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Northwestern University

Northwestern Students Envision the Future of Care

Class collaborates with coaches from Procter & Gamble

During Intersect CPG: Transformative Product and Business Model Innovation, a multidisciplinary course offered by the Segal Design Institute, graduate students from Northwestern Engineering, Medill and Kellogg learn how to design for users in the real world, with all its complexity and unpredictability.

Students in the Intersect course divide into teams and each team tackles a product innovation challenge issued by a Procter & Gamble (P&G) coach. Meanwhile, two instructors — Helen von den Steinen and Craig Sampson — guide the students through design thinking methods in the classroom.

This spring, student teams worked with P&G coaches on five diverse projects representing different aspects of care across the lifestages from birth to old age. 

"This is a much richer and lasting learning experience than hearing about a load of 'perfect' case studies," said von den Steinen, who works in Research & Development at P&G. "Students learn that innovation is not linear and can be messy."

Robb Olsen, who also works at P&G in Research & Development, co-founded the course with Sampson in 2015. He continues to serve as an advisor to students in the course.

"When Robb Olsen invited me to co-create this course, we named it Intersect because it is about innovation at the intersection of technical feasibility, human desirability, and business feasibility," explained Sampson.

Students in the course utilize common tools of design thinking, such as rapid prototyping and user panels. For example, one team made thirteen different prototypes while another team interviewed over 200 individuals.

"Design thinking methods require deep understanding of your users," said Sampson. "The first week of class students went into real consumer’s homes to learn about their lives, and we had two more research days during which students shared their emerging concepts with consumers to get feedback."

Von den Steinen was especially impressed by the empathy that students developed for users throughout the course, "especially for the more sensitive topics like menstruation and aging," she said.

Because the Intersect course accepts graduate students from Northwestern Engineering, the Kellogg School of Management, and Medill, each team member brings a unique set of strengths to the classroom. In addition, the students learn from one another, for example an EDI student might teach his Kellogg and Medill team mates about prototyping; the Kellogg students help their other teammates to hone their business acumen.  

Sally Park, a student in Northwestern's Master of Science in Engineering Design Innovation (EDI) program, took the course this spring. Park applied what she had previously learned during a Human-Centered Design Studio for EDI students to the coursework, including how to conduct in-home interviews, create prototypes, and identify user tensions. Park further leveraged and refined those skills in Intersect, "[but] for this quarter, I was able to get exposed to viability and business model aspects of prototypes," she said.

Adam Attas, a student in Northwestern Engineering and the Kellogg School of Management's MMM Program, also took the course this spring.

"I tried to bring together my experience from Research-Design-Build [a course for MMM students] along with the Kellogg core to be able to go deeper into the business model innovation component of the class," said Attas. 

On June 5, each team presented their prototypes and business models to Procter & Gamble employees at The Garage on Northwestern’s Evanston campus.

"Working with P&G, a company that has such a storied history of using human-centered design, was an amazing experience," said Attas.

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