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Sharing a Passion for Design Research

Engineering Design Innovation (EDI) alumni Alyssa Brown and Erica Isaacs are sharing their perspective on design research with students in EDI and the Segal Design Institute.

When you’re doing work you love, it's only natural to want to share your passion with others.   

Just ask Alyssa Brown (EDI ‘19) and Erica Isaacs (EDI ‘17).  

Erica IsaacsThe duo has returned to the Segal Design Institute and now serve as adjunct lecturers, looking to pass their interest in design research on to a new generation of students.  

“I just love being with the students and hearing what kinds of things are on their mind,” said Brown, a design researcher for Microsoft who will be teaching Design Thinking and Doing for Northwestern undergraduates. “Students have really unique perspectives that challenge me to think about my work in new ways.’  

Alyssa BrownBrown's work is on Microsoft’s Viva platform, an employee experience platform within Microsoft 365 and Microsoft Teams.   

“We are essentially trying to make the life of an employee working at a company better, easier, and more enjoyable,” Brown said. “My job is to make sure the end users’ voice is front-and-center in the product-development process.” 

That customer focus is a passion that runs deep for Brown and for Isaacs, a senior design researcher with Insight Innovation Center, an internal innovation group within Nemera, a drug delivery device solutions provider.  

“Design really can make such a powerful difference in the world, but it is only as good as the practitioners who are implementing it,” said Isaacs, who is leading a 10-week design sprint course for EDI students. “As design research practitioners, we should be facilitators for the people we are designing for, to allow them to lead the process, and be the ultimate decision makers.”  

Isaacs’ role with Nemera is to conduct qualitative research and present the findings in ways clients or the company’s product development team can use to improve the lives of patients needing medical support or clinicians' ability to care for and treat their patient. She said she sees her work with Nemera and the EDI program as opportunities to promote a different way of looking at familiar issues to develop better solutions. 

In fact, the desire to learn more about how to do just that is what drove Isaacs to the EDI program as a student in 2016. At the time, she was working for a company that designed single-use medical devices and often felt what the business was providing wasn’t optimal for what patients truly needed.  

“I started to realize how big of a gap there was between the people who design the devices and those who use them,” she said. “I wanted to bridge that gap, to understand unmet needs and ensure those carried through and drove the design process. I felt EDI would give me the skills and experience to become that bridge builder, and it very much met those expectations.”  

Now, both Brown and Isaacs are focused on developing the next generation of design researchers 

“My goals are to expose the students to human-centered design and emphasize the importance of designing with and for people, instead of just creating to create,” Brown said. “I want the students to feel empowered to solve problems that they encounter in their daily lives and in their careers.” 

The key for design students is to always ask why something is being done the way it is, Isaacs said. 

“We don’t have to keep doing things the way we always have, just because,” she said. “Design is about mixing things up, failing early and often, continuing to push the envelope, and getting uncomfortable. Enjoy it.”  

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