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Northwestern University

Design Solutions for Aging Well with AMITA

On the morning of October 15, three Northwestern students formed a multidisciplinary team and took on the AMITA Health Design Challenge, a 24-hour design marathon for the next generation of problem solvers.

AMITA Health is a faith-based health system created by Adventist Midwest Health and Alexian Brothers Health System in the Chicago area. The competition included twelve teams from ten regional universities and took place at the Arlington International Racecourse off campus.

Representing Northwestern were Elizabeth (Betsy) Chou, a junior in the Manufacturing and Design Engineering (MaDE) program with the Segal Design Institute, Andrew Tang, a senior majoring in Industrial Engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering, and Mira Staykova, a junior majoring in social policy at the School of Education and Social Policy while pursuing the Segal Design Certificate and participating in the Design for America chapter at Northwestern.

The team’s goal was to create solutions to the challenges facing the growing population of senior citizens. They had 24 hours to create solutions and then showcase their designs to a panel of judges for a cash prize of $2,000. In addition to coaching and brainstorming sessions throughout the marathon, the AMITA Health Design Challenge offered workshops and mentoring sessions with physicians, industry experts, community leaders and patients.

The Northwestern team created both “a technical and a non-technical solution to tackle the issues many older adults face when navigating the complex insurance enrollment process,” according to team member Mira Staykova. The group proposed SARA, inspired by the tax filing program TurboTax, to match older adults to the right Medicare supplement for them. The group also designed a board game called L.I.F.E. (or “lifelong insurance for everyone”) to increase health literacy in a fun way.

While Northwestern’s team did not win the competition, the students walked away from the experience having learned a lot – and having had a lot of fun.

“These were all people who were strangers to me before, but we came together and brainstormed ideas, empowered each other, and had a great end product,” said Staykova. “There is no one else I can imagine staying up 30 hours with!”

Her teammate, Andrew Tang, agreed. “It’s crazy to think we went from being complete strangers to working together for 30 straight hours,” said Tang.

The AMITA Design Challenge offered the Northwestern team a great opportunity to practice what Segal Design Institute teaches in its courses about human-centered design.

“I really enjoyed hearing feedback from some of the older adults who came to hear about our projects,” said Tang. “They really feel the problems that we were trying to address, and it felt good knowing that they felt we were trying to help them.”

“It was challenging and exciting to stretch our minds and push ourselves to solve the problem with empathy,” said team member Betsy Chou. “We synthesized the insights we had formed from listening to panels from different fields and filled an entire board with Post-it notes.”

The students got support from faculty members with the Segal Design Institute. Stacy Benjamin, co-director of the Segal Design Certificate program, came by after the team had been working for several hours.

"I help them refine their ideas a bit by asking questions so they would have to think through different scenarios," Benjamin said. "I came back the next morning as they were preparing their pitch and presentation board for the judging. I really enjoyed seeing how the designs had changed overnight. The students did a great job following a user-centered design problem. In a short amount of time and with limited access to real users, they were able to identify some key, unmet needs. They created several mock-ups of their ideas and collected feedback, then iteratively refined the ideas before preparing their final presentation. It was a great example of a compressed design cycle that still included all of the key elements."

David Gatchell, director of the MaDE program and clinical associate professor, visited during the 18th hour of the marathon to give the team an abridged design review.

“I challenged the team to provide me with a clear problem statement and a list of unmet needs that they had identified. Then I had the team clearly articulate how the solutions they proposed would serve these needs,” said Gatchell. “My intent was to help them clarify their elevator pitch to the client.”

The students connected their efforts during the AMITA Design Challenge to their previous experiences with the Segal Design Institute.

“I took 'Design Thinking and Communication' with Professor Gatchell my freshman year, and that experience has left an interest in design thinking in me ever since,” said Tang. Design Thinking and Communication (DTC) is a required course for all freshmen at Northwestern Engineering. The course immediately puts students to work on real design problems submitted by individuals, non-profits, entrepreneurs, and industry members.

Staykova connected her experience during the AMITA Design Challenge to her activity as part of Northwestern’s chapter of Design for America (DFA).

“This experience was fantastic in that it was a super intense, hyper-drive version of what I've done with my team in DFA. No better way to learn than trial by fire, right?” joked Staykova. DFA, a partner of the Segal Design Institute, organizes 1,200 students on campuses across the country to use design for social good.

“We applied the human-centered design process to the problem of aging well, and I believe our team's understanding and practice of design thinking was essential to our success,” said Chou. “I was able to learn and practice human-centered design through the MaDE program with the Segal Design Institute.”

Professor Benjamin expressed pride in the team's persistence.

"This was the first time these students ever worked together on a project. I was impressed with how they were committed to following the design process despite the 24-hour time limit and no sleep!" she said. "It would have been easy to skip steps, but they stuck to it."

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