It’s 7:30am EDT and rush hour. Head of Experience Design, Scott Gray, and I stare out the cab window as we creep along the FDR. The Manhattan skyline gradually comes into view as the frenetic sounds, sights and smells of the Big Apple clamour for our attention. Welcome to New York City.
Approximately 16hrs ago we left Johannesburg. A week before that, we were waiting to find out whether team Intergalactic had made the shortlist of the first Mirum24 – a network-wide brief for Dev4X. But let’s start at the beginning.
There are approximately 1 billion educationally disadvantaged children in the world. These are kids with little to no access to proper learning environments, or who receive an incredibly low standard of education. The result is entire generations unable to realise their inner strength, passion and potential. This is where Dev4X comes in.
Dev4X aims to empower children to take education into their own hands and improve their lives through learning. They’ll achieve this through technology, more specifically, through software which curates 3rd party, open source educational content and makes it freely available on low-cost tablets. As an NGO in the education sector, and one of the recognised teams in this year’s Global Learning XPRIZE, Dev4X faces a number of creative challenges. And this is where Mirum comes in.
This past holiday season, Mirum ran a Holiday Campaign which asked their clients to nominate a worthy cause to donate their creative time to. They chose Dev4X and Mirum24 was born – 24hrs. 24 offices. 1 brief.
Our task? Create a user interface for Dev4X that is scalable, engaging, instantly familiar, timeless and adaptable to any teaching scenario we can think of.
14 teams from around the world including America, Indonesia, France, Brazil, South Africa and England answered the call. In round 1, each team would have 15 minutes to present their solution to the Dev4X client as well as Chief Creative Officer of Mirum North America, Frederick Bonn and Mirum Chief Marketing Officer, John Baker. Of the 14 teams, 3 would be shortlisted and invited to New York to present in person to the judging panel. For us, that presentation would be tomorrow.
After dropping our bags at the hotel, the rest of the morning was a caffeine-fueled jaunt from one WiFi-spouting coffee shop to the next. We scamped, Keynoted, finessed, wrote and re-wrote for most of the day, putting the finishing touches on what would be the biggest presentation of my life. That evening we met the rest of the teams and enjoyed some truly New York hospitality at the uber-trendy Chelsea Market. Despite our bodies not knowing whether it was breakfast or supper, we had a fantastic evening getting to know the other teams, swapping war stories from the project and learning about new tech, ways of working and projects happening around the network. Our table was a petri dish of creative technologists, here, in the epicenter of our industry.
That morning (or was it still night, we couldn’t tell) we made our way along Lexington Avenue for the presentation. Staring up at the glass façade of 237 Park Avenue, the JWT New York office, was a surreal experience. We’d walked from our hotel with team France and each of us took a moment to take it all in. Our languages may have differed but the thought was universal: We’re not in Kansas anymore.
Each team would have 45mins to present their solution. In a unique format, we’d all see each other’s presentations as well as hear the feedback from the judging panel which included representatives from UNICEF, Ashoka Changemakers Foundation, Hearst Digital, Digiday and Twitter.
In tackling this problem, we kept a few key considerations in mind, chief of which, was ‘simplicity above all’. Because of this, we suggested a card-based system. Cards like those commonly used in web design and that house content in easily-digestible, non-intimidating little blocks and which easily scale responsively across devices. We also chose cards because of the physical versions that are widely familiar to various cultures around the world. Each card would represent a concept and attached to that, would be a piece of interactive content related to that concept. For example: A card that introduces the concept of numeracy would require the learner to trace the number 2 and then complete a sum to move onto the next card. Cards would be categorised using colours to keep things visually simple and text to a minimum.
Our second consideration was that learning is messy. So, much like a good playlist, lessons must be as engaging when following a pre-defined journey, as they are in ‘shuffle’. So we created the ‘Grid’. A visual device for housing the cards that a user must complete in order to progress to the next learning journey. These journeys were represented visually and allow learners to explore by category (e.g. Literacy, Numeracy, Social Skills etc.), by vocation (e.g. I want to be a Fireman) or in a random order chosen by the learner. Learners simply ‘drag and drop’ the cards they want onto the grid to start learning.
Our third consideration was ‘reality’. The reality of Tanzania (where the project would be piloted) is that internet access, power and formal learning environments such as classrooms and teachers, cannot be relied on. This meant an onboarding experience that familiarises learners with both the system (gestures and navigation) and content, but done in a way that transcends language and the barrier of an unfamiliar technology. So we took our lead from video games and used a split screen video device to get users learning as quickly as possible. In short, the learner mimics what they see in the video, learning how to open cards, use the camera, close cards, swipe, drag and click in a fun and motivating way.
We continued the theme of gamification throughout or presentation, touching on AR strategies that merge physical versions of the cards with the virtual, to using Mozilla’s open source ‘Badges’ in conjunction with physical badges as a reward system, to a donor view which allows members of the public to not only sponsor a child’s learning development, but to engage through different mechanics and show their support by leaving voice notes and badges of their own. We even considered how the tablet’s mesh network capabilities could be used to further motivate group learning, empowering more advanced learners to help others.
Overall, Friday was a good day. Despite the nerves (we skipped lunch) we put on a good show and the feedback from the panel was positive. They particularly enjoyed our ‘Test, Measure, Optimise’ philosophy, our dedication to simplicity, uniquely African insights and our thorough interrogation of the brief. We may not have won overall but given the client and what they’re trying to achieve, making even the smallest contribution feels like a win.
Post-presentation was a chance for us and the rest of the teams to cut loose in NYC. Luckily our hotel’s roof top bar was that week’s ‘Hype spot’ and made for the perfect venue to kick off our next adventure – that of sampling all there is to eat, drink and shop before our return to SA Sunday morning.
All in all, the Mirum24 experience was an incredible one. It was an opportunity to work on a project with the potential to change thousands, if not millions of lives. An opportunity to go to New York and present to some of the industry’s biggest names. An opportunity to show off our own, uniquely South African brand of creative problem solving. And, an opportunity to share with you dear reader, why we insist on working with only the bravest, most curious minds.
The author would like to extend his gratitude firstly to Team Intergalactic (Leonard, Alison & Scott) without which none of it would’ve been possible, to Quirk for the on-going support, Mirum & JWT New York for the hospitality, Dev4X for the challenge and to the yellow cab drivers of New York for getting us where we needed to be in one piece (sort of).
Over and out. Charlie