IxDA Student Challenge 2014

Big news. Over the Christmas break I was named one of the finalists of the IxDA 2014 Student Design Challenge in Amsterdam. I feel very lucky to have been selected from a record breaking 124 contestants from both UID and from all over the world. I have since returned to Umeå where winter has definitely arrived after what have been surprisingly warm holidays. It hasn't been easy to adjust back to the conditions in Northern Sweden, but after the first week I now feel somewhat settled in. There is a lot going on already with our next project deadline coming up on Friday and the search for internships beginning in the weeks thereafter. But this week I'd like to look back on what entering the IXDA student design challenge meant to me.

The acronym IxDA stands for Interaction Design Association, which gives a voice to more than 55'000 interaction designers from all parts of the world. For the past six years they have been holding conferences in Vancouver, Savannah, Dublin, Toronto and next year in Amsterdam. And they have been running a student design competition that gives the finalists the opportunity to travel to the conference venue and attend a master class with leaders from the Interaction community. The finalists then have 72 hours at the conference to continue working on the challenge theme before presenting their ideas. An excerpt of the mail I got:

With the high level and range of talent, it was a long, difficult decision. There were many excellent entries, but ultimately we cannot take everyone. We received 74 entries from 124 students, representing 36 schools in 14 countries, clearly showing how many amazing design programs are out there guiding incredible designers and researchers. Our world may be filled with wicked problems, but the range of passion, empathy, research and design skills, creativity and critical thinking that so many of you demonstrated gives us great hope for this new generation of designers and what you are about to bring to our still-emerging profession... and to the world!

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Two previous IXDA SDC finalists are studying just a few desks away from mine at UID. Both James McIntyre and Siri Johansson enthusiastically recounted their experiences in Toronto and Dublin, respectively. Not only was it a great opportunity for them to show off their skills, it was also a great place to meet all kinds of interesting minds. Their encouragement was all I needed to put in the effort to get my submission in. Unfortunately, time was in short supply. During office hours I was already feverishly working on Scania's truck of tomorrow project (see recent blog entries) and the evenings were reserved for our CHI student challenge submission.

This year's IXDA challenge theme – "Information for Life" – is sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation and complements a similar challenge ("Records for Life") that focused on how children's health records were designed. For lack of better words I shall quote the official brief: 

This year, the Gates Foundation and the IxDA challenge you to consider how to reach remote populations by designing ways to improve how, where, and when this record is distributed, accessed and used in order to make it a more effective tool for health information and education throughout childhood.

So there's a challenge! And immediately I drew a blank. I had no idea about children's health records. Nor had I ever been to any of the remote areas that the brief mentioned. I was as far removed from this problem as I could be. Now a few months ago I might have called it tough luck and moved on. But not this time. I've somehow grown to like things that frighten me – with the possible exception of spiders. Before diving into research I wrote an entire draft on my perspective on the challenge theme and what approaches I'd like to take. In retrospect it is hard to see what possibly could have come from it, but in some way it let me put on text what I didn't want to end up doing. I then spent the next weeks reading up on the topic, finding TED talks that Melinda and Bill Gates had given and speaking to whomever I could find mingling in the corridors of UID. And so time passed and I kept hoping for something that I could connect the dots with. This years topic wasn't just challenging but also a brilliant choice: It was getting a hundred young designers interested in greater challenges than what they were facing on a day to day basis. Who knows what might come from this a few years down the road.

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The week before submission was due I decided to simply focus on what I'd be most happy working on in Amsterdam. So I spent the weekend writing and rewriting. It was going to be hard to convey my ideas through visuals, as there just simply wasn't going to be anything I could film in Sweden that would look like Bihar, India. Instead I created a podcast strongly inspired by what I generally consider to be the best podcast ever – 99% invisible. That was to be my first prototype of my submission. I then tested the podcast on a few students and was encouraged by the feedback.

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Based on my little experiment I then went to the sketch board and started with really quick lo-fi sketches that tried to illustrate what my narrative was trying to convey. Then I overlaid these frames with the podcast above and again showed a few people in school. It didn't work at all. The illustrations were too distracting. I had three options: to move away from the initial message; to be really bold and actually go without any visuals at all, and finally to use far fewer sketches to keep viewers' attention on the sound.

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Filming then presented completely different problems. Luckily, I had some help from Desmond, who despite having his own deadlines approaching, patiently helped out for an afternoon. Then there was the issue of having to re-record and lip-sync some of the lines because the camera's audio turned to be sub par. Additionally, I also had to start documenting some of my work samples to hand in as well as a 150 word summary. Here's what I came up with for that: 

The consequences of losing a child's health record are dire. By storing the vaccination information digitally we could alleviate the mother's pressure, surveyors could benefit from having easier access to data and we could evaluate our designs throughout rather than at the end of campaigns. 

A cheap network of health stations that communicate by piggybacking on radio waves could be built without relying on electricity or other infrastructure. The impact of this technology on children's health records in areas like Bihar is being overlooked. I want to come to Amsterdam to work on how community members and health workers interact with such a health station. Access to health workers or volunteers would help me with this.

I am a interaction design masters student from Switzerland at the Umeå Institute of Design. I see this challenge as an opportunity to further my perspectives as a designer and as a human being.

By the time the deadline arrived I felt properly exhausted. But of course that's when schoolwork started again. All the merrier that the tour de force has been worth it. I have already booked my flight and am anxiously awaiting new challenges in Amsterdam. I can't wait!

Update: here's what happened next in February in Amsterdam.

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