The hardest part of solving challenges is often discovering what the heart of the problem is in the first place. You might have heard the following quote by Albert Einstein:

If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in 5 minutes.

I believe that asking the right questions is an art that cannot be underestimated: we wouldn’t want to ask the wrong questions or solve for the ‘wrong’ problem.

At HealthJam, hosted by the City of Guelph, this is exactly what we spent our time doing. Fifty citizen ‘jammers’ came together in May 2014, to learn about design thinking and to create prototypes for solutions to local health-related challenges.

As co-facilitator, the experience of leading participants through the design process was both challenging and wonderful. For the vast majority of participants, it was the first time they had taken part in either a human-centred design process, or worked collaboratively across different levels of government in the health sector to design solutions. It was inspiring to see the passion and dynamism in the room – a number of groups are continuing to meet regularly to push their projects forward.

Here, I want to share with you three takeaways that particularly resonated with me.

Defining the challenge is essential for solutions to fit

We spent the first day of the design jam focusing on understanding local health challenges from a human-centered perspective. One of the exercises we did was the “5 whys”. This is a questioning technique where teams ask “why?” five times on consecutive answers to a core question in order to find out about the underlying root cause of a particular problem. Notably, at least a couple of participants wondered aloud, “why are we asking ‘why’ so much?” Yet by the end of the day, participants were still very engaged in sharing their perspectives and delving further into problem challenges. It was an important learning exercise not to jump to pre-conceived solutions.

On day two, teams moved into ideation on solutions. By mid-morning, participants surprised themselves at how quickly they were able to prototype solutions once they started, given that they had such a clear idea of what they were solving for.

worskhop table materials

Diversity in Participation

Diversity is the cornerstone of a collaborative design process. If we compare five people of the same profession who redesign a wheelchair together to a group of five people who can inform that process from different angles (say, an occupational therapist, a wheelchair user, a nurse, an ergonomist, and an engineer), chances are that the outcome of the second group will be more robust, adaptable and user-friendly. Similarly, groups participating in a design jam thrive with a diversity of backgrounds and opinions (even though it may feel a bit icky and uncomfortable at first – I love seeing how teams gel over the course of a day or two).

This is how the format of participation sets the playing field. We had only a handful of community members at HealthJam, and other participants mentioned that their presence was critical to the collaboration process. However, additional community members at each table would have been beneficial. Too few members of any group of people may seem like tokenism, and too many may skew the outcome towards their collective interests or beliefs. This is an important point to keep in mind when deciding how groups work together (do they self-select to groups, or sit in pre-arranged groups?).

Similarly, there was a strong sentiment on behalf of HealthJam participants that the judging panel was unfair since community members weren’t represented (the panel was mostly composed of individuals at the managerial level of local health institutions). It reinforced the feeling that people with authority have power over the outcomes of prototypes, whether that was found to be true or not. If we want to be collaborative, diversity should be woven throughout the whole jamming process, including any sort of judging or feedback process.

Workshop activity

Focus on Outcome

I have long struggled with the issue of designing for impact at events like hackathons and design jams. (I once came up with the idea to create a “hack the hackathon” theme for Random Hacks of Kindness Toronto in order to improve the process, but interest was low). So when participants were introducing themselves at HealthJam, many people spoke to the fact that they were curious about what the outcomes of the event would be. People were giving two days of their time, energy and input to create solutions to challenges, and they wanted to know that this investment was going to make a difference.

Often I find that hackathons and design jams are run using a relatively standardized process rather than a process designed for a specific group of people to work towards intended outcomes (usually prototypes). I suspect that this is the main reason that has led to what is being called ‘hackathon fatigue’ or design jam fatigue’. People are tired of putting their time and energy into something that has no visible or actionable outcome, and rightly so.

Of course the networking aspect is important, as is the excitement, opportunity and – above all – learning from creating something with others who have different experiences or backgrounds from us. Learning about, and applying, design thinking principles is also critical: these are processes we can apply to our daily work.

But how can we ensure we’re really making a difference? Here are some ways we can design a process that leads to actionable outcomes, and it all has to do with building the capacity for follow-through:

  1. Host a space: Ensure there are local people and organizations who can support the outcomes of a design jam, by keeping the momentum going. It’s like riding a bike up a hill: it’s easier if you have some speed already than it is from a standstill at the bottom. Organizations could provide participants with a regular meeting time and space for them to get together and keep working. The sooner this is organized after the event, the better.
  2. Connect to resources: It’s hard to keep projects going without the adequate financial resources. Although money prizes for winning teams can reduce intrinsic motivation (for more on this, see the book Drive by Daniel Pink), teams often need the resources to build out their prototypes and implement them in a real world situation. It’s not always about money, though. People and organizations can also provide in-kind support such as business advice (especially on proof of concept or demonstration of results).
  3. Build Relationships: Teams need to have the right skills on board to keep working – both within the team, and externally. They need to be connected to the relevant organizations and networks to make their ideas a reality. Sometimes people aren’t aware of what’s already out there, so the more deeply teams and their projects can be embedded into what’s already going on, the better. For example, the Guelph HealthJam supported the Open Guelph initiative, which is opening up the government to work more closely with community members in decision-making and information sharing.


The City of Guelph and members of the local organizing committee are supporting the groups who continue to meet. At least one of the five projects at HealthJam has been chosen to refine further, and eventually implement locally. The team has been connected to local agencies that are interested in further collaboration and are creating linkages to work together. This is an example of how host organizations can play a big role in helping to make prototypes a reality. After all, why else were we asking all those questions?

It was a lot of fun to work with the HealthJam community in Guelph. I look forward to the next time I’m able to work with such a high-energy, dedicated group of participants who are questioning current services and actively looking for ways to redesign them.