How do we design for unique human challenges, rather than for the masses? How can we accomplish this goal while leveraging the friendships and connections we have here in Washington, D.C.? These are the questions students grapple with in a new MBA course, Design Thinking and Service Consulting.

Design thinking is a process for creating added value with a human-centered focus, according to Evelyn Williams, teaching professor of management, who launched the course. “It pushes you to do and create things, rather than hang out in the theoretical,” Williams explained. Design thinking urges students into the real world to conduct both qualitative and quantitative research in order to advise the client.

“I was drawn to the course because I’m curious about people. As a future product manager, I know I will have to be able to dive into customers’ needs,” said Stephen Kendrex (MBA’18), a current student in the course.

Williams’ course is different from design thinking courses at other universities in its concentration on NGOs, nonprofits, and government work as well as its “glocal,” or global and local, component. Students are working on teams to solve real challenges that other countries are facing. This semester, one group of students is designing a public diplomacy plan for the Netherlands Embassy that develops the relationship between the Netherlands and the United States and fosters a more sustainable, circular economy in Washington, D.C. Another group’s task is to design a plan for the Japanese Embassy that maximizes the opportunity for human connection before and during the 2020 Olympics. Williams emphasizes the importance of engaging the client as much as possible – designing with people, rather than to or for people.

“It’s all about bringing delight and solving problems for people that they may not have realized they had,” said Morgan Swedberg (MBA’18), another student in the course. “We’re learning that it’s important to always, always consider the user and different viewpoints when trying to solve for solutions.”

Kendrex agreed that learning to leverage different points of view is an important component of the course. “People often struggle to communicate what they need in a product, but identifying their frustration or excitement can help drive to a unique answer,” he added.

Williams enumerated a number of goals for her students, particularly creative confidence. “Everyone is inherently creative; it’s just that we connect creativity to artistic talent, and they’re not the same,” she explained. Students finish the course “feeling a lot more confident about their ability to be creative.”

According to Meena Sareen (MBA’18), the teaching assistant for the course, teams go through one phase a week, culminating in a pitch to their client on ways to “wow” different users. Throughout the six weeks, there are three main assignments: the final presentation to the client, a client report that summarizes findings, and a team debrief. The debrief, a half-hour analysis of the team processes throughout the six weeks, is included to help students analyze high-performance team dynamics.

“It’s been a unique experience, not the least because it gives us access to a group of people that we might otherwise struggle to connect with,” Kendrex adds. “They have a unique view on America and talking to them in class helps us more fully understand how other nations could struggle to interact with state-level governments, given how different they are.”