Using design and online collaboration to address challenges as a result of global COVID-19 outbreak
As in spring 2020 we were experiencing nearly a global lockdown, I was searching for opportunities to collaborate with others virtually and contribute to the vast societal challenges that were taken place. After worrying news related to pandemic, I felt it was meaningful to be able to connect with others, learn and devote to an important cause. This triggered me to join a 10-day open innovation design process named as UNA.TEN (Transform Emergency Now! 10 days for change) hackathon by the University Alliance Europe.
To achieve local impact through European collaboration, UNA.TEN hackathon brought virtually together over 100 master level students from seven universities and several local partners across Europe to develop solutions to address challenges related to the COVID-19 context in April-May 2020. I participated in the event with virtual Helsinki team together with Helsinki Think Company and the University of Helsinki and was able to collaborate with participants from Bologna, Edinburgh, Krakow, Leuven, Madrid and Paris.
What made this really unique was that the fact that the hackathon was online, and we were all experiencing the same situation of being locked down in our homes.
I had previously participated in numerous design events such as design sprints, hackathons, co-creation workshops and global service and sustainability jams in different roles varying from a facilitator to a mentor and participant throughout Europe. However, all these events had been conducted face-to-face and participants had travelled to the same location, sometimes even from another side of the world, to benefit from the close on-site collaboration. I was thus curious to find out how would all virtual 10-day hackathon work in practice.
Design thinking mindset and open innovation design process virtually
Design thinking mindset and open innovation design process were framing the hackathon. Each local team could choose between four design challenges. The topics, formulated as statement starters, were relevant and diverse:
- How might we rethink entertainment and cultural activities during the COVID post-emergency period?
- How might we protect our privacy and help to fight dangers, fears, and misconceptions in a digital world?
- How might we ensure travellers’ safety while COVID-19 is not fully defeated yet?
- How might we avoid food waste due to supply chain disruption?
Following the local and international kick-off events, organized as video calls, and creative online warm-ups, each team initiated an intense research phase to explore the context. Within a short timeframe, teams were conducting online interviews with relevant stakeholders to better understand the needs and aspirations of the people who were at the center of design.
Based on the sensemaking and the 1st insights, the challenges were reframed to scope the next phases of design accordingly. An international benchmarking call helped to gain additional inspiration and build an understanding what paths other teams had investigated. Based on the challenge reframing, the ideation could be kicked off. Teams were encouraged to move quickly to prototyping to gather more information and feedback. Again, joint calls with other teams helped to reflect and develop further.
As such, sounds like a regular open innovation design process. So what were the lessons learned of this all online 10-day event?
100% virtual hackathon — it works!
Until very recently, I was one of those who strongly believed how design process, from design research to ideation and testing, should be conducted mostly, if not entirely, face-to-face to be successful. Indeed, there’s a long list of benefits that onsite creative and collaborative process is bringing, and I was not questioning it. This is why I also literally travelled around the world to conduct research and facilitate co-creation workshops and design sprints. Moreover, I often encouraged my client teams to invite their distributed team members to one specific location to harness the power of on-site collaboration.
However, these special times have demonstrated fast our ability to co-create engaging online experiences.
Indeed, based on our hackathon, people collaborate eagerly, use new online tools and design methods and are excited about the overall experience and the outcomes.
Yes, there might be some hiccups here and there, but not necessary more than in regular face-to-face events.
For me, as a fan of onsite co-creation events, this was a clear a-ha moment.
Next let me share my reflections and three lessons learned what made this virtual hackathon successful. I also add a few things to consider if you are about to plan a similar type of online event.
3 Lessons Learned from Virtual Hackathon
1. With people for people
As usual in a hackathon, people do not necessarily know each other upfront. In this event, although we had never met face-to-face and had very different backgrounds, we felt united. We all shared the same situation, being in self-isolation at our homes, willing to connect with others and eager to be able contribute to something purposeful. It felt we were together despite of distances, with a clear vision and enthusiasm. This shared motivation was one of the enablers, which made this hackathon a rewarding experience.
Ultimately, it is easier to create a great experience and results when people are motivated. In this event, motivation came naturally as participants were volunteering. On the contrary, often at workplaces, participants’ motivation tend to vary, e.g. some participants might feel forced to join, while others might feel distracted due to stress related to their daily jobs, which consequently can hinder the focus on the process and collaboration.
Things to consider:
If you are conducting a virtual design event, such as a design sprint, hackathon or co-creation workshop, take time to reflect and plan:
- How to motivate people to participate? Even better, ask them upfront.
- How to secure participants’ full engagement and keep them engaged throughout the process. What methods and techniques can you bring to facilitate the motivation virtually?
2. Trusting the process — and facilitation
This hackathon provided a joint learning experience where students and coaches connected across Europe in several occasions to share experiences, ideate, learn, present and receive feedback. Many of the participants were not familiar with a human-centered design approach, design process with divergent and convergent thinking, methods or tools we were using. Yet, it turned out well.
Outcome-focused remote facilitation and well-balanced constraints help to reach the goals
Although the process as such might be robust, you do need facilitators — those who think over the process and select the most suitable, outcome-focused, methods, plan the schedule and organize the logistics, provide guidance and inspiration, help people to get over the obstacles and remind them on the overall goals. This is a familiar topic from face-to-face events, but this online hackathon emphasized it again.
The facilitation needs to happen at multiple levels, at the process, the group but also individual levels to keep the focus and rhythm. We had facilitators and coaches for the overall hackathon, but also for the challenge area at the European level and locally.
Additionally, having set constraints, such as tight timelines and regular checkpoints to share, learn and inspire helped people to move in the right direction within the agreed timeframe. Multiple channels created on Slack encouraged people to share their thoughts and best practices in between the video calls. We could feel the pace, even though we were not physically in the same room.
Things to consider
To ensure a successful virtual design event:
- How can you secure a sufficient number of skilled facilitators to get and keep the ball rolling over multiple remote teams and team members?
- What kind of schedule would be realistic enough to get the results needed for each phase, from research to ideation and testing, yet feel slightly challenging to get most out of people’s creative capabilities?
3. Virtual collaboration facilitated by the thoughtful methods, enabled by technology
To conduct this all virtual hackathon, multiple digital collaboration tools were used throughout the process, e.g. Google, Miro, Slack and Zoom. Although one could get easily lost between these different channels and online spaces, our experience went rather smoothly.
The last time I had used Miro was back in 2017 when it was still known as RealtimeBoard. Throughout our design process from research to concepting, it turned out to be valuable tool.
In fact, for the hackathon purposes, facilitators and coaches had pre-selected canvases, i.e. the templates, and set up our virtual collaboration spaces, which made it easy to jump in right away. However, not that long time ago, printing large canvases and securing a good number of sticky notes were mandatory prerequisites of a successful co-creation workshop. Indeed, sometimes, as facilitators, we found ourselves dragging canvases to airports, hotels and workshop locations to capture the ideas and outcomes of the creative process and secure we could later convert the details into a digital format.
So having tested the latest of these digital tools during this hackathon, I must say they do enable the creativity, proactive collaboration and facilitate the process. For instance, Miro has not only ready-map templates but also kits with step-by-step guides.
And there are a plenty of other tools and guides to make this happen regardless of your role in the design process. Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, and Jackie Colburn just published a new guide how to conduct design sprints remotely and Mural has been busy with creating how-to guides and more during the recent months. All in all, these tools and guides do not only enable efficient remote collaboration and provide an opportunity to conduct end-to-end design thinking and innovation processes virtually but, in many cases, they also facilitate the processing the outcomes quicker.
Things to consider
- What tools and methods can you best leverage to conduct your virtual session successfully? Do you have a sufficient amount of time reserved to set and test the overall flow prior to day 1?
- What is your plan B in case the participants face issues with the selected tools?
To conclude, what were the outcomes and highlights of this all virtual hackathon?
UNA.TEN was concluded with presentations on May 8th, just one day prior to Europe Day 2020. Interesting and innovative solutions were ideated, such as an immersive experience connecting international audiences and performers virtually, while exploring the historic city of Edinburgh, the ‘bubble’ festival with live music, with a concept of being together but safe, a social distancing framework, a new way to discover local activities with safety measures, a digital service to organize trips in the countryside, a platform to connect local travel entrepreneurs to jointly package their offering with others to create more meaningful experiences to travellers and so on. Some teams, with the help of their local partners are proceeding further with their concepts.
Reflecting the overall experience
The UNA.TEN hackathon was time well spent, and it inspired me to continue to explore virtual possibilities.
Here are the highlights of this virtual hackathon:
- Participation in an engaging social experience
- Getting to know people across Europe
- A reminder about the benefits of cross-European collaboration
- First-hand experience and lessons learnt how design process works all online and virtually
- Possibility to test the latest tools and digital templates
- A chance to contribute to topical issues
- Concrete ideas how to help entrepreneurs who are suffering from the COVID-19 implications
- Opportunity to continue experimenting with concepts created.
Finally, it will be interesting to see how our ways of working will be digitized in a longer run. Will this special era disrupt the way we work and collaborate for good, also within innovation and design thinking scene?
Nina Kostamo Deschamps, SID 2016
Innovation Designer & Change Facilitator at Accenture Interactive