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Week of 7 January 2000

Vol. III, No. 18

Feature Article

SMG students blaze trails in product design

By Hope Green

Forget the better mousetrap. The world's next great invention, say graduate students in the School of Management, will more likely be an improved tuberculosis test, a cranberry-blend beverage sweetened to children's liking, or a cell-phone case of rugged leather (for the mountaineer in us all).

These ideas were among a roomful of the latest product innovations unveiled when participants in SMG's Product Design and Development course presented their annual open house in the Rafik B. Hariri Building atrium last month. Each fall, textbook lessons take on a real-world dimension as teams of three to five students in Assistant Professor Anil Khurana's class partner with New England companies, conduct market research, and help the firms tinker with prototypes for new goods and services.

Students come to class with expertise in fields such as chemistry, retailing, finance, and information technology. But as Khurana explains, transforming product concepts into hot-selling items is a science unto itself. "Product design is not just about design," he says. "It's about customers, marketing, and technology. I'm not training MBAs to be engineers, I'm training innovators to be product managers who can deal with very ambiguous information."

One team spent the semester creating a line of electronics accessories for Timberland, a company known for thick-soled outdoor shoes and boots. Staying true to the casual aesthetic of the footwear, the team developed six different leather carrying cases for cellular telephones, laptop computers, and Palm Pilots. Students learned to analyze potential markets from different angles. "Timberland has a core customer base of people who have that earthy, outdoorsy kind of look," says Nancy Wilson (GSM'00). "But then there are the ones who don't want to be outdoors -- the sales representative we worked with describes them as people who drive an SUV in Manhattan. It's a market we did not consider right away."

Wilson and her teammates made a habit of spying on commuters as they fumbled for their belongings at train stations, on the subway, and at airport security gates. "One of the things we found out was that a customer needs ease of access," Wilson says. "When a phone rings, people want to be able to get it out of the case quickly."

For the beverage group, which worked with Ocean Spray, the challenge was to concoct a 50-percent juice formula "where you have the healthful cranberry but it doesn't taste like cranberry," says Anna Vorrias (GSM'00). She and her colleagues interviewed three- to six-year-olds and their parents at a youth soccer game after dispensing free samples of supersweetened cranberry-grape, -apple, and -cherry drinks.

Ocean Spray team

The Ocean Spray team (from left): Eduardo Ihnen (GSM'00), Sherri Garvey (GSM'00), Adrienne Bemis (GSM'00), and Anna Vorrias (GSM'00). Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

"We had to communicate with customers in order to identify their needs and translate what they want into a comprehensive product," says Vorrias. "But if you ask a kid, 'How do you like the juice?' you'll get, 'Well, I don't like it.' 'Why don't you like it?' 'Because it doesn't taste good.' 'Why doesn't it taste good?' 'Because it's apple.' So the market research was the hardest part for us, and I think that's where a lot of companies are failing with their products. They are not correctly translating what the consumer is telling them."

Clear enough to the student researchers was that mothers associate the Ocean Spray label with good nutrition, and children enjoy the prototype kid-size sport bottles. "Kids don't like juice boxes because they think it's babyish," Vorrias explains. "So this has more of an adult look to it, but it's still small enough for a child to hold. It's also spill-proof."

The tuberculosis-testing group had a different set of obstacles in its project for Boston-based Mosaic Technologies, Inc. The firm already makes products to test blood for contamination but wants to diversify and venture into disease diagnosis.

"Mosaic provided us with the general idea for the diagnostic system," says Jason Mundy (GSM'00). "We spoke to potential users, such as the heads of hospital biology labs, and narrowed the list of critical diseases where Mosaic could have an impact. Everyone said TB was a big problem."

Tuberculosis has seen a worldwide resurgence in the past decade and has become increasingly drug-resistant. Using information supplied by Mundy and his teammates, Mosaic developed a system that simultaneously diagnoses a TB strain and identifies whether it is resistant to any antibiotics. The new process provides results in 8 to 16 hours, whereas current methods take two to nine weeks.

"The biggest hurdle for us was understanding the technology," Mundy says. "None of us on the team has a biology background, so it was like a crash course in molecular diagnostics."

In past years, companies have taken student-assisted products to more advanced stages, notes Khurana, a former design engineer who has taught Product Design and Development since 1995. A modified version of a Rockport shoe developed in a previous class is now in production, and three years ago the New York Times Company bought out an Internet start-up that SMG students had worked on. Khurana expects that several of this year's products will be developed, including the cranberry beverages and the TB test.

Students say they appreciate the course's hands-on approach. "I never realized how detailed the product development process is," says Mundy. "It was sort of a black box to us before. It's not just some guy looking out the window one day and coming up with a great idea. A lot of thought goes into it."