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Lessons From Special Education

Samantha Soloway talks about her road from teacher to product innovator and how she saw the need for human-centered design well before she started her MPD2 journey.

Samantha Soloway (MPD2 ‘23) knows what it’s like to live in a world not designed for the end user.  

As a special education teacher, Soloway watched students struggle to maneuver through a culture with products and services not designed with them in mind. 

That gave Soloway special appreciation for the human-centered design approach that is so central to Northwestern Engineering's Master of Product Design and Development Management (MPD2) program.  

“MPD2 was the perfect fit for me,” said Soloway, who completed the program’s part-time option earlier this year. “It combined my interests in both business and design and allowed me to continue to gain work experience while attending school.”  

It was a different experience that started Soloway on her journey. On the first day of high school, Soloway met Julia and Kenny, two students with disabilities. The connection was instant.  

“I knew from that moment I wanted to make inclusion a reality,” she said. “To me, a lesser standard shouldn’t exist.”   

Soloway went to Vanderbilt University, where she earned a degree in special education for children with severe and profound developmental issues. During that time, she took a class on augmentative and alternative communication that sparked her curiosity about accessibility issues.  

“As a teacher, I saw the power of assistive technology,” she said. “It’s really hard to reenact the smiles on my students’ faces when I gave them a communication device for the first time, taught them how to use a screen reader on a website, or even allowed them to play around with a head mouse.”  

Those interactions helped Soloway prioritize putting users at the center of everything she does. She went on to join the Yahoo Accessibility team to learn how to retroactively fix products that were broken and make accessibility a forethought, not an afterthought.  

Those interests ultimately led Soloway to MPD2. The program gave her an opportunity to learn more about human-centered design and also spread the message of inclusion. The lessons she learned were extensive, both from the faculty and classmates. 

“It’s so rare to be surrounded by such brilliant minds all in one room,” she said. “The classes we took did an incredible job of fostering conversations.”  

Of all that she learned, Soloway said there were two primary lessons that she will be mindful of throughout her career:  

Now Soloway is applying those lessons at PNC Bank, where as a senior experience innovation strategist on the experience innovation team, she finds herself using the skills she learned in the MPD2 program on a daily basis.  

“I always lean into new problems with curiosity and passion, keeping the human top-of-mind and looking to others with lived experience to co-design with me,” she said. “The past two years have provided me with many opportunities to apply my learning in the classroom and at work to ultimately develop my craft, voice, and expertise, which is in the accessibility and inclusion space.  

"MPD2 is the perfect program if you are interested in innovation and developing creative solutions.”

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