Skip to main content

Teaching About Customer-Driven Opportunities

Elisa Vargas and JoEllen Kames are leading MPD2’s Customer-Driven Opportunities course for the first time, but the duo have a long-standing professional connection outside the classroom.

For a first-time teaching tandem, Elisa Vargas and JoEllen Kames are deeply familiar with each other.  

JoEllen KamesThe twosome team-taught the Customer-Driven Opportunities course in Northwestern Engineering's Master of Product Design and Development Management (MPD2) program for the first time this fall. The course kicks off MPD2 students’ second year in the program.  

Though Vargas and Kames are new to sharing the same classroom space, they aren’t new to working together. The two frequently collaborated with one another from 2006-2014 while working at Motorola. Vargas and Kames first met in graduate school at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Institute of Design. 

Both said their familiarity proved beneficial for their students. 

Elisa Vargas“We complement each other very well,” said Kames, the director of user experience for the AI Cloud at Salesforce. “That second voice is great. It’s nice to have that extra ability to make sure we hear them and that it’s a good experience for them.”  

The course Vargas and Kames taught was an early reflection of the redesigned capstone experience MPD2 program leaders have been working on for the past year-plus. The capstone is the culminating activity in the MPD2 program and spans students' final three quarters. During capstone, students dive deeply into a topic of personal interest to design a product or service that answers an unaddressed customer need.  

One of the updates to capstone is an increased emphasis earlier in the year on customer desirability. The Customer-Driven Opportunities course strongly pushes this principle. 

“People seemed to think that focusing on design thinking was going to be a panacea for everything,’ said Vargas, the director of product design at digital academic library JSTOR. “It’s not. What we're trying to instill in this course is that design thinking doesn't solve things if you aren't actually looking for the user problem and delivering that in a meaningful way.”  

That means the course has a strong emphasis on one of MPD2’s foundational principles: Human-centered design. This principle follows that the best way to develop truly useful products is to delve heavily into the problems faced by consumers to create goods and services that alleviate the pain points in their lives. The course helps students focus on conducting secondary research for their hypothesis about market needs and complimenting this with qualitative research with the target audience.  

The course also leans heavily on the deep well of professional experience owned by its two instructors. Prior to her current role, Vargas was director of product design at Grubhub and global UX design director at Motorola. Kames, meanwhile, previously was head of design and research at Narrative Science and held leadership positions at Northern Trust and Motorola. 

“Each of us brings in real examples, not just textbook examples, from our work into what we're explaining to students,” Vargas said. “We've been both researchers and hands-on designers and understand what is most useful for product management and engineering as they consider that user point of view.”  

The duo hoped that by the end of the course, students would have a stronger appreciation for how to more deeply understand their potential customers and how to apply that understanding to product development. 

“This might sound super lofty, but it's about instilling a sense of wonder in them about who these people are that they are going to make stuff for,” Kames said. 

Vargas agreed.  

“You need to understand what problem you're trying to solve and why that's important for these users,” she said. “This is why there's opportunity for innovation.”

Back to top