As architects go, Rem Koolhaas is a cultural luminary, with a CV featuring hundreds of striking accomplishments such as the Seoul National Museum, the Seattle Central Library and the China Central Television Headquarters in Beijing. The moment you hire Koolhaas and his team, your construction project gains an exponentially greater degree of architectural expertise.
It is telling then that despite this depth of experience and design “best practices,” Koolhaas credits the feet of college freshmen as a leading guide for one of his best- known university campus creations. In 1997, Koolhaas sent a team of designers to the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. Their task, to observe the pathways students were taking through the series of parking lots that occupied the lot that would become the McCormick Tribune Student Center (seen in the photo above).
Using these pathways, Koolhaas created a space that sought to live within the framework of the natural flow of students across campus, rather than steer it.
Stop and think about this for a second: if these college students are anything like me, they are cutting across lawns and parking lots primarily because they’re profoundly late, or just generally do not care where the sidewalk designer thought they should be going. They are resourceful and will always look for the path of least friction.
We all do it too.
Koolhaas, with all of his mastery of architecture, would have been forgiven had he decided to override the data conveyed through these shortcut pathways. He chose otherwise, and in so doing provided instruction that even development officers and alumni centers can heed. It takes humility to admit your audience knows their needs better than you do.
Designers have a word for these dirt paths that cut across campus lawns: desire paths. They are the clearest visual reminder that those of us who create things (whether it is a set of sidewalks or a communication strategy for prospective university giving donors) will receive feedback data on how useful our target audience found them. In many cases, the data isn’t kind. We can clearly see that our designs were ignored and an alternative path was created.
The question then is what to do next?
When we’re faced with a paved path and a dirt desire path, I am afraid that all too often we are convinced of own themes and anecdotal evidence and simply re-sod the dirt. We blame the prospective university giving donor for not having the bandwidth or interest in reading the copy we slaved over. In essence, we override the data.
With Capture Behavioral Engagement (CBE), Capture Higher Ed’s marketing automation software for higher education, we’ve tracked more than 25 million visitors across all of our partner websites. So far, this has been done mostly for our enrollment management partners, so this corpus of data serves like a Google Earth-like view for us on the college searching behavior of prospective students in a way that has never before existed in higher education.
We want to create a similar view of the behavior of prospective university giving donors. And while we are pushing out as much learning as we can on individual topics of interest, if I were to condense what we have observed from CBE data related to enrollment management in one sentence it is this: You do not have to get more students interested in your institution — they are already there, they are highly engaged with your brand, and they have found their way to you through their own low friction pathways that often have nothing to do with how you have designed the recruitment “pipeline.”
As more of our partners apply CBE to their advancement needs, we will be awash in data about prospective university giving donors — what they want and how they want their needs met. The question therefore will not be “what do we know,” it will be “what do we do with what we know?”
By Thom Golden, Ph.D., Senior Vice President of Data Science, Capture Higher Ed