SMITHFIELD, RI - Bryant faculty have been applying design thinking principles to innovations in curriculum, teaching, learning spaces, and technology since the 2013 launch of the IDEA (Innovation and Design Experience for All) program, a three-day design thinking boot camp for all freshmen.
“Psychology | Management 440: The Design Thinking Process,” is an upper-level, interdisciplinary course that evolved from the success of IDEA and launched in fall 2016. Allison Butler, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, and Mike Roberto, D.B.A.,Trustee Professor of Management, teamed up with Fidelity Investments to address a strategic business challenge—how to encourage young investors to save for retirement.
“Designing the course for each partner and challenge is a design thinking process in itself.”
Fast forward four years; Bryant has since partnered with CVS and Amica Insurance to put design thinking students to work tackling real-time business challenges. Lori Coakley, Ph.D., Professor of Management, has joined Butler and Roberto in teaching and developing this elite, invitation-only course. All three professors are IDEA co-founders, and Butler is currently the program’s Director.
“Designing the course for each partner and challenge is a design thinking process in itself,” says Roberto, Bryant’s Director of Program Innovation. “It is an exciting journey of teaching and learning where, together with the students and our colleagues, we are co-creators of an innovative process, and it is incredibly successful.”
The program is a success on every level. Corporate partners come away with viable solutions, many of which are in various stages of research, development, and application. And students gain a rich, immersive experience that galvanizes their learning that can be applied in any area they choose to pursue.
While project results are confidential, executives consistently report that the projects and the students have far exceeded their expectations.
“Every time we teach the course, we start again from ‘ground zero’ to consider the objectives of the project, and incorporate we’ve learned from teaching this course, IDEA, and other corporate training programs.”
Amica’s Talent Development Officer Keith Goryl reports that the student teams did a “fantastic job providing creative, actionable solutions” for their spring 2019 challenge: Design the office environment of the future to attract and retain millennials and Gen Z employees. “We have established a committee that is currently working on bringing some of these ideas to life.”
“We have extremely high expectations for the students as we have seen some really great thinking, not just on the final ideas, but also how the students used the process to come to a solution,” says Matt Rainone, Director, Innovation & Creative Strategy for CVS.
The design thinking process: innovation, iteration, and improvisation
The design thinking process follows six steps: observation, ideation, rapid prototyping, user feedback, iteration, and implementation. Both IDEA and the advanced course emphasize the iteration component of the design thinking process—for both students and faculty.
“Most humans don’t love to iterate, but that is the key to design thinking,” says Roberto.
“Every time we teach the course, we start again from ‘ground zero’ to consider the objectives of the project, and incorporate we’ve learned from teaching this course, IDEA, and other corporate training programs,” says Butler. “We listen to feedback from everyone involved, and then iterate, improve, and adapt to the specific needs of our corporate partner, the marketplace, and students to work toward the best outcomes for all.”
As a result of this continuous iteration, several course enhancements are in the works for the next project. Butler and Coakley, who will team teaching the course in spring 2020, secured a Faculty Innovation Grant that will fund intensive training using Virtual Reality (VR) technology in Bryant’s new Data Visualization lab. This technology up-leveling will enable students to develop and iterate concepts using 3-D prototyping, in addition to the traditional manual prototype-building methods.
“We are consistently inspired by Bryant students and look forward to seeing how they are going to help us tackle our upcoming challenge.”
The course will also incorporate an improvisational training component to help students release cognitive blocks to creativity and innovation, promote team building, and prepare for their final presentations to the corporate partner.
Hannah Couture ’20, who majors in Team and Project Management with a concentration in Biology and a minor in Psychology says the course has pushed her in ways that no other course has. “It challenged me to think critically and creatively, and I learned to embrace the ambiguity of situations.”
Design thinking and the brain
While the course focuses on solving a business problem, “the psychology element is also very unique,” notes Roberto. “In our experience and research we’ve observed that there are fundamental cognitive obstacle to enacting design thinking effectively.”
“Design thinking is hard for the brain,” adds Butler. “We teach our students strategies for combatting cognitive biases so they are successful design thinkers who can generate wild ideas, experiment with them, and be truly creative. As teachers and practitioners, we also have to put those strategies to work to guard against our own biases and blocks.”
"I enjoyed the Psychology aspects related to the topics we were learning about,” says Isabel Purdum ’19, a Business Administration major with a concentration in Leadership and Innovation and a double minor in Global Studies and Communication. “It gave names to the barriers that I had hit in the past, and most importantly, ways to break through them.”
Building on success with CVS
This advanced design thinking course has delivered such impressive results that it has caught the attention of other corporate leaders in the region, and there is now an application process for choosing the company and the challenge.
CVS was so pleased with the results of its spring 2018 project, which explored how CVS could help millennials be healthier, that it applied and was selected to return for the spring 2020 course offering. In the process of partnering with Bryant for this course, the company has also developed a summer internship program where slots are reserved for two Bryant students and two Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) students.
“We are consistently inspired by Bryant students and look forward to seeing how they are going to help us tackle our upcoming challenge,” says Rainone.
About Bryant’s design thinking faculty
Bryant faculty have become increasingly sought-after design thinking experts, creating and delivering custom education programs at major regional and global organizations including Citizens Bank, FM Global, Hasbro, the Rhode Island National Guard, and the Lincoln School.
They keep their own skills sharp by practicing, teaching, and researching design thinking. They also learn from the world’s top practitioners in design thinking, including IDEO, Google, Experience Point, IBM, and LUMA Institute.
Butler, Coakley, and Roberto have conducted extensive research and published in top journals and publications including Research-Technology Management and the American Management Association (AMA) Quarterly. Roberto’s book “Unlocking Unlocking Creativity: How to Solve Any Problem and Make the Best Decisions by Shifting Creative Mindsets,” published last December.