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A Front-Row Seat to Interaction Design

The three co-instructors of one of the EDI program's foundational courses talk about the unique setup of their class and how it mirrors life in the design industry.

The core courses in Northwestern's Engineering Design Innovation (EDI) program emphasize team-based project work to help students gain a high-level understanding of the design process, research methodologies, and innovation strategy.

One of those courses is Interaction Design, a class offered during students' first year in the program that challenges them to explore novel approaches to interaction design. The course is co-taught by three instructors: 

The three sat down to talk about the uniqueness of their course, the benefit students get from having working professionals as instructors, and what they hope students take away from the course.

What is the goal of the course?

Susan Curtis: We want students to understand how you take human-centered-design methods and make them actionable into the design of anything with a screen. It's more of a hands-on application course than it is a theoretical conceptual course. Theory is important as a foundational grounding point, and students get a lot of that earlier in EDI. We view our course as a direct next step to get them prepared to have jobs in the real world.

Tom Quish: All three of us are design industry professionals, and we pattern the activities within the class after what these students would encounter when they hit the working world. What our teams are doing day-to-day, our students are doing day-to-day.  

SC: The class is a mirror reflection of the ways we work day in and day out — the process, the tools, the methods, the deliverables.

How is the course structured?

SC: Each quarter we have one client, and we split the class into groups of three or four students. We divide the quarter into two sprints. First is a foundational sprint, where students learn about the client's business challenge, understand the problem space through research, and develop conceptual solutions. In the second part of the course, they move from a concept into making it tangible. They consider requirements, design user flows, wireframe, mockups and ultimately an interactive physical prototype that they test with users.

TQ: Each course is different because each client has unique needs. In every case, there's a client truly looking for creativity and innovation, and that means students do have agency to make a difference in these organizations.

What does the co-teaching experience look like?

Jesse Wilbur: We're able to specialize how we present our different expertise to the students. Susan takes the core UX part and owns it, as well as the overall process for the class. I support the research and insight methodology perspectives that we take the students through, and Tom does the design from a UI perspective. Between the three of us, we provide a well-rounded perspective of every aspect of this larger process. 

How beneficial is it for students that you three are all working professionals?

TQ: One of the benefits of having working professionals in the classroom is that we can show real-world examples of things that have been produced or are in the process of being developed as a way to inspire the students. We find it helps guide students as they go through the same process. Another benefit is we're able to bring in guest professionals who can provide a boost to students, whether it's giving them advice on how to craft a compelling stakeholder interview guide or providing feedback on a creative concept. That really resonates with students. They get to meet other professionals from different agencies, consultancies or product organizations that they may aspire to work for. It's networking, it's rapport building, and it's very much feedback oriented. 

What are the most important lessons you hope students learn from the course?

JW: The most important thing is that they see there is a structured approach to taking conceptual ideas and turning them into actual actions and behaviors. We take them through exercises around how to generate good research questions, and how to take what they learned from that research and turn it into strong insights that then power concepts that turn into actual things. There is a step-by-step process we're taking them through, and it’s what we most want them to come away with.

SC: Students learn the benefit of taking themselves out of the design process and putting it in the hands of users. That's a big part of what EDI teaches about human-centered design. You don't have to have all the answers, that's why you have stakeholders, and audiences, and researchers. Students also take a structured approach to failing faster. They become comfortable with putting something out there, being wrong, and learning in the moment.

TQ: I'm always super impressed with cohorts in EDI. These students are very adept at presenting their concepts and working with senior stakeholders like chief marketing officers or chief information officers. These students can articulate, socialize, and evangelize concepts to pretty impressive executives within interesting organizations. There is a maturity level within EDI that is unparalleled.

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