Design Jam Amsterdam

On February 25th, Amsterdam had its first Design Jam. 28 designers showed up to collaborate with people they didn’t know to work on a UX challenge. The idea is for people to learn and share by collaborating, and to have a good time.

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What’s a Design Jam Again?

In case you didn’t know, Design Jams are one-or-two-day design sessions, during which people team up to tackle engaging User
Experience (UX) challenges. Similar to developer hackdays, they aim to get designers together to learn and collaborate with each other while working on actual problems.

Design Jams started in November 2010, spearheaded by Desigan Chinniah, Johanna Kollman, Joe Lanman and Franco Papeschi, with support from Mozilla Labs. Since then, Design Jams have popped up in places like Barcelona, Boston, Milan, Paris, and many other cities. Check for more info. (Johnny also reported on the first ever Design Jam).

The Challenge

When we first got together to discuss putting on a Design Jam in Amsterdam, one of the initial ideas for a challenge was to do something related to health care. One of the organizers had a contact at the Dutch Cancer Society, and pitched the idea of working together on a challenge for a Design Jam. They loved the idea. It turned out they are in the middle of developing a new range of online products and services under the name KankerNL.

Post-its Day

Post-its Day

The KankerNL program is a collaboration between the Dutch Cancer Society, 25 cancer patient organizations and 8 comprehensive cancer centers (agencies that  collect patient outcome data and are responsible for the Dutch National Cancer Registry). KankerNL aims to improve the overall well being (Quality of Life) of Dutch cancer patients and their proxies using online and mobile technology. They face plenty of issues in meeting their aims, so they were the right people to think about a design challenge with.

The idea was to come up with a design challenge that people face in the real world. It needed to be meaningful, something people could relate to and not have an obvious solution. It was also important that the challenge be specific enough to guide the participants, but leave them enough creative freedom to explore the topic. We wanted a serious challenge that people would have fun tackling, which the wonderful people at KankerNL provided. The challenge they came up with was “design a service to help people faced with cancer find the information and social support that they need to improve their quality of life.”

When faced with cancer, patients and proxies are faced with life changes. To adjust to the new situation and cope with the disease, patients and proxies need to find information that is appropriate and relevant to their personal situation.
They also need emotional support to cope with this change. How can we help them find expert knowledge as well as knowledge from peers? And how can we help them find and connect with people in similar situations?

We gave the designers a list of questions to consider:

  • Who are you designing for? (patients, proxies, doctors,…)
  • What life changes are they undergoing?
  • What phase of the disease have they been confronted with? How long have they been living with the disease? (have they just heard? are they long-term sufferers? first time?)
  • What kind of information do they need to adjust to their new life?
  • What kind of information do they need to live with the disease?
  • What are the different ways in which they consume information?
  • What are the sources of information? Do they trust these sources?
  • What are the emotional consequences of seeing this information?
  • What are their attitudes towards sensitive information?
  • How do they share information with others?
  • What kind of communication takes place?
  • What are the beneficial consequences of getting support?
  • How do they deal with different sources of information (information from experts, information from peers)?
  • What use of technology will those kinds of users have?
  • What are their patterns of technology use? What devices make sense? What devices do they have?
  • Where do they check the information (hospital, home)? When do they check the information (prior to going to clinic)?

The KankerNL team based the challenge on problems they encountered in their work. We met with the project lead, a UX designer, and an experience designer/researcher from the KankerNL team and exchanged ideas. A few days later they got back got us with a set of challenges.

On the day itself, after we revealed the design challenge, Bartho Hengst and Jeana Frost from KankerNL took about fifteen minutes to talk about what happens when people are confronted with cancer. A cancer patient’s treatment journey starts with a complaint, and proceeds through phases of diagnosis, treatment, post treatment, living with the disease, and sometimes a palliative phase. Their informational, social and emotional needs can change from phase to phase. Patients’ social networks are a very important source of support throughout.

The presentation gave participants a great deal of background of the design challenge, and made the challenge very real for them. The KankerNL team stayed all day, walking around and talking to different groups, helping participants gain an understanding of patients and those close to them, and exchanging ideas with participants.

One of the benefits of involving a real organization, letting them come up with a challenge, and having them there on the day was that participants got the feeling they were working on a real and important problem (which they were). They had access to people who are fully immersed in the topic. These people were glad to talk to teams at length about these problems. This gave participants a much richer picture of the problem than they would have been able to get from just a short presentation in the morning.

“I know it can be an information-overload early in the morning as well as distracting from actually designing, but it makes it so much more real.”

- anonymous participant

How the teams picked up this challenge

After the opening presentation, teams went straight to work scoping and focusing in the Research and Explore phase. One mentor described most teams’ process as expectedly chaotic, starting off uncertain in the research phase and moving towards focus and clarity. The KankerNL team were available to answer any questions teams had about the complex world of cancer. Teams didn’t hesitate to use the opportunity to talk to KankerNL team members at length to understand the problems cancer patients and those around them face. For example, one team had a long discussion with Mies van Eenbergen, KankerNL’s content specialist. They learned from her that over 60% of cancer patients are 65 or older, which strongly influenced the team’s insights into the problems. It was good to see participants consider the sensitivities of this topic so seriously. We saw several groups discuss patients’ and proxies’ emotions, difficulties in talking about the disease, and challenges of daily life. They were really thinking about ‘people’ and not just ‘users’.

Meanwhile, the mentors helped keep the teams moving by showing them different angles and giving them concrete next steps. Some participants and mentors felt that teams focused on a solution too quickly and didn’t explore the topic as much as they could have. It was interesting to see that most teams didn’t focus on patients, but rather on patients’ social networks. Where they did discuss patients, people seemed somewhat optimistic about what patients experience.  Teams did not really consider the physical context involved, such as the home or hospital.



Just before lunch, teams presented the results of their morning research and exploration. Most of the teams used descriptions of user needs, personas, user stories, and scenarios to convey their ideas (you can find the presentations on our Youtube Channel).

Lunch Presentation

Lunch Presentation

Teams spent the afternoon designing. The teams were extremely focused. We saw a few groups divide tasks clearly; two or three would work on making prototypes, while the others worked on scenarios. At the end of the afternoon, teams gave their final presentations. Most recapped the results of their morning research, and presented scenarios of their solutions, illustrated with wireframes and mockups.

Several of the solutions involved some form of social network and focused on patients’ proxies rather than patients themselves. One solution helped proxies that are new to the disease connect with more experienced proxies to get insights into the disease and how they can help. Another helped patients and their friends share information and plan activities together. Yet another helped patients’ friends be more active in the patient’s life by keeping friends up to date on what the patient is going through in her journey. Yet another aimed to fight patients’ loneliness and proxies’ helplessness by helping them express their feelings. Two groups focused on patients. One aimed to help teenagers diagnosed with cancer feel remarkable, by helping them express their emotions, deal with life events and discover their identity. Another group focused on connecting new patients with more experienced or ex-patients to help new patients deal with life challenges.

What did the teams learn?

groups working

groups working

Teams enjoyed the freedom they had to use any approach they saw fit and deliver whatever they wanted at the end of the day. Some participants did feel that most teams had similar analytical approaches and that this type of approach could have stood in the way of more out of the box thinking.

Working in teams of strangers can be a challenge, especially when there wasn’t a natural leader to guide the process. That said, some teams did divide tasks during the design phase.

What did the provider of the challenge learn?

The KankerNL team enjoyed watching a large group of UX designers dive right into the problem with such concentration, inquisitiveness, and willingness to discuss. They were surprised at the speed at which the participants were able to get an idea of the needs of people confronted with cancer, and were pleasantly surprised to see that many of the proposed solutions fit well with the real needs of people confronted with cancer.

The focus on problems of daily living and patients’ social networks was interesting for KankerNL team and provided them with new directions and, they felt, will improve the long-term value of their project, though they aren’t entirely convinced that patients will always see the use of updating a profile, posting status updates, and so on.


It was a great, creative, and laid back day. But besides enjoying themselves and only having a good time, everyone involved took away some valuable insights. People liked working together with other people on a problem they (rightly) felt was so real. It helped them engage with the topic seriously and inquisitively. Working on something meaningful can really motivate people.

With complex problems like this, it’s essential to provide people with as much background information as possible. We provided a bit, but some felt they could have used even more background information, especially on who they were designing for. Having people there who deal with the topic everyday and are eager to talk about it was invaluable. Make sure there is plenty of background information and there are people there to explain it.

Designers were eager to start working on solutions. Focusing on a solution too early can mean leaving important parts of the problem space, such as physical context, unexplored. With sensitive topics like this, people should be encouraged to explore the topic more and really understand its dilemmas before diving into design.

The day was also a good opportunity for the experts on the topic to get fresh views on their problems, and to watch people tackle those problems using different techniques. The teams’ focus on problems of daily living and on patients’ social networks provided new directions for the experts to consider.

All in all, design jams like these are a great way for designers (and anyone interested) to meet and work with other people, learn about challenging topics and learn how to deal with these, while providing experts with new angles on their problems.

You can find the final presentations on our Youtube Channel. There was also a lot of chatter on Twitter, of which we made a Storify page for your amusement. User Intelligence also has a nice post on the event at


The event was hosted by Usabilla and Springest, supported by, and  organized by Christian DetweilerFranco PapeschiSabina Idler, Paul Veugen, and Jurian Baas. We also had the luck of having a couple of real nice and skillful guys to act as mentor: Tijn Borms of FundaBob Corporaal and Martijn van Loon from User Intelligence, and Jeroen van Geel from Fabrique.

On behalf of the organization we want to thank the mentors, the people from the KankerNL, Usabilla, Springest, and all the designers for making this awesome event possible!

Christian Detweiler

Christian is a PhD candidate at Delft University of Technology working on ways of dealing with ethical implications of technology during design. He has a background in media studies, law, and media technology

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