This weekend, I had the pleasure of attending  UXXU as one of 50 invited participants from across the US. UXXU was a wildly ambitious effort to design systemic solutions for some of the most vexing social challenges. On January 28th and 29th, 40 top UX designers and 10 gifted visual designers convened in Chicago to tackle problems that matter in the first-ever design competition of its kind. Assisting the designers were executives from the leading non-profit organizations addressing those challenges and some of the most interesting, creative thinkers UXXU folks could find find.

The problems addressed by the design teams: unemployment, urban violence, cross-cultural understanding, public education, and community mental health.

My team, pictured below, was working on Cross Cultural Understanding for the client, Global Lives. Our challenge was: Using available resources such as, the internet, camera equipment, volunteers, and the network of partner institutions, reconsider the problem of how to create empathy in a shrinking world.

You can download our Challenge Brief by clicking here.

We entered our room in the Adler School of Professional Psychology, designed by one of our community partners, Cannon Design, with white boards surrounding us, our brief projected in front of us, and 11 strangers in the room. The feeling upon entering was one of blue-sky, where we were tasked to free our minds and re-imagine what’s possible. We spent the good portion of our first session Friday afternoon, simply understanding the issue- asking questions such as, What is empathy? How do people feel empathy?

To me, participating, brought up several interesting questions that I’ve been thinking about for years, mainly the question being and “outsider” vs. “insider” when working on socially driven design projects.

What was really interesting to me what the state of mind we came into the event with and how this shifted after our client was brought in and we were able actually have an interview and get to know not our user, but our client. The first afternoon we were told, think big, re-envision, . Then when David Harris came into the room, the turning point for me was when he said, “We’ve had two or three of these types of big visioning sessions already. What we’re looking for now is something we can actually implement.” Oh, okay.

We worked off of a lot of assumptions which would have been great to further reflect on. Throughout the conversation, we all assumed, “we in the room were all empathetic,” how do we change “other people’s” behavior to preach to the non-choir so to speak. In hindsight, I would have loved to question this assumption further and more deeply reflect on our own notions of empathy and interconnectedness. One of our group members even admitted that he had never donated to charity before- he was not judged for this, but I would love to have heard more about this insight. As a group of designers in the room, it’s easy to assume we are not contributors to the problem- but I think when we can continue to take a good long hard look at ourselves.