Design Swarm: A Look Inside a Design Hackathon

Design Swarming is a highly-structured, hackathon-like process that requires no pre-work or previous knowledge of the problem. No previous design experience is required either; Swarms succeed when teams are made up diverse groups of designers, technologists, entrepreneurs, and many others.
- American Institute of Graphic Arts

On October 2016, I participated in a Design Swarm which was part of one of the main activities in the Seattle Interactive Conference 2016, the duration of the design swarm was 6 hours. The team assignation happened days before the swarm, this gave us the opportunity to introduce ourselves via email, the diversity was evident, people with different backgrounds like: Marketing, Project Management, User Experience, Design and Copy Writing were part of my team, we were 7 around the table.

The Challenge

1.8 billion people drink from contaminated water sources, and 3.4 million die each year from water borne diseases such as diarrhea, cholera, dysentery, typhoid, and polio.
- The World Health Organization

We were introduced to Community Chlorine Maker, built by MSR, which allows people to produce Chlorine with a minimum amount of elements. The Chlorine is added to the water and turns it into drinkable water.

At the end, the expectation was to elaborate a disruptive approach by which every rural village in Kenya could have access to the Community Chlorine Maker.

During the Swarm

Our first activity was: recognize our strengths as a team, name our team and design our logo, all in 15 minutes. Fortunately, before the swarm started, each of us mentioned our Super Powers, so the first part of the activity was almost covered, then we defined a name related with the problematic and designed the logo. This was our first experience working together as a team.

The second activity was to recognize different personas involved in the problematic. In order to accomplish the goal, we had the presence of 5 experts who were there to answer questions, we had the chance to interview 3 of them, for that we separated in small teams and at the end we got together to present the findings of each interview and analyze them. As a result, the interviews helped us to recognize the main personas and to clean up some assumptions that were incorrect.

We defined 3 different personas with different backgrounds and needs but also we were able to learn more about the communities and the process of bringing water into the villages, all this information was really helpful for the future activities. Each team presented its Personas to the other teams.

Once concluded the team presentations, we were asked to choose just one Persona to focus on. We decided to choose our most vulnerable Persona, Maji.

Persona: Maji

Then we were introduced to fast brainstorming techniques, because the next task was to generate 43 ideas to solve the problem in 10 minutes. After we completed our 43 ideas, we stood up and reviewed the ideas from the other teams, we were allowed to steal ideas because “A great designer knows which ideas to steal”.

Back into our work places we were told to choose 5 different ideas, and then we had to minimize those 5 into 2!

“From those 2 now choose just one!” those were the words from Surya Vanka, our Swarm Leader. At this point we were all trying to decide which one was better to help Maji to improve her life style, we defined all the pros and cons of each one in order to pick the one that was sustainable and affordable.

In the end, we had to tell the story by focusing on one scenario.

Picture by: Giti Shorish

Design Swarm Learnings

  • Different backgrounds mean different points of view, keep an open mind.
  • Learn from the experts and learn from other’s experiences. We interviewed experts who made field research, but also one of our team members visited Kenya a few years ago and her insight also helped us during the process.
  • Don’t keep your ideas inside your head, no matter if you think they are not good enough, your idea could be the trigger that generates a new idea.
  • To find a good idea, you need to: define a bunch of them, pitch ideas around and make them better, because 3 or 4 ideas together can create a great idea. (This is the reason behind why we didn’t stay with just the 43 ideas in our board and we walked around to see and steal ideas from other teams)
  • It is not about who gave the best idea, at the end you are in a team, the chosen idea will be complemented by a bunch of different thoughts around the table, and one of them can be yours.

Tip: If you are going to participate in a design swarm make yourself present, bring your knowledge to the table but also bring your voice.


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