Packet with problem statement

A few short minutes ago Chris Bernard gave the PhizzPop Design Challenge teams their problem to tackle over the next ~58 hours. Here is the challenge that they have to create a solution for:

Your Challenge is to come up with recommendations for how digital technology can help [An Airline] create unique experience on the Web and within the aircraft and take into account how we can connect with the world and devices that we use to do it. Your solution should demonstrate innovations in planning or preparation activities or the personal activities that occur during travel. Your general concepts should be inclusive and demonstrate “thinking” if not functionality about both experiences. Your solution may use any combination of web (ASP.NET, Silverlight) or application (WPF) components.

There is a lot more information in the 9 page packet, including a list of 3 personas that you are creating the solution for.

To go from the loosely defined problem to a concept to design to implementation in that short amount of time is going to be the toughest part of the challenge. Kevin Marshall the team captain from Clarity Consulting is rumored to have brought in sleeping bags for his team. It will be interesting to see the different trade-offs that the teams will be making over the next couple of days.

A story about a (mini) design challenge

This past April I got to attend an ASP.NET AJAX class put on by Fritz Onion of Pluralsight. The class was about 2/3 designers and about 1/3 developers and all the stereotypes applied, I think everyone could easily pick out who was the designer and who was the developer (but everyone got along just famously). A quick note: I am using the terms developer and designer as a broad stereotypes, there were lots of flavors of people in the room (architects, web designers, creative directors, etc.). One of the neatest things in the class was a free form hands-on lab / contest. Fritz gave everyone a starter application (which was a Netflix style web site) and told everyone to “go to town” on adding AJAX to the site. At the end of the 2 hour lab anyone who wanted to submit their creation to the contest could. In true American Idol style, Fritz and Dr. Joe narrowed it down to a few contestants and then the class voted on the winners. 2 solutions rose to the top: One by a developer and one by a designer.

The developer’s solution was the best technical implementation of AJAX that was possible in 2 hours. Every page of the site was AJAXed up and he used several different techniques (Panels, Web Services, Control Extensions). He spent his time focused on making the site really flow, but really did not touch any elements of the User Interface. The designer spent his time improving the look and feel of the site, updating the CSS and adding DHTML animation effects (using the features of the AJAX Control Toolkit). After 2 hours it did look very appealing. There was only 1 problem: There was no AJAX on the site. When it came right down to it the site itself was still using postbacks, there was no client side web service calls and other than using the stock components of the toolkit, no control extension.

The designer won the contest “hands down”. Only a few people raised their hands for the best technical implementation. This example shows the need for the PhizzPop teams to strike a balance between creating a pleasing experience and a technically accurate one and if you have to focus on just one on them, the pleasing experience should be where you invest your time.

Jeff Atwood just posted a blog article yesterday titled Presentation: Be Vain that talks about the need to focus on the presentation of the software. Jeff’s blog post focused on the shipping software, but I think it also applies to the design challenge as well:

Avoid creating software that’s beautiful on the inside but ugly on the outside. Be vain. Make something that looks as good as it works. If you pay attention to the presentation of your software, you just may find the rest of the world is a lot more willing to pay attention, too.

Chris Bernard summed this up in this advice to the design teams:

“Things that are beautiful and that work are what seals the deal”