Curriculums Aren’t Just for School Anymore

Our new CTO Sean Shelby recently shared his vision for the technology group. Knowing Sean for many years, it came as no surprise that his presentation included some of his favorite books. He termed them “Selections from the CTO’s Library” – a wide array including books on strategy, technology, innovation, and outcomes. He offers them as readings that have inspired him in the way he works and thinks. These are not meant as required reading, but rather suggestions that can expand our thinking and approach to the work we do.
It isn’t that different from a “core curriculum” we established several years ago for Healthways – an account where we created experiences around population health. One significant dimension of our work was how to use digital to promote and help people establish healthier habits.

We had no expectation that everyone on the team would be familiar with the science behind habits. As consultants, we thrive on solving problems and creating solutions for industries where we are not (yet) the experts.  We are not hospitality providers, logistics engineers or portfolio managers. We are certainly not healthcare providers, behavioral scientists or psychologists, either. We turn to our clients to provide that expertise. We are, however, experts in the strategy, design, development, and optimization of digital experiences. We know how to ask the right questions, uncover how things do (or should) work, and create new customer experiences that align with business goals and user needs.

For this work we wanted everyone on the team (designers and developers alike) to gain familiarity with some of the main considerations and concepts around habit, have a common understanding of what we were trying to do, and learn some tactics that were out of our realm of expertise. Without that base understanding the team would likely be unsuccessful in creating an experience to help people establish those healthier habits. So, we established a core curriculum that we thought would help the team understand a bit more about the science of habit and how to design for behavior change. We turned to our client experts to recommend key approaches.

Unlike in school and college where everyone needs to take the same class (and has months of study), we wanted to offer different and quicker modes of consumption to suit each individual’s availability and interest.  So we focused on a selection of key intros and chapters from books, videos (15 minutes or less), and podcasts. We strove for materials geared towards non-experts, rather than academic resources. To achieve this, we pulled ideas from our client, our own reading, as well as research on the topic. The core curriculum included items around habit and behavioral economics. We also looked at game mechanics and how gamification may lead to behavior change.  This was then divided into “musts” and “alsos.”  All told, the “must” core curriculum took a few hours to consume and could easily be spread over a few weeks as we started tackling the problem. If someone needed or wanted to explore more they could always review the entire curriculum or read the entire book. In addition, if anyone came across a useful resource we would add it to the curriculum. This approach was invaluable in helping the team get up to speed on the science of habit and establish a foundation for our design. It allowed us to have a common vocabulary and gave us new considerations for how we approached the challenge.

Since working on Healthways, I’ve used the core curriculum method on several projects – each with different needs. For some, the curriculum includes key things about the industry and the people we are designing for. For others, it includes the science or processes behind the challenge. Ultimately, the core curriculum is another tool we add to our consulting toolbox to use when the job calls for it.

A core curriculum is valuable in environments beyond consulting as well. When onboarding new employees to your organization you can include materials specific to your company (i.e. what it’s trying to achieve and the specific or unique processes used) and also to its field or industry (i.e. what are some key insights and advancements). When working with your team to learn about or do something new (such as incorporating design thinking), use it to augment their understanding. Whatever the case, a core curriculum should not be a fixed thing – it should evolve and be leveraged as your project or organization changes, or as new approaches, processes and trends apply.

Interested in seeing just how a core curriculum (that isn’t focused on a client) might look?  Here’s an example from something I had been interested in exploring:

I attended a conference where Sara Wachter-Boettcher, author of Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech, gave a keynote about inclusive design. To include her work in a core curriculum with inclusive design as a key topic, these are the things that I would include:

The Musts – I’d recommend at least one of the following:

  • Book: Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech
    • Relevant Chapter: Welcome to the Machine (pp. 1-12)
  • Article (Book Excerpt): WIRED – The problem with your chatty apps
  • Video: Keynote from HXD 2018 – Building an Inclusive Design Practice
  • Podcast: Demystifying: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Toxic Tech with Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Alsos ­– if you have interest and time:

And more via her website at