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Hacks/Hackers Workshop: How to ask questions & build great designs

As 2013 drew to a close, Hacks/Hackers Dublin held a pre-holiday meetup at the Irish Times building. This was the second meetup for the group, which was established in the summer of 2013, and it drew over 40 members to a team-building workshop facilitated by Justin Ferrell, journalist and Fellowships Director of Stanford University’s innovative d.school.

Dublin's new Hacks/Hackers at the beginning of Justin Ferrell's workshop

Dublin’s new Hacks/Hackers at the beginning of Justin Ferrell’s workshop

Ferrell is a charming and enthusiastic career innovator who has worked as a journalist for the Washington Post, and has designed several award-winning projects, including the investigative series Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. His approach to design is ‘human-centred’, and the process he led us through explored what this means, in practice, for design.

As the hacks and hackers arrived in the room, we didn’t quite know what to expect – we just knew that Ferrell would be leading a workshop. Would we hear about his adventures in journalism? His epiphanies at Tiananmen Square? Would we have to stand up and actually say something as part of this workshop? The interest in Ferrell’s work, and in the newly forming chapter of Hacks/Hackers Dublin, was clearly evidenced by that fact that so many people showed up without knowing exactly what to expect.

Our design materials: back to primary school arts and crafts!

Our design materials: back to primary school arts and crafts!

In the end, Ferrell took us through a deceptively simple exercise: pair up with someone at your table, interview them about what they would like in a perfect wallet, and then design that wallet for them. We were given a pen and paper to jot down notes (like a good reporter), a selection of coloured cardstock, scissors, tape and some rubber bands; not exactly the tools of cutting-edge design expected by a generation raised on iThis and iThat.

However, the material aspect of the design quickly became a secondary concern, as Ferrell took us through the various stages of the exercise, which were mostly based on asking better questions. In the end, the exercise turned out to be a fun lesson in the art of listening, and learning how to ask questions that don’t initially present themselves as obvious.

Inspired Design.

Inspired Design.

In other words, Ferrell was teaching us how to be better communicators, and therefore better requirements analysts – skills useful for both hacks and hackers alike. Instead of focusing on the nuts and bolts of design, we were encouraged to allow our analysis and questions follow our partner’s stated needs, but also their more implicit desires. If a question about wallet function prompted a discussion about the family photographs contained in the wallet, we were asked to allow our next questions to follow that topic, instead of forcing an immediate return to the pragmatic applications. In this way, the session used the principles of free and open brainstorming to ultimately encourage more innovative outcomes (many pairs abandoned a traditional wallet altogether). It was also about allowing intuition to enter into the process of communication and collaboration, and allowing a conversation to go in directions not originally intended. By focusing on process over product, the argument seemed to go, one eventually ends up with a better product.

He made us stand up, after all.

He made us stand up, after all.

Overall, the workshop was an excellent team building exercise for our new Hacks/Hackers chapter – it served as an ice-breaker, as well as a helpful introduction to methods we could use when hacking new pathways into journalism.

If you are interested to know more about Justin’s Hacks/Hackers Dublin design workshop, we have a treat for you! You can now watch the workshop’s video on Vimeo, thanks to the Irish Times for recording it.

So… what’s next? Hacks/Hackers Dublin now has 130 members, and plans are currently in the works to hold a one- or two-day hackathon. If you’re interested in joining the chapter, or have ideas about projects to pursue, visit the group page at http://www.meetup.com/hacks-hackers-dublin/ and follow @HacksHackersDUB on Twitter.

Hacks/Hackers Dublin is a chapter of the international Hacks/Hackers organisation. The  chapter founder is Bahareh R. Heravi (Digital Humanities and Journalism group, Inisght Centre at NUI Galway) and the co-organisers of the chapter are Natalie Harrower (Digital Repository of Ireland, Royal Irish Academy), Gavin Sheridan (Storyful), Paul Michael Watson (Storyful) and Jarred McGinnis (Semantic News Technologist and the former Head of Research, Semantic Technologies at the Press Association). We would also like to thank  Johnny Ryan (The Irish Times) for co-organising and hosting this event.

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