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Designing with Equity in Mind 

A new MMM course looks at an often overlooked element in human centered design in an effort to address current social inequities. 

Kelly Costello

When COVID-19 vaccines first became readily available in early 2021, the common way to register for onewas via a website. These sites were created with the end-user in mind and designed in a way that was relatively easy to navigate.  

Despite that human-centered design, vaccination rates were far from equitable, and the consequences were disproportionately tragic for underprivileged, minority, and disabled communities.  

Why exactly that happened is illuminated by the principles taught in Equity Centered Design, a new course offered through the MMM program, a dual-degree program between Northwestern Engineering and the Kellogg School of Management. 

Tony Bynum

“We're not saying that human-centered design doesn’t work, it’s just that it’s not enough,” said, co-instructor for the class and senior director of enterprise experience design at Northwestern Mutual. “With equity centered design, we’re still designing for humans, but we’re designing for humans in a specific kind of context.”  

For example, with COVID-19 vaccine registration, equity-centered design would have recognized that a website-based registration process would be challenging for people: 

Beyond that, equity-centered design would have brought people representing those communities into the discussion at the beginning of the registration development process. At that point they could have provided understanding about the challenges these communities face and the historical roots in which those challenges are anchored.  

“It’s bringing a new lens to a lot of the processes we’re already using with human centered design but asking, ‘What does it mean to make things more equitable and diverse?’” said Kelly Costello, co-instructor and co-founder of Panorama Innovation. 

The course was designed to go beyond simple case studies and theories to partner students with local organizations and nonprofits that are confronted with design-equity issues. The course is five weeks, so the students are not expected to craft a full strategic solution.   

“But it’s real enough that students have real clients, ask real questions, and do research on their own to go out and really understand the users affected by the problem,” Bynum said. “It’s not theoretical. They’re working with a real group of stakeholders.”  

The goal is to create students who are more aware of their own biases and familiar with ways to address them, the instructors said.  

“There isn’t any one way to do equity centered design," Bynum said. "It’s an emerging field. We ask the students to think about their role in the problem-solving.”  

Both instructors said the availability of a course such as this should make MMM an even more attractive program. Being a part of the development of a new field will give MMM graduates an advantage in job situations in the future, they said.  

“It’s not like many people start out saying ‘How can I oppress someone?’” Costello said. “Inequities are so subtle in the way they play out, and I think we’ve all become more aware of that. Now we’re figuring out how to counter that through design.”  

Bynum agreed. 

 “As a MMM student, you’re kind of bilingual in your ability to speak the language of business and the language of design," he said. "This course brings in an element of self too. It’s a nice, well-rounded approach to becoming a problem solver.”  

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