design jam

IxDA Design Jam 2016 - A Critical Review by Peter Last

Last week, I and two other committee members of the Toronto branch of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) launched into 2016 with our first-ever full-day “Design Jam”, focused on designing for the needs of immigrants and refugees. By the numbers, this was one of the largest events IxDA Toronto has ever run, bringing together over 40 designers with 10 mentors and subject-matter experts to design 8 concepts in response to 3 major problem areas affecting immigrants and refugees. As this event represented the culmination of several months of planning, and sets the tone for an event-filled 2016, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the goals we went into the event with, and what we’re taking forward as learnings for future events.

Planning Tools & Techniques

When we started planning this event, we didn’t know quite how large it would get, or how it would come together. In many ways, this meant that the framework we were using to develop the event kept changing over time. On some occasions, this led to miscommunication, and on others, it meant that work had to be redone. Purely from an operational perspective, this event raised the bar on the level of organization we as a committee needed to be prepared to support. Coming out of this event, we now have a more formalized system to manage points of contact within organizations, more detailed records about volunteers and partner organizations, and better file management for IxDA materials. All of these improved systems and processes will make it easier to run better, more professional and polished events in less time.

Design Jam Goals - Successes & Failures

We understood that events like this – and the concepts that come out of them – typically do not have direct, lasting impacts, but we had several goals we wanted to achieve in this event. First and foremost, we wanted to use this design jam as an opportunity to provoke designers to think about more socially-impactful problems that design can play a role in resolving. Secondly, we wanted to connect designers to organizations where they could volunteer their skills. Finally, we wanted to make IxDA events a little less insular, and push designers to collaborate directly with those outside the design realm – to design with, rather than for. Reflecting on the event, I feel that we had mixed success in meeting these goals.

A More Socially-Conscious IxDA

On the first, I think the event was a huge success; our chosen topic clearly resonated with the design community, and covered problem areas not typically considered by designers. On a personal note, I believe that organizations like IxDA have a role to play in developing designers' understanding of their social and ethical responsibilities, and this event did a good job of highlighting that. Looking forward over the next year or so, this type of focus (on pressing social, political, or cultural problems) is something I am personally interested in emphasizing further.

Expanded Organizational Partnerships

On the second, I think we made a good start by partnering with a wide variety of other organizations in the community, which helped expose designers to other groups they may not have thought of working with before. With future events, however, I feel better advance preparation and communication between our partner organizations and our membership could help lay better groundwork for more lasting engagement. I would be extremely interested in broadening the range and increasing the depths of partnerships over the next year or so, to bring designers into close proximity with more new and varied perspectives.

Still Too Insular - More Work To Go

It was the last goal, however, in which I feel we really failed to hit the mark, and it came through in feedback we received about the event. We didn’t do a good job of promoting the event beyond IxDA’s network, and so we failed to draw in participants from outside the design community. Especially for design jam events, not having representation from the full spectrum of stakeholders (including end users and their communities) is a monumental failure. For future events where we are hoping to encourage collaboration between designers and people with other skills and experiences, we will need to more conscientiously promote the event to those outside the design “bubble”. 

Overall, I feel that this was a great way to start off 2016, and an ambitious standard to set for future design jam events. We didn't meet all our goals, but we made good progress towards them, and we know where we still need to improve. On behalf of the entire IxDA committee, I’d like to thank all our partners, sponsors, subject matter experts, volunteers, and participants for making this event what it was, and I look forward to many more opportunities to bring designers together with the broader community throughout the year!

Quick Thoughts on Hackathought by Peter Last

Over the past weekend, I participated in a hackathon put on by the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). It was a fun weekend, and a great opportunity to do some work in an area that is effectively disregarded in the private sector. It also, however, highlighted several major problems with the hackathon model more generally. I had my suspicions about these problems earlier, but I really felt them as a participant. Looking back over the weekend, three major concerns stand out for me: the lack of focus in the problem definition, the limits on time and emphasis placed on research or insight-gathering, and the lack of opportunity to test ideas with end users.

To kick off the hackathon, we were treated to a panel discussion covering some of the issues around mental health and wellness facing post-secondary students. Much of the discussion focused on the need for dialogue about mental health and wellness issues, and little time was spent exploring or characterizing the needs of students either on a day-to-day basis, or in times of crisis. Moreover, the emphasis of the hackathon itself was placed on creating a mobile app that used the ThoughtSpot data. This made it difficult to more clearly define a problem faced by post-secondary students to target, as there was both little discussion about those problems and a lot of emphasis on a particular implementation (a mapping application).

While I felt it was reasonable and worthwhile to set a constraint on needing to rely on the ThoughtSpot data, I think greater emphasis on problems faced by post-secondary students around mental health issues followed by ideation around how the available data could be used to solve those problems would have resulted in more creative solutions, and less emphasis in the end on mobile map viewers.

The tight timeframe also prohibited opportunities to do deeper research within the ad hoc teams at the hackathon. This meant that most of the ideation was driven from personal experience. While personal experience can be an effective source of inspiration, it is also harder (in many ways) to evaluate one's own experience retrospectively, and self-rationalization of behaviours can lead to radically different outcomes from researching the experiences of others.

This also makes the lack of opportunity for testing even more concerning, because it means that there is no opportunity to have someone else's reality steamroll your preconceptions and throw into sharp relief the inconsistencies in your own narrative of events, personas, or user goals.

While hackathons and design slams can be a great way to challenge yourself to get creative and to produce something meaningful in a very short timeframe, I sincerely hope that any organization using them as a tool to crowdsource product ideas subjects any they choose to rigorous evaluation to make sure they are actually meeting needs in their context of use.