Inclusive Design at Microsoft’s One Week Hackathon

Four University Innovation Fellows from the University of Technology Sydney were selected as the winning team in a Microsoft inclusive design challenge for Fellows. Their prize? A trip to Redmond, WA, to participate in the Microsoft One Week Hackathon.

The University of Technology Sydney Fellows at the Microsoft campus in March 2017. We flew back to be part of the Microsoft One Week Hackathon!

by Irene Hsieh, Corey Stewart, Peter Cole and Matthew Childs

Originally posted on Medium.

“3! 2! 1! LET’S HACK!”
A sea of red, white and black towels raised in the air as we cheered. Confetti showered over all of us and I see a drone in the distance. We were standing in the heart of Microsoft, and in that moment, we were part of the Microsoft One Week Hackathon 2017.

Our team comprised of four University Innovation Fellows from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) was selected as the winning team from a Global Inclusive Design challenge and won a trip to Microsoft’s headquarters in late July to join the world’s largest hackathon. This was an unforgettable week filled with breakthrough insights, mind-blowing moments and their discovery of the technology giant – Microsoft. The following is a recount of an adventure that most would describe as an opportunity of a lifetime.

During the March 2017 Silicon Valley Meetup, Microsoft challenged us to create a solution to “Improve diversity and inclusion for first year students”. Upon returning to Australia we ran interviews, workshops and brainstorming sessions to discover our problem area. We were intrigued to find that international students who made up of 25% of our cohort were isolated from the community. When announced as the winning team we were determined to instigate further and carry our mission to the other side of the world.

On the 22nd July we arrived in Seattle with anticipation. Driving into the modern campus we were blown away by the sheer size of the campus that consisted of 115 buildings with over 40,000 employees. Microsoft manages not only Office and Windows, but products and services including Xbox, LinkedIn, Bing, Skype, Surface, Azure and others we were yet to discover. Excitement for the coming week quickly overtook our nervousness.

We met up with Ryan, a Culture Engineer at Microsoft who was our host for the week. Our first day of the hackathon involved heavily brainstorming around our question. In our hackathon tents, we met the hackers of the diverse projects around us. From 3D printed prosthetic arms for affordable prices, to tech-based solutions for diabetics to hacks for Minecraft and Nintendo games, the energy and talent was contagious. We also met the Director of the Microsoft Garage, the team responsible for organizing the hackathon.

As University of Technology Sydney Fellows, we ideated around our board in the midst of the bustling hackathon. With the many post-it notes, we proclaimed ourselves the winners of the most colourful board competition at the hackathon.

After 48 hours of intense hacking, we built a strategic plan of events for holistic change of campus. We settled on a sustainable approach that was diverse and inclusive of the UTS community and will live on far past our time on campus. You’ll hear more about our solution soon!

Our solution included:

  • Revamping our first week of semester for all first years to engage and seek out new opportunities. The idea aims to break down superficial barriers such as age, race, discipline and factors that have subconsciously hindered connections.
  • Industry hackathons to be run regularly on campus. This will give students an opportunity to learn and engage with industry networks in a learning environment.
  • Increase student awareness and recognising the “whys” of educational requirements. This will facilitate students to shift their mindset to find their “mission” not “major” during their time at school.
  • Set up an innovation board to encourage events and conversations.
  • Set up an innovation centre to foster innovative and entrepreneurial spirit on campus.

We were extremely lucky to share our ideas with Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott who listened with enthusiasm. We were also graced with the presence of CEO Satya Nadella at the hackathon!

Throughout the hackathon, the hundreds of sticky notes on our board caught the eye many participants including Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and CTO Kevin Scott, who stopped by to learn more about our work. We discussed the possibility of working with industry partners such as Microsoft to facilitate programs on campus to boost student engagement and help them solve real world problems in innovative ways. It was surreal having such important figures take interest in our ideas.

On Wednesday, we met with employees across Microsoft product groups to get a feel for the flavors of innovation. First up was Debbie Thiel, Group Program Manager at Microsoft. Debbie shared the importance to look into the future of technology and help shift the technology to be inclusive of all types of people in the world. Afterwards, we headed to the Microsoft Envisioning Centre. Not knowing what was ahead of us, we got a private tour of the space usually reserved for Fortune 500 C-level executives and government leaders. The center is a space for Microsoft to envision what the future of smart homes, living spaces and offices could be. We felt like kids in a candy store and we goggled at every piece of technology. Mundane activities such as conducting meetings to unlocking your front door had been reimagined with a large focus on inclusivity and simplicity.

Doing empathy work with Xbox Inclusive Tech Lab by Senior Interaction Designer Bryce Johnson. We learnt about the disabilities Microsoft is designing for. We put on glasses which impaired your vision to empathize with individuals with tunnel vision or other vision impairment.

On campus, we were given a tour of the Xbox Inclusive Tech Lab by Senior Interaction Designer Bryce Johnson. Our first experience was putting on glasses which allowed us to empathize with different types of visual impairments. Microsoft uses these centers to bring in people with a range of abilities to ensure products and solutions best suit their needs. This leads to new innovations such as; different tones for menu selections, new controller designs and sub packs to help hearing impaired gamers experience sound. This is the heart of Inclusive Design, by designing for a person with specific abilities, the improvements will be used by many other types of people as well. Designing for inclusion and focusing on empathy work with users is why and how Microsoft stays ahead.

Next was the Microsoft’s anechoic chamber, the quietest room in the world. The room sits at -20db at the edge of the physical limit of -23dB; the sound atom’s make bouncing off each other. The designer of the chamber, Gopal Gopal, gave us an unforgettable tour of the lab. At one point, he left us in the dark and soundless chamber and within minutes you could hear the blood flowing in your ears and bones creaking as you turned your head. We learnt about how critical it is to have environments with the lowest possible sound baseline while testing new hardware products.

We were given a tour in the quietest room in the world by the designer himself. At one point he left us in the dark, soundless room we could hear the blood flowing in our ears and bones creaking as you turned your head.

As we continued to hear from people across the company, we met with Ryan Phillips, UX Designer at Xbox and Oscar Murillo, Creative Director of Inclusive Design at Microsoft. These individuals provided insightful details into their work, their journey to Microsoft and some of the greatest insights they’ve gained from their time at Microsoft.

An amazing 48 hours hacking with 18 000 people worldwide! We were extremely inspired by the projects, talent and energy on the Microsoft campus. It was a once in a life time experience!

Another extraordinary individual we met was Mandeep Singh, Program Manager of EDU strategy at Microsoft. After spending time at a startup and Microsoft, he helped contrast the experiences and shared his advice for students. Singh reflects “I genuinely believe in that 18 to 24 months of working on my startup, I learnt way more than I did than my bachelors or masters degree afterwards.” Furthermore he pinpointed the importance of learning and the passion required in a startup, this gave us an understanding and context to the advices we are often given.

Last but more importantly, this entire experience would not have been the same without Ryan who helped plan the week. This experience has taught us so much about Microsoft’s culture, products and the people there. We could not have asked for a better week at Microsoft, thank you Ryan!

A photo of us in front of the Microsoft Envisioning Centre with the amazing Ryan Philips. We were able to see some of the greatest highlights on campus!

We could never have imagined that only four months after receiving our fellowship, we would be back for an adventure like no other. The experiences and lessons learnt during our adrenaline filled week have already rippled in how we see and do things back at the university. This trip gave us invaluable lessons into inclusivity, innovation and creativity. With this gained perspective, we are excited to continue engaging with our community and ignite meaningful impacts on our campus. Stay updated on our upcoming adventures through our Facebook page. We can’t wait to share with you all the stories ahead!

Check out more photos here!

Learning to Lead Change Together

University Innovation Fellows and faculty explored new ways to reimagine higher education during the Silicon Valley Meetup in March 2017.

by Laurie Moore

A team of Fellows brainstorming at Google during the Silicon Valley Meetup, March 2017. Photo by Patrick Beaudouin.

On a sunny afternoon in March at Stanford University, several hundred students designed experiments to test out new learning opportunities at their schools. An hour later, they listened, rapt, as Stephanie Santoso shared with them what it was like to help create the first ever White House Maker Faire. An hour after that, they were dancing to Bollywood music. They had breakthrough insights, forged new friendships with students from other countries, and listened as their peers shared their personal stories of struggle. This is the University Innovation Fellows Silicon Valley Meetup.

Nearly 300 Fellows and 30 faculty sponsors from 77 universities in 8 countries traveled to the San Francisco Bay Area on March 9-13, 2017, for the University Innovation Fellows (UIF) program’s signature event, the Silicon Valley Meetup. Attendees took part in immersive experiences at Stanford University’s, Google, Microsoft and other Silicon Valley organizations.

The Meetup was the culmination of the 6-week, video conference-based online training for Fellows who joined the program in Fall 2016 and Spring 2017. This training helps Fellows understand their campus ecosystems and design educational opportunities for their peers. At the Meetup, Fellows took part in experiential workshops and exercises designed to inspire them, give them opportunities to collaborate with different schools, and provide them with tools to take action when they return to their home institutions. The activities focused on topics including movement building, innovation spaces, how to design and facilitate learning experiences, and new models for change in higher education.

The event kicked off on Thursday night with registration and dinner, where students sampled some of Silicon Valley’s best food trucks below strings of outdoor lights. During registration, attendees met their super-hero-themed teams and team leaders. These team leaders were 24 Fellows who acted as mentors to the participants, facilitated workshops, and gave short talks throughout the event.

On Friday morning, the Fellows hopped on charter buses and headed to their first Meetup location: Google. The group was hosted by Dr. Frederik Pferdt, Chief Innovation Evangelist. They took part in hands-on activities and learned about the innovation culture at Google, research on effective teams, and Google’s People Development group — a fresh take on the role of a human resources department.

Fellows prototyping a game at Google. Photo by Patrick Beaudouin.

They also heard about the University Innovation Fellows program’s expansion into India from William Florance, Google’s Head of University Programs for Developer Training. Thanks to Google-funded expansion, 77 students from India have joined the program; 38 of those Fellows attended the Meetup. Three Fellows from CMR Institute of Technology in Bengaluru also shared their stories and experiences in India.

“Technology brings us into the future, but our creativity decides how this future will be shaped,” said Pferdt. “Every year, I am excited to be able to experience that contagious creativity the Fellows bring to Google and how they are tackling challenges as change agents at universities across the U.S. and now the world. It has been a great honor for me to host the Fellows for the last 5 years. Every time, I am confident that our future is in good hands.”

The Fellows visited the program’s home at Stanford University’s for the first time on Saturday, March 11. They spent the day taking part in activities to help them reimagine learning, including sessions on storytelling and the ways space influences behavior. For one session, on how to leverage different thinking styles when working in teams, attendees wore t-shirts representing the colors of their default thinking styles. The result was a rainbow of students and faculty filling the to the brim, demonstrating the diversity of approaches that they can take when working together.

Participants also heard from several speakers. Stanford professor Tom Byers hosted a panel of education and entrepreneurship thought leaders: Steve Blank, often referred to as the father of the Lean Startup movement; Errol Arkilic, who was instrumental in the creation of the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps (Innovation Corps); and Tom Kalil, Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Obama.

Tom Byers hosts a panel discussion at Stanford’s with Steve Blank, Errol Arkilic and Tom Kalil. Photo by Patrick Beaudouin.

Another speaker at the event was Daniel Seddiqui, known for his journey of working 50 Jobs in 50 States when he struggled to find a job after college. Seddiqui shared his wildly entertaining story with Fellows about his “job prototyping” experience, which included roles like a stilt walker at an amusement park in Florida and a coal miner in West Virginia. He encouraged Fellows to find the drive within themselves to overcome the challenges and rejections that they will face as they explore the world.

On Sunday, the Fellows visited Microsoft, where they were hosted by Jeff Ramos, manager of The Microsoft Garage, a project division that helps Microsoft employees solve problems in innovative ways. Innovators at Microsoft shared their insights on how to shift culture within an institutional setting and urged Fellows to push themselves out of their comfort zone to pursue different experiences.

Following the talks, Fellows took part in an unconference, during which Fellows set the agenda and organized around topics of interest. The topics ranged from “How might we create and promote diversity and inclusive excellence on our college campuses?” to “Rethinking freshmen orientation to promote I&E [innovation and entrepreneurship].” View photos of all the topics and ideas here.

Fellows discuss ideas during an unconference at Microsoft. Photo by Patrick Beaudouin.

The Fellows came back to the for the final stretch of the event — an exploration on leading change. They were asked to pick a goal and brainstorm quick experiments that would help them test out their ideas. During the workshop, several community members provided inspiration and shared how they applied design thinking to their projects of reimagining philanthropy, tackling homelessness and reforming K-12 education.

After creating their experiments, Fellows heard from Stephanie Santoso, who served as the Senior Advisor for Making at the White House under President Obama. There, she helped develop the Nation of Makers initiative, the first White House Maker Faire and the National Week of Making. Santoso spoke about inclusion and challenged Fellows to spread the experience of the maker movement to communities that lack access.

A panel of Fellows discuss makerspaces with Stephanie Santoso (far right). Photo by Patrick Beaudouin.

“Constantly thinking about who else should be at the table, who should we be talking to, whose voice should be represented here is super important,” Santoso said. Her last piece of advice: “Always have fun!…It’s important to remember in the work you’re doing.”

There was one surprise left: a tradition upheld at every Meetup. Participants were each given sheets of colorful paper and asked to write an insight or takeaway from the meetup. They folded the paper into airplanes and launched them into the air. Each person caught an airplane that wasn’t theirs, read it, and shared it with others around them, spreading the insights from one person to many.

Fellow Mahshid Jalalian shares her takeaway from the Meetup before folding it into a paper airplane. Photo by Patrick Beaudouin.

“Being at the UIF meetup this year was really life-changing. It was empowering to be surrounded by so many people who care about changing the world for the better and are actually taking steps to do that,” said Kelly Rodriguez, a Fellow at Pepperdine University. She tweeted a video of the flurry of paper airplanes, writing “Do you ever have those moments where you just knew you were supposed to be ‘here’? That’s what happened this weekend.”

It’s hard to describe the general feeling in the room as hundreds of people launched their brightly colored paper insights into the open space of the atrium. Some smiled, some laughed, some shielded their eyes from the downpour of paper, some wiped tears from their eyes. But whatever they felt— inspired, tired, excited, sad, hopeful— everyone belonged.

View all photos, videos and resources from the Meetup at