Research, Design, Build – The Power of Design Thinking

As I hunched over my bathroom sink for the umpteenth time recently, I wondered why it was acceptable for most adults to bend over to about half our height multiple times a day. “Adjustable sinks – Why aren’t they a thing yet?”, I thought to myself. I then went online to dig deeper and research the same question.

This is the effect internalizing design thinking has had on me. I no longer accept the status quo because it exists; I question how a product might be if I could design it on a blank canvas in a new, unbiased way that satisfies user needs.

Kellogg’s Research-Design-Build class simplified the design thinking process into three major buckets:

Research

It is important to identify the right problem to solve. We learned we need to first recognize if there is a problem, and then define the scope of the problem. We don’t want to ask people outright what they want, because as Henry Ford said, “If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.”

Our class was asked to solve a problem, any problem, for Northwestern. And to do this, each team in our class spent two weeks on research — doing interviews with students and faculty, shadowing people, taking pictures and videos, and generally observing how people interacted with the Northwestern environment. Teams refined their research objectives and project focus over the course of those weeks based on some interesting, relevant and actionable (IRA) insights we derived from our user research.

Design

Once we had our problem statement and insights, it was time to start brainstorming and designing solutions. Each class was structured such that there would be a gallery walk where all teams presented their last week’s work to receive feedback from peers and professors, and in the remainder of the class we learned tactical tools and frameworks that would aid us in designing possible solutions.

We used Post-its and sticky notes while brainstorming to record our ideas, and were open to moving those around or just discarding them and starting with a fresh board. We were encouraged to think beyond the obvious and to come up with ideas that pushed boundaries, were innovative and grounded in insights. We learned the “Yes, and” approach to idea generation. One of the first things Professor Greg Holderfield told us at the beginning of the class was: ‘Ideas are not precious. Experiment with them.” And that’s what we did during this phase. The focus was to generate lots of ideas and enjoy the process of idea generation.

Build

We were asked to evaluate and validate the ideas we generated during the Design phase. We thought about the desirability, feasibility and viability of our proposed concepts. Would our solution solve a problem for people? Would users want our product or solution? How easy is the solution to implement? Is it scalable?

I was struck by the power of simple prototyping and the use of storyboards to tell a story and present an innovative solution instead of a PowerPoint presentation, and how much more interesting and compelling these presentations were. I have since used storyboards to present product concept ideas even in job interviews, and they were well received!

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In the second half of the course, our class had the opportunity to apply the design thinking frameworks we learned in the first five weeks to address problem statements set by a client — Protein Bar.

It was challenging and exciting to visit different Protein Bar stores in Chicago, interview customers and staff and observe people’s in-store behavior to come up with innovative solutions rooted in insights to the problem statements set by Protein Bar. Each team presented interesting new ideas and got feedback from Protein Bar executives who visited our class during the midway mark; this gave teams a chance to validate ideas and course correct (if needed) in preparation for the final.

We presented our final solutions to Samir Wagle, the CEO/President of Protein Bar, and this was an invaluable exercise in bringing all we learned to life and pitching potential ideas to a top-level decision maker receptive to innovation. A few months after our presentations, this was in the news. It will be interesting to see how the ideas we pitched will be adopted into Protein Bar’s new stores.

Overall, this was a course that validated my decision to apply to Kellogg’s MMM Program, and I know I will have the opportunity to apply this newly gained design thinking toolkit in my upcoming internship as well as my post-MBA endeavors.

How to talk to current MBA students

It’s that time of the year again when most applicants are putting in finishing touches to their R1 applications. It might also be the time you’re reaching out to a lot of current students from your target business schools for informational interviews. I’ve had a lot of people reach out to me asking about Kellogg, and over the course of many, many phone and email conversations, I’ve found that there were some who stood out for the right reasons and others…not so much. You know which bracket you want to be in.

Here are a few pointers to help you make a great first impression:

Reaching Out

Set a clear purpose for yourself – Why do you want to talk to current students? What particular aspects of a school do you want to get to know? Do you have questions about the curriculum, the faculty, the culture or something else? Is this information readily available on the website? Do your homework on the school before reaching out to current students.

Target Strategically: Don’t just go on LinkedIn, search for students attending a particular business school and send them all the same generic LinkedIn request. Choose wisely when it comes to picking a student to talk to. You want look for someone that has something in common with you: maybe you come from similar pre-MBA industries, you have the same country of origin (or are international students in general), you have the same post-MBA goals, the student is doing an internship in the industry/role that you’re super interested in, they are in the Wine Club so you know you are kindred spirits…… there has to be some reason why you choose a particular person. This depends on the purpose you have set: will this person be able to answer the questions you have with a perspective that will be useful to you?

Write short yet effective cold-emails: I received two messages on LinkedIn.

One: “Hi Vandana, I’m a prospective applicant to Kellogg for the Class of 2018, and I’d like to connect with you to talk about your experience at Kellogg. I won’t take too much of your time and I’d really appreciate it! Please let me know ”

Two: “Hey Vandana! How are you doing? I saw on your blog that you had admits from UCLA and Kellogg and you chose to join Kellogg. I’m interested in HighTech too, and I’d like to schedule a 30min call to get your thoughts on why you chose Kellogg and MMM.”

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the first one. But if I had limited time and could talk to only one person, can you see who that would be? Applicant Two made it extremely clear why he specifically wants to talk to me – we have HighTech in common. He knows UCLA is good for tech and that I got in, but chose Kellogg anyway, and also recognizes that I picked MMM. He also specifies a time so I know exactly how much time he wants from me. You can only do this if you were strategic in picking the student you want to talk to.

Worst thing you can do? Sending a LinkedIn request to someone without introducing yourself and mentioning why you want to connect with them. You will be ignored.

The Call

No BS: I can smell bullshit calls a mile away. Most of us can. We almost always know in the first 5mins of a call if you’re genuinely interested in talking to us or if you’re doing it to “check a box” and use our names in your essay. We were applicants too, and not too long ago, so we know what you’re thinking. If you think you know enough about the school already, and find this “talk to a current student” expectation cumbersome, I’d rather you ask me outright if I ever derived any value from speaking to current students when I was applying and have a lively conversation around the pros and cons of that than having you ask me some really random questions just to make conversation and pass time.

Communicate your purpose – Remember your purpose? Yeah, the one you set before you started reaching out to people. Communicate to the student you’re talking to exactly what you hope to get out of the conversation. Set the tone, and let the questions begin.

Caveat: Don’t send your bio/resume unless the person you’re talking to asks for it. In the call, don’t spend 10 mins talking about your work history and what you want to do post-MBA. Develop a 1-min elevator pitch.If we want to know more, we’ll ask.

What Happens Afterward

Thank You Note – Not always necessary, but if you had a good conversation with someone, thank them for their time. Business school is insane – there are so many things to do and so little time. Show that you appreciate the student taking time out to speak with you, especially highlighting what you found particularly useful/enlightening in the conversation.

Consistency – Don’t stop with one interview/conversation. It’s important to hear from different people to get different perspectives. Sometimes you can ask the person you had the conversation with to connect you to someone else who has similar interests in industry/role or from the same country of origin as you so that you can learn from their experiences. Multiple conversations with different people from the same school will help you understand underlying common themes that are characteristic of that school and also help you identify potential issues students face at particular schools.

Keep them Posted – It’s good to keep the people you’re talking to in the loop about your progress with that school’s application. If you’re shortlisted for an interview, or if you have an admit, write to them and let them know. If you have specific questions about the interview process, ask. More often than not, they’d be happy to talk to you further and help you through the process (if you’ve done this right!).

I hope these pointers were helpful. If you have any questions/comments, do reach out to me! I’m always happy to talk about Kellogg or the MMM program or the applications process in general.

US Visa Application and Visa Interview Process for Indian Nationals

Type of Visa: You will be applying for a Non-Immigrant F-1 (Student) US Visa.

Applying for a Visa:

Create an account on: https://cgifederal.secure.force.com/?language=English&country=India

Complete the DS-160 Form which is an online visa application form. It will be available on the above website once you register. It is a long and comprehensive form, so be prepared to set aside an hour to fill it out. Be sure to read the Guidelines for Completing the DS-160 Form carefully before starting work on the form. Once the form is submitted, you cannot make any changes to it. So double-check the form and all the details before you hit Submit.

You will need your DS-160 number to schedule your VAC & Visa interview.

Scheduling the VAC and Visa Interview:

You will first have to schedule an appointment at a Visa Application Center (VAC) prior to your visa interview. Biometric information including fingerprints and digital photographs will be collected at the VAC. You must schedule the VAC appointment at least one day before the visa interview appointment date.

What to carry to the VAC –

  • A printout of the appointment confirmation form
  • DS-160 Confirmation form
  • Passport

DO NOT carry electronics of any kind, mobile phones or any other documents. Electronics are not allowed inside the center and any other documents apart from what I’ve mentioned above are absolutely unnecessary. Don’t even take your university admit letter.

Reach the VAC center 30mins before your appointment time. It is useless reaching there any earlier than that as you will not be allowed in. Dress Casual.

Visa Interview:

I was very stressed before the interview, but in retrospect there was no reason to be! I scheduled my visa interview in Hyderabad, India. There’s a lot of waiting time involved – from the minute I reached the visa center to the moment I got out, the full process took about 2 hours. The visa interview lasted exactly 2 minutes. I was asked:

Why do you want to go to the USA?

May I see your i20?

What is this graduate program you’re pursuing?

[My i20 had “Engineering, Other” as the Graduate program listed]

Did you write the GMAT or GRE? How much did you score on the GMAT?

[He was mightily impressed by my GMAT score, and his tone was considerably warmer after hearing it. He bantered a bit about schools in the US and GMAT scores]

What other schools did you apply to? Did you get in anywhere else?

How do you plan to pay for this extremely expensive program?😛

And that was it. My interviewer did not look at any of the papers that I took along. I even asked him to look at the financials that were in front of him to verify my claims of being able to pay for school, but he emphasized his dislike for paperwork and mentioned he would take me at my word. However this does not mean you should be lax about taking all the required paperwork to your visa interview.

The documents you will need are:

  • Printout of Visa Appointment letter
  • A stamped DS-160 form (the stamp will be placed after your VAC appointment)
  • i20 issued by your school
  • Payment confirmation of SEVIS fee
  • University admission letter
  • Proof of funds showing you have made arrangements to fund your degree (this could be a loan/financial aid approval letter from the university, proof of a scholarship offer, personal bank account statements or a bank letter, sponsor statement of support or any combination of these)

Optional:

  • Official GMAT score printout
  • College transcripts and Degree Certificate
  • Documents confirming work experience (Experience Letters or Payslips)

You will not know for sure if your visa is approved immediately after the interview. A student visa typically takes 2 days to get issued.

You can check your visa status by entering your DS-160 number and interview location in this page: https://ceac.state.gov/CEACStatTracker/Status.aspx?eQs=WwjqOlbeRYzCYubaSQI+RA==

Once your visa is approved and your passport is stamped, you will get an email from the US Embassy stating that your passport is ready to be picked up.

You can track your passport here – http://ustraveldocs.com/in/in-niv-passporttrack.asp

Good luck with your visa interviews and let me know if you have any questions about the process in the comments below!

Preparing for Kellogg

I haven’t done many blogs lately since I’ve been busy preparing for Kellogg. I thought I should give you guys a quick update on what’s been happening the last few weeks. There is just so much to do! But sometimes, like now, there’s a lull – I feel like I should be doing something productive, but instead I just laze around catching up on TV shows I love and spending time with family.😀

These are a few things I’ve checked off my list:

  • Financing my MBA (Apply for a loan & get personal finances in order)
  • i20 application
  • Visa Application
  • Visa Interview: Had my interview on 27-Apr-2015 and got a mail that my visa has been issued on 29-Apr-2015. Yaaayyy! I plan to do a post on Applying for a US Visa for international students.
  • Health Insurance & Health forms: Healthcare in the US is expensive.😦

What I still have to do:

  • Find an apartment: Since I’m moving to Evanston in the Summer quarter instead of fall, I’m having a hard time finding good deals. I’ll do a follow-up post on how to find housing just as soon as I sign a lease.
  • Tutorials in Microsoft Office, Photoshop and Basic Accounting Principles
  • Complete 2 mandatory pre-enrollment online courses set by Kellogg: I haven’t done this so far because the courses are not up on the website yet!
  • New technology: I’m thinking of buying a new phone/laptop but I might just do this once I get to Evanston.

It helps that Kellogg has a handy To Do list on the Welcome site for admitted students. I’ve just been checking things off one by one from that list.

But I’ve come across some incredibly helpful blogs online, these are some:

108 Tips for new MBA Students (by Matthew Kuo – UCLA Anderson)

A letter to an incoming MBA Student (by Rohan Rajiv – Kellogg Class of 2016)

My Kellogg Interview Debrief

This is a long overdue post! A lot of Indian applicants, having scheduled interviews in March, reached out to me asking about my interview experience with Kellogg.

I had a Skype interview with a member of the admissions committee. Since it was my first business school interview, I was jumpy and nervous. As with most business school interviews, it was friendly and conversational, and within a few minutes of starting the interview, I was in the zone and calmer than I was when the interview started.🙂

The questions I was asked were fairly standard and there were no surprises there (thank goodness!). I made a note of all the questions I was asked during the interview immediately after it was done (you guys have no idea how long it took me to locate this piece of hastily-scribbled-on paper from months ago). These are the questions I was asked:

Give me a high level overview of your career till date – especially focusing on why you made the career choices that you did. Take your time.

Are you an individual contributor or do you work in a team? (If you work in a team, do people report to you?) 

Do you prefer working in a team or as an individual contributor? Explain your reasons.

What would your team say is your greatest strength at work? What would your team say was the one thing they’d change about you at work?

(Same questions as above for “What would your manager say…?”)

Talk about a challenging professional experience that you had. What was your thought process? How did you handle the situation?

What are your short term and long term career goals? How will Kellogg help you achieve these goals?

Why did you apply to Kellogg?

How will you contribute to Kellogg?

What are your interests outside of work? (and a few follow-up questions about this)

Is there anything you’d like to add? If there’s anything that you think has not been mentioned in your application or that has not been discussed during the interview – you can talk about it now. (She did mention this was not a question to throw the candidate off-balance, but just an opportunity for us to address anything that we think they might’ve missed. I felt that I had not adequately addressed how smitten I was with Kellogg, so I spent a few minutes talking about MMM and my fit with Kellogg based on all my research. She seemed impressed with all the research I did on Kellogg, and commented on the fact that I was able to get so much information despite living halfway across the world.)

Then it was time for questions. I asked just 1-2 questions, and then we signed off. The entire interview lasted about 40 minutes.

These are my takeaways from the interview, and some important pointers:

– While the interviewer was friendly, it was not what I’d call an informal interview. You have to treat it like any job interview – be courteous, and be friendly, but retain some formality.

– Look at the interviewer and the camera. This is especially important in a Skype interview. You have to try and make eye contact to make it feel like a conversation. Don’t keep looking at yourself in the camera and adjusting your position accordingly (they can tell if you’re constantly checking yourself out on screen).

– I think it’s very important to showcase your passion for the school and focus on your fit with the school’s culture. In your answers, focus on team work and collaboration. Talk about all the things that (in your opinion) make Kellogg the best place for you to spend the next 2 years of your life. Admissions want to make sure that they take people who really want to join. Make sure they know that if you get in, you will attend Kellogg.

– Speak clearly and concisely. This is not really specific to Kellogg and you should do this in any interview, but Kellogg grads have a reputation for being good communicators – reinforce this image in your interview by enunciating clearly, not stammering and being as grammatically correct as you can be. It’s okay to take a few moments to collect your thoughts before answering a question. Don’t just rush into an answer without knowing what you want to talk about, or you’ll end up rambling!

Good luck to all the R2 applicants interviewing with Kellogg! Reach out to me if you have any further questions – I’d be happy to chat.

The Decision is Made…

And I have decided that I will be attending Kellogg School of Management. I’ve been accepted to the Kellogg MMM program, and I truly believe this program is a great fit for my future goals. There were a lot of factors that weighed in my decision, some of which I’ve listed out in an earlier post. I will do a longer follow-up post soon.

I am finally at peace about my decision and can get excited about preparing for business school. I will be flying out to Chicago this June. Wheeeeeee!😀

I can’t wait to hear my fellow bloggers decisions. Out with it! :)