Mar 20, 2012

Unhacking Public Transit: Systemic Problems Require Design Thinking—and a Story

James Goldman's picture
James Goldman
Content Strategist

A couple of weeks ago, I joined five of my Hot Studio colleagues to participate in an “Unhackathon” hosted by Mix & Stir Studio at the California College of the Arts (CCA). The event's purpose was to help San Francisco solve some of the city's most pressing public transportation problems. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I was eager to work with a new team of “Hotties” and to indulge a personal obsession with public transportation. (I gave up my car a few years ago.)

For this Unhackathon, our team tackled problems surrounding SF MUNI's communication platforms. If you're unfamiliar with Unhackathon events, here is a rundown of the format:

On a Friday night after work, teams of designers, strategists, coders, and other creative types met at CCA to hear public transit officials speak about their jobs and their most pressing concerns. The teams reconvened on Saturday to construct a proposal that used existing infrastructure and resources to create implementable solutions that would have a genuine, positive impact on the city's riders. There was no incubation period—this was an 8-hour pressure cooker for ideas. Then we presented our proposals.

One thing I noticed about our team early on, and I really like this about Hot in general, is that we capitalize on collective knowledge. We don’t create “design solutions” or “technology solutions” or “brand solutions,” but solutions encompassing all these things. The line between content strategy (my discipline) and business strategy or design becomes blurred in a most inspirational and productive way.

Mayor Lee gets a progress report from the team

What we did:

At Hot, we all have great ideas. This is sewn into the fabric of the organization. However, pruning our ideas down to the ones that best meet the needs of our clients and support an overall vision is where the proverbial rubber hits the road. So before diving into a brainstorming effort we developed some principles to guide and help evaluate our ideas.  

Our solution had to be:

  • Immediately implementable: Every client needs concrete, workable solutions, but none more than a local municipality.  
  • Visionary: While practicality is important, there were a lot of great minds participating in this exercise. At one point, even the mayor was a working participant. Our solution not only had to solve an immediate problem, but give MUNI a path to future success.
  • Technology agnostic: San Francisco is home to over ¾ of a million people with additional millions of tourists, commuters, and business people who rely on MUNI every day. If our solution merely helped those with smartphones, for example, it wouldn't be the right one. It had to work for everyone. Technology elitism just wouldn’t cut it.

The process from that point on was a condensed version of Hot’s problem-solving process. We brainstormed, debated, researched, tested our ideas against our principles, established consensus, and iterated until we had a solution we felt confident in. Once we had our solution, we applied our cross-disciplinary skills to build a presentation that summed up our entire idea in five minutes. Wow, Twain’s sardonic wit on the difficulty of brevity never seemed more pertinent. (“If I'd had more time, I'd have written a shorter letter.”) This was a frenetic pace for such a difficult task but in the end, due to excellent leadership, organization and the talent of my teammates, we had a presentation that didn’t merely explain our solution, but told a compelling story.

FACT: If you want big ideas, you need big walls

Was it of the caliber Hot typically presents to our clients? With one day to do months-worth of work, probably not. But that wasn't the point. We practiced the design process in hyper drive. It was about muscle memory. It was about staying focused in even the most confusing and pressurized situations. It was about doing what you do best and letting others do what they do best. It was an exercise both in leadership and self-organization. (My Scrum trainer would have loved it!)

So what did we come up with?

In short, we created a solution that uses the real-time knowledge of MUNI riders in conjunction with existing data sets to empower riders to make more informed decisions.  

  • It uses simple feedback workflows, data integration, and digestible data displays.
  • It benefits all riders by using only currently available display and data input resources. (NextBus signage and phone texting for example.)
  • It has a path for growth as new data and display sources become available.
  • It uses iconography to get data from riders and similar iconography to display it.

Better information, better decisions, happier riders

I regrouped with the team a few days ago and, interestingly, even with the benefit of hindsight we unanimously felt the idea was strong—which was surprising. With so much pressure, we could have easily created an idea that was as much noise as substance. We all agreed that we wish we had had more time to craft our message; 8 hours was a little tight. As a content strategist I completely agree. Crafting your message is as difficult and as vital as creating your solution. I’m very excited to be part of an organization that shares this value.

In the end, the “Unhackathon” made us better at our jobs. That alone was worth dedicating a long but invigorating Saturday to helping our community. Thanks Mayor Lee, “Mix and Stir,” CCA, and all the event sponsors for giving us this fun learning opportunity.

Now, onto the next challenge. With perhaps a little more time?

Here is Hot’s roster of all-star Unhackers who spent a Friday night and all day Saturday tackling this tough problem:

Elysa Soffer  Strategist
Laurel Tripp  User Experience Designer
Zach Gibson  Brand Experience Designer
James Goldman  Content Strategist
Eric Grant  Director, Brand Experience
Jason Punzalan  Director, Technology

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James 's picture

To me the "un" is a reference to BarCamps which are also referred to as "Unconferences." However, you are correct, unlike most hackathons there was no coding. I've actual been part of "traditional" hackathons and as a non-coder I liked this better. When I think about how difficult it was to formulate and present an idea in this hyper environment the concept of actually building software seems less productive. Code based hackathons are great for coders to develop "muscle memory" similar types of I eluded to in the post. However, I think the ideas we came up with were closer to deployable than any hacks I've seen at a traditional hackathon. (Queue developer eye roll ;-) Recently, I read a hackathon invitation that stated under the rules "no idea people allowed." I understand the sentiment but you've got to realize how silly that sounds.

If the goal is to practice writing code then a traditional hackathon works great. If the goal is to foster great ideas, then I prefer this method.

Thanks for the question!

Tim Sheiner's picture


Nice write up! As a process guy, I really appreciated learning about the format. Do I understand the 'un' part of unhackathon as 'no coding' ?

If that is correct, I'm curious to know how you feel as a non-coder (same camp as me!) to have the forum defined as 'not' another type of forum?


Andy Nash's picture

Neat idea. Have you written up the idea in more detail somewhere?

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