Why designers should hack

Ireland Watson IOT Hackathon 2016

Last weekend I attended the first Watson Internet Of Things hackathon, run by IBM and Cisco in the Portershed, Galway. The few UX designers attending from IBM and Cisco were running a UX hub where the teams could reach out to us for UX mentoring.

Excitement was building as the weekend kicked off on Friday evening with presentations on IBM Bluemix, Node Red, TI sensors and more. Me, with my limited development knowledge, surrounded by super smart engineers was beginning to feel a little out of place. Why was I feeling like this? I work every day with engineers and product management creating solutions for end users. Why do hackathons have a misconception that they are for entrepreneurs and engineers or at most designers who can ‘code’?

At this event the hackers were reminded that not only is the technology important but teams should remember to understand their end users, the business case and what problem they are solving with their solution. As the teams started forming, hacking began, the deadline was Sunday at 12pm and I was on standby with markers and sticky notes in hand. I was struggling to remind myself that I have a unique set of skills with my designer brain and sticky notes, I too can bring value to the teams even if I technically can’t ‘hack’.

Later on Friday evening a team approached me for some guidance on a UI they would be eventually creating and were looking for advice on how to show alert states. There was no context given and I knew they needed some help on their strategy, identifying the problem they wanted to solve and their overall vision, they just didn’t know this yet. I love this about mentoring teams in UX & Design Thinking, they don’t yet know the value. It’s a little unsettling for me as the designer at first as they are being polite in answering my ‘simplistic’ questions on their project context and background as I slowly began to coax them into thinking about the problem and the users to gauge where they really are in the project. But you can see in their eyes they just want to get back to their computer screens and they feel you are wasting their time, I understand this, they have a deadline to meet and me with my sticky notes compared to the thousands of lines of code they need to write doesn’t seem to be the most important thing right now in their mind.

In IBM we often kick off a project with a three-day Design Thinking workshop. Where, after intense market research and understanding of the current system we spend hours going through a carefully planned set of collaborative activities to understand the users, their pain points, our big ideas and to-be scenarios. But at the hackathon as the UX mentor I needed to think fast how can I help this team in as little time as possible to get them on track, help them identify the users, the pain points, the opportunities, the value and the vision in as little time as possible? I began by gauging what they had and where they needed my help. I had to do some spot design thinking and analysis on the team itself. Because of the tight deadline I needed to be mindful of the fact we couldn’t complete a full design thinking workshop and still have time to code.

Somehow I managed to get them in a room where we began doing some design thinking activities. We began by identifying the pain points of the users they identified, their needs were based on this and we began three to-be scenarios, one for each of the users. The to-be scenario is my favourite part. It’s the ‘ah ha’ moment and you can see the ‘penny dropping’ when the teams actually see the value in design thinking and UX mentoring. The team came out of the room with a ‘birds eye view’ of their solution and a focused direction of what they would create with a focus on who it was for and most importantly why they were creating it! I was beginning to feel a valued part of the hack. As a side not this team went on to win ‘Best overall’ in the hackathon. They were assessed on technology used, business case and most complete solution. Their understanding of the entire solution and their users helped them to achieve this.

Winning team presentation: Uber For Oil

Another team on Saturday morning was having trouble deciding on which idea to pursue. I could see that maybe the team had met for the first time here, because it seemed they each had their ideas they wanted to create and couldn’t decide as a team. What timely design thinking activity could help them decide? The team was more open to my help as they seemed at a loss of how to proceed and more easily agreed to play with my sticky notes. We got a section of the wall and divided it vertically from top to bottom into; Idea, Who, Problem, Ideas, Wow and How. The team posted their four ideas along the top. One thing I learned in my Design Thinking training at IBM was that whatever gets put on a sticky note and on the wall is no longer that person’s idea it’s the team’s idea and it can be used, changed and spark another idea. I mentioned this to the team to remember as they began the activity. So they started; 5 mins brainstorm across the Whos for each idea, then the problems, the Solutions, Wows and finally, the Hows. At the end of the process the team could compare the ideas that were collaboratively expanded. As a team they identified the idea, who they were designing for, the problem they were solving, their unique selling point and how they would achieve it. They could now begin their hacking with their clear direction.

Design thinking activities in the hackathon

Working with these teams gave me the opportunity learn more about the technology being used, develop my skills in working with different team dynamics and challenge myself to apply my skills as a designer to different scenarios and move quickly to make decisions in order to advise a team in the right direction. It was an adrenaline rush to witness in three days the value the UX hub brought to each of the teams at the hackathon. I feel like as designers we understand the benefit we bring to teams but sometimes find ourselves in situations where we need to ‘prove’ ourselves to engineers or project managers. As design is becoming more and more valued in business it is our responsibility to seek out the places where it is not yet fully understood. Places like hackathons that are primarily focused on developers and engineers how can we help to accelerate designs acknowledged value? As I found, this will not only benefit you as a designer in your skills and confidence but benefit the wider design community.

Tell me about your experiences. Have you ever been in a situation where you had to ‘prove’ your worth? Have you contributed as a designer at a hackathon?

The ‘mentors’ hack presentation — Presented by: Rochelle Carr