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Northwestern University

Bringing Design to the Friendly Skies

MMM students collaborate with United Airlines for team projects

A MMM student team after presenting to United Airlines.

Insights and prototypes took flight in a MMM course called Research Design Build (RDB) during the fall quarter as students partnered with United Airlines for a design innovation project. On December 4, MMM students presented their proposals to United representatives. 

MMM is a dual-degree program that gives students a business education integrated with a design innovation foundation. MMM graduates receive an MBA from Kellogg and an MS in Design Innovation from the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering.

RDB, a hands-on studio class with a strong focus on innovation based on user needs, is co-taught by Professors Greg Holderfield and Martha Cotton. Holderfield is the director of Northwestern’s Segal Design Institute and co-director of the MMM program. During RDB, students work with real clients to solve a complex problem utilizing the design process.

Representatives from United visited campus three times during the quarter to meet with MMM students and give feedback on their progress. In September, United gave MMM students the following prompt: “How might we reimagine the departure experience and design a better gate experience for both our customers and employees?”

Holly Hermes, Director of Customer Service Delivery Innovation at United, explained the thinking behind the prompt.

“We feel that the departure experience has not changed a whole lot in the last ten years, even though technology has changed how our customers interact with us,” said Hermes. “I think that customers’ expectations are higher today. There are so many other experiences customers have that are seamless, like Uber and Amazon Prime. I feel air travel is one of those spaces where a lot of the burden is still on the customer. There is room for innovation there, looking at the entire customer journey from beginning to end and trying to remove those pain points.”

With this prompt from United in mind, MMM students dove into their RDB coursework. The course teaches problem-solving with a design thinking mindset, including user observation and in-field ethnography.

“RDB introduces and develops translatable skills about problem-solving,” said Robbie Sutkay (MMM ’19). His classmate, Juan Luciano (MMM ’19), cited the user observation and in-field ethnography as tools for sparking insight.

“The most interesting experience for me was getting to see the airport, a place I've been hundreds of times. It is often a source of frustration and boredom for me, and I got to see it from the perspective of many different types of passengers,” said Luciano. “It really gives you an appreciation for how difficult it can be to design spaces and experiences that work for everyone. I'll never look at flying the same way again.”

MMM students say they will carry the lessons from RDB beyond their time at Northwestern. Luciano said he felt the MMM program has given him an advantage.

“Knowing design thinking terminology and methodology is pretty much table stakes in business at this point. What differentiates MMMs is how many times we get to actually practice it,” said Luciano. “Design is hard and getting the opportunity to make mistakes before we leave school really helps us hone our skills and deliver in our first roles out of the program.”

Sutkay agreed. “When I leave Kellogg, there will be times when a problem arises and a solution is not readily available. Now I have the skills to go through a process to develop a compelling and meaningful answer,” he said.

Hermes and her colleagues from United praised the student presentations during their final class of the quarter. “I was really impressed with the insights they came away with,” said Hermes. 

Hermes also pointed to the growing importance of design innovation for corporations, including United.

“There has been a huge effort to incorporate more design into our digital experience, and I feel that’s where human-centered design started becoming a part of corporate America,” said Hermes.

“We’re a very operations-focused company, so a lot of times we approach something like the boarding process and think about it from an efficiency standpoint. Now there is a focus on being more customer-centered and I think we’ll continue to see more of that. [My group] was formed at the beginning of this year as part of a company-wide reorganization around the customer.”

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