A few weeks ago, a team of AXA experts had the chance to be invited to the largest private hackathon in the world: the Microsoft annual Hackathon held this year in Seattle. Have a seat, buckle up and take a ride in the mysterious software development world with Clara Bove, Lead Experience Designer at AXA.
"When I first heard the news that AXA was invited by Microsoft to the hackathon, I felt really lucky to be part of it! There are not so many companies in the world that can get such a privilege to learn from the most active players on the transformation and innovation fields.
The Microsoft’s Hackathon takes place every year by the end of July, and is organized by a dedicated team named The Garage. Thousands of employees from all over the world participate to free their creativity, explore new ideas and shape the future of innovative products at Microsoft. It gathered 22,000 employees this year on their main campus in Redmond. We had one goal in mind: learn new methods and skills to accompany the transformation at AXA, while having fun by experimenting a new culture of doing things. The only rule of the Hackathon is: “No rules, no restriction!”
With the right culture, you can drive the innovation our customers really need to improve their life.
On the Road to Seattle
For an event that big, we decided to build a multi-disciplinary team at AXA with some of our finest experts:
- Aurélien François, Computer Vision Project manager (AXA Group)
- Lorenz Hänggi, Innovation Manager (AXA Switzerland)
- Zeljko Savic, Software Engineer (AXA Switzerland)
- Tobias Ippisch, Data Science Manager (AXA Switzerland)
- Martin Oss, Software Engineer (AXA Switzerland)
One thing we discovered while discussing with Microsoft teams is the concept of inclusive design: if you design an app for people who are blind, it will be useful for people who forget their glasses; if you design a hand-free services for disable people with no hands, you may also design it for mothers who are carrying their baby and can’t use their hands, people who have too many grocery bags, people who are busy doing other things… From AXA perspective, it is a really interesting approach because our mission is to empower people to live a better life. By designing for disabled people —whom are more in need of empowerment, we can provide innovative solutions for all of our customers.
Let me tell you how we took this inclusive design mindset during our hackathon project.
The first step was to define what we would be hacking about. The struggle when there’s so much freedom is to identify the problem we want to solve. It is important that in all our project we connect to real issues and real people. While brainstorming for what could be a good opportunity for the Hackathon, we were looking for pain points on our daily lives and mine seemed like a perfect use case! Due to many intolerances (gluten, egg, dairy and nuts), I have trouble to find what to eat everyday: restaurants, groceries, lunch with colleagues…
That’s why our team decided to work on this “health” related issue, one of AXA’s strategic pillars. Our persona was a young girl who recently learnt she has Crohn’s disease and must change her whole food and life habits. But she’s not alone: around 50% on the planet has food restrictions (dietary restrictions — vegans, pescatarians, tastes, intolerances and allergies, religious restrictions, etc.).
We also took the decision to work on emerging and exciting technologies: Augmented Reality on smartphone and Microsoft Hololens. Food is a multi-sensorial experience and it seems to be an interesting topic to hack with some of the most immersive technologies at Microsoft.
As soon as we arrived at the airport, we saw many people carrying Microsoft shirts and bags, gathering in teams and already getting excited for the Hackathon. We could already feel the positive energy!
Day 1 - From pain point identification to MVP
The first day was dedicated to ideation and building the Scope of our MVP (Minimum Viable Product —a prototype with limited features which already provides value to the user).
It actually all started at our first breakfast when I had to ask for specific meals regarding my food allergies, as there was no indication on the menu. Zeljko was looking for a dairy free meal, and Aurélien wanted to have something without coconut, because he just hates it. My problem became a general problem on the table as everyone missed information on the menu! We all realized the issue we wanted to tackle: How might we help people with food allergies choose carefully their food at the restaurant using Augmented Reality?
Starting from there, we draw the full customer journey of our persona from the moment she had to pick a restaurant to the check and defined opportunities for an innovative and immersive service to help her on her quest. Finding the restaurant and ordering food were the two biggest pain points. It takes much more time than for regular people and it involves friends, family, colleagues, waiters in her intimate choice. We did a mini-brainstorming session on each moment to find ideas and concepts with our techno and limited amount of time. After a few ideas reviewed, we all agreed on an augmented menu concept.
The day was long focused on our persona pain points and problem solving. But we were very happy of the result! We also had the chance to exchange about our preliminary work with a special guest: Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, who was really interested in our idea and who gave us meaningful insights.
Day 2 - Hacking dirts
For those who have already experienced hackathons, Day 2 is always the most challenging.
We had our idea, we knew where we’re headed, but we had no idea where to start and how to split the work. We needed in addition to think about the story we were willing to tell at the end: we needed a pitch, a functional demo and a video to support our story.
At this time, we felt the team was a bit stressed and confused with all the things we had to do. But fortunately, we had the amazing opportunity to welcome in our team two hugely talented developers from Microsoft, Julia and Roberto, who helped us a lot to focus our work.
In the morning, we decided to gather the whole team outside on the grass and give a last review of the concept. We redefined the scope and split the tasks while making sure everyone learns and has fun during the hackathon. Once it was done, it was time to get our “hands dirty”! During the day, everyone was very focused on their tasks. Lorenz started to code for Hololens with Julia, while Roberto helped Martin write his first lines of code for a mobile app. A good communication is essential to make sure everyone goes in the same direction, good thing we had our own space in the hackathon tent! Day 2 was intense from 8am to 6pm on Microsoft campus, then 7pm to 2am in a conference room at the hotel (yes, very long day!), but this is where your idea starts to become tangible, and when teams get excited!
Day 3 - End of the Hackathon
We finally built an augmented menu to be used in the restaurants for people with food allergies. Basically, a person would point their smartphone at a menu, and a new layer of information would pop on each dish using Augmented Reality. It indicates in green which dish they can eat and in red which one they need to avoid, based on their profile and food intolerances. Moreover, to help restaurants build the database of ingredients used in each plate, we built a prototype of a Hololens app, dedicated to this specific task, where chefs would just need to point a plate on the menu with fingers, then dictate the ingredients by voice, which would be input in the database thanks to speech recognition.
By noon, everything needed to be ready. We only had the morning to finish last minute bug fixing for the live demo, record the video and edit the pitch. Storytelling is key to a good pitch. People will only understand the true value of your solution once they “feel” the pain of your main persona. Here a quick checklist of what makes a good story:
- Context and emotions;
- The persona’s customer journey where you can really feel the “hero’s” pain;
- A very short and crispy description of your solution;
- The new customer journey that shows how the solution is changing the user’s life;
- An opening to more users;
- A video well illustrated with the demo to show how it looks;
This is how our video presentation looked like (demos are also visible here):
Day 4 – Science Fair Day
The last day was dedicated to sharing everyone’s work to all Microsoft employees. Each team decorated a booth (sometimes with a lot of passion) to showcase their product. We were really impressed with all the crazy ideas generated in such a short time frame!
I may not be objective but I believe our booth was one of the best. Our demos went very well and we collected very interesting insights. The main feedback was that almost everyone knew someone in their friends, relatives or colleagues with food allergies that would use such a product. And even though Augmented Reality is not something very new, it still has a “wow” effect when you make a live demo.
Overall, it was an amazing experience. It is intense but we are really proud of what we were able to achieve with our team in a few days only. We could almost feel like our product was real!
Beside the project itself, this hackathon was very helpful for us to better understand the value of these events for AXA. When a company gives its employees rooms for creativity, it empowers them and give them an opportunity to learn, growth and remain curious. And finally, it creates a culture which every employee can be proud of, just like I felt lucky to be invited!"