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.

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