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Design Competitions Succeed in Spreading the Usability Message

World Usability Day 2006 festivities were as varied as the number of social and professional cultures that celebrated the day. Some communities held mini-conferences for practitioners to network and share experiences. Others held outreach activities in museums and other public locales. One particularly effective way to participate is to design something that embodies good usability. Worldwide, students and industry professionals did just that.

The World Usability Day planning committees in Atlanta, Georgia, Chicago, Illinois, and the North Carolina Research Triangle area, as well as in Hyderabad, India, organized design competitions to identify existing systems that are poorly designed, or to design new systems that maximize usability. In keeping with the 2006 global theme, “Making Life Easy,” the focus areas for the competitions included entertainment, finance, tourism, relationships, and communication. Competitors worked in a variety of user-centered design disciplines, such as interaction design, industrial design, media design, communication design, and architecture.


In Chicago, Shikha Desai and the World Usability Day planning committee designed a competition geared towards local students in user experience (UX) fields with special emphasis on four aspects of life—work, finance, entertainment, and relationships. Participants were given an opportunity to think about interesting usability issues and design topics outside of their normal academic curricula. Additionally, they were encouraged to perform user research, articulate the selected design problem in terms of user needs, and provide business justification for their ideas. Each of these skills is critical for students preparing for the work environment. Their submissions were evaluated for excellence in problem definition, innovation, and presentation.

Three awards were granted. The Gold prize went to John T. McGowan for “Auto-Call,” a teleconferencing application designed to overcome common user problems, most notably when users agree to join a conference call but then forget to dial in. Kelly Noah, the Silver winner, proposed “Finabler,” a web-based money management tool that, through an easy user interface, aggregates multiple accounts, encourages goal-setting, simplifies budget-tracking, and supports other key use cases. John McGowan received a great surprise on World Usability Day when he learned that he had also won the Bronze award for his warranty tracker submission.

The judges, all professors or professionals from the Chicago area (Aga Bojko of UserCentric, Ken Douros of Motorola, and Adam Steele of DePaul University) were eager to reward the Gold, Silver, and Bronze winners with $200, $100, and $50 American Express gift certificates. In addition, the winning submissions were displayed during the World Usability Day Chicago 2006 event. This offered the winners visibility and exposure to the nearly 250 User Experience managers and practitioners who attended that day. One of the submitters is even pursuing a patent for the competition submission.


As with the Chicago contest, the Atlanta-area UX community also highlighted the work of local students. Catherine Jamal, a usability engineer at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, worked with the local Association for Computer Machinery Computer-human Interaction Special Interest Group (ACM-CHI) chapter to organize the second annual student scholarship competition. Submissions came from graduate students seeking to make a significant original contribution to either research or practice in the field of human-computer interaction (HCI).

The judges selected the work of Erika Shehan and Shivam Goyal, PhD candidates in Human-Centered Computing at Georgia Institute of Technology. Their focus was on “making the invisible visible” within the context of home networking systems. Their research revealed that in households where digital networking systems are installed, most residents don’t understand the inner workings of their own systems. Although users can see the equipment, its infrastructure and status are unknown to them, rendering configuration, upgrades, and troubleshooting virtually impossible. Erica and Shivam developed a prototype that visualized this “unseeable” information and used think-aloud techniques to evaluate it. Overall, their hypothesis was proven, although the acceptance rate for experts lagged behind novices. Erika and Shivam plan to iterate on their design in hopes of addressing the needs of both user types. As they pursue their doctorate degrees, Erika and Shivam will further their research in this area, and the shared $500 scholarship that they received will serve as encouragement for them to continue.

This yearly student competition has been a successful activity for the Atlanta usability community. Local professionals enjoy seeing the research in progress at the surrounding colleges and universities, while the student competitors appreciate the opportunity to present their work, as well as receive constructive feedback throughout the process.

North Carolina  

In North Carolina’s Research Triangle, or the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, the TriUPA chapter hosted an “Interactionary.” Modeled after Scott Berkun’s original design sports competition which debuted at the CHI 2000 conference, TriUPA’s Interactionary brought together teams who tackled design solutions in real time while entertaining and educating the audience about their underlying design processes.

On World Usability Day, TriUPA ran two competitions, one for professionals and another for students. Professionals from GlaxoSmithKline and IBM and students from North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina fought to prove their design prowess. Each team had ten minutes to design a living room organizer for books, DVDs, and computer games which parents and small children with learning disabilities could use. A panel of experts from companies like IBM, Touch30, and Insight Product Development interacted with the competitors, thoroughly examining what they were doing, while the audience participated in the judging process as well. The winning teams hailed from GlaxoSmithKline and North Carolina State.

The GlaxoSmithKline team took the “divide and conquer” approach, splitting into smaller teams focused on user research and design. Their design addressed a specific use case: how to encourage young children to clean up after themselves. The proposed solution was both child-friendly and fun to use. Given the limited timeframe, the proposed solution didn’t address the entire problem space as articulated in the contest rules. However, this team compensated for this shortfall with their strong organization and user-centered processes. In fact, this was also the only team to invite an audience member to participate in the post-design usability evaluation.

The North Carolina State team also started off well, with excellent organization, teamwork, and time management. This team engaged the audience during the ideation stage, soliciting requirements and design ideas from the parents in attendance. Their design focused on the organization of the physical artifacts, incorporating color-coded shelves and a wheeled bin. Although the design did not account for all of the users’ needs, the proposed solution was pragmatic and implementable.

As Berkun describes on his website, an Interactionary is “an experiment in design education. The idea is to explode the process of design by forcing insane time constraints and asking teams of designers to work together in front of a live audience. From what we’ve seen, it forces the discussion of design process, teamwork, and organization, and asks important questions about how designers do what they do.” In the region deemed by the 2000 U.S. Census as the most educated in the country, with the highest number of PhDs per capita, it’s no surprise that TriUPA found a fun and educational way to spend World Usability Day.


In Hyderabad, India, a different type of competition emerged. Instead of highlighting good design, the local usability practitioners protested poorly designed products. Kaladhar Bapu of (UMO) organized the “Boycott Bad Design” event to help raise awareness about the importance of usability in the Indian market.

In UMO’s estimation, “T here are about 30,000 unusable objects around us, not just in public places but everywhere else including our homes. In all it will take about five years of our precious lifetime to learn using these badly designed products, systems, and environments.” The objective of this competition was to remind the participants and audience how much they’ve come to accept or overlook these technological annoyances as part of life and to encourage them to step outside their complacency and take action.

The boycott yielded more than 300 entries exposing poor design in software installation programs, mixing jars, battery enclosures, bottle caps, mobile phones, matches, designer windows, gas cylinders, and emergency lights, among other things.

A jury of well-known user experience professionals selected the ten “worst” submissions and awarded a cash prize of Rs 3000 (approximately $65 USD) to Shashank Shekhar, Henrik Olsen, Komal Mangu, Bhanu Prakash, Saurabh Malhotra, Sudhir Bhosale, Yogish L Shettigar, Vijay Saradhi, Apurva Patel, and Srikar V. R. Akupatti . Where possible, their feedback will be documented and shared with the appropriate developers with hopes that future products will be improved .

Balancing this criticism of bad designs with a bit of levity, UMO also organized an International Cartoon Contest. With the theme “ Mobile Mishaps,” the competition drew hundreds of humorous submissions highlighting troublesome moments that users often experience while operating their mobile phones.

The jury evaluated each submission on criteria such as creativity, humor, visual communication, presentation, persuasiveness, originality, cleverness, relevance of content, and execution. Prizes were granted for first, second, and third place, and there were five special mention awards as well. Enrico Juqueira Ayres of Maranhao, Brazil won first place for his reminder about the dangers of driving while talking. The remaining award recipients were Milenko Kosanovic ( Serbia & Montenegro), Zygmunt Figura ( Poland), Emerson Carvalho De Souza ( Brazil), Manoj Chopra ( India), Yuriy Kosobukin ( Ukraine), Vivek Thakkar ( India), Muhammet Bakir ( Turkey), Heino Partanen ( Finland), S. Rama Narasimham ( India), and B. G. Gujjar ( India).

Although the five design competitions varied in implementation, they served similar purposes: each encouraged participants to examine closely some aspect of their daily lives in search of better, more user-centered experiences. Each championed design excellence, endorsed the tenets of good usability, and advocated good business sense. Each was a celebration of the user experience field and its practitioners.

Within a variety of contexts, competitions of this sort have been used successfully as a means of propagating the values of a given community. For instance, professionals in the fields of architecture, product design, and visual communication annually submit their work to an assembly of their peers hoping to prove that they embody the standards of their design discipline. The user experience field would benefit greatly by adopting this technique for advertising and advancing our body of knowledge. As a community, let’s embrace this model to further the work of our field.