Every object you use in daily life was designed by someone. Think about that for a moment. Not just sleek tech gadgets like smartphones and laptops, but even the most ordinary thing: the cup you drink coffee from was designed, the hammer and screwdriver in your toolbox were designed, even the nails and screws you use with the hammer and screwdriver: every last one had to be carefully, thoughtfully designed by someone who took their job seriously.
The same is true for software -- and for your Imagine Cup project.
These days, design for software is often known as User Experience design because the goal of such design work is to support the user in having a positive and productive experience with the software. Often User Experience is abbreviated to UX and UX Designers are important members of software teams.
I've known programmers who didn't think about UX. They just wanted to code and they'd put the user interface (UI) elements on screen wherever the designer told them to. But those kinds of programmers aren't the future of our industry. Small, cross-disciplinary teams are becoming typical. Even with enormous enterprise software projects the staff are often divided into smaller sub-teams, some of whom form and reform across multiple sprints if the staff are using agile development practices, and these sub-teams often contain people with a variety of roles needed for the task at hand.
What does this mean for you and your first job after school? You shouldn't expect to just be a heads-down programmer working in a room full of programmers. You need to be a software developer who understands user experience design. You need to learn the language of design and you need to work and communicate successfully with UX designers on your team. Just as mobile app devs have had to learn about business models such as microtransactions, freemium, and subscriptions, so too have many young devs needed to learn UX design practices because their small startup or team can't afford a dedicated UX designer.
With all this mind, we have created the User Experience Challenge. We want our Imagine Cup teams to think about design early and often in the life of their project -- even before they've written a single line of code. The clearer you and your team are on what you're going to make, the better equipped you'll be to make the fundamental architectural decisions about the software you build.
I don't mean to say that you need to design every last detail in advance. We don't want to cut agility out of your process. But starting with a user flow diagram of your hero scenario is a great idea for the napkin-and-whiteboard-sketch phase of your project. Moving on to an information architecture diagram as you start planning your project helps you scope the menu screens, user inputs, and data you need available to the user. Drafting wireframes helps you be consistent in how you lay out each screen of your software and understanding how a user will interact with the data and inputs you're providing. And finally, creating a visual target or mockup that represents how you want your finished project to look can be invaluable for getting your whole team on the same page and understanding where you're all going.
In this new contest, teams of up to four students will compete in our three categories of Games, Innovation, and World Citizenship. One winning team in each category will receive $3,000. Nine more teams per category will receive an honorable mention. And all thirty teams will receive feedback on their project from our judges and an Imagine Cup lapel pin to commemorate their success.
The deadline to submit your UX documents is February 21, 2014 at 23:59 GMT. Ladies and gentlemen, start designing!
John Scott Tynes
Imagine Cup Competition Manager
Microsoft Student Developers