The Origins of Swarm Design

I spent a long time at Microsoft as Director of UX in the Design Excellence Team. Before that, I was a tenured Professor of Design at the University of Illinois and I’m also an industrial designer. Even with all that experience, a spontaneous creativity event completely revolutionized my thinking about design. As one of the founders of Microsoft’s OneWeek Hackathon, that event started me on an astonishing journey. The result is what I call swarm design.

Most importantly, it’s actively in operation in a wide range of global organizations. Basically, it’s the gamification of the design thinking process. It makes sense – since globally we’re moving to a place that’s very design-centric.

Begin The Journey

Microsoft delivered so much technology and led a huge movement in providing software to the world. Then suddenly we were at risk of becoming irrelevant. Nine years later, we emerged as a design leader. During that transformation, I came away with some incredible insights.

Furthermore, we had to be very strategic in thinking about different levels of design. Plus, swarm design enables everyone in the company to engage in the design process.

Now there was a core of people in the company, maybe a few thousand, who had true design mastery. They were deeply trained and experienced. Then there were design fluent and design literate groups.

Swarm design literacy means you know it’s not business first, nor technology first. It’s not about the logic of construction but rather the logic of use. Once you get this, the game changes. Microsoft went through this change, and it remains a dominant company founded on the logic of use.

This led me to wonder if this strategy could be used in a broader, more global manner. Could we maybe even save the planet this way?

Hackathon Revelation

At Microsoft, I was privileged to help drive the culture of prototyping and customer centricity. Part of this was the chance to organize the first-ever OneWeek Hackathon. About 20,000 people participated and one particular project blew my mind – the eye gaze project.

The objective was to help people with ALS – a motor neuron disease that can lead to near total body paralysis. Within 38 hours, a team designed a wheelchair that could be driven around using eye movement alone. From my perspective, something incredible happened there. Something deeper. It was not a waterfall approach. Instead, it was more like a swarm.

Swarm design is emergent creativity where you have goal-oriented people who embrace chaos and a structure created to move towards results. You accept that you must do whatever it takes to allow creativity to occur.  

For me, the next step was to consider existing scaffolds and mold this idea into heuristics that everyone could adopt.

Creative Abundance

Is there really enough creativity in the world to tap into?

Take Richard. He’s nine years old and lives on the plains of Kenya. He doesn’t have much education and his job was to keep cattle safe from prowling lions. The other boys in his area solved this problem by putting out poison-laced pieces of meat.

On his own, Richard experimented and came up with a contraption that sets off blinking lights when lions get close. His raw creativity was waiting to be unleashed – and the lions got scared away.

Based upon these kinds of observations, I set out to develop a systematic, elastic, repeatable process which you can apply to any problem. If you follow these steps, you’ll end up generating an innovative and disruptive result.

 

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About the Speaker
Surya Vanka
Authentic Design Founder
Surya Vanka is the Founder of Authentic Design - a firm that utilizes the “design swarms” theory to create unique product solutions for customers. Prior to starting Authentic Design, Surya worked for more than 15 years at Microsoft in many UX leadership roles - introducing the design thinking process to the company and pioneering the company’s first-ever Hackathon event. Prior to joining Microsoft, Surya was a design professor at the University of Illinois. Surya holds a degree from The Ohio State University and currently lives in Seattle.

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