An Innovative Approach

By Christine Cox | Spring 2015

How would you feel if somebody asked you to create a product prototype? In 30 minutes? With useless stuff like popsicle sticks, egg cartons, fake grass and feathers? 

The students in Wendy Angst’s Innovation and Design class weren’t intimidated or even hesitant. They couldn’t wait to get started.

Last fall, Angst, management associate professional specialist, took 40 students on a field trip to visit three Chicago firms that specialize in innovation and design: Deloitte, IDEO and IA Collaborative. The group included undergraduates, Notre Dame MBAs and an engineering/ design major. Angst wanted them to see firsthand how companies engage in innovative and creative problem solving using many of the same methods she had taught them in the classroom throughout the semester.

The Innovation and Design course focuses on helping students gain proficiency in the design thinking methodology to identify and address complex business problems. They are introduced to emerging consultant and corporate models, and learn about such topics as how to harness creativity toward generating “new-to- the-world” solutions and applying human-centered design methodologies to a client problem. Ultimately, Angst wants to help students assemble a “design-thinking toolkit” — a deep understanding of the tools and methodologies associated with design thinking that they can develop into a marketable skill. 

“Design thinking solves ambiguous problems,” said Angst. “It’s important for business students to learn this because business problems are increasingly not well-defined, especially with the world changing so rapidly. They need to be able to innovate and provide solutions for consumers. And for the planet, really.”

Design thinking means abandoning traditional ways of problem solving, where a student learns to first form a hypothesis and then lay out the steps to a desired outcome. Conversely, design thinking is human- centered, open-ended and exploratory. The point is not to try to come up with solutions right away, but to understand what the need is first. There are five critical steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype and test. In practice, this means students must learn to listen deeply, share wholeheartedly and get comfortable with failing utterly over and over again.

“You’re just trying to immerse yourself and under- stand from a user’s perspective with the underlying thought of making their lives better,” Angst explained. “There’s a great quote: If Henry Ford would have asked people what they wanted, they would have said a better horse. People often don’t know what they want or need.”

Students learn these skills by examining real-life situations and even by working with existing companies and products, such as Whirlpool’s Gladiator GarageWorks line. They spent time interviewing people about their garages and their lifestyles in order to ultimately create strategies and products that would help consumers get the most and best use out of their garages. 

Beyond interviewing, students observed carefully how subjects accomplished tasks in their garage. “So we’d say, now please show me how you get out your bicycles,” said senior Colleen Sheehy. “You’re watching behavior. What they tell you isn’t as important as what they show you.”

The Innovation and Design classroom experience itself is significantly different from traditional lecture format. Angst grades largely on effort and engagement and emphasizes there’s usually not a right answer. She plays music to keep the mood light and to encourage groups to collaborate. There are sticky notes hanging on all the walls — a nonthreatening way to share an idea.

During the Chicago field trip, the students filed into design firm IDEO’s colorful, decidedly nontraditional office space. Steve Schwall (ND ’06), portfolio director, assigned teams of four to five students to create a “rapid” prototype, allowing 5 minutes to come up with an idea and then 30 minutes to build.

Sheehy (MGT ’15) and her group made a proto-type based on their experience with Gladiator. They considered the problem of storage faced by active urban dwellers who own bicycles and bulky sports equipment. With their 30 minutes, they built a portable mini-garage as tall as a bicycle with a sliding drawer for a door and an urban garden on top. It was remarkable, as were the prototypes from the other groups.

But the point was not to build something that looked cool. The point was to test it, to take it to a consumer, who would likely rip it to shreds. “You ask, ‘OK, what’s wrong with this?’” Sheehy said. “We don’t like hearing criticism, but that’s the only way you learn how it can be better. And you go back to the drawing board.”

Sometimes that means going through the whole process again. But a long string of iterations might lead to creating something lifesaving or important.

“Design thinking really helps give our students the tools they need to live out the mission of Notre Dame, which is to address and solve ‘wicked’ problems facing society — problems that have never been seen before, that have no precedence,” said Angst, who has just started collaborating with colleagues from across the University to see how to make design thinking more cross-disciplinary and prominent.

“Design thinking can change the way we approach challenges like Ebola or safe drinking water or economies of developing countries. We challenge our students to dream big and to change the world, and I’m certain design thinking can enable that in ways we can’t even imagine right now.”