Burt Herman sent the email to the SF Hacks/Hackers group, just as an FYI. Free food! Free drinks! Free networking! Prizes! And all you have to do is show up at the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford and rethink their website!
In other words, Stanford want us to work for them for free. :/
I thought about deleting the invite and refusing to go in protest. But as every good journalist would take into consideration, they did have free food. All weekend. And I heard the founder of IDEO would be there. So OK, they would be “paying” us in greasy pizza and high-level contacts, and who knows, it could be fun. I’ve been to a few hackathons before and found them all worthwhile. All right.
I went. I sucked.
It was AWESOME.
First, the background: The Stanford d.school is not a design degree program, and it has little to do with strictly visual design. It’s more of an interdisciplinary school to teach problem-solving, creativity and collaboration skills. (Fast Company did some great write-ups on it when it first opened.)
The challenge was to bring their system of problem-solving to the world so people can change said world. So the designers, programmers, business people and other eyewitnesses set out on the inaugural HACK.d hackathon.
In that 48 hours of little sleep and, uh, lower-than-average showering, here’s what I learned.
“Design” solves problems. And everyone solves problems.
To be clear, the design we are talking about has nothing to do with making things look pretty, though that can be a means to solve a problem. Design is problem-solving, period. Even in graphic design, you have a client that has the problem of looking unprofessional or communicating the wrong thing. Your job as a designer is to solve it.
The philosophy of the d.school was that everyone is creative but not everyone knows it. They just need a little extra guidance. So the d.school offers one specific five-step method of problem-solving, which I happen to like:
Or, to break it down with one example:
- Watch and interview someone
- Find out their biggest pain in the ass and define it clearly
- Come up with as many ideas as possible that would fix the problem
- Build one of them
- Try it out on the person
- Repeat as many steps as necessary.
It seems obvious, but there are some important points this process addresses. Such as:
That’s why the “empathy” stage is first. Many of us at the hackathon went through a 90-minute crash course called the Gift-Giving Project. We paired up and asked each other about the last gift we gave and what we would change about the entire gift-giving process, from remembering to buy a gift to purchasing to wrapping to giving to sending the thank-you card.
After the first interview, they had us interview a second time with a deeper emphasis on emotion (“The goal is to make the other person cry,” said the facilitator).
THAT is what was missing from many of these step-by-step plans to solve problems. That emotional connection. I heard a gripping story from a first-time dad, and he heard my story. And we actually listened to each other on a deeper level and worked that into our solutions.
This is why Steve Job’s designs work. They inspire a human-centered emotional reaction. Whatever you think of Jobs himself, you can’t deny the emotional connections he created through his products.
Sucking is a means to an end.
When you’re brainstorming ideas, it’s quantity over quality. I’ve known this for years and am comfortable with letting everyone offer whatever idea they have without shooting it down. It’s a different picture when I’m talking about my own ideas. I’m in self-editor mode even before I begin. The facilitator made a great point about “page vomit”: The idea is to use all your stupid, stupid ideas up, until you come across a not-so-stupid idea. Then don’t treat it as a series of failures that leads to an answer, but a road map you bring to your test user so they can tell you where to go.
It’s not about you. It’s about them. You are helping them find their own answer.
Workspaces do mean a lot.
The d.school is designed so that nearly every wall is a whiteboard, most of the furniture is on wheels, and a main workspace has adjustable walls. There are buckets of Post-its, Sharpies and Expo pens everywhere. But interestingly enough, I couldn’t find a regular pen and a pad of paper anywhere.
That’s because the workspace is designed purposefully to get people to share and collaborate. Your ideas are not precious, to be kept in your binder or entered into an Excel spreadsheet. They’re supposed to be messy and open. There’s not a lot of lecturing in the classes, so there’s no need for taking notes of some teacher’s PowerPoint slides. They call it a bias of action: Less talk, more walk.
Give people limits and they will find a way. Oh, they will find a way.
Yes, some people created amazing projects within 48 hours. That was the whole point of the weekend. But the idea of limitations and quick iterations was everywhere.
In the gift-giving exercise, I had 10 minutes to build a toy car out of a pile of kindergarten craft supplies. I chose Popsicle sticks, tape, magnets and pipe cleaners. In a way, the limitations were hugely helpful, because if your goal is to get good feedback on your prototype, the other person is more willing to criticize something that is crap than if they were presented with a polished prototype.
Become a kid again.
OK, so how many of you draped sheets between furniture and built tents in your living room? That’s kind of how I felt about the architecture of the place. The d.school bridges two buildings and uses the space between them brilliantly:
You can still see the exposed walls inside the (yes) well-insulated room. Genius.
And when was the last time you played with Popsicle sticks?
The school brings the concept of play to a university that desperately needs it. Because it’s interdisciplinary, it means that some of the world’s best doctors, scientists, engineers and lawyers at Stanford can all take classes in play.
David Kelley said in his opening remarks that people stopped calling themselves “creative” as far back as elementary school, and that was a shame. Now the school he helped found is putting creativity back to people who may need it the most.
Like, for example, me.