How Human-Centered Design can help fill your student section

May 22, 2019

There’s no denying the pivotal role college football plays in the health of athletic departments across the country. From balancing budgets to bringing together tens of thousands of fans on fall Saturdays, the sport acts in many ways as one of the foundational pillars of the college experience, which is why athletic directors keep a close eye on attendance.

Student attendance, in particular, has wavered at many universities in recent years, causing administrations to take a hard look at the experience awaiting these fans inside stadiums. We’re honored that Power 5 programs across the country have entrusted Populous as partners in that journey.

Together with facilities and athletic departments, we bring the Human-Centered Design process to any project. What is Human-Centered Design? It’s an empathetic approach to architecture that balances the needs of the fan with the needs of the facility. It prioritizes developing a deeper understanding of the wants and needs of the people who inhabit a space. Three key steps make up the process:

  • Persona development – Paint a vivid picture of your audience.
  • Journey mapping – Visualize their experience over time.
  • Observational research – Watch what happens, listen to what is said.

All three techniques are helpful in cracking the case of student attendance. Our experience has taught us students have certain universal similarities regardless of location. When all is said and done, they want a place to call their own. At the same time, regional differences do exist – and it’s our job to unearth them.

We inject nuance into this seemingly homogenous group of ticket holders by talking with and observing them. Human-Centered Design encourages not only research but direct interactions with stakeholders. That’s exactly the approach we’ve taken together with the University of Arizona as part of a multi-year renovation to its 90-year-old football home, Arizona Stadium.

The university and Populous designers sat down for multiple face-to-face conversations with student council and the ZonaZoo, the official student section of the university. The latter is an award-winning and completely student-run organization with more than 12,000 members.

The modern game day experience is about quality, not quantity.

With Arizona students stepping up their support of athletics by way of a new student fee, department leadership prioritized improving the student experience at Arizona Stadium. Our conversations with students were a direct reflection of that priority.

Through those talks, we gleaned insights into what might encourage more students to show up and stay for a game, most notably spaces designed both for socializing and – in true Southwest fashion – escaping the sun.

The result of all that research is a fully-refreshed ZonaZoo student section that debuted in 2018 on the stadium’s east side. Along with new restrooms, concession stands and gathering spaces, our brand activation team brought the Bear Down mentality to life through dynamic graphics and light displays.

Nearly 900 miles to the east, we’ve partnered with the University of Texas on a $175-million renovation and expansion of the south end zone at Darrell K Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Breaking ground in 2019 and scheduled for completion in 2021, the new end zone will feature a one-of-a-kind student section including multiple corner patios. These terraces serve up fantastic sightlines and ample space for students to mingle while watching their Longhorns.

“The modern game day experience is about quality, not quantity. Fans want unique experiences in an authentic place,” said Sherri Privitera, Populous Principal-in-Charge for the project. “This is a game-changing project. From fully enclosing the stadium for a more intimate atmosphere to the impactful in-seat Longhorn logo, it is the ultimate celebration of The University of Texas.”

Fast forward 10 years and what will the college football game day experience feel like for students? We can’t say for sure, but our bet is it will look a lot like the environments we’re helping create at the Universities of Arizona and Texas. The secret to encouraging student attendance isn’t much of a secret. It only takes a human-centered approach that puts you in the shoes of students – and puts students at the center of your design.


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