First things first, if you are a student and come across this post in the weeks before the deadline of the next IxDA Student Design Challenge I have something to say to you. Sure, the timing might not be right. You might have a lot on your hands. You may even feel like there is no chance in hell you could make it to the finals. That is exactly how I felt last November. But back then I had somebody tell me how great this experience was. And now I hope I can, in some way, do the same for you now.
Do it for the people.
Do it for the experience.
Do it for the fun of it.
And if that did not convince you, here is the rest of my story.
At the end of last year the Interaction14 Student Design Challenge jury selected me as one of their finalists. This meant that I would get to go to Amsterdam and take part in the 72 hour competition final. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation covered both flight an accommodation costs. In the days leading up to the event I spoke to former finalists and class mates James McIntyre and Siri Johansson. But nothing could have prepared me for what came next
I spent my first day in Amsterdam enjoying a cloudless day in different cafes. I wish I had more time to discover the city, but I found myself buried in literature research for this years theme. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation were looking for new ways to spread life saving interventions in rural areas. It turns out that these interventions are simple things as washing your hands before preparing food. There are still a lot of people that do not know this. Especially in rural areas with high poverty and low literacy rates.
I have never experienced the poverty described in the initial brief. I have never even visited Africa or India. The concept of tackling problems of this magnitude felt paralysing to me. And the more I learned about it the more difficult it would become.
Tuesday Afternoon: The Master Class
The challenge kicked off at Ijsfontein, a design studio close to the conference venue. This was going to be our main space to work during the next three days and it offered everything that we could have asked for. I got to meet our mentors (Izac, Dianna, Skye, Almeera, Alice and John) and my fellow competitors (Julie, Hadar, Dharmesh, Karan, Melody and Nidhi) for the first time. I feel unsure about the word 'competitors' as we all would grow to become friends of the course of the next days.
The main goal of the first afternoon was to narrow down the broad project scope into something more manageable in three days. Turns out that was not an easy task. Over the last few days I had read a lot of articles and reports about the challenges that mothers in Bihar (India) face. And the more I read the more overwhelming the situation got. Luckily we had a lot of people at hand that afternoon that would help us work through that. Apart from our excellent tutors we were also joined by the finalists of the separate Records for Life finalists.
As the skies over Amsterdam darkened we retired to our hotel and continued to work there. The afternoon had felt like a rush of blood to the head. There was so much excellent advice that at some point it got hard to take in. I knew that the only right thing to do was to focus on one thing. Based on my initial research I felt most comfortable about the day of the health care worker. I used the windows in my hotel room to create a simple user journey.
Finally, in the wee hours of the night I had my general problem statement narrowed down. I wanted to "Help Auxiliary Nurse Midwives carry out their record keeping more efficiently so that they can focus more on vaccinating children rather than doing paper work on Immunisation Days". I felt that addressing this problem with new technology would lead to three things:
- Reducing waiting times for families at immunisation sites.
- Reducing the amount of heavy material that nurses need to carry to remote locations.
- Improving vaccination coverage and planning by having more accurate data for surveyors.
I felt smitten with luck as I went to bed that night. And a few compelling ideas started to form on how to addressing these problems.
Wednesday: A Blow To The Head
Wednesday started with some of the more honest feedback of my professional life. I had just presented my outline for the next few days, but instead of a nod to get started I got something to chew upon. It turned out that I had somehow managed to divert from the original brief. Instead of finding ways of spreading life saving interventions I was trying to improve on the children's health record. And even worse, the reports that I based a crucial amount of research on were four years old. The important issues mentioned there had already been solved or at least improved upon. Somehow I was disappointed by what was fantastic news.
So how does one recover from that? I thought my entire research phase was worthless. And were it not for our tutors I might just have done that. Based on their advice I tried to find out how my research findings would translate to a different context – Zambia. Skye Gilbert, who had just visited Zambia a few days earlier, helped me with this. To my surprise, it was a lot more than I could have imagined.
My second idea circled around the perception of the public health centres themselves. It turned out that these were grey concrete buildings with little to no furniture. The government owns most of these spaces making them alien to most communities. Maybe murals illustrating life saving interventions could make the place feel more welcoming? Maybe the health centres could become repositories for all children's health records? What would the space look like if it were lined with photographs of the children that were treated here. I thought this could redefine its ownership to the next generation.
How better to find out if I was on track than to ask more questions? Our tutors encouraged us to start visualising our ideas by building simple prototypes. This time we had access to doctors that worked in subsaharan Africa. And later that day I found myself travelling across Amsterdam with a foam-board community wall to visit master students the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT).
Again the feedback we got from both doctors and students was stellar in its honesty. Unfortunately for me that still meant that I had not found the real problem to solve. Time was starting to run out. With only 36 hours to go I was not sure how I would come up with something that was not going to embarrass me and my university on stage.
I spent that evening working with both Melody and Nidhi in the hotel corridor. We had found a few tables to move together and were furiously throwing ideas around. Every once in a while the lift doors would open and another conference goer would stumble past us. It was nice to see them encouraging our late night design endeavours. It was past two o'clock when I went to bed without having gotten much closer to a solution yet.
Despite the rain I insisted on walking the half an hour to Ijsfontein. Thursday marked the first day we would work at the conference site itself. Izac and Dianna had set up the SDC Zoo for us. The idea was that we would be working on site at the conference and getting feedback from the interaction design community. The only issue for me was: I still was not sure what I was going to get feedback on.
That morning walk in the rain proved to be important. Suddenly, an idea hit me. I had the right problem in front of me all the time. As I was learning about the public health centres I also came across how much time mothers had to spend waiting. After arriving a the public health centre, they had to wait an average of 45 minutes until nurses attended to their child. After that they had another 45 minutes to wait until their child was finally given the vaccination drops or shots. What was interesting to me was how mothers spent this time. It turns out that they were socialising, telling each others stories and spreading news about what was happening in other communities. Could I find a way to shift that conversation? What if it was about the life saving interventions themselves? About the importance of washing hands before preparing food or about the importance of breastfeeding their children for six months.
It turns out that one of the best ways of retaining information is to repeat it. And one of the easiest ways of memorising information is through storytelling. I found out that this already played an important part society. For instance, in Zambia there is a fun little story about why the hippo is a vegetarian. What if each consultation would come with a story about life saving interventions? To help with that we would need simple illustrations without any text. And we would need a conversation starter.
It turns out that in societies were people have little, each object of value is such a conversation starter. This might be something as simple as a coloured pebble that creates meaning. I shall defer to the this page for a better description of the final solution.
I remember spending the hour before moving to the SDC Zoo at the conference venue trying to visualise my idea. I created a simple comic for the vegetarian hippo story, put together a few illustrations and a story to help me communicate my idea. Additionally, I the tutors encouraged me to use Twitter to get people to the SDC Zoo.
The session at the conference venue was incredible. We had so many people come up to us and help us clarify our concepts. My first victim was Christopher Noessel. He patiently listened to me rambling on for 20 minutes without realising who he was. I tried to get everybody involved in helping me draw a simple story that would illustrate a key life saving intervention. This proved super helpful when Niklas Wolkert showed up and remembered a rather particular fact about elephants.
Our tutors Dianna and Izac stepped in again and reminded us that we would only have 4 minutes of stage time for the final presentation. This meant shortening an idea that took 20 minutes to explain to little more than a minute. It turns out that good pitches follow good storytelling. The first sentence serves to capture the audience's interest and set up the context. The next few sentences describe the problem and while building up tension. The third and final part then finally describes the solution.
Armed with that knowledge we had an hour to shorten our concept before presenting it at the SDC again. And we quickly had more willing participants. One fantastic method of shortening a pitch is to have people listen to it and then describe what they heard. I found that I got a lot conciser sentences repeated back at me.
Friday: In the Zone
We were in our last 12 hours before we knew it. I spent most of the night polishing my pitch and doing illustrations for my final presentation. I remember wanting to finish up by the next hour to get enough sleep in to be fresh for the next day. Unfortunately, this repeated way to often and it was around 5 a.m. when I finally got some sleep.
For some reason Friday is the day I remember the least. Maybe that is something that comes with the building tension in the final hours before the presentation. Maybe it was the lack of sleep. I do remember getting another round of valuable feedback and encouragement from John that morning. I also went for a walk in the park to calm my nerves, which did nothing for me at all.
Before long I was sitting in the front row listening to the final presentations of my friends. There were a lot of people there, far more than I had expected to show up. And the judges in the second and third rows all were busy scribbling in their grading sheets. I was trembling in the final minutes leading up to my part.
And then it was over. I managed not to make a fool of myself on stage. Most of the presentation went by in a blur anyways. A lot of weight was just lifted from my shoulders and I felt relieved. At some point during the last 72 hours I had completely forgotten about the competition aspect. For the last few days life consisted of what happened in the next hour and suddenly that changed.
Looking back I find it difficult to describe what these days in Amsterdam mean to me. I would never have expected things to turn out as they did. When the jury called my name last in the countdown at the IxDA Awards ceremony I might have looked like we had made contact with life on Mars.
Throughout the competition and in the days that followed it I was fortunate to meet so many fantastic people. I felt like I was part of a community that was abuzz and interested. Here were people that worked hard throughout last year to give us students a chance to learn from them and from each other. Izac and Dianna organised the whole thing to perfection. They shielded us from unnecessary input and always had a helping thought when things felt difficult.
There are a lot of people I need to thank for this great experience. Obviously our mentors Izac Ross (Cooper), Dianna Miller (Fidelity Center for Applied Technology), Skye Gilbert and Almeera Anwar (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation), Alice Konijnenberg (Pennywhistle Project Foundation) and John Payne (Moment). And then of course my friends Melody Kim (UC San Diego), Nidhi Jawal (University of the Arts Philadelphia) and the two teams Julie Blitzer & Hadar Geva (Domus Academy, Milan) and Dharmesh Ba & Karan Dudeja (National Institute of Design, India). Last but not least the fantastic sponsors: the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Cooper, Autodesk, Adobe, Rosenfeld Media, UIE and UX Australia.