I worked on an independent study to rethink the experience of MBA students at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business as they navigate the course selection process, focusing on designing a new service that would help them be more engaged and mindful when choosing their classes. The client for the project was the Managing Director of the MBA Program at Ross.
At Ross, and other MBA schools across the country, there is often a push and pull between academics and recruiting, with academics sometimes playing second fiddle to the pressures of finding a high-powered job. Thus, the problem for many MBA students is crafting a meaningful academic learning journey within the classroom that directly applies to their unique career goals and aspirations. For the MBA office, the problem is convincing students of the importance of coursework and being able to show how courses directly relate to students’ career goals and pathways.
As part of the independent study, I worked with Professor Nigel Melville, an Associate Professor of Technology and Operations at Ross. Over the course of this two-semester project, I worked in small groups and pairs with several other students and we often collaborated together as a larger group to synthesize our findings and brainstorm ideas.
The design framework and process we used was the EDCI (Explore, Discover, Concept & Design) Model, an iterative design process authored by Professor Melville. My process covered the first three phases of the EDCI framework , finishing with a digital prototype for the MBA Office.
The Explore phase was the first step where we learned more about the initial problem and came in with a beginner's mindset, aiming to strip away our biases. My goal during this phase was to gather information and explore the problem space, without coming up with any solution ideas. During this phase, our focus was to better understand how current MBA students use an internal website called iMpact that helps guide them for both career and academic purposes. I interviewed a diverse set of four first-year MBA students to learn about their class selection process, what resources they used, and what challenges they faced.
After my interviews were concluded and the information was digested, I came back to the larger group where we discussed and synthesized our findings. We identified six key findings that came out of our primary research sessions (Pictured left).
The goal of the next step, the Discover phase, was to "synthesize the Explore phase to generate and complete the following design statement: 'A new or better e-service would___.'"
As such, during the Discover phase, it was time to take all the qualitative data we had gathered during the Explore phase and visualize it in digestible formats. I worked with my design partner to create a storyboard and to brainstorm our own design statement. The design statement would help guide what criteria our prototype would have to fulfill. Other groups used other methods to visualize this data, such as personas and journey maps. We would later synthesize these visualizations and design statements to come together to design one solution during the Concept & Design phase.
Using our learnings from the Explore phase, my partner and I sketched out a sample storyboard of the journey of a typical first-year MBA student at Ross. The arc of the storyboard shows all of the problems of the current process:
- Students largely place a stronger emphasis on recruiting versus work inside of the classroom.
- When they do use the iMpact system to try to learn about classes, they find it confusing and typically give up quickly.
- Instead of worrying about classes, they then revert back to their job search.
To solve the problems highlighted in the storyboard, my partner and I created the following design statement:
A new/better service would…
- Cut down on the time required to think about classes
- Include the knowledge 2nd-year MBA students
- Adhere to club recommendations
- Bring in peer selections
- And be easy to find on an online portal
We again met as a larger group, bringing the design statements from each design pair together. Over the course of a two-hour session, we brainstormed, sketched out, and finalized the design statement for our solution.
Concept & Design Phase
With an agreed upon design statement, we again split off again into smaller groups and pairs to use this design statement to guide a design of a prototype. After about one hour of brainstorming and comparing ideas, my group picked our top choices of what a prototype should include. We decided that an improved service should:
- Highlight academic excellence through exposure to rest of the community and by providing scholarships for high academic success.
- Have video confessionals from second year-MBA students and alumni reviewing courses.
- Provide a “Chat” function with second-year MBA students and alumni in order to allow students to pick the most career-relevant courses.
- Aggregate historical data, providing patterns of the roles of alumni who also took a particular course.
- Provide tangible incentive for taking a class by bringing in employers who seek the skills of students who are enrolled in a particular class.
Through the use of Bodystorming we created a four-minute video to show exactly how this prototype would work if it did exist. We then brought our prototype back to the larger group. At this point, as a larger group, we engaged in a "collaborative royale," in which these prototypes and ideas were all mixed together to create one prototyped solution.
The M-Path prototype is a new way for MBA students at the Ross School of Business to better engage with the course selection process. The prototype aims to create a simple-to-use system for students to find and pick classes, see recommendations and reviews from peers and alumni, and to connect with alumni who are in a role that they want to be in after graduation.
The presentation was well received by the Managing Director of Ross and her team in the Spring of 2016, with an aim for her to work with the new CTO of Ross to start on implementation in the near future.
Slides for the prototype are provided below.
Looking back on this design experience, there are two main aspects of this project that particularly stand out to me.
“Selling” the importance of design
I have often heard from speaking to designers and in my readings, the need for designers to be able to sell the value of design or sell the value of the user research that they put into a particular project. For me, this was my first experience with this. Working with Professor Melville and his design-thinking EDCI framework, was a much different approach than what is typically seen in business school. Because of this, it was necessary for our presentations to be dedicated to showing the value of the design process that we took in coming up with our solution and justifying how we made the decisions that we did. This increasingly more common theme of designers feeling the need to have the skills of persuasion, influence, and even sales, makes me think about the experience that I’m gaining in my MBA program. As part of my MBA at Ross, a large amount of my electives are focused on negotiations, persuasion, team dynamics, and psychology, and I can now see this as being vital in the future when I’ll be working on cross-functional teams where not everyone may see the value of design.
Working as a designer in a larger team
As part of this independent study, I worked with a varying number of other business school students on this project. We sometime worked in pairs, groups of three, and then almost always reconvened as a group of 7-9 students. Different students came into and out of the project, based on if they were taking it for a full year, semester, or half a semester. Working on a team that didn’t have the same set of designers throughout the course of the whole project meant catching certain team members up to speed and adjusting to changing team dynamics at any given point in time. However, with a larger group of students and frequently changing the smaller pairs or groups I worked with, also meant a more diverse and disparate set of ideas. This afforded better ideas, and I was often surprised and impressed by the concepts that our larger group generated during synthesizing sessions. In a larger team, in order to come to consensus, you realize how often compromise is needed. Some of the features that I envisioned in the final prototype did make it in, while others fell to the design cutting room floor. I had to be strategic in the advocating for the features that I felt strongly about, while also being flexible and understanding of differing views. Ultimately, diversity in perspectives was certainly positive. It ultimately allowed us to deliver a final product that was more inclusive of solving more of our users’ needs than I would have likely thought of as a lone designer.