April Fools’ Day is arguably the best time of the year to channel my inner cruelness. I got to do so at the first ever ProtoEvilGeniusHack event hosted by ProtoHack NYC on Saturday, April 1st. The challenge: apply design thinking principles to destroy the universe. I’ve done some pretty evil things on April Fools’ Day like feeding people a tub of chilled wasabi and telling them that it’s green tea ice cream but this took it to a new level. Keep reading to find out more about the event, what happened and what I ended up building with my team.
ProtoHack is a global community of non-technical professionals and entrepreneurs and hosts bi-annual design-driven hackathons to help people bring their ideas to life. These events empowers the non-technical community with the tools to prove that amazing products can be created without having to write a single line of code. ProtoHack is all around the world with chapters in 23 cities in 11 countries and expanding.
ProtoHack’s bi-annual events give participants the opportunity to immerse themselves in the end-to-end design process from research to prototype in a short amount of time. It’s an effective way to validate a problem and develop solutions based on real data obtained from research. The end goal of every ProtoHack event is for participants to build a prototype that communicates innovative ideas to existing problems.
The brilliant mind behind this ProtoEvilGenuisHack is none other than Amos Schorr, who runs New York City’s ProtoHack chapter. Our challenge was to create an evil genius solution to a real problem by applying design thinking principles. This meant that while the end product will be a reflection of an evil plan for world domination, we still needed to do research, validate the problem, sketch our ideas and come up with a “solution.” Nothing was off limits and this was the one day we were allowed to be as un-politically correct as we wanted and embrace our inner cruelness. Yes!
Before the event, I brainstormed a bunch of ways to approach the challenge. I wanted to take an Alfred Hitchcock approach by designing an experience that isn’t blatantly evil on the surface but is psychologically disturbing to users. I planned to mix in a “Means Girls” attitude by passive-aggressively shaming insecure people and watch them break while also channeling my dark inner Louis CK humor.
I had the pleasure of working with three corrupt and evil ladies: Thu Do, Arin Clement and Chandni Vakil. If you come across their LinkedIn or social media, don’t be fooled by their kind and sincere appearances – they’re pretty evil from the core. I was delighted that our inner evilness combined nicely and complemented each other well. In addition, we all brought different design skills to the table that worked harmoniously together.
In the morning, we discussed our ideas and how we’d like to approach the challenge. From there, we developed assumptions about the user group we intended to target and the problem we wanted to “solve.” We conducted user interviews and analyzed our findings to identify common themes. After lunch, we designed a flow and sketched out “solutions.” Finally, the remaining hours were dedicated to prototyping and preparing the final presentation.
The day started off with a round of introductions and discussing what we each wanted to take away from this event. Since the challenge was so unique and unconventional, we still wanted to make sure that we had tangible takeaways. My two goals were to use an emerging technology as part of our final product and overcome my shyness when it comes to public speaking and presenting a ridiculously short pitch.
I love the idea of making insecure people feel even worse about their life choices. We started there and discussed our assumptions around people’s habits of how they make themselves feel better. That answer was obvious: social media. People lie to themselves all the time when they say that social media is used to stay in touch with their friends and connect with various communities. The truth is, everyone (to some extent) uses social media for validation.
We realized that the culture we are a part of today rewards each other for everything, including the bullshit things that don’t actually deserve validation. Personally, coming from a Japanese upbringing, I was given the strict treatment so if I got a test below 95 points, I’d be questioned on my intelligence. In today’s culture, that would still be rewarded. I hated going to school with kids whose parents told them that they were beautiful and smart even though they were morbidly obese and stupid and created a false sense of self-assurance.
On a different note, we also loved the idea of incorporating the emerging artificial intelligence technology (a.k.a. machine learning) into our final product. We didn’t know how but we are so fascinated with its capabilities to add value to peoples’ lives and profoundly change the way companies deliver services. If AI can help people, then it can destroy people too.
Game plan: Use AI + social media to create a culture of shame. It was disgustingly evil and I love every bit of it.
Once we figured out our starting point, we went on to discuss assumptions on the insecurities that people have and how they use social media to validate themselves. This process was helpful in figuring out where the biggest potential is to damage people from a psychological level and break down their confidence.
Having identified the biggest insecurity triggers allowed us to come up with thoughtful questions for our user interviews. We wanted to falsely present ourselves as innocent design students who are talking to users about their social media habits to improve the experience. Obviously, transparency and honesty were not part of the plan because we needed to be completely evil from start to end. Real evil geniuses never reveal their true colors.
We asked our users:
- Which social media platforms do you use and how frequently?
- Tell us about the posts you’ve liked this past week.
- Tell us about the content you’ve recently posted and why you shared them.
- On the flip side, what kinds of posts did you see this past month that annoyed you?
- Tell us about a time you stalked someone on social media.
After doing several intercept user interviews with pedestrians and people at parks, we learned a lot about our users’ real motives behind using social media. First and foremost, we validated our assumption that people use social media for self-validation. None of our users blatantly said that (because who would admit such a thing) but their behaviors spoke volumes.
We also got valuable feedback from non-users who felt that social media was a waste of their time and has significantly interfered with the quality of their life and self-esteem. They said that stalking people made them feel terrible about themselves and have lost friends because of differences in political stance or approach to life.
In total, we conducted ten interviews, took their feedback and started mapping out our findings based on common themes. A lot of our assumptions about insecurity triggers were definitely validated. We discovered that users lean towards the explorer persona, rather than the sharer, which means that they spent significantly more time looking at other people’s content rather than posting their own. This was across all social media platforms but especially common on Instagram.
Another interesting takeaway was that users felt insecurities bubble up when they saw people who are slightly prettier, skinnier, more successful and happier than they are. If the subject in the content was someone way outside their league, they were not as worked up. When users felt somewhat relatable to the subject, they were likelier to feel more insecure.
Based on user feedback, we decided to design a solution that focuses on the Instagram explore page. Since a majority of our users are heavy explorers, we saw more potential to damage their self-esteem and make them feel bad about their life choices when they browse through other people’s content. Unlike the home page, the explore page on Instagram populates posts shared by people who are not necessarily being followed by the user.
Once we figured this out, our next challenge was to see how we could incorporate the use of artificial intelligence. We brainstormed several ways to utilize it within Instagram as an API. Should the AI post fake and mean comments from their friends to photos that the users post? Should we screw with the pictures that they post and make them look slightly uglier so they feel bad about themselves? Nope. We were going to be more evil.
The “solution”: Our plan was to use the AI technology to scan the users’ facial expressions and analyze their emotional state and populate an explore page of people who are slightly better than they are. To address the concern that users might eventually stop using Instagram, we’ll also have the AI “save” users from leaving the app just before they hit their breaking point. It’s going to be a vicious cycle of tearing the users’ self-esteem apart and shaming the crap out of them and provide them with a hint of validation before breaking down.
One of the challenges of our “solution” was being able to present it in a prototype format. Our evil plan was not just about the interaction within the app. The interaction that happens outside of the app is just as important. This is where the pitch comes in. We had 90 seconds to make a compelling argument on why our design was the most evil plan of them all. It was critical for us to work on the final prototype, while simultaneously perfecting the pitch.
Chandni and Arin were champions when it came to prototyping the final design. A typical user would start off by taking a picture of him or herself and share it with his or her network. The built-in artificial intelligence API would analyze the photo that was just uploaded, along with a live camera that looks at the users’ facial expressions and emotional state to populate a feed of content that is designed to make them feel even more insecure.
The point of our “solution” is the subtleness. Using artificial intelligence can be tricky because if it’s too obvious, users wont believe it enough to be intimidated by it. Our goal is to make people lose their self-esteem and it needed to feel believable.
It’s amazing how Instagram impacts people’s sense of self and validation. As Alexa Armstrong says on an episode of EW!, “I’m kinda bummed. I posted a pic on Insta and only got like 3 likes. I’m literally dying. One of them is from my dad.” Sara wasn’t sympathetic by shouting “EWWWW!” but I understand. They immediately took a bff-elfie (best friend forever selfie) together to get likes a.k.a. validation.
PERFECTING THE PITCH:
During the day, we had the opportunity to book brief sessions and meet with public speaking experts who helped us perfect our pitch. From all my design hackathon experiences, this would be the shortest amount of time I had to sell a product to the judges. Amos explicitly said that he would be cutting us off right after the 90 second mark and I knew he wasn’t kidding. Our pitch game had to be on point to get our message across clearly, concisely and compellingly.
We started off with a list of things we wanted to share with the judges. From there, we reworked the messaging and thought about ways to express our ideas concisely. In addition, we wanted to incorporate a compelling metaphor that describes our “solution” without us having to verbally describe it. One of us candidly described it as an addictive, yet toxic abusive relationship. And that’s all it took. Bam!
Finally, the most challenging part was tying the entire presentation into a goal. Why should the judges care? What is the point of creating an evil product? We thought about what our product does and asked ourselves if we wanted more money or more power. I want both but if we’re comparing the experience of our product to an addictive abusive relationship, then it has to be about the power. It’s the reward that we get for being able to easily manipulate others and watching them spiral down.
Our initial pitch was at around three minutes before we trimmed it down completely to less than 90 seconds. The final hour of the day was focused on getting our presentation together, polishing the wireframes and practicing the pitch. We decided that I would cover all 90 seconds of the pitch just to avoid wasting time switching from one person to another. And plus, it was a great opportunity to overcome my shyness when presenting. I like presenting but it’s still a skill I need to improve significantly.
This was, hands down, the best part of the day. Not only was it a relief to finish the project but it was time to see what other people designed. With such a unique spin on the typical UX design hackathon, I was curious to see the innovative ways that others approached the challenge. There were about twelve groups in total and we had products from deadly, robotic cats to The Hunger Games in a virtual reality app to cyber terrorism. Every type of evil was covered, that’s for sure.
After every team presented their product, the top five were selected to be scrutinized by an epic and evil panel of judges. Plenty of clever questions were asked addressing various issues such as holes in the UX research, scaling the product, budget and security threats. Out of the top five, three teams were chosen as the winners: Team Hatch.Shell in third, Team Mmmbody in second and Team F.R.I.S.K.I.E.S. as the ultimate victors!
I would do this again. In fact, I probably prefer this type of hackathon experience over the typical ones where the challenge is focused on social responsibility and being a good global citizen. Just kidding – I appreciate both sides but since this challenge had a unique twist, I had fun going all out. It took a certain personality to show up to such an event and I’m glad I went. It was fun and definitely a more productive way to spend April Fools’ Day than being the typical cunning prankster that I am. As a warning, this may be my first evil genius product but it won’t be my last.