Monday, December 17, 2012

4 things that impressed me in Prof. Karl Ulrich’s design course at Coursera

Yesterday I finished evaluating the beta prototypes of 5 of my peers and that finishes my 8 week long course “Design: Creation of artifacts in society” taught by Prof. Karl Ulrich of Wharton School of University of Pennsylvania at I enrolled for this free course more out of curiosity. However, the expectations were so-so. I make a living helping people innovate effectively and I thought I would know most of the stuff. Browsing through the textbook written by the instructor (Ulrich) prior to the course only strengthened this feeling. Today I am glad I did the course and I feel I was so wrong about how much I would learn in the process. The experience just blew me off! Here are 4 things that really impressed me about this course.

Lec-dem style teaching: The course starts and ends in Ulrich’s workshop and not in a classroom (see the slides above). Throughout the course Ulrich demonstrated the techniques he is teaching through the design of an ice-cream scoop. It involved steps right from identification of needs to problem definition to idea generation to prototyping for the ice-cream scoop. Final prototype was 3-D printed. It was interesting to see that the winning scoop idea didn’t come from the idea generation exercise but from a mistake during the prototyping phase.

My favourite lecture was titled “Prof. Ulrich’s excellent adventure” where he describes his roller-coaster experience of co-founding the company that manufactures xootr – the Rolls Royce of scooters as TIME magazine calls it. I liked the lecture so much that we had a family viewing of the lecture at night and all of them enjoyed it. Ulrich also ran an innovation tournament for designing the course certificate. 766 designs were submitted and 40, 672 evaluations were made by students. The 10 finalists came from countries like Chile, Colombia, South Africa, Italy, Poland, Russia, Bulgaria, UK. All the designs were impressive!

Experiential learning: Scoop design was great but it wasn’t the best part of the course. For me, it was the design project which I had to do. We had to go through all the steps that Ulrich went through right up to the beta prototype. My problem definition was: In what way might we make updation of expense sheet for self-employed people a painless experience? The solution involved a combination of using mobile phone for capturing data, better folders for keeping receipts and something as simple as having expense excel sheet shortcut on desktop. Of course, my design was nothing special compared to my peers!

Peer evaluation: Peer evaluation was a unique experience. You think what you have designed is good and then you look at the designs of your peers. Amazing! From keeping the socks pair together in washing machine to concrete slabs for green-roofing in heavy rain areas of Philippines – it was inspiring! Sure, the peer evaluation system would need to be perfected further. But when several tens of thousands of students register for a course, peer evaluation is a great mechanism.

Active discussion forum: Another interesting aspect of the course was the active discussion forum. You post a question and within the next hour you would have received multiple responses. I wish I had been more active on the discussion forum. There was so much of sharing going on.

Ulrich’s design course was my second one on coursera but the first one I finished all the way. My wife, a physics teacher, is currently finishing a course called “World history since 1300” and is quite happy with it. I am already a big fan of coursera. I feel it is changing the course of education.


  1. Venugopal NandamuriDecember 18, 2012 at 5:59 PM

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    Venugopal Nandamuri

  2. Prof. Ulrich has gone ahead with the commercialization of the scoop he designed during this course. For this, he partnered with Lunar Design and created a new brand Belle-V Kitchen.He has gone to kickstarter for raising money for the project. Check out the kickstarter site. As of writing this comment, 311 people have pledged a total of $11,620 for the project.

  3. Thank you for this detailed article on Web designing course. I’m aspiring to do Web designing course.