How to Win Big Idea: Design


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The Big Idea: Design deadline is right around the corner! Do you feel like your Big Idea: Design needs more work? Are you not sure where to start? Have no fear, the venerable John Scott Tynes shared an amazing post last year that gave competitors some great insight into the process:


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 created the Big Idea: Design 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; if you're creating a game, you'll want to look into creating a set of storyboards for your game experience.

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 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 a digital certificate of achievement. And all thirty teams will receive feedback on their project from our judges.

Competitors in the Innovation and World Citizenship categories will need to submit a user flow diagram, an information architecture diagram, a set of wireframes, and a visual target. Competitors in the Games category will replace the user flow diagram with a set of storyboards. For more details on each of these documents, see the detailed descriptions in the Official Rules.

Want to see some examples? Check out the winners of our 2015 UX Challenge!

Remember: the new deadline to submit your Big Idea: Design documents is December 2nd, 2015 at 23:59 GMT. Ladies and gentlemen, start designing.

Comments (16)

  1. Peter Rady Shehata says:

    Hey Pablo, Will the judges knows what are the game idea and game mechanics from the previous challenges or they will judge the UX only no matter what the idea is? as this challenge is all about UX and we are not saying anything about the game idea or the mechanics.

  2. Peter – the previous challenges are not required to enter Big Idea: Design. Your best bet is to look at the specific judging criteria for Big Idea: Design – Games: https://iccms.blob.core.windows.net/content/IC16%20Official%20Rules%20and%20Regulations%20-%20Big%20Idea%20Design%20Challenge-92204a5a2982.pdf

    Thanks and good luck!

  3. Nadia Wendt says:

    I have a question! For the game category, I understand it asks for storyboards instead of flow diagram–

    Would said storyboards be of how the menu/UI changes as the user interacts or would be be actual boards of a story within the game, such as a cut scene or something?

    1. Nadia – please take a look at the specific judging criteria for the Games category that I linked to in my response to Peter (above) thanks!

  4. Sasanka Kudagoda says:

    Hey Pablo, I have a little question. Should we draw the user flow diagram using symbols or just wring the action followed by arrows as shown in the link you have provided (http://appfurnace.com/2012/04/design-an-app-user-flow/)?

    1. Sasanka – the link provided is more for additional context. I would go with the method that you think would get you the highest score with the judges.

  5. Ramitha Abeyratne says:

    Hi Pablo, I’m doing two mobile apps and a desktop app. Therefore do I need to make three different sets of diagrams for each application or one set for the whole project?

    1. Ramitha, either would be acceptable. Take a look at the rules and the judging criteria to get a better idea of what the judges will be looking for. Thanks!

  6. Rusiru Dilshan says:

    Hi Mr.Pablo, There are four task in the design challenge (Hero Scenario user flow diagram, information architecture diagram, likewise). So when we submit, do we have to submit four different documents ? I mean one document for each task or can we put all the four task in to one document and submit?

  7. Rusiru Dilshan says:

    Hi Mr. Pablo. I found the answer to my question. It is in the rules and regulations. It says we have to submit four different documents for the four tasks.

  8. Henrique Fernandes da Silva says:

    Why when I try to upload a .ZIP file I can’t select It?
    The rule file says to upload all submission files compressed in a .ZIP:
    https://iccms.blob.core.windows.net/content/IC16%20Official%20Rules%20and%20Regulations%20-%20Big%20Idea%20Design%20Challenge-92204a5a2982.pdf

    1. Henrique – please contact imagine@microsoft.com for help troubleshooting your issue. Thanks!

  9. Henrique Fernandes da Silva says:

    When the results of Big Idea Plan Challenge will be available?

  10. sumit kumar says:

    Hey ,can anyone tell when will next challange in India begin.

  11. Elena Kardamitsi says:

    When the results of Big idea Design challenge will be available?

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