Startup Weekend GOV Wrap-Up: Finalist

06 May 2012

A week later, I've had time to think over my experience at Startup Weekend GOV. I had a fantastic time. Being a finalist felt good, especially when one judge stood up immediately after our presentation to complement our team on doing more in a single weekend than another prominent group of developers had done in a year.

Our idea is relatively simple on the surface: to build a variant of Kickstarter that specifically focuses on public/private partnerships with government. Kickstarter is meant for creative projects only, usually films, video games, journalism projects, a few gadgets, etc. Our project, called CivicRally (you'll see some mocked-up pages there now), would focus on local government-funded projects instead. For example, imagine you apply for a grant to install computers in your neighborhood's community center. The Technology Match Fund grants your request for $2,000, but stipulates that you come up with "match funds" of your own in the amount of $2,000 more. CivicRally would help you do that by providing a centralized platform for your neighbors to find projects that they're interested in funding.

It sounds like a simple idea on the surface, but the details are what make it sing.

First, not everybody wants to give just money. CivicRally would expand on Kickstarter by allowing people to donate volunteer time or materials/equipment/etc as well. All of these are generally allowed under the matching grants we would like to support.

Second, we think the super local dimension of CivicRally would be important too. If you win a grant to beautify your local park, you can put a sign up right there where your neighbors can see it. They would be able to go directly to your project page (possibly using a QR code) on their mobile phone or through a mobile app and help support you. Our quick research during Startup Weekend indicated that this extremely local approach could tip people further towards being willing to help out than they might normally be.

Third, we can save the government time and money by building this system. At the end of the grant, the grantees have to prove they've done the work. Usually this takes the form of written letters and photocopied invoices, which are submitted via mail. One government official told me during the weekend that his people store these in "shoeboxes" and that they spend far too much time processing such documentation. If CivicRally were able to take geotagge photographs of the project after it happened in addition to scanned letters and invoice PDFs, that could save time. It seems like a perfect combo to me: help people fund projects with our platform, then collect documentation from them in the same place and send it back to the government, who saves time too.

That's the idea in a nutshell.

Lessons Learned As a Designer

I participated in Startup Weekend as a designer. By working so quickly from conception of the idea to a wireframe design and pitch, I learned quite a bit. Here were my takeaways:

Finding a real problem to solve is the most important thing. My most valuable conversations were with the government officials who saw the value of the general idea we were working on. "Kickstarter for community projects" was enough to get them started, and from there they were able to articulate specific pain points for themselves and grantees. I loved learning first-hand how excited our judges were to hear about the project and it was gratifying to know that our idea could help them.

Communicating user needs is your job. This is an old saw in user experience. It deserves to be. Ideas that came up during our conversations with government gave the idea legs, but communicating them to the rest of the team was a challenge. Mostly I think this is just because of the artificial nature of the competition. My teammates didn't know each other, and were were putting ourselves under a lot of pressure to complete our own little pieces of the project. But I did feel that some parts of the user research didn't come through in the final pitch. Next time I will work harder to get everyone to pause what they're doing and focus on the real conversations we've had with users. It's essential to getting everyone on board with the little details that make a design work.

Confidence is important. This was my first Startup Weekend, and I was honestly a little intimidated going into it with a "Designer" nametag. That's kind of official sounding. I was thinking there would be a lot of other more accomplished designers there. It turned out I had all the design skills I needed plus some other useful perspectives, and that felt good. I could wireframe, prototype, and brainstorm with the best. Additionally, I was able to communicate well with the developer and I understood what he was doing in Rails. I also had ideas to contribute about the business case and the overall story of the pitch. And on a personal level, that's what Startup Weekend will be for me as time goes on. It will be the moment when I realized I have all the skills I need to be a good user experience designer.

By the way, I don't think CivicRally will end with this weekend. Hopefully you'll see some of our signs in your neighborhood sometime in the future!