Creating something that has a lasting impact on other peoples’ lives is truly a privilege. This year, I returned to the Empathy Jam as a co-producer, alongside Shannon and Ariella, to encourage our design community to practice empathy with one another and create solutions around problems that affect us all. The Empathy Jam is an annual user-centered design and research hackathon for NYC residents to collaborate and feel connected. On Saturday, November 17th, the third installment of this event was held.
The history of Empathy Jam
I signed up for the inaugural Empathy Jam two years ago not knowing exactly what it was. But that didn’t matter because I knew I’d have fun. It was the first time I applied the end-to-end design process to a real-life challenge when I was exploring UX as a potential career transition. I met a heap of wonderful individuals and it ignited my lifelong love for design – read my recap here. In fact, I loved the Empathy Jam so much that it inspired my first article for an online design publication, “Why attend a UX hackathon?” via UX Booth.
A year later, I got involved in organizing the second one. It was incredible to work with the dream team (Shannon, Ariella, and Krizia) to produce this event. The challenges were focused on civic engagement and how to get people collaborating together. We gathered a group of passionate and knowledgeable mentors and judges to support enthusiastic attendees and created a successful event that we’re all proud of.
Leaving NYC and going beyond
Earlier this year, a former attendee, Diarmaid O Fatharta reached out because he was interested in taking the Empathy Jam movement to Galway, Ireland. He wanted to host the event in the fall to teach the tech community there about the UX research process and inspire them to apply design thinking principles to local problems. As organizers, we don’t always expect outcomes like this so working with Diarmaid to launch a Galway chapter was great!
On Saturday, November 3rd, Diarmaid and his co-producers, Mairead Hogan and Karen Young hosted the very first overseas Empathy Jam in Galway. They had thirty attendees and nine mentors and worked on two challenges:
A. How might we use technology to ease the issue of traffic congestion in Galway City? and B. How might we engage elderly people with the use of technology to prevent loneliness and social exclusion?
We had an opportunity to connect with the Empathy Jam Galway audience by calling in and sharing our thoughts on why this event is special for us and how excited we were to see them work diligenly together. I’m thrilled that this event was a huge success! Read Diarmaid’s wonderful recap of the Empathy Jam Galway 2018.
Planning for Empathy Jam v.3
To me, Empathy Jam was a way to keep my love for design alive and share that with the rest of the community. It’s such an exciting feeling when over seventy people show up on a weekend to learn the ropes of UX research and collaborate on a challenge outside of their regular work scope. I was struggling with finding a UX job and training for the marathon so I started to resent design.
I started to slip into what I’d like to call the “Mile 22 fade” (kind of like hitting the wall but having just enough resilience left to dig myself out). I was constantly getting rejected from jobs I applied to but wanted to desperately fall back in love with design. So I reached out to Shannon and Ariella about organizing an Empathy Jam again. I wanted to contribute something meaningful to the NYC design community and that’s how v.3 began.
We started by reviewing last year’s feedback from our mentors, judges, and attendees. It was important to figure out what worked well, along with areas that we could improve upon. As UX professionals, it came natural to us to treat the Empathy Jam like a product and/or service and use feedback to iterate and improve. If we can make the Empathy Jam better, our attendees and the design community will significantly benefit as well.
– Venue: Locking in a solid workspace is huge! There are many things we take for granted like good wifi, availability of electrical outlets, restrooms, collaborative spaces, and sponsor space, among many. Last year, we had some restrictions with our venue so we were determined not to make any compromises.
– Challenges: Ambiguity is not necessarily a bad thing but can hinder innovation when the challenge statements are too vague, with no direction for interpretation. Rather than to throw all our ideas into one massive challenge statement, we wanted a sweet spot of being concrete and focused but also flexible for interpretation.
– Communication & Logistics: There were a lot of things that could have been front-loaded. Instead of scrambling on the day of, it’s important to see which items could be done in advance. Rather than going with the flow, we reviewed the day-of logistics and planned out how we’d go from one activity to the next.
– Sponsorships & Finance: Making money out of these events is the least of our concerns. But for us to put on the best event and get engaged attendees, there is value in charging more per ticket and asking for higher sponsorships. Instead of being afraid of the repercussions of asking for more money, we backed it up with reason and approached it unapologetically.
– Workflow: We all felt the strain of needing each other to green light each and every executive decision. This wasn’t completely ineffective but we knew there had to be a better way. We assigned each person to lead a couple areas of planning so some of my responsibilities were prizes, judges and mentors, venue, etc.
Coming up with the challenges
There was no question that last year’s challenge was extremely vague and too complicated. Any hackathon challenge is hard but the one we provided was difficult to digest. It needed to be approachable enough for beginner design folks and challenging enough for those who have been in the industry for a while. We wanted people to truly be engaged over the challenge, rather than feel overwhelmed by it.
So this year, when we started brainstorming, we thought about problems that all NYC residents can resonate with. This city is remarkable for its diversity. But as diverse as we are, there are many problems we face together as a community.
NYC is a unique place in the sense that people come together despite differences. It’s a place notorious for competitiveness and hustle that may seclude and alienate people but in an odd sense, NYC comes together when it matters. Historically speaking, we’ve always come together as a city when disaster strikes and open our arms in times of trouble.
With this spirit in mind, we wanted to come up with a challenge that allows each attendee to relate. We thought about things that matter to every New Yorker and realized that at one point or another, we’ve all been vulnerable because of health and safety. This was our starting point. We worked with United States Digital Service (USDS) and NYC Opportunity to come up with relevant challenges.
A. How might we help New Yorkers learn about and access mental health support in the areas prioritized by Thrive NYC?
B. How might we create ways for New Yorkers to stay healthier during flu season (e.g. get flu shots)?
C. How might we help New Yorkers be more informed about their data privacy & security?
Let’s get jamming!
November 17th was a bright and brisk Saturday morning. For us, it was supposed to start at 8:15 am. But let’s not revisit how chaotic it was. Thankfully, despite the turbulent nature of the morning, everyone was extremely flexible and accommodating. We may have not had the picture perfect start with breakfast and coffee ready to go at 9:00 am on the dot, but things were held under control and we all worked efficiently to get unexpected nuances taken care of.
We kicked off the event at 9:15 am with welcome words and gave attendees some background information about the event. Immediately after, Jessica Greco, Experience Lead at Idean, facilitated a workshop on the fundamentals of user research and equipped our attendees with the skills to go outside and talk to strangers. Jess did an amazing job contextualizing the importance of research and empowering attendees to tackle the challenges.
After giving them 15 minutes to map out their game plan for the day, we kicked them out of the building to find everyday New Yorkers to interview. I give them a lot of credit for what they did because it was not only quite chilly outside (low 40’s) but we also required them to ask strangers heavy questions. The challenges we gave them weren’t easy but our attendees were champions.
An hour later, they started rolling back into the building with insights in hand. I love this part of the event when attendees tell me about all the unexpected encounters they had. What I found to be quite surprising was how open many people were in sharing their experiences on mental health issues, data security and privacy, and being healthy during flu season.
Our attendees were really exciting about the feedback they got from interviews and started post-iting and whiteboarding their ideas. As I made my rounds, I saw a lot of ideas brewing from their minds and great conversations on how to approach the problem. Once they had a solid artifact to test, they were back outside to get feedback on their ideas.
Throughout the day, all the groups continued to work diligently on their solutions. I saw teams have silent sketching sessions inspired by Google Venture’s Design Sprint methodologies (because five wireframes are better than one!) and others were using leftover lunch boxes to prototype their ideas. There was a clear focus on driving decisions based on feedback they got from testing. And best of all, everyone was engaged.
As the final hour before presentations approached, the groups were starting to get serious about accomplishing as much as possible in a short amount of time. Teams were practicing their presentations, making last-minute iterations on their prototypes, and cleaning up their areas to close out the day. This part of the day is always hectic but it’s also exciting because the air starts to thicken with possibilities. Even though I was present the entire day, I didn’t know what any of the teams were working on until the very end.
Final presentations and awarding winners
This year’s presentations were exceptional. There were twelve presentations in total. I loved how creative everyone’s solutions were and that they were excited to talk about them. Here are the presentations videos from the day. I think the success can be credited to (1) having concrete challenges that all attendees can relate to, (2) getting practical guidance from experienced mentors, and (3) each attendee coming to the event committed to immersing themselves in their challenge.
I was especially proud of all the groups being extremely respectful and mindful of the time limitation we gave them to present their ideas. Three minutes to communicate what they worked on for eight hours is not a lot of time, but they all managed to share their research outcomes and the solutions they created. When they realized they were running out of time, groups were good about skipping through parts of their presentation to get to the more important aspects.
Similar to last year, we had five winning categories to highlight aspects we wanted our attendees to consider in their presentation. We felt that having categories was more appropriate for our event as opposed to ranking the top five teams because design and research is a multi-faceted practice that involves various disciplines. Teams should be recognized for their strengths in the process and that may be different.
Here’s how we broke it down:
- Research: Showing that you drove your decisions with research and were flexible as you learned new information about users
- Storytelling: Doing the best job of communicating your work and process
- Innovation: Creating something that is the most out of the box
- Sustainability: Showing your consideration of business value and how your solution can work in real life
- Inclusive & Accessible: Showing that you are not assuming everyone is from an able-bodied, native-english-speaking background, providing for all users to equally experience delight
Last year, the judges struggled to come to a unified decision so this year, we were intentional about creating a clear rubric/guideline. Instead of ranking presentations, these categories allow teams to think about aspects that matter in UX design. All our winners are listed on the website. My shoutout goes to Team Flu Shot Bus for going out and actually getting a flu shot to understand the user journey!
We closed out the day with some raffles and giveaways, sponsor shoutouts, final words, and a lot of thank yous (and pizza). Even though producing an event of this scale is exhausting and at times, terrifying, it’s worth experiencing those challenges. As a UX professional, I am all about advocating for the users where I work. That’s a given. But I want to extend my ability to serve the design community and give back to the place that helped me start my career. I can’t wait to see where this goes next year because I don’t think we’re at a place to stop.
Reflecting on areas of Improvement
Initially, I reached out to Ariella and Shannon to plan this event to personally get out of a career rut. The irony is that during the busiest planning time, I was actively interviewing with seven companies at once. Did I mention that I was also training for the marathon and it was peak week? (That means I’m running the highest amount of miles for this training cycle.) I was overwhelmed with this situation and I forgot to communicate that to my co-producers, which was an important takeaway.
Pitching to sponsors is a skill I’d like to acquire. I found this aspect to be one of the most challenging. I wasted a lot of time cold contacting companies through the general form on their websites. It’s much more effective to utilize my existing network and finding contacts at companies I want to connect with. In addition, I’d like to better understand the Empathy Jam audience (such as the level of design expertise and background) to better pitch to sponsors for the next event.
I also want to encourage attendees to present more with a “selling value” mindset, rather than just a step by step process of what they did. Perhaps we could alleviate this with a presentation/pitch workshop session? Although the presentations and prototypes were great and innovative, I would have loved to see a stronger commitment towards presentations that focused on communicating the value and implications of their work as opposed to introducing the problem statement, going through the research, and sharing solutions.
Finally, after sharing with many people that the Empathy Jam community expanded out to Galway, we had a lot of folks at our event in NYC reaching out to us about starting one in their own communities. Since the spirit of this event focuses on civic engagement, it allows different populations of designers and technology enthusiasts to come together and apply their knowledge to projects outside of their normal scope of work. In the process, they make new friends and learn different approaches to solving problems. I’m looking forward to continuing these conversations.
Expressing my gratitude
Looking back, I’m so fortunate to have worked with two amazing co-producers and be supported by many people and companies that believed in what we wanted to create. First and foremost, thank you to General Assembly NYC for hosting the event and providing your beautiful space for us (and for keeping the coffee pots filled). James Brace and Victor De La Cruz were instrumental in facilitating smooth transitions between activities and running the show, so thank you both!
Having a solid team of experts is crucial to set the tone of the day and maintain a high level of enthusiasm. Attendees are coming on their day off to collaborate with people they’ve never met so we wanted the experience to be as worthy as we could make it.
Thank you Jessica Greco again for your presentation and honing in on the value of research in design. In addition, thank you to our incredible mentors: Lina Trifon, Rachen Murray, Juan Zamora, Rob Strati, Elushika Weerakoon, Kat Jurick. Thank you judges, Ashley Cortez, Diego Pulido, Kiersten Nash, for taking up the difficult task of selecting winners!
We had many phenomenal sponsors that believed in our vision and wanted to be part of creating an epic Empathy Jam. Many thanks to United States Digital Service (USDS), AllianceBernstein (AB), and UX Hires & Motivate Design. We were able to offer prizes in five different categories thanks to our amazing prize sponsors: Rosenfeld Media, A Book Apart, IxDA New York City, Sketch, and Echo Design. Finally, thank you to our raffle sponsors that helped increase social media engagement and encouraged teams to document their process: Sketch, Axure, and Loop11.
Most importantly, thank you. You showed up on a chilly Saturday morning to meet other New Yorkers who are passionate about solving problems for our city and that’s worthy to note. I can’t stress enough how incredible you are for going outside to talk to strangers about heavy topics and being flexible when needing to pivot as you progressed throughout the day.
I keep coming back to the Empathy Jam event because I love the concept of practicing empathy to drive design work. As someone with an educational background in the Liberal Arts and Humanities, I have a unique relationship with what empathy is. I know that many folks in design also push for a holistic definition of empathy and not just an isolated step in the research process. I love that we, as an Empathy Jam community, gets to be at the forefront of this conversation and constantly defining what it means to truly be empathetic to others.