Reflections from UX4Good, a Designers' Hackathon to Solve Social Problems

Graphic Facilitation of the UX4Good concept by Brandy Agerbeck

Last weekend I had the privilege of participating in UX4Good. KeyLimeTie enthusiastically signed on as the Livestream Sponsor, and I worked with the social media team that produced the livestream and liveblogging.

UX4Good is self-described as a "wildly ambitious effort to design systemic solutions for some of the most vexing social challenges." Produced by our agency partners Manifest Digital, the weekend brought together 40 top user experience designers and 10 gifted visual designers to participate in a weekend challenge to design solutions for five nonprofits who are tackling large-scale social problems; Streetwise, CeaseFire Illinois, Third Teacher, The Adler School of Professional Psychology and the Global Lives Project.

A Hackathon for UX Designers

This idea appeals to me personally because of my history with the "hackathon" concept; hackathons are generally short (24-48 hour) all-night developer contests pitting people and teams against each other to design and code the most innovative app in a short period of time.

KeyLimeTie has taken the "hackathon" concept into clients with considerable success, positively affecting innovation culture in large organizations and giving employees greater voice and visibility (if this idea appeals to you, we should talk). In the community, KeyLimeTie CIO Peter Morano produces the hackathon at SocialDevCamp Chicago and consistently supports other peoples' hackathons, which over the past couple years has fostered a growing hackathon culture among regional developers.

While hackathons are mostly developer-centric, UX4Good was like a hackathon for UX designers. Teams had 24 hours to learn about their organization, its goals and challenges, and then propose and present a solution that would affect large scale change for the problem if implemented.

The Third Teacher team scopes out the problem in classic UX designer style: Post-It Notes!

This approach seems far-fetched at first. Friday afternoon I sat in on the CeaseFire team as they began dissecting their challenge. A common discussion thread was "who are we as designers to tell these organizations what they should do differently?" As the team dove into their chalenge and learned about how people involved with CeaseFire confront violence day after day, there was profound respect for those in the trenches—and a bit of internal combustion as they negotiated their role vis à vis the CeaseFire volunteers who would be coming on Saturday to talk with the team. For more, read my post covering the experience of sitting through CeaseFire team discussions.

So, how can UX designers affect change?

In any organization, nonprofits included, often people involved get so close to a set of problems they lose the ability to see things from an outside perspective.

The Social Media command center "Animal House"

"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

—Albert Einstein

UX designers have training and experience in applied behavioral and motivational psychology and can offer perspective to help cause-focused groups achieve their aims. UX4Good is pioneering the notion that one doesn't have to volunteer at a soup kitchen or donate large sums of money to affect change, rather, they can offer their unique intellectual skills that can also have an impact. The proof, is in the long-term impact, in seeing the solutions applied and measuring the results. That will take cooperation and collaboration from the nonprofit beneficiaries and the volunteers and designers who help implement the solutions.

View Photos & Learn More About UX4Good

Learn more about UX4Good on the UX4Good website. Check out the event blog for writeups and the UX4Good photostream on Flickr. UX4Good 2012 is planned for New Orleans. For details and to get involved, contact the team via the UX4Good website and follow UX4Good on Twitter.

Special thanks to Chris Pautsch, CEO at KeyLimeTie, for getting the company involved. Also, I'd like to thank Jim Jacoby, Jason Ulaszek, Jeff Leitner and Bryan Campen of our agency partner Manifest Digital for welcoming me on the volunteer team.