May 08, 2012

Unhackathon #2: The Process

Laurel Tripp's picture
Laurel Tripp
User Experience Designer

On April 6th and 7th, five of us Hotties, Vika Kovalchuk, Tina Santiago, Gabe Wasserman, Josh Williams, and I had the chance to participate in the second Mix & Stir Unhackathon at California College of the Arts: TED City 2.0 Equality Challenge. This Unhackathon focused on increasing equality in the Bay Area by applying design expertise to increase access of small businesses or individuals to education, economic opportunities, or social services. We were all inspired and touched by the challenge.

In another post, Gabe discusses how the challenge aligns with our social consciences (both personally and as an organization). In addition to learning a lot about the challenges within our local communities, we had the opportunity to work with and learn from some of the brightest people in the design community, everyone from CCA design students and teachers to a host of people from Esri, developers of GIS software and services.

As a participant in Hot’s outing to CCA's first Unhackathon, I was a little tentative about splitting away from my colleagues into different groups because we all work together so well. But not only did we all have successful experiences, we learned a lot about ourselves as we learned from others. Here are some of the things that I learned, with a lot of examples from my fellow Unhackathon Hotties.

Variety is the spice of design

A key advantage of our mixed teams was the diversity of voices, bringing a rich set of skills to approach the problem. We all had to break out of our normal routines and try new ways of working. If one brainstorming method didn’t work, we would just try another one. It was challenging when we had to explain what we take for granted, but having to explain your own methods makes them that much stronger.

Notes from a brainstorming exercise Josh and I learned from teammate, Charlie Sheldon, Industrial Design faculty at CCA

It was also a challenge getting to know new people and their different ways of working while simultaneously trying to come up with feasible solutions. It’s really easy to ignore the non-talkers in a group or silence the over-talkers in an effort to stay on schedule. But that just doesn’t work. All of us realized that the vast majority of the day consisted of discussion, which was important because we were all on the same page and could articulate the problem and our solution. Tina noted, “Letting go of ownership of ideas and focusing on the problem was a principle that we called out and stuck to.”

The best laid plans

It’s always really important to have a clear schedule in situations like this. And it’s even more important to know when you need to break the schedule. As Vika put it, “It was difficult to plan the day and then realize that wasn’t how it was going to happen.” Because most of us had very different approaches to problem-solving, we needed to be a bit more flexible about how much time things would take. My group actually put together a very loose schedule that was geared more towards deadlines, leaving the rest of the day more open to explore different ways of brainstorming.

While my group had a team leader, the other two groups did not. But we all realized someone needed to have their eyes on the clock. This gave the rest of the team the freedom to think and work. In the end, we all spent much more time thinking and talking than actually doing. As Gabe put it, “One problem is when people don’t have the patience to spend that extra time to frame the problem, and instead want to rush to the solution.” By making up your mind too soon you’re not getting the big picture and can fall prey to holes in your logic.

Finding (and filling) the holes

When doing something intense like this, the last thing you want is to have someone come in at the eleventh hour with a bunch of game-changing feedback. So when we had mentors or teammates come in and give us advice that completely made us question our ideas, this became a make-or-break moment. While it was frustrating having to go back to the drawing board, the last-minute feedback actually strengthened our concepts by isolating the deal-breaking holes in our argument.

The team (Mike Zuckerman, Shannon McElvaney, Josh Williams, and Charlie Sheldon) trying to come to consensus

As Vika put it, “Throughout the day we had to remain flexible in our process as we encountered continual pivot points in our attempts to address the problem.” And none of us had fully baked ideas until within an hour of our presentations. I know this sounds crazy. But being able to explore concepts throughout the day, choose different paths to go down, fail, then circle back, ultimately made our final concept much more solid, and our ability to explain it more concise and convincing.

The trick was to understand and have confidence in the ability of our team to pull it off. In the last push towards our presentation, we literally divided up our presentation board and divvied up the work by our skills. Because we were all on the same page, we could make the final push and still have time to practice our presentation. We only had five minutes and one board with which to explain our concept, but that simplification led to clarity and brought all of us back to the point of why we were there—to emotionally connect with the issues of inequality so we could affect change.

Finding a voice for your audience

A desire to help others connects all of us at Hot, so it was great to work with others at an Unhackathon devoted to helping those most in need. A part of the Hot process is to understand our users, which proves challenging when we are not that target audience. Furthermore, since we were designing for an underserved population that is rarely viewed as a target audience, our toolkit of best practices didn’t quite apply. One of the biggest drawbacks of the Unhackathon format is that we didn’t have access to people from this community, and weren’t able to get their feedback on our ideas. Most of us spent a large majority of our time just trying to get in the mindset of this audience, diagramming, talking, and arguing to consensus.

Chart of the information we had about the audience for which we were designing

I can’t emphasize enough the value of arguing, particularly in regards to understanding our audience. Just like there had to be a time-cop watching the clock, we all periodically assumed the role of audience-watchdog, challenging our assumptions. For example, when we came up with the idea of bringing services to a community, the watchdog challenged, “Are we being paternalistic? Do they want that specific service?” This continual introspection helped to guard against ideas that wouldn’t work because they didn’t address the specific needs of the target audience.

Our participation in this most recent Unhackathon was a win-win situation. We were able to work with and learn from other smart people in the industry while coming up with really kick ass solutions to some of the most intractable problems in our local community.