Design Thinking at Eller College of Management: Mining Empathy for Professional Growth

June 24, 2019

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Design Thinking

Design thinking is exploding in popularity throughout the Eller College of Management, and much of that is thanks to William Neumann, professor of practice in management information systems. Once you understand what design thinking is, it’s easy to understand why Professor Neumann and the rest of the Eller community appreciate it so much.

Design thinking is a strategy for overcoming any variety of major problems. Although the steps are slightly different depending on the school of thought, this much is consistent: empathize with your audience. Define the problem. Ideate potential solutions. Develop a prototype. Test it. Repeat.

It’s a topic Professor Neumann discusses at length in his classes, but it was something he had to learn about the hard way—well before he’d entered the world of academia. Years ago, Professor Neumann worked with a company called Global Atmospherics, which tracked geological changes all over the world. While presenting a promising new technology on stage, Professor Neumann realized no one in the audience was as excited about the product as he was.

It was until afterward, when a colleague pulled him aside to debrief, that he understood the problem. “All that stuff you said about technology?” his colleague observed. “They don’t care about any of it. What they care about it is how the technology can help them.”

This was a transformative moment for Professor Neumann. His presentation flopped because he hadn’t approached it from the audience’s perspective.

He was on his way to mastering design thinking.

Design Thinking in Action in the Classroom

Professor Neumann’s passion for design thinking is deeply embedded in the design and curriculum of MIS 111 Computers and Internetworked Society. Professor Neumann has taught the course to tens of thousands of students in his career, thanks to a regular flood of 2,000 students in the fall and 800 more in the spring. Despite its size, the course mimics a traditional classroom with a face-to-face format and normal graded assignments.

With so many people in the classroom at one time, the course must be strategically designed to ensure students receive the best education possible. While this starts with a robust team of teacher’s assistants, the strategy goes well beyond that.

Professor Neumann and his team are constantly using design thinking to improve the course. The perfect example is the recent transition from “clickers” to response cards.

The clickers, as the students called them, were an enormous collection of classroom remotes used for instantaneous feedback from the students. The clickers allowed Professor Neumann to solicit regular feedback from the students in the class, allowing them to answer questions and indicate whether they understood the most recent lecture.

Thanks to the clickers, Professor Neumann received immediate feedback from 600 students at a time—a huge advantage in such a large classroom.

But design thinking is a cycle, constantly returning a designer back to the drawing board to ensure they’re working with the best design possible. In evaluating his class, Professor Neumann and his team uncovered an important truth: when students used the clickers, the classroom focus shifted from the course material to the technology used within. Although they provided enormous data sets, it was at the sacrifice of student attention and education.

After discussing the issue with his colleagues around campus, Professor Neumann resorted to a simple solution: paper response cards for each student to indicate how they’re feeling in the middle of a class.

Now when Professor Neumann concludes a section of a lecture and asks for feedback, students can hold up a colored card to indicate whether they’re comfortable with the material. After assessing the colors in the classroom, Professor Neumann can take one of three approaches: continue to the next lesson, allow the students to discuss the topic among themselves and take another poll a few minutes later, or back up and try explaining the course material a different way.

This has resulted in a richer classroom environment—one where the focus remains on the course material without any distractions from technology.

Design Thinking Across Eller

Design thinking is critical for student success at the University of Arizona. In fact, the university’s Student Engagement and Career Development office sponsors a Design Thinking Challenge for students to tackle real-world issues in communities like the university’s hometown of Tucson.

But design thinking is also primed to become a greater part of the classes in Eller. In fact, Professor Neumann recently proposed a sophomore course to dive deep into design thinking’s principles. Under Professor Neumann’s instruction, the students would understand what it means to take risks inside design thinking. The course would be built around a single major project that would require students to ideate, propose and develop an app to solve a very specific problem. Students would use their peers in the classroom as a platform to evaluate progress and solicit feedback, all while using design thinking to hone their app into a single incredible product.

The class still needs approval before rolling out to the student population, but it’s indicative of Eller’s commitment to cultivating students into tomorrow’s design thinkers.

Design Thinking in the Real World

Back at Global Atmospherics, Professor Neumann was quick to adopt design thinking into his professional life after his demoralizing presentation. Increasing his empathy for his customers helped him create products that ultimately served them better.

By focusing on the data before him and the needs of his customers, he found a new product opportunity. This resulted in a new product for insurance companies that helped them speed up the resolution process for claims by comparing lightning strike-related claims to the data of light strikes from recent storms in the same geographic location. The product simplified the claims process, which resulted in happier customers for the insurance companies and happier customers for Global Atmospherics.

Professor Neumann and Eller College of Management are committed to ensuring students can see the same benefits as Professor Neumann when he was at Global Atmospherics. If students can learn how to use their empathy to create meaningful products in the classroom, they’ll grow into better professionals after graduation.


Learn Design Thinking at Eller College of Management

Are you ready to launch your career with design thinking? Learn more about our Eller MBA and specialized master’s programs—including our master’s in management information systems programs and new Online Master of Science in Entrepreneurship

If you’re ready to apply now, head straight to our Graduate Admissions page so you can get started on your degree.


William Neumann is professor of practice in MIS, director of BS/MS professional programs and honors professor and faculty fellow at the Eller College of Management. He teaches MIS 111 as well as graduate courses in information security risk management and enterprise computing environments.