Engineering News

MMM Students Research-Design-Build Their Way to Innovation

DICK'S Sporting Goods and Lowe's Home Improvement partnered with MMM for course

MMM students worked with Lowe's Home Improvement to test shared service spaces in their stores.MMM students worked with Lowe's Home Improvement to test shared service spaces in their stores.
MMM students partnered with DICK'S Sporting Goods to reimagine the stores' team sport services.MMM students partnered with DICK'S Sporting Goods to reimagine the stores' team sport services.

Students in Northwestern's MMM Program — which combines an MBA from the Kellogg School of Management with an MS in Design Innovation from the McCormick School of Engineering's Segal Design Institute — seek to hone a competitive edge at the intersection of human-centered design, business, and technology.

MMM's Research-Design-Build course introduces students to human-centered design through a design thinking approach to framing and solving problems that people actually care about. The hands-on studio course utilizes a challenge prompt from an industry partner that is fundamental to the learning experience. The challenge prompt provides business context and some constraints within which students can work and potentially reframe. In essence, the learning is realized through an experiential — rather than theoretical — approach.

Students have eight weeks to conduct qualitative research, shape insights, frame opportunities, design and build out solutions, test and iterate prototypes, build a business model around their solutions, and then present those solutions to the industry partner for feedback.

During the fall 2018 term, the industry partners for Research-Design-Build were DICK'S Sporting Goods and Lowe's Home Improvement.

"We look to create future business leaders who can innovate from end to end," said Greg Holderfield, co-director of the MMM Program and Pentair Nugent Clinical Associate Professor of Design. "We start with researching people in context to meaningfully understand the human need and gain empathy. This understanding is the foundation of our work and that ultimately needs to lead to actionable ideas that are viable for business."

Learning human-centered design

MMM student Claire Marsh and her teammates in the Research-Design-Build course had to get out of their comfort zone to find the right solutions to their prompt from Lowe's Home Improvement: How might we reimagine and test shared service spaces in stores?

As part of their research, Marsh and her teammates acted as undercover home improvement shoppers and conducted "guerrilla shop-alongs" with willing customers. "It was uncomfortable for us to talk to customers, but it was the most useful for our research," she said.

For MMM student Ellen Wilcox and her team, the prompt from DICK'S Sporting Goods seemed simple enough: How might we reimagine "team sport services" in stores?

After all, Wilcox and her teammates had all been involved in sports as kids, and they had all shopped at the store.

But it wasn't until they dug deep into the design research process — interviewing young athletes, their parents, coaches, league staff, and in-store employees — that they began to understand how those athletes interacted with the store. When they mapped the customer journey, they realized young athletes often only visited DICK'S stores at the beginning of their season, leaving a gap of service that DICK'S could fill.

"We had to be open to defining the problem as the customer sees it," Wilcox said. "When we had that empathy mindset, it became a very different conversation."

That curiosity and empathy — the basis of the human-centered design process — ultimately led to a suite of solutions that 12 student teams presented to representatives from DICK'S and Lowe's in December.

The industry partners said they plan to test and implement those solutions in the near future.

"Every team had very unique ideas and insights, and often they were insights that we were toying around with, and they validated them or brought them forward in a way that was new and fresh to us," said Don Germano (Kellogg '09), senior vice president of operations for DICK'S. "It shows that math doesn't always tell the whole story. You've got to get out there and talk with people and question everything."

The students also understood how to put those insights into solutions worth implementing, said Blair Holt, director of customer experience design at Lowe's.

"We know that the students in the program are so talented that we can really throw real-world challenges at them and be confident that what we're going to get back is valuable and useful to us as a team," he said.

Design as an act of curiosity and restraint


Once Marsh and her teammates began interviewing Lowe's customers, they became excited about what they found.

"Growing up, my dad was a huge home improvement guy," she said. "It was great to be able to go deeper in the mind of someone like that and actually understand the journey. Once we started grouping trends we were seeing together, we started to think outside the box. That was really fun."


When Wilcox and her team began interviewing athletes and their parents, they realized that kids often only visited DICK'S Sporting Goods at the beginning of the season to purchase new equipment. The kids' parents were also frustrated with this process, since they needed to buy new gear each year for their growing children.

Immediately, the team members began homing in on solutions, but the process demanded that they continue to research and learn first.

"Design research is just a constant act of curiosity," Wilcox said. "I really think in many ways it's also an act of restraint. We're constantly trying to solve problems, but design and empathy ask us to be patient and really listen first before we build solutions."

Desirability, feasibility, and viability

While students conducted research and designed solutions, they met each week in class, which included lectures and activities but always began with a gallery walk. There, teams presented their work through Post-it Notes, half sheets, frameworks, and storyboards for direct feedback from Holderfield as well as co-instructor Martha Cotton. That culture of critique is absolutely necessary in the service of building meaningful solutions, Holderfield said.

"The process is less about polishing and more about sharing, learning, and building through critique," Holderfield said. This analog process is key to the course, even though it can seem foreign to students who are used to looking at spreadsheets and big data.

"The research is qualitative, and in the beginning, some students regard it as fuzzy," he said. "But once they realize the process involves multiple repetitions, digging deeper, framing and reframing, they understand how rigorous it is. This is how we build ideas that are ultimately in service of solutions."

The ultimate goal was to get to the intersection of desirability, feasibility, and viability. How could the students create something both the business and the customer want, and how could they translate that into a viable business model?

Testing insights within the company

After Wilcox's team synthesized their research, they realized the sweet spot for DICK'S team sports customers were athletes younger than high-school age. Armed with the insights that these customers often only visited the store before the season, they came up with 16 solutions and tested them among the young athletes they had interviewed.

Ultimately, they landed on a three-pronged approach to bring more young athletes into the store: a "season pass" that included a pre-season kickoff party with discounts on new gear and a post-season wrap party where athletes could recycle old gear; a mobile service shop that brought equipment and servicing directly to tournaments; and an in-store augmented reality experience for kids to try out new gear.

Germano and his team planned to take ideas from each of the projects and study them further.


"We are a company that is constantly interested in relentlessly improving," he said. "Northwestern is always on the cutting edge of how to make an impact on the world, and the students were this fresh set of eyes. Our big challenge now will be how we take all the amazing ideas they presented and start testing them."

Ruth Crowley, Vice President Customer Experience Design for Lowe's, agreed.

"With Northwestern, we have access to the talent of the future. MMM offers students a unique opportunity to apply an academic framework to real life, real-time business challenges," said Crowley. "MMM prompts the opportunity not just to validate answers but to ask the right questions. The collaboration is extremely valuable, a critical reality check, and a lens to the future."