SMITHFIELD, RI - Karli Lajeunesse ’22 took many courses at Bryant that involved partnering with leading corporations, but being part of a design thinking course in the spring of 2022 – led by Professor of Psychology Allison Butler, Ph.D. and Professor of Management Lori Coakley, Ph.D. in collaboration with Fidelity Investments – was a real-world experience like no other. What stood out to the then-senior was how actively involved Fidelity’s executives – Nikunj Patel, Senior Vice President, Digital; Christina Ferrari ’97, Director, Mobile App Experience; and Michael Catani, Vice President of Global Web Experience – were throughout the class and how transformative the experience was for her and her classmates.
“Christina and Michael were present, attentive, and made us feel like we were going to make a difference,” says Lajeunesse. “Professors can answer most questions, but having Christina and Michael in front of us multiple times throughout the semester allowed our team to ask more detailed questions about apps, products, and Fidelity’s already existing services, which advanced the success of our solution.”
For Fidelity, the benefit was mutual. “It was energizing to see how thoughtfully and creatively the students worked to really think through the problems we presented to them. Bryant students continue to impress us, and their presentations really got us thinking about key areas of Fidelity’s business, too,” says Patel, who spearheaded the partnership. “It’s a great program for all involved.”
PSY/MGT 440: The Design Thinking Process – an upper-level, interdisciplinary course – requires students to apply for admission, setting the stage early for the seriousness of the course. Students are put into teams – no changes allowed –and each team creates a covenant that binds them throughout the course. The groups then spend the next several months applying design-thinking principles, which the professors define as a “human-centered” approach to problem solving, to tackling a challenge that Fidelity proposes. For this course, Fidelity came to the students with the question of how to improve financial literacy among younger people – and the groups worked collaboratively through the design-thinking process to respond.
The professors believe this hands-on experience of working with a client elevates the classroom experience. “They are already accustomed to academic standards and striving to meet professor expectations,” says Butler. “But with Fidelity in the classroom, our students also must meet the company’s needs and constantly have those touch points with the client as well.”
As both client and alumnus, Ferrari was proud to see that the rigor and excellence she learned as a student was still alive and well in the classroom. The University, she says, has “evolved and changed." It was still a college in her days and now even has a football team but, as she says, the foundation has remained. “The students are polished. They dress up in suits and they are good at presenting and speaking. I was very happy to see that hasn’t changed.”
Ferrari, who has been with Fidelity for many years, sees the partnership with Bryant as mutually beneficial. “The students really wanted advisors, and it was rewarding to watch them take feedback from user testing and other approaches and apply it.” But the value of this partnership, she adds, works both ways. “The students’ presentations and findings challenged some of their own assumptions coming in. We went in assuming they used their phones a lot, and we were surprised to hear how often they are using platforms like TikTok.” She was also interested to learn that while this age group turned to their phones for most interactions, when it came to filling in more serious forms, they preferred using a desktop – all important information that can directly benefit how Fidelity creates its products.
“It was magical watching these ideas transform. They are definitely feasible,” says Ferrari.
Professors Butler and Coakley also saw the magic. They admit getting choked up at the end of the course after weeks of collaboration, sticky notes, markers on the boards and lots of practice before standing in front of the client. Design thinking, they emphasize, is not a typical “stuffy boardroom” process. They both agree that it is impressive to see the students present their ideas so powerfully at the end of it all and to see how much the ideas they start with grow and transform through the process. “We get to the final pitch time and start tearing up. It’s amazing to see how hard they worked for 15 weeks and how much they took and applied feedback,” says Coakley.
But all of that is not without some last-minute scrambling. The professors see this as the exciting part of the fun, collaborative, and energizing process of design thinking. For Lajeunesse, she experienced the iterative process firsthand – and down to the last minute.
Although she was part of the first-place team, one week before the final presentation, her team was advised to make major adjustments, changing several aspects of their presentation. “Although the next week was one of the most stressful, my team was able to work together and make the changes needed to succeed.” And while she is proud of her first-place finish, she learned that creating a product that is both satisfying to the design team and that might have real-world impact is even more rewarding – a lesson she says she will take forward long into her professional future.