the first step to larger social change.”

Gerami was on the the curriculum design team for the Innovation Hub’s Design Thinking Experience Program. In 2018-2019, she led the Family Care Office project, which captured the experiences and challenges of student parents at UofT. This work has continued and several stakeholders are organizing a conference to connect student-parents, researchers and university staff. These small but effective steps move the university community closer to implementing broader structural changes. Central to these initiatives is the work of empathetic narration, as Gerami explained:

Some of the stories we shared in that report showed the levels of experiences that student parents were having, and it was very effective for those involved to hear. These narratives resonated a lot with people in the room. Using personalization and storytelling—aspects so essential to ethnography—we were able to frame the complexity of the situation in a way that people empathetically connected to, driving action for further change.”


Innovation Hub workflows differ from early ethnography in one crucial aspect: collaboration. While first-generation ethnographers often ventured solo to far-off places, we favour a local, collaborative, and short-term approach. These changes adapt ethnographic techniques to a results-based environment. “Design thinking is the systematization of anthropological work so that it meshes better in corporate environments,” said Nick Feinig, also a Senior Research Assistant who just successfully defended his PhD in Anthropology. “Methodologically, it is a really regimented ethnographic study with a tight timeline. Rather than taking a year, it takes at most a month.” Through strategic collaboration, the Innovation Hub gives ethnographic inquiry more immediacy and structure.

Collaboration created the successes of the Innovation Hub’s classroom-redesign project. This work, which Feinig led for the Innovation Hub last year, forms part of Academic and Campus Events (ACE)’s Transforming the Instructional Landscape initiative. To date, ACE has renovated 89 classrooms on the St George Campus. Design principles, created by the Innovation Hub, guide designers’ approach. In forming these design principles, “at every stage in the process, we needed to work with student volunteers as collaborators,” said Feinig.

By positioning students as collaborators and team members, the Innovation Hub offers an alternative approach to designing campus life. From the beginning, we have been committed to empowering students, by offering them opportunities to improve campus life and to learn ethnographic and design thinking. Alexandra Rodney, who served as Research Operations and Design Leader while completing her PhD in Sociology, thinks the most rewarding part of her experience was collaborating with students: “I appreciated guiding undergraduate students to undertake interviews, become confident in their analytical skills, and develop an ethnographic sensitivity.”

Lived Experience

We focus on student stories because understanding of lived experience—the first-person sense of one’s choices and perspectives—drives social change. Students’ lived experiences of disability informed our Accessibility at Convocation project last summer. Anthropology Master’s student Natasha Cuneo, who was a Design Research Assistant for the project, compared the work to her graduate studies: “Undertaking this work was very different from doing an Ethics Review, which I completed for my Master’s degree. Unlike an Ethics Review, you do not want to anticipate answers too much because the aim is to understand and empathize with student experiences, in order to develop prototypes rooted in their needs.” Besides interviewing students, Cuneo and her fellow team members also observed and walked through convocations. Their personal experiences complemented what they heard in interviews and revealed additional lived barriers.

Even though lived experience belongs to individuals, it is shaped by collective cultural patterns, norms, and barriers. “One of the most fun experiences I have had at the Innovation Hub is collectively coding transcript, so that we can translate individual experiences into collective patterns,” said Cuneo. “It brings together graduate and undergraduate students, who each have different points of view about how to code themes into interviews. Because we all come from different places of perspective, we come up with the widest range of possible insights.” Reflecting on how each person’s perspective enriched group understanding, Cuneo thinks academic anthropologists could also benefit from collaboratively interpreting lived experiences.

Looking Ahead

Though Innovation Hub practices have always been guided by empathy, collaboration, and lived experience, they have not fossilized. Every year, we review and adapt our methods, in search of a better way to understand the campus experience. As we near our fourth anniversary, how do Innovation Hub leaders see our growth?

Feinig thinks our processes will grow stronger:

I imagine that the Innovation Hub will develop a stronger infrastructure of full-time personnel. This will help maintain institutional memory and ensure the work is shared equitably. As people within social sciences find more professional success outside of academia, the Innovation Hub will likely attract more talented people to add to the team.”

Gerami predicts that the Innovation Hub will increasingly intermix design thinking with ethnographic methods:

UofT will hopefully become more inclusive, creating new spaces and opportunities to improve student life. Some design-thinking strategies—such as mind-mapping, affinity diagrams, and coding—will likely be integrated even more formally into the entire process, of which ethnographic methods are one phase.”

By continuously building upon our methods, we can draw ever-richer pictures of UofT student life. Deep understanding of the human experience is the business of ethnography. Combined with design—which uses prototyping to build better experiences—we can work towards a campus where all students flourish academically, socially, and personally.

Read more about our methods here.

0 comments on “Human Disciplines Guide Student-Centred Design

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *