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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Why I love Kellogg and the MMM Program

Kellogg MMM Program

I have noticed over the last month or so that quite a few of you in the blogosphere – My Life of Bliss, Pulling that MBA Trigger, ProGMAT and a few others are interested in Kellogg’s MMM Program. Some of you are on the fence about it while others have decided to apply (and I hope I’ve played a part in helping you make that decision 😉 ). With that in mind, I thought I should do a (long overdue) post on everything I love about MMM. Irrespective of whether I make it to Kellogg (but I sooo hope I do!), I think this is post could be useful for those of you evaluating the program.

1. Product Management career path: They recently revamped the entire MMM program to make it more Product Management/Innovation focused, and this ties in with my future goals of Product Management and tech entrepreneurship. I hope I was able to sufficiently articulate the “fit” with the program in my application. If you’re looking at similar roles in your career, I would recommend the MMM program.

2. Design Thinking focus: What I’ve noticed as a Product Manager is that:

(a) Finding the right problem to solve is more important than problem-solving itself: You really need to get into the end-user’s head to figure out what feature/design would make the most sense to them/what would they like to see in your product – only then will your product be a successful one. The Design Thinking approach taught in the MMM program teaches you think from the end-user’s perspective and to find the right opportunities from myriad data. I think is an invaluable tool, not just for Product Managers but for entrepreneurs as well (which is my long-term goal).
(b) General Design courses: As a MMM student, you have the opportunity to take specific design courses from the Segal Institute. Not only can you learn about how to create great user experiences, these courses also add to your course credit!
3. Awesome Courses and Experiential Learning : Have you seen the MMM course list? It’s super interesting! There are courses like Research-Design-Build where you form groups and actually get your hands dirty and conceptualize, develop and launch your own product in a group. There’s also an Integration Project in addition to your regular Internship where you get to work in teams to solve a real-life business/design problem for a company – so there’s more focus on experiential learning.
4. Dual Degree: This is just a perk! 🙂 You graduate with a Kellogg MBA as well as an MS in Design Innovation, which is pretty cool – both for future job opportunities and for wow-ing  potential investors.
5. Small Class + Great Networking Opportunities: You get to have the best of both worlds! You take ALL your classes with the rest of your 50-odd classmates and you can form really strong bonds with them, but you also take core classes with regular 2Y Kellogg MBA students, so you’re not missing out on anything! Another perk is that you get to start early on campus. If you are a MMM student, you start classes in June – one full quarter earlier than the other Kellogg students(more time to spend on campus – yay!), but ultimately you graduate together with the Kellogg FT 2Y class.
6. Selectivity: I’m not quite sure whether to put this in this list or the cons list. Yes, they have a class size of only 60. But I found out that they get only about 350-400 applications for the MMM program. (that might change this year as they’ve been making an effort to spread more awareness about MMM) So the selectivity rate is about the same for Kellogg MBA and MMM. They take about 1 in 5 candidates. But I like my chances better in MMM – I’d rather compete against 400-500 applicants than 4000 applicants! You do have to keep in mind though that even though there are only around 350 applicants for MMM, these will likely be people with stellar profiles who really know what they want from the program and their career. It’s  slightly intimidating to compete with a group like that. I’ll leave you to make a decision if this point must be in the pros or cons  list. 🙂
7. Interviews:  This not exactly a MMM-specific point, but is characteristic of Kellogg. Since Kellogg tries to interview everyone, it’s just great to get an opportunity to show the admissions committee a side of you that might not have translated well in the application. You can really let your personality shine 🙂
Apart from all the above reasons, which are specific to MMM, I love Kellogg for KELLOGG. It’s just such an amazing school – all the people I’ve spoken to in the last few months from Kellogg have been so helpful and friendly (characteristic of Kellogg students) and the wealth of information I’ve gotten from them has only made me more excited to apply and (hopefully!) attend Kellogg. For those of you looking to get in touch with alumni/current students, I’d recommend just reaching out to people on LinkedIn.
To get an idea of the school’s culture, you could take a look at:
  •  #MyKellogg on Instagram. The pictures are endless. Students are most active on Instagram as compared to all other social media!
  • Youtube: There are SO many videos that you could get lost out there. Apart from Kellogg’s Official Youtube Channel which is a great source of Kellogg-related material, you should most definitely check out the LipDub Videos, CIM Showcase videos and other random videos made by students to witness Kellogg’s student camaraderie firsthand. If you’re interested in glimpses of what business school classes at Kellogg are going to be like, you should find those videos as well. An example is Harry Kraemer on Values Based Leadership – it’s something I’ve watched at least 3 times! I also regularly watch videos by Mohanbir Sawhney – I find his insights on technology, innovation and consumer products fascinating!
These are some resources I used to get to know MMM better:

Kellogg MBA Students Blog 

Kellogg MMM Student Perspectives

“This is MMM” Facebook Group

MMM Schedule – Courses and 2Y Plan