No matter where you work or what you are working on, the ultimate goal is (or should be) to elevate your products and/or services through innovation. As designers, we have a unique perspective — especially regarding user experience. I have found that one of the best ways to encourage design innovation is to open up the conversation and welcome a multitude of ideas and perspectives.
At VMware, we hold competitions called Borathons — our version of the classic hackathon. It’s a great way to surface and cultivate ideas that can help you take your own user experience to the next level. In this post, I’ll share how the VMware Design team plans our design Borathons and explain how we use them to impact our products and services.
What is a design Borathon?
VMware Borathons are usually held for engineers, who brainstorm and make working demos. The design team borrowed this framework and adapted it to fit our less-technical participants. In our design Borathons, we specify a time period and invite participants to work on any ideas they like. By partnering with engineers, product managers, and other stakeholders, we help educate the entire team about “design thinking” and how research plays a role throughout the entire design process.
While a working demo is the goal for an engineering Borathon, it’s a different story for designers. You may have seen your share of design mockups — unfinished illustrations of how the designer intends to implement the idea in the ultimate product design. But before we ever create a mockup, we spend a lot of time conducting research with customers and on our products. We review data. We meet with stakeholders. Then we assemble all of these pieces and begin to formulate a concept and a plan. After we gain approval and alignment, we pass our mockups and prototypes to engineers for implementation.
How to organize a design Borathon
If you’d like to hold a design Borathon at your company, here are my recommendations, based on my experience here at VMware. Following this formula is a great way to engage the highest number of participants and surface the best ideas.
1. Get support from leadership by clarifying the process and the expected outcomes. You may have a great concept for your Borathon. But in order to get approval to hold the competition, you’ll need to make sure that your vision is defined and specific. Planning an event is like solving a design problem. Take your time. Write down an outline. Make sure to specify the value you expect to derive, the participants you’d like to invite, when and where the competitions will take place, how you will evaluate submissions and outcomes, and how long the process would take from start to finish. Then it’s time to schedule a meeting with your manager to share your vision and explain its value. I also suggest “socializing” your plan with other stakeholders. Invite their feedback, iterate, and refine.
2. Recruit an awesome team. Make no mistake: planning and holding a design Borathon is a lot of work. You’ll need teammates who feel as passionate about the idea as you do, so choose wisely! I suggest defining clear roles and responsibilities for each team member.
3. Hold a brainstorming meeting. Share your outline and then begin to sort through the details. For example:
- When will you hold the event? (It goes without saying that you should ensure that you avoid holidays or other company events).
- How will you advertise the event? I suggest leveraging your company’s internal social platforms, team meetings, internal newsletters, and so on.
- How will participants register for the event? I prefer an efficient online method, such as registering through a website.
- Who will judge and what will the criteria be for winners?
4. Find creative ways to promote the event. There’s nothing worse than having a party where no one shows up, right? Make sure this doesn’t happen to you by promoting and letting people know about the event. If you need help, ask your leadership team to see if there are other vehicles you can leverage. I always ask if the leaders would share the event with other teams, such as engineering and product management. Ask if you can utilize all-hands or “town hall” meetings to generate excitement.
In the design Borathon I organized, I reached out to the senior staff team and asked each of them to record a short video explaining why they were excited about the Borathon and what they hoped the event would produce. It was super effective and helped us get more attention and enthusiastic participants.
5. Have a mechanism in place to support Borathon participants. In my experience, participants come up with tons of questions as they work on their ideas. We assign a planning team for each set of participants. We make sure they are available to help at any point in the process. Because we are very focused on accessibility at VMware, we also assign an accessibility expert to each team.
6. Remember that the journey doesn’t end after the winners are selected. The goal of the Borathon is to surface innovative ideas that can be integrated into your company’s products and services. So once the judges have selected the winning teams, invite those participants to present their projects to design leadership. Leadership can offer helpful feedback and critiques, so participants can iterate and improve on their ideas and prototypes. Make sure to remind participants to document their ideas for future development.
Don’t underestimate the potential value
We were so excited to see the variety of participants who entered our first design Borathon at VMware. While we anticipated participants from product management and engineering teams, we were excited to see that people from marketing and business teams also wanted to be part of the journey to create better VMware user experiences. We had 115 registered participants with 38 teams. Ultimately, 31 teams submitted their work. Six teams were awarded the same average high scores and we invited them all to pitch their ideas to product-design leadership.
Some final tips
- Don’t wait until you feel you are “ready.” It might sound counter-intuitive, but I’d never led a company-wide event before. If I’d waited until I felt “qualified” to lead the Borathon, I might never have done it at all! The best way to get started is to just jump in with both feet. There’s so much to learn and so many opportunities to exercise your skills. And even the most experienced event leader will miss things. It’s just part of the process. You don’t have to be perfect.
- Delegate tasks and share the glory. One mistake I made planning my first design Borathon was to take on too much of the responsibility. I didn’t want my teammates to be overwhelmed. But I wasn’t thinking about the fact that on the other side of the responsibility is the impact that each individual can make and the sense of accomplishment it can impart. So I began to delegate, being very careful to clarify each participant’s responsibility. In the end, I was tremendously proud of both the team and the event.
- Be empathetic to the people you work with along the way. No matter what role you play, it is the success of the team that matters. So, encourage everyone to help each other as much as possible. Make sure to recognize everyone’s contributions during team and/or company meetings.
- Keep your focus on the present moment. Planning a design Borathon is like running a marathon. There are many, many small goals you must achieve along the way to the finish line. So try to stay focused on the work involved with the current phase, instead of becoming overwhelmed by the mountain of tasks ahead of you. (Have you ever heard the saying “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time!”) Focusing on each milestone, one at a time, will ultimately lead to the best outcome.
It’s your turn!
Taking the lead in planning a design Borathon is a challenge. But it’s also a great opportunity to grow. You will improve your leadership and communication skills. I hope you’ll try to organize a similar event for your organization and that it produces fabulous innovative ideas!
By the way…if you are interested in becoming part of VMware’s design team and maybe even working on our next design Borathon, great news: we’re hiring talented UX researchers, designers, and more. Best of luck!