Faculty Focus


Using Design Thinking to Develop a Career Development Plan SWOT Analysis

SWOT analysis on paper

Early studies of design thinking in business education focused on how the process could be used to solve management problems (Lee & Evans, 2012; Liedtka, 2014; Martin & Martin, 2009). More recently, design thinking has been introduced as a way for students to explore career interests, career planning, career change, and find fulfillment in their careers and lives (Evans & Burnett, 2016). Leading human resource associations such as the Society for Human Resource Management advocate using design thinking to redesign careers by focusing on curiosity, finding the right problem to solve, prototyping various career options, and seeking help from others (Hirsch, 2017).

Design Thinking Model

Design thinking is an innovative problem-solving approach that involves defining a problem and using various approaches to solve it. Unique to design thinking is that it encourages people to make mistakes and, in fact, making mistakes is part of the process of growth and solving the problem (Emerson, 2020).  The Stanford Design Thinking Model has become the leading design thinking model, and consists of five stages: Empathize, Define, Ideate, Prototype, and Test (Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford University, 2018). The Business Education Design Thinking Instructional Model (Wickam et al., 2022) uses Stanford’s model and adds reflection as a cross-cutting part of the process, since reflection is critical at each stage and is not clearly defined in the Stanford model. For example, written papers and class discussion are assignments that can be used to aid students in reflecting on each stage of the design thinking process (Clark & Brennan, 1991; Grandzol & Grandzol, 2006; Wickam et al., 2022).

Creating a career development plan

With Evans & Burnett’s (2016) design your life approach in mind, two sections of an upper-level undergraduate Business Communication course taught in the College of Management in a midwestern private university were revamped to include the design thinking process. Researchers hoped to gain an understanding of how design thinking helps students explore innovative career development and helps students create a career development plan. There were 17 students in the in-person course and 23 in the online course. Majors represented included project management, graphic design, psychology, marketing, business management, and accounting. 

The challenge of designing a career is viewed as a “wicked problem.” Buchanan (1992) popularized the term and defined it as “a class of social system problems which are ill-formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision-makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing (p. 15).” The wicked problem students were asked to solve were ways to investigate career pathways and explore personal contributions to the workforce through career development planning, in order to expand their career readiness and self-development.

A SWOT analysis

The five stages of the Stanford Design Thinking Process were used to structure the course. Design thinking activities and assessments were designed at each stage of the course. Activities like Party Planning, 1000 Uses Challenges, and the Marshmallow Challenge were used to teach students how to ideate. The summative assessment in the ideate stage was the Career Development Plan SWOT Analysis. A SWOT analysis is a well-known management tool used in countless business plans to develop strategies based on a company’s analysis of its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. The purpose of the Ideate stage was for students to gain career development and workforce understanding by connecting knowledge, skills, and abilities with job requirements. Students were asked to consider their transferable skills in identifying their strengths and development needs. They were also asked to research workforce opportunities and threats. The SWOT was then used to categorize their ideas in order to help them develop their career development plan later in the course.

In preparation for the SWOT analysis, students were given a Success Tracking worksheet and a Mistake Tracking worksheet to document successes and mistakes for a week. Examples of mistakes included getting a low grade on an exam due to not studying for it, being late to work, or failing to finish homework. Students also tracked threats and opportunities which are external factors that can help or hinder career development. Threats were defined as negative external conditions and factors that cannot be controlled but can be minimized by awareness and proactivity. Opportunities were defined as positive external conditions and factors that cannot be controlled but can be leveraged and used to create advantages. They were asked to listen to their peers and watch the news to identify threats and opportunities to their career goals. Students then interviewed each other using the Success Tracking and Mistake Tracking worksheets and demonstrated their empathize and listening skills. Additionally, students participated in an in-class brainstorming discussion regarding their recorded threats and opportunities to further develop their ideation skills.

All of these documents and exercises were then used to create the Career Development Plan SWOT Analysis. Students could create their SWOT Analysis in either Canva, Visme, Microsoft Excel, Google Sheets, Microsoft PowerPoint, or Google Slides. The assignment rubric assessed formatting, ability to present information/data in a visual format, and content. The students were honest and thoughtful when assessing their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. For example, one student listed dependability as a strength, procrastination as a weakness, the prevalence of technology as an opportunity, and A.I. as a threat to their career goal of graphic design.

In keeping with the stages of design thinking, the SWOT Analysis was used to create a prototype of a career development plan, which was then presented to the entire class. The testing stage was fulfilled through verbal peer feedback on student presentations and assignment feedback from the professor. Additionally, the need for continuous improvement via feedback and insights from peers, customers, managers, and industry experts was stressed as part of the testing stage going forward. Research has found that business educators who teach using design thinking most often use class presentations in the testing stage (Wickam, et al., 2022), while role playing and observations are other ways prototypes can be tested (Dam & Siang, 2021).

Overall, students were able to use the SWOT Analysis, which was used in the Ideate stage of the design thinking process, to develop their career development plan and solve their wicked problem of investigating career pathways in order to expand their career readiness and self-development. Design thinking was found to be an effective instructional method to help students think about careers in new ways using an innovative, empathetic, iterative, and reflective process. 

Dr. Molly Wickam is professor of education & business at Bethel University, St. Paul, MN.

Dr. Lacey Finley is department chair and associate professor of management at Park University, Parkville, MO.

Dr. Karla Saeger is associate professor business and marketing education at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Whitewater, WI.


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