Learning to Identify Unmet Needs and New Product Opportunities

Jay R. Goldberg
Department of Biomedical Engineering
Marquette University Milwaukee, WI 53201-1881
Email: jay.goldberg@mu.edu

Abstract
The design process begins with the identification of a problem or unmet need. Once the problem is properly defined, customer needs can be determined, target specifications can be established, and potential design concepts can be generated. Needs finding is essential for established companies and start-up ventures and is an important skill for engineers to possess.
In many senior capstone design courses students choose from a list of project ideas presented to them at the beginning of the course. Choosing from this list of pre-defined projects saves time and provides more time to complete remaining phases of the design process, including building and testing prototypes. However, this practice bypasses the first phase of the design process and prevents them from gaining experience in defining problems and identifying unmet needs. Most engineering graduates will work in industry where not all projects will be defined for them. They will be involved in finding opportunities where technology can be used to solve problems, and will work closely with marketing, sales, and other personnel to identify new product development opportunities. They will also need to work with users of various products and technologies to identify problems and unmet needs. Students would be better prepared for careers involving new product development if, as part of their undergraduate education, they gained experience with the problem identification phase of the design process.
A new course for junior biomedical engineering students at Marquette University was developed in 2008 to expand their knowledge of and experience with the problem identification phase. The course requires students to observe medical and surgical procedures in various clinical environments to learn how technology is used to solve medical problems. This experience develops the student’s clinical literacy and their listening and ethnographic observation skills. They learn how to work with medical personnel to identify problems and unmet needs. One of the required deliverables of this course is a senior capstone design project proposal (for the senior year) based on a problem identified by students during the course (in their junior year). The proposal includes information on potential customers and market size. This course allows students to experience the first phase of the design process including needs finding and problem identification and helps them develop design and entrepreneurial skills. It prepares students for careers involving the development of innovative new products for established or start-up companies.
Student feedback after three years of teaching is presented along with suggestions for adapting the course concept to other engineering disciplines.

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