Why you should be doing design challenges

Design challenges help sharpen your UX skills, offer a chance to network with other designers and create unique solutions. Here’s why you should do them

Ever wondered how to solve world hunger? What about changing the face of western democracy? Maybe you’ve thought about ways to make paying a parking ticket as simple as a click. Designers are unique in that they can come up with solutions to these problems and then try to implement them. One way to get thinking about problems and their solutions is to take part in design challenges.

In this post, Justinmind will dive into the what’s what of design challenges. What makes them good and what makes them bad? We’ll also give you a few pointers on getting started with your own design challenges, too. Shall we?

What is a design challenge?

A design challenge is a competition where an institution, company or person puts out a call for designers to solve a specific problem.

Usually, these problems are related to society and require talented designers to create innovative and practical solutions to these problems.

Take the problem of dirty water. Let’s imagine a city has a problem with unsanitary water and a slow to act government. A quick, cheap and easy to implement solution is needed.

A self-aware government might understand its own limitations and create a design challenge to help solve the issue by asking designers to come together.

Design challenges are great for designers and entrepreneurs to create products that have a social impact. These challenges empower designers to collaborate, improve their skills and tackle unique problems.

What a design challenge isn’t

Design challenges are an opportunity for designers to flex their critical thinking and problem-solving skills. We’re making a distinction between design challenges and design exercises because some people use them interchangeably.

A design exercise is something that crops up during a UX interview. Companies use them to test the skills of the people they interview.

Usually, the interview process goes a little something like this: you get screened, your portfolio is reviewed, you have an interview then you’re sent an exercise. Afterward, a decision is made to hire or not hire you.

Design exercises like this fill some designers with dread. Other designers don’t mind the challenge.

Matthew Ström, the design lead at Bit.ly, says of design exercises:

“The exercise usually fails to simulate real design work. In the case of take-home exercises, everyone misses out on the unpredictable nature of day-to-day design work.

With whiteboarding, we simulate a bizarre world where all design happens on whiteboards. No matter what, asking a candidate to solve problems out of context is setting them up for failure.”

And Jared Spool, agrees with him.

Design exercises are not always useful for designers or the companies hiring them.

They add unnecessary pressure and don’t give you genuine insight into how a person works in reality. Jared Spool believes it’s better to use comparable experience than forcing a test on somebody to see how they work.

How are design challenges different?

Design exercises are often reserved for interviews. Design challenges are mostly used in classrooms. They can be used to initiate a student-led project and is a way to move through the design thinking process.

But they don’t have to be confined to just the classroom. As we’ve mentioned, governments and nonprofits use them as a call for ideas (which have their own drawbacks). Even people can create design challenges à la 36 days of type. That means you can set yourself a design challenge.

Design challenges can help you maintain critical thinking and problem-solving skills — essential for any designer. They’re fun and good practice, too.

The truth is you can get a group of friends together and do a design challenge. You could do it in the workplace too. It’s a way to stay motivated, inspired and to work with others.

In Lean UX, it’s common to create internal pilot teams to drive innovation. Get together a bunch of like-minded colleagues and solve a problem. A design challenge by any other name.

Jeff Gothelf, the brains behind Lean UX, says of these kinds of teams:

“You want these folks to get to know each other, to build trust, shared language and rapport, and through that simple spending of time together they start to look at different ways of working and respect each other’s opinions more. They start to think of themselves as a unit that wins or loses together”

The beauty of doing design challenge like this in the workplace environment is that it gives visibility to user experience design and challenges the workplace orthodoxy.

Why design challenges are great

There are several benefits to design challenges. These benefits can help make you a better designer. Let’s take a look.

A design challenge promotes collaboration and cohesion. How? By working with other people, you’ll come to understand their skill set, how they work, their strengths and their weaknesses.

They also stimulate learning and exploration. By working with more people, you have a large pool of ideas (good and bad, admittedly), diverse experiences to pull from and a chance to leave your comfort zone.

Tanner Christensen, a product designer at Atlassian, writes that design challenges are a way to authentically share and reflect on your own problem-solving process.

In brief, design challenges allow you to:

  1. Understand how other designs approach problems
  2. Explore ideas and innovate
  3. Boost your problem solving and critical thinking skills
  4. Show skills that aren’t immediately obvious from your portfolio

And those should lead you to be a better designer.

Why design challenges aren’t always so great

The disadvantage both design exercises and design challenges share is they are a way for those with power, money and resources to get free spec work without having to pay designers. Never good.

A call for ideas or a competition from a company that wants to innovate, for example, could get hundreds if not thousands of submissions from designers. Designers who have put in the time and work to help create a solution. And only one might win. The likelihood that you’ll receive any feedback is small and your work may be plagiarized.

There’s an apt quote, possibly lost in the wilderness of the internet by now, by Spike Jones regarding this type of work:

When a prospect who owned a world-wide chain of high-end hotels wanted us to do a complete spec identity for his business, I replied, “Okay. But our team needs to stay in at least three of your hotels in different countries before we decide if we’ll do the spec work. If we like the experience, then we’ll do it. If not, then we’ll pass.”

“But we don’t give away nights at our hotels for free.”

And then he paused and said, “Point taken.”

If you’re a Very New Designer, you can use a design challenge in your portfolio. This could lead to further opportunities for work. On the other hand, you could burn out from the pressure and suffer from the lack of payment. The moral of the story is it’s your decision.

How to do a design challenge

Now you know why design challenges can be a good thing but how do you do a design challenge?

There are a few ways. As we’ve said already, nonprofits and other organizations, including government bodies, might put out a call for ideas. The Design Council, for example, is a charity and the UK government’s advisor on design.

One of their design challenges was for patient dignity. For many people, using the hospital is a worrying and vulnerable experience, especially patients in mixed sexed accommodation. The Design Council put out a call for UK designers, engineers, architects and manufacturers to create solutions to the problem of patient dignity. What’s stopping you from offering your own point of view?

Jon Crabb in UX Collective has created a list of 100 UX problems. The problems range from the mundane to the fantastical. Our personal fave is “locate your locked bike and be informed if it moves”.

Then there’s the world around you. What are some of the user experiences that big companies like Airbnb, Dropbox and Google are creating? How could you do it better than them? Take an application you love, a website you visit a lot or even study your own commute to work. Can you find ways to improve them? That’s a design challenge waiting to happen.

Never forget the wonderful resource that is Meetup. You could create your own UX design challenge group for your city. Get people involved who are interested in user experience design. For each project, you could rotate the roles on a project to discover which area everyone likes.

When approaching a design challenge of your own making, there are a few things to bear in mind:

Give yourself constraints

Constraints will give you necessary focus. Without constraints, your design may become sloppy, directionless and uninspired. Constraints help to bring out the creativity in us and this is essential if you want to design well.

Charles Eames, the man behind the famous chair, said of constraints:

“Here is one of the few effective keys to the design problem — the ability of the designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible — his willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints. Constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time and so forth.”

Write down any assumptions

Assumptions are a good starting point. They’re things we believe to be true but don’t have any evidence. That’s why we put our assumptions to the test in the design process. But getting them out of your head and onto paper is a great way to give yourself a sense of direction in a design challenge.

It’s vital that you test these assumptions and don’t treat them as gospel because you might end up creating a solution that serves nobody.

Create a deadline

Like the other two recommendations, this one will also give your design challenge focus. A deadline can make you more productive and reduce stress. When you have a deadline you can hold yourself accountable and maintain the momentum of the project.

Ryan Robinson of The Balance writes that deadlines can also inspire confidence, innovation and creativity which are three ingredients of really good design. After all, who wants unconfident, uninspired and uncreative design?

Make a team of the right people

Find the right people. Easier said than done. Places like Meetup, Facebook groups, Twitter chats, relevant forums, university societies and classes are great places to find people who are interested in what you’re interested in.

It doesn’t matter if you’ve got 3 designers and no researcher. A way around that is to rotate roles on a regular basis so everyone can exposed to different aspects of the user experience design process.

Why you should be doing design challenges — the takeaway

When it comes to a design challenge, remember to bear in mind both the advantages and the disadvantages. They can be both good and bad so learning to spot the difference is itself a skill. Only you can make the decision as to whether or not they’re worth it.