It’s that time of the year again when students start forming teams and beginning their projects for the CHI student design competition (for the unfamiliar: a contest held annually as part of the CHI conference, for students to present their solutions to a complex design problem. The theme this year is ‘diversity’: “design an object, interface, system, or service intended to help us appreciate our differences”).
It’s been two years now since my team, TreasureHunter, participated in and won the 2009 competition. In the years since, I’ve had the time to reflect on our experience, and think about what I would do differently if we could have started over again from the beginning. Of course, I’ve realized we also did some things right, too! So, here’s the tips I have to share with future participants, based on my experience and also integrating things I’ve learned or observed from other past teams:
It’s not a design competition, it’s a design research competition
The way you think about the competition makes a big difference. If you have in your mind a narrow definition of what the “design” in design competition means (i.e. just visual and interaction design) and you focus your efforts on this, then you likely won’t do well. The reason is that for this competition you’re not creating a fully functional system, just an idea for one – so your idea or solution is what matters. Take a look at the judging criteria: they’re all based on the quality of your solution and the research you did to reach that solution. All the judges will see of the system/object/service you design are whatever screenshots or visuals you include in your paper – which will be too small for them to see in detail anyhow. So, keep reminding yourself: design is more than visuals, it’s about identifying the right solution to a problem. This brings me to my next point.
Do your research
To come up with a good solution, you’ll need to do really solid research. This includes starting by researching the problem space to understand what work has already been done, both in academia and in industry. Don’t skip this step! It’s important to do this so you can get an idea of the open problems in the area and narrow down the focus of your project before you start conducting any sort of research with people. This is because you need to make sure that you have chosen the right people to interview during your contextual inquiry, since it will inform your project for the rest of the semester. So, don’t just interview people about ‘diversity’ – figure out which aspect of the diversity problem would be most interesting to tackle, and then find people with experience or knowledge of that.
My team’s story:
The theme our year was to encourage the use of local resources versus global resources. My team managed to completely change our project focus three times in the first two weeks (!), after deciding that our first two focuses weren’t likely to lead to viable solutions. We first were going to focus on how to increase consumption of local food, but decided there were too many other teams focusing on this that it wouldn’t be original. We then thought we’d focus on decreasing consumption by getting neighbors to borrow big items like lawnmowers from each other instead of buying them. But we found several websites attempting this already, and not very successfully. We decided there might be larger issues with this idea that were preventing it from working in the real world. We happened upon thrift stores as a focus area by chance – a fellow SI classmate happened to know someone who knew two long-time thrift store volunteers. So, we set up a meeting with them and realized right away after the meeting that getting people to shop more at thrift stores seemed like an interesting problem that we thought we could solve. So, for our initial research for our project, we did a survey of consumers about their shopping habits, and interviewed both consumers (thrift store shoppers and non-shoppers) and thrift store employees. We then had a wealth of data from which to figure out what the problems and unmet needs in this area were.
Don’t be afraid to keep searching for the right solution
After doing your initial research, you’ll reach this point where you have an idea of the problems in the area, and it’s time to start thinking of solutions. DO NOT GO WITH THE FIRST SOLUTION YOU THINK OF! Resist the idea that because of the tight deadlines for class, you don’t have time to change your idea. Your first idea will probably be flawed in some way, unless you are really, really lucky. Get lots of feedback outside of class on your idea. And definitely run your idea past potential users to sanity check it. (Our first idea of how to get people to shop more at thrift stores was to create an online inventory by tagging every item when it was donated. Then, we visited some of the thrift stores again, and learned that they 1) get thousands of items donated a week and barely have the volunteers to manage the donations, and 2) the state of technology at thrift stores is such that one was just getting *cash registers* for the first time! Clearly, introducing an inventory system was not going to work within their constraints.)
Think through social
I’ve noticed this trend in past CHI projects, that many of them are websites with a social network/online community aspect, or are social mobile applications. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, as long as the social features have been thought out fully. There are important things to consider with social applications, like how to motivate users to sign up for your service, to contribute content, to keep coming back, to help others, etc. Depending on your service, aspects like trust and privacy may also be important. You’ll need to have a strong justification for why the system you designed is the right solution to the problem and would actually work.
If you can, try to think outside the box beyond social web/mobile applications. Take a look at past CHI projects in the ACM Digital Library for some inspiration. Some of my favorites were a summer camp for the homeless, a keychain device to help with budgeting (both from the year where the theme was homelessness), and a kiosk for grocery stores (MiFresh, from 2009).
The paper is what matters
After working on a project all semester, it may seem like your work is done. But for the CHI competition, your work is just beginning: you still have a paper to write with an early January deadline. Remember that the paper is all you will be judged on – the judges will not see the actual interfaces you designed, or your project website. And they know nothing about the format of the class in which you did this project (if you did the project as part of a class). So, stick to the judging criteria closely when writing the paper, and make sure you cover all those points. Start your paper early (before Christmas break!) so that you will have time to get it reviewed by professors, past participants, and other students. Go through several drafts before you submit it!
I’m not the first to write CHI advice – here’s a blog post from another SI alum:
And here’s a post pointing out some potential flaws in the competition. A good reminder that winning is not everything, it’s what you learn from the project and the other teams that counts.
[Iterating the CHI Student Design Competition]
I’d welcome feedback from other past participants to see if they agree with my advice. And to all the future CHI participants: good luck!