Part of the college experience is getting to know people who might be different from you. However, many tend to gravitate toward others like themselves. So when students are assigned to ask individuals what their problems are or what would make their lives better, they typically speak to their friends or those in their social circles, aka, people just like themselves.

The idea of customer discovery can be terrifying. How does one approach people they have never met and ask them probing questions about their needs and gains? 

If only there were a way to practice these skills in a low stakes environment.

Enter Drs. Alison Bailey, Aileen Huang-Saad and Dawn White.

In Fall, 2018, the College of Engineering launched a new initiative to promote the use of virtual reality (VR) in educational spaces and Drs. White and Bailey had an idea.

Customer Discovery VR Examples
Computer displaying what students see in VR headset, along with question guide to help them in the process

“Alison Bailey and I thought that we might be able to leverage VR tools to teach ENTR students how to conduct customer discovery interviews in a non-threatening environment, “  said Dr. White. “So, we recruited CFE co-founder, Aileen Huang-Saad who researches engineering education to join our team, and proposed to develop a new VR platform for customer discovery.  We believed that such a platform would not only provide students with an opportunity to practice customer discovery skills, but would give them an opportunity to practice interviewing diverse audiences.”

The team’s proposal called for developing a platform that would allow students to interact with diverse actors in a virtual environment to practice customer discovery. Think of it as a VR video game where you can’t move on to the next mission without completing the correct tasks in the correct order, in this case, asking the right types of questions to get responses that can be used to improve your venture for potential customers.

“We also believe our proposal to be unique in the engineering field because there are few opportunities for engineering students to build skills in working with people from diverse areas of life. Using the VR tools they can do so at their own pace and build their confidence” said Dr. Bailey.

“This application can be useful in helping people learn how to engage in challenging conversations,” said Dr. White. “It turns out that there are a large number of applications where facilitating better conversations with diverse populations is very important.”

The three said that customer discovery skills are critical to entrepreneurship – and more importantly, that students learn how to obtain and analyze data to better inform their entrepreneurial endeavors.

Together the team set out to apply their individual skill sets to the project. Dr. Bailey developed the CFE’s first diversity class, Dr. Huang-Saad specializes in engineering entrepreneurship education, and Dr. White teaches an ENTR practicum in which customer discovery is a critical skill that is taught.

As with any entrepreneurial endeavor, you need a strong team.  To take their idea from concept to practice, last summer Drs. White, Bailey, and Huang-Saad, first enlisted the help of BSE Mechanical Engineering/Computer Science undergraduate student Alex Yu. Off to a good start, they later teamed with Fessahazion’s Emerging Technologies Group in the Duderstadt Center, Stephanie O’Malley and Sean Petty, and also recruited a capstone project team from CSE featuring Noor Bhagwagar, Bronson Knowles, and Mackenzie Roberts.

“Using DialogFlow, it is possible to train the system to recognize customer discovery questions presented in different ways and have the virtual actor feedback an appropriate response,” said Dr. White.

Recently, they submitted for additional funding from Academic Innovations and are planning on partnering with the Medical Schools to explore ways to integrate this technology into medical learner training.

“In Winter 2020, we will explore how students engage the platform and the impact on customer discovery development,” said Dr. Huang-Saad.

Therefore, no matter who students are interviewing, these faculty members hope their solution can help students excel in this important area which is extremely critical to a successful entrepreneurial journey.