Three user experience design students are on a mission to make hackers aware of the benefits of so-called design thinking, a human centred and creative approach to problem solving. The second year Master of Information students will be virtually facilitating a workshop at Hack the North, Canada’s biggest hackathon, later this week.
The idea for the workshop came after Lily Shaddick applied to attend the hackathon, held annually at the University of Waterloo, and saw a callout for workshop hosts. Hackathons require collaboration and problem solving, which Shaddick says makes them an excellent forum to offer new design thinking perspectives to students who are mostly from and interested in the world of computer science.
Hack the North organizers agreed. After a rigorous application process, the design thinking workshop, proposed by Shaddick, together with fellow students, Gillian Shi and Veronica Rutherford, was approved.
Due to COVID-19, this year’s hackathon will be virtual, which expands its reach to an expected 3,000-plus hackers including high school, undergrad and graduate students from all over the world. At a typical hackathon, says Shi, who did her undergrad at Waterloo and watched friends hack the north “sleep is optional.”
Hackers work as part of a small team, explains Shaddick, and “go from an idea, or next to nothing, to a presentable product that they can pitch to judges at the end.”
The MI students’ workshop will take place during gear-up week, before the actual hackathon gets underway. It will be livestreamed to YouTube for hackers and then later made available to the public. Coding experience is not required, said Shi, who hopes students from fields other than computer science won’t be intimidated.
Shi’s views are partly informed by her experience in the tech industry, where she worked after graduating with a BSc in biology. She had limited exposure to end users and always wanted to better understand what made one product more desirable than another.
The multidisciplinary nature of the curriculum at the Faculty of Information has really “opened (her) up to the possibilities of UXD,” she said, adding that the field is well suited for people from a wide variety of backgrounds. “The word ‘design’ can be applied in many fields.”
Rutherford, who studied business and economics as an undergrad and then worked in banking, says she saw firsthand how hard-to-use banking software hurt people and impacted their finances and lives. “When things aren’t useable or are hard to navigate, it’s really important to fix that,” she said. “Design thinking is not just about features and product and how to solve problems, but also how it will impact users.”
With design thinking having a “huge idea” that might not be feasible in the real world is part of the process, says Rutherford, because it allows you to get more creative and ultimately to better connect with users. Like Shi, both she and Shaddick, who did her BA in history and art history, emphasized how much they had benefited from the multidisciplinary approach to UXD in their courses and co-op placements, and that people from all disciplines could attend their workshop.
Shaddick explained that design thinking has evolved to the point that different institutions and origins have their own versions of the process, including IBM, where she recently completed a co-op. Her team there worked with community organizations, exploring use of a “co-design method” to solve social problems. “It’s a way to approach problem solving that has empathy for people at the core as well as teamwork,” she said.