Exterior of Nancy Nicholas Hall in the evening, with lamps and windows glowing.
News & Events

Alum Chris Thompson returns to the School of Human Ecology to deepen design thinking skills and expand real-world impact

Chris Thompson saw the need for more human-centered design in his work as a product engineer, project manager and product manager.

Then one day, nearly 20 years after graduating from the School of Human Ecology at UW-Madison, he opened his alumni newsletter and discovered exactly what he was looking for to advance his career: the new Master of Design + Innovation (MDI) program.

The one-year program incorporates courses from five schools/colleges: Human Ecology, Engineering, Business, Education (art department), and Information. Most courses are project-based. Students can pick their electives based on career paths, including product design, user interface and user experience design, communication design, and design strategy.

“There aren’t many places across the country offering something like this, so I’m thrilled this program is here in Wisconsin,’’ said Thompson, who commutes to classes in Madison from Milwaukee and will earn his master’s degree in May.

Thompson believes the demand for the interdisciplinary design approach will only grow, “as organizations are forced to update to serve a broader and more diverse population, rather than a traditional way of designing products.”

He enjoys the entrepreneur-focused business classes and found the Capstone courses especially valuable. This semester, he’s part of a team trying to improve remote collaboration, a hot topic given today’s pandemic-driven, work-from-home environment.

Photo by Sarah Maughan

In the fall semester, he worked on a project designed to increase the reach of an evidence-based program for managing diabetes. The client, the Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging, wanted to do a better job of reaching Black residents of Wisconsin.

The capstone project began with a deep dive into the issue of racism in health care. They learned about diabetes from Dr. Olayinka Shianbola, an associate professor of pharmacy whose research focuses on the perception of disease and medications in underserved populations.

And then they got to work, with just 10 short weeks to create a deliverable project for their client. Four teams worked on different aspects of the program.

The interviews with more than 20 stakeholders formed the heart of their effort. Thompson spoke with people living with diabetes who shared unexpected motivations beyond their own health.

“One insight was they were most satisfied when they were helping others, because they had been seen as needing help themselves,’’ Thompson said. They also disliked being talked down to, and preferred everyday language to medical jargon. And, if they saw friends and neighbors having success, the program goals seemed more realistic.”

Because of these insights, Thompson and other members of “Team Viiv,” proposed a “wrap around” event, a graduation ceremony for people who had just taken the six-part class, paired with incoming participants so the new cohort would meet mentors in their community.

Photo by Sarah Maughan

“Our long-term idea was that this can compound, as the network of graduates builds, you would organically get more people in communities who were knowledgeable (about diabetes self-care),‘’ Thompson said. “It seemed like an elegant way, by combining those days.”

Building on the importance of the social network, another team proposed moving the learning segments to a podcast series, freeing class time for collaboration and exchange among participants. Another group created a diabetes diagnosis “care package,’’ products and information that could be given out at the time of diagnosis. The fourth group, “CommuniTeam,” streamlined the website to make it easier to refer newly diagnosed patients.

Dr. Jane Mahoney, professor of medicine and director of the Wisconsin Institute for Healthy Aging, cited the students’ “engagement with community members, their creativity in problem-solving, and the professionalism of their work.’’

“Their design solutions may end up being quite useful in increasing the reach of the Diabetes Self-Management Program to groups facing disparities,’’ Mahoney added. “There is so much value in using design thinking to create ways to deliver better health care and reduce disparities.”

Thompson felt a personal connection to the diabetes topic because his father was diagnosed with diabetes, and he had watched his path to learning how to live a healthy life with the condition.

As a School of Human Ecology alum, Thompson says he’s proud that it has designed the type of course that he had previously only seen offered at schools such as Stanford University and the Rhode Island School of Design.

When he was an undergraduate, Thompson wanted to combine engineering with human ecology expertise, and remembers being thrilled when Joy Dohr, professor emerita and associate dean of student affairs, approved his hybrid undergraduate program.

“Frankly I think it speaks to the unique nature of the school that it implemented the MDI program,’’ Thompson said. “It draws on other parts of the campus to create something that is greater than the sum of its parts. The School of Human Ecology is more agile and unique than other colleges on campus.”