Students at the School of Information are gaining practical experience as real-world consultants and community startups are benefiting from advice on best practices in design as a result of a new pilot project of the UMSI Entrepreneurship Program.

The UMSI Design Clinic, which began its first-stage pilot in January, offers a wide range of free client services, including consultations on user interface and interaction design, website architecture, customer discovery and user research, usability testing, content development and social media marketing.

“We won’t do the actual work itself, but we will advise and make recommendations on what should be done,” says Emily Puckett Rodgers, entrepreneurship program manager. “This is a great avenue for students to learn about how to design consultation services and for the community to learn about UMSI.”

The idea for the clinic originated in fall 2014 as the brainchild of the UMSI Entrepreneurship Program and two officers of SOCHI, UMSI’s Student Organization for Computer-Human Interaction, Kruthi Sabnis Krishna and Lily Samimi. “We thought that this would be a good SOCHI project,” says Krishna, a second-year MSI student, “but we soon recognized it was going to be too big for that organization.”

She and Samimi then re-envisioned the Design Clinic as an independent study project and took their proposal to Nancy Benovich Gilby, Ehrenberg Director of Entrepreneurship at UMSI. The pilot was launched in January with the help of a $50,000 Transforming Learning for a Third Century “Quick Wins” grant from the University of Michigan Provost’s Office. Those funds will help pay for a part-time program coordinator.

Over 20 clients applied to the clinic before it opened in January. Most heard about the free services through Samimi and Krishna announcing the program at various incubators around town — TechArb, A2NewTech, Innovation in Action–and within the UMSI community.

“Long term, we’re hoping to have 15-20 students working here, but at the pilot stage, we’re consciously starting small. Right now we have two teams of four students each,” Rodgers says.

From the nearly two dozen client applications, two projects were selected for the two teams. One is MyndGro, a six-month-old company that plans to build wellness apps that empower people to make better health decisions. The team is helping the owner, local physician Lakshmi Halasyamani, with the customer discovery process. They are currently conducting 20 interviews to help identify needs in the target audience. “I have lots of praise for the team,” says Dr. Halasyamani, “and I really appreciate being in at the beginning of the clinic.”

The other team is working with Change of Mind, a TechArb startup that focuses on mental health issues such as autism and anxiety disorders. “The Design Clinic has been a tremendous help jumpstarting ideation for our autism project,” said Sean Ma, a U-M post-doctoral fellow in psychiatry, who heads the project. “Their expertise in human-centered design and interface is what we’re looking for in this collaboration. It’s a brilliant idea for the School of Information to provide this service that caters to early entrepreneurs and startups who don’t have the design skills or the know-how to bring a good designer on board.”

The Design Clinic is based on a mentorship model, with students beginning as Apprentice I and moving up through the ranks to Apprentice II and Design Clinician. “Our hope is to move students through all three levels, spending one or two semesters at each level,” says Rodgers. “Most will be master’s students at the Apprentice II level, and BSI students at the Apprentice I level.”

With the exception of Krishna and Samimi, who are receiving academic credit for their efforts, all the students working at the Design Clinic are volunteering their time, putting in between six and ten hours a week on their projects.

“I joined the Design Clinic because it offers a unique environment for mentorship and experience surrounding user experience that isn’t found elsewhere on this campus,” said Jeffery Zhang, a senior in the bachelor of science in information program and an Apprentice II on the MyndGro team. “Working at the clinic so far, I have already gotten to practice user research techniques I’m familiar with, while also exploring new techniques I haven’t tested before. If you’re willing to work for it, the Design Clinic offers you the opportunity to gain experience you simply will not get in the traditional classroom setting.”

The clinic is located in the TechArb, the U-M student startup accelerator located at 500 E. Washington St. in Ann Arbor. At present, the clinic’s “reference desk” is open for consultations on Thursday and Friday afternoons, when clients can drop in for quick one-on-one advice. The bigger projects, with teams assigned, may take several weeks to complete.

Right now, all services of the design clinic are free, though that could change down the road. However, services will always be free for U-M faculty, students and staff, Rodgers promises.