UC Revolutions Hackathon
Seeing value in your work when others can’t
I walked into the campus hall where hackathon sponsors had set up booths chock-full of free ephemera while students were milling around, chatting aimlessly. Everyone seemed to know each other and I was met with the pounding realization that I didn’t know what I was doing. I steeled my nerves and scouted the area for someone, anyone, who seemed like they were as clueless as I was.
I spotted a younger-looking student who looked terrified (This is good. We can be terrified together), and asked if she already had a group:
Yes, but I think one of our group members dropped out, so you can join us.
Great! I’m a Graphic Designer, so I can make whatever you’re doing look good and work well.
Oh…. Okay, sure. Do you know how to code?
We waited on her friends to show up. I became excited. I had found a group. The only problem was that it quickly became clear that she didn’t really know what to do with a “designer,” but I was determined to show her I was worth adding to her entourage.
Hindsight is 20/20. The doubt in her voice should have encouraged me to leave and find a group that was actually seeking a designer. Instead, I let fear push me into a box. I had found a friend and was willing to sacrifice my value as a team member for the comfort-zone I had quickly placed myself in.
The rest of the event involved a little game of self-reflection I like to call, Wow, My Skills Really Aren’t Needed or Wanted. The group decided to code a VR game (something that I had no interest in) yet barely allowed me to design for the environment. I spent a lot of the event bored, trying to come up with un-needed designs that I knew they would never use. I felt useless without their coding skills. I was a drain on the team.
This event taught me one of the most important lessons—if my skills aren’t valued, then it’s time for me to move on.
I had worked hard in school and in every second of my spare time to be a really good designer and, surprisingly enough, the lack of value I received from my peers in the group made me realize just how much I personally valued my own skills. That realization later helped me leave a design job I wasn’t happy with and made me a stronger person overall, but I was determined that what happened would never re-occur.
Cincinnati Startup Weekend
Featuring the team with the best name
I walked in to Union Hall with one resolve: find friends and talk to people, but don’t commit to working with a person or group unless they have a startup idea I would love to work on and put in my portfolio.
Pitches started, and I realized that because the event was a Startup Weekend vs. a Hackathon, the amount of skillsets were much more diverse.
More importantly, graphic designers were in high demand.
I met six friends, and our group was formed. Our team name, the Dirty Half-Dozen, was gold and our startup was promising as well. We set out to create a product that would promote and showcase greener alternatives to users shopping online.
The realization hit me that, unlike the last event, I was now actually valued for the skills that I possessed. But, with great value comes great responsibility and it was time to step up my game.
I created wireframes, collected imagery, designed a logo, currated the typography, and built out a strong brand. One of the biggest take-aways from the event was the importance of market-research.
Your design can be all that and a bag of chips, but at the end of the day, if no one needs your product, it’s useless.
Our startup transformed so much, simply from talking to people on the street or surveying them online. An honest insight into the user’s mind really impacted my process. I was no longer designing an empty shell of a project, but something that I knew real people would use and love.
In the end, I also realized just how important working with a great team was. The diversity of skills, backgrounds, opinions, and experiences could have easily driven us to conflict, but the mutual respect between members and our unifying purpose drove us to being one of the best teams I’ve ever worked with.
Columbus Smart City Hackathon
The importance of personas
I was alone in Columbus, walking down the streets, and attempting to read a map. If I had known I was going to participate in these hackathons earlier, I would have minored in cartography.
At any rate, I eventually found the venue, scoured out the wi-fi password (priorities), and started meeting people. Once the event started, I discovered an interesting addition to the usual hackathon/startup weekend set up: use-cases.
In addition to pitches given by event participants, companies and individuals within Columbus were invited to present a “use-case” to the attendies of the event. They brought up specific problems within the community and were accompanied by piles data that could be sorted through and used to help solve the problems.
I chose to work on a use-case presented by a local food-bank. The need was to provide access to healthy food resources within the food-desert areas located all over the city. It wasn’t an easy task, but I joined a team of six who were all determined to solve the problem.
One of my biggest regrets in the previous hackathon/startup weekend was disregarding the use of personas. I had read blog after blog about them and knew they were important to the design process, but with the time-constraints surrounding the previous projects, personas were always the first thing to go. And I regretted it.
So, I started researching real-life stories within the area, talking to the director of the food-bank, and going through the piles of data with my team members. I created one provider and three consumer personas.
And then an event UX/UI coach sat down to chat:
What are you working on now?
Just finishing up some personas for the project. I’ve never created them before, but I’ve read that it’s important so….
*cue approving look* This. Is. So. Important. That was litterally the first thing I was going to ask you about.
He explained the importance: See, when you use personas you’ll stop talking about some random, 35 year-old male and start talking about Joe Sanders and the problems facing him. It’ll generate empathy with your group and allow you to make decisions based on how it will affect “Joe” specifically.
If nothing else, I got brownie points from the coach, but I still wasn’t fully convinced that it would have much of an impact on our process. Maybe I just wasted a ton of time, creating imaginary people who would never see the light of day.
I moved to creating page flows, wireframes, mockups, etc.
Then I heard, “Okay, but Ellen wouldn’t be able to access this resource. She’s not in that area.”
And just like that, my team was discussing “Ellen,” my fabricated persona, with a sincerity only given to real-life people. From that point on, the persona’s were at the forefront of every decision and direction.
I think with design, it always comes down to the user. That’s cliche, I know. But, it’s a truth that grows more and more persistent the longer I’m a designer.
It doesn’t matter the specific division of design you’re in or the content you’re creating. You are not making it for youself. You are making it for someone who has a life with passions and dreams, heartbreak and failure. You’re creating so that their life is hopefully a little better.
Design is never about the creator. It’s about the reciever.
One internship, two years of school, and three events later, and I’m still learning this. I’ve learned to value what I create, because it’s not about me. It’s about the person recieving that value from me. And that’s all that really matters in the end.