Back to School

Maximilian Schmidt
Nov 24, 2020 · 6 min read

Teaching - Digital Innovation Design - is better than studying

In the following article, I will share with you my experience and learnings from teaching a bunch of students. As I was hosting a course in digital innovation design, most parts are probably more relevant for designers than for anyone else. Anyhow, I think at least one of the three deep dives might be interesting for everyone. Moreover, I would be extremely happy if I can help you with anything I mention in the future or simply a coffee break talking about methods, remote, or storytelling.

I was in the right place at the right time before the right people.

I gave a talk on Empathic Listening at the world usability conference midway through the semester in front of an audience featuring professors of the user experience degree at the TH Ingolstadt. I was asked if I wanted to give a course, wrote the syllabus for digital innovation design, and said yes. If you want to host a course but do not have a talk or conference coming up, I recommend simply reach out to a faculty member with a syllabus suggestion.

My expectations crashed with reality

Being used to the daily pressure in a digital agency environment, I wanted to achieve as much as possible in a short period of time — 7 four-hour-long sessions. I assumed that the students were familiar with many methods and different kinds of design processes. Luckily we did short retros/feedback sessions regularly. Two quotes sum it up. “We never did such a complete run-through in such a short amount of time.” and “I believe the lecturer expected that we’d know more and had done things more often.”

The challenge

Slowly grasping what is awaiting me for the next five month, I would state the challenge was the following:

Guiding a diverse group of students through a design process, leading to digital innovation for whichever topic they would choose. I let them choose, to have them on board and work on something they are passionate about rather than solving the same standard design challenges everyone had to at least once in their life (I am talking about 1k-floor elevators, weather apps, and the like).

Of course, while teaching them what matters most from my point of view, having fun with them, and sharing practical insides Youtube videos do not share with you.

The outcome

I had lots of topics in my head that could need new innovative ideas. The one the students suggested and voted for was not even on my backup list. Bakeries. To be honest, I had to let that sink for a moment. I was even disappointed as I had so many awesome ideas for other topics in the discussion. But then I remembered I had stumbled upon many seemingly boring topics in my career — you know Thermomix, don’t you — which turned out to be super interesting. So without any details on the process — there will be an additional article on that — here are the final challenges and solutions of the three teams.

Team 🍩 worry (I did not choose or suggest the names!)

We want orders to be managed easier and more efficiently while ensuring that customers can place their orders anytime, provide them with all necessary information, and show them a way to express their individual preferences.

A personalized bakery app with configurators for several product types, sustainable packaging options, providing food intolerance information.

Team Bakery Machine

How might we help customers to experience traditional baking craft in new ways?

A platform offering personalized events at bakeries near you and the possibility of influencing their offering.

Team Breadsavers

How might we make use of left-over products?

Multi-stage, centrally placed vending machines offering different types of products to different types of target groups based on the age of a product. Accompanied by an app for ordering and tips and recipes for “old” products.

What I learned

For those of you who do not want to take the time and get into the deep dives, here my top five learnings, that I was not necessarily expecting:


Anything you say can be googled in five seconds. Yet this alone is not surprising. But I had to do more research before each session than I had expected. I really wanted to make sure my messages were clear, unambiguous, and correct. Even on topics where I thought I was pretty familiar with and used to, I could learn new things. Researching things you already know can be more rewarding than I ever thought.


It is great to use psychological biases as arguments why one solution works better than another. It is however bad not to be aware of your own biases. I for example assumed that they would have certain skills or knowledge already just by roughly knowing which courses their degree included so far. My assumptions sometimes were far from reality.


Grading students is sort of like usability testing. You need to set up your criteria upfront and make clear in which cases which criteria is passed. Else you will never end up with fair, objective grades. If you like to share all of your criteria in detail at the start of your course is up to you. I would always fear that students might rather pursue checking of each of your criteria than actually grow.

Time management

Time management is crucial. I struggled to find out how much content fits into one session. I sacrifice lots of breaks especially in the first sessions of the course which in turn had a negative impact on attention and energy. Two more things I underestimated were how long it takes to answer emails with questions and interim results as well as how long it takes to read an 80 pages long documentation. Maybe a case study gives similar results with less work involved?


Make it personal. Nothing is more authentic, credible, and interesting than your own stories and experience. Your own stories distinguish you from everyone else. All technical information can easily be found on the internet. Your stories are only available to the people with whom you share them.

Deep dives

If you want to learn a little more from my experience, I prepared three pieces going into a little more detail:

Was it worth it?

For the money: No.
For developing and learning: Yes! I would do it over and over!

I really learned a lot about leadership and was really surprised by how comparable students are to clients who were never in touch with real innovation, digital transformation, or product development.

I had the opportunity to experiment with methods in an environment that is forgiving and under my complete control. If something would not work, it would only mean that I learned something and lost a little time, and had to adjust the following sessions.

I took the time to reflect on how I do things and why I do them in that way. I re-read articles and books. I read things for the first time. I did something I had never done before.

Your turn

Please ignore that this last paragraph might read like the end of a Youtube video:
Let me know what you think, learned, or surprised you in the comments.
Reach out to me if you have any questions.
Like and follow for more content (or simply click the deep dive links).

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