The Sweets and Bitters of a Side Project Our Way to CHI 2018, Montreal

What I learned from competing in CHI 2018 with my IU HCId teammates

“The project- Small Donation, Big Impact- shows creative visualization, great social care, and human-centered design process. We can see clearly how you get to the design step by step based on the research and testing.”
— CHI 2018 Student Design Competition committee

I still remember last year’s Halloween party, one of our teammates Rosie randomly proposed:”Let’s do CHI!” “Why not?” That’s it! That’s our beginning of this unforgettable project. From that day we formed a team to this January when we were accepted for the semi-final(top 15% design), then to April 26 that we presented our design at Montreal, Canada and were awarded as runner-up design(top 2%), it has been a 210-day team journey. This journey was way more arduous than we expected: It’s full of ups and downs, excitement and fatigue, arguments and mutual understandings. But thanks to all the struggle, we are one step closer to become good designers and team players, and are more confident to design with ambiguity.

Please check out the work: http://www.iamdoutian.com/donor. Any critiques or comments are more than welcomed.

Stage 1: Twists and turns in problem framing

This year’s topic is “Engaging Community”. We had a difficult time dealing with a common problem of open-ended design projects: too slow to choose a design topic. We spent almost one month, one-third of the total time, to narrow down our design problem space to food insecurity. Our sense of uncertainty and unbounded exploration caused this inefficiency.

After the first round of brainstorm, we initially chose to focus on single mothers. Then we did some interviews and online surveys and grouped all the insights into 4 design opportunities: education, finance, time, connection. However, it’s extremely hard to make the decision which area we want to focus on. The biggest mistake we made was: we were always diverging, leaving meetings with the problem undecided and coming back the next day with many ideas solving different problems instead of focusing on one problem. This “cast a wide net” strategy wasted a lot of time. Regardless, our research finally led us to the food insecurity problem many singer mothers mentioned and we wanted to help people with food insecurity.

What I learned:

  1. Don’t spend too much time on problem framing or choosing the topic. Using design judgment to narrow down the design space quickly.
  2. Design focus can be changed, but can only be changed based on good rationale and research insights.

Stage 2: Avoid endless discussion in ideation

The focus of food insecurity was still quite broad. We came up with dozens of ideas like runaway-cart, recipe game, pre-made meal package and so on, but again have no idea how to make decisions. One day after a long meeting, we were so frustrated and tired. We decided to go out and just talk to related people or organizations. This was one of our tipping point in the process. It saved us from the dilemma of endless discussion. We interviewed some local organizations, like food banks and grocery store. One insight we got was very inspiring: Individuals can only donate 1–2 meals per dollar spent while food banks can purchase between 4 and 20 meals with that same dollar. Therefore, we decided to focus on encouraging monetary donation for food banks and involve grocery stores in our design because they are available to everyone.

Our third round of ideation was also, almost inevitably, quite long. We actually had the idea of money turning into food immediately in the donation box, which is our final design, pretty early at that stage and we were all happy with that. But somehow, we decided to hold that idea and generated more. Not being kidnapped by one idea is important in design, but it can also be deadly when a team is too “good” at diverging and giving critics.

Another turning point was one of our meetings in studio. We were during an intense argument about ideas and whether they were attractive or not. I can see everyone was kind of helpless and indecisive between ideas. Fortunately, our mentor joined in and after listening to our frustration, he suggested:”Why don’t you guys build a prototype and test it out? Focus on the main idea now and users will tell you about what you should do for details.” This definitely was a light-bulb moment for us. We stopped all the defense or offense and started building a donation box out of cardboard. We want to know whether they are impacted by the interaction that their money turn into food. We then tested it in a coffee shop. When people insert their money, we manually pour food into the box. The test went well and we gained many feedbacks, both positive and critique. Most importantly, since then, we built our “testing culture”, whenever we had a disagreement that can’t be solved internally, we rapidly prototype it and let users tell us the answer. This is tremendously helpful for team efficiency.

What I learned:

  1. Trust the team. Try ideas out- prototype and test them- instead of endless discussion.
  2. Reach out to stakeholders and mentors proactively: one interview helped us come up with the design concept.
  3. Start put together deliverables early. This helps to record small decisions and rationales along the way.

Stage 3: Perfectionism vs. Pragmatism in implementation

Another collapsing period in the project was the last week before the deadline. Due to the slow progress before, things were all piled up for us: attraction mode design, video, poster, paper and so on. I could easily sense the anxiety above us during the meeting.

I was mainly responsible for the visual system by that time. However, I am sort of a perfectionist. If my work is not good enough, I will revise it again and again. Until the last week, I was still polishing the icons because I believed that an attractive and convincing visual system was very important at the beginning. I have to admit that my perfectionism slowed down our teamwork. One of my teammates was very honest and he pointed to me that I need to prioritize all the tasks and get the most crucial ones done first. Perfectionism itself is a plus to design work, but individual perfectionism without priorities can do huge damage to a team.

Nevertheless, when we finally came altogether 5 days before the submission and planned to shoot for our number one urgent task, attraction mode design, a vast opinion difference took place. Half of the teammates insisted on our original idea, while the rest of us brought up a brand new idea. The sticking point was that the new idea was actually more interesting than the original one. But even the people who suggested the idea could not articulate it clearly so that it can be achieved rapidly. We went back and forth the whole night: Our pace was disrupted. After a tough time discussing, we decided to go with the old idea considering the deadline.

Our last struggle was the final shot for our video. We only had one day left at that point and we still had a clip undecided. Again, given that we all cared about this project so much, everybody was trying to impose different ideas on the last 10 seconds clip. The worries were raised to such a high level when one team member who was responsible for the video jumped out and said:” Guys, your suggestions are all great but we don’t really have much time. Can you trust me for this time and let me finish it on my own? I know what I am doing.” His voice was so determined that we gave him our full trust. The video turned out super well at the end. Thank you for your courage to end our discussion, and sorry for our desire to influence everything even though we might don’t have the expertise and the time was so limited.

These three episodes shows how challenging it is for a team to work together well when facing the approaching deadline.

What I learned:

  1. Set a mediocre quality standard first and get perfect gradually.
  2. Give teammates the trust to make some decisions on their own.
  3. There are always some moments that you have to somehow pick up an idea and move on. Once made the decision, do not track back only if you have a clearly better idea.

Stage 4: Every detail matters for presentation

I was in a class when I got the email that our project was accepted for the semi-final and I stormed out of the classroom with uncontrollable excitement. Soon started the preparation for our presentation: We wanted everything to be perfect!

We printed the poster and hung it up in the studio. Then we encouraged our professors and classmates to leave their comments on the post-it cards. We also arranged several presentation mock-ups where the audience can raise up their questions. What’s more, we even signed up for an innovation challenge competition in our university so that we could gain more experience of presenting our design. Fortunately, we got a $3500 funding to further it. These activities helped us to be prepared for all the unexpected circumstances and confident to our design. It turned out that one of the difficult questions raised by judges was the same one that we were asked by our friends during the mock-ups.

But, almost inevitably, something went wrong and wait to be fixed. Because of our time management issue, as well as team perfectionism, we didn’t print out the final poster before we leave for CHI. We planned to have 2 more days in Canada to improve it and print it out in Montreal before the following Monday. Unfortunately, all the printing store nearby our hotel in Montreal was either out of paper or super busy during the weekend. We needed it within one day!! Even though at the end, we surprisingly managed it, it was a desperate experience that I would never want to have again.

What I learned:

Again, manage the time, stick to the high priorities, and be prepared for every detail ahead. Never leave the important tasks to be done in an unfamiliar situation or place. Everything can happen.

The End

This side project started with an idea in the party and ended up with the runner-up design in CHI 2018. I am so glad and feel blessed that I have you guys and we made it! This is not the ending of our project, just as the judges said,“ one concern worth thinking is that the design wouldn’t encourage enough additional/new donations to offset the cost of the device.” We still need to continue the working prototyping, programming, final testing, and maybe even business plan. I can’t wait to see what great impact we can make as a team!!


Heartfelt thanks to my lovely teammates: Aditya More, Ruoxun Chen, and Marshall Robbins (from left to right) and all the professors, friends who helped us!

Please check out the work in my portfolio:http://www.iamdoutian.com/donor.

If you have any question or suggestion, please reach out via email: doutian@iu.edu

More about my work at www.iamdoutian.com