The Arab Innovation Academy brought together 200 participants of 23 nationalities from the MENA (Middle East, North Africa) region.
As with many startup-focused events, the academy started with participants presenting problems that they wanted to solve. and the other participants having the opportunity to join in and help.
The participants formed 34 teams, and the problems they addressed centered mostly on sustainability, recycling and eHealth. Their solutions took many forms, from websites and mobile apps all the way to new approaches to water desalination.
A few outliers had ideas that seemed…different. For example, one team developed a mobile app to order an elevator. Sounds crazy, right?
But it turns out that it’s a real hassle to get an elevator in a business high-rise (and the Gulf region has a lot of those) during morning and evening rush hours. People wait 15 minutes or longer just for an elevator to go home. From that perspective, it starts to make more sense.
In addition to Mari-Liis, the academy included 33 mentors with backgrounds in design, marketing, hardware development and software development. Each team had a chief mentor whose job was to make sure the teams stayed on schedule and worked through the process.
Mari-Liis’ mentees comprised six teams whose projects included psychological counseling via a mobile application, portable modular houses and an online shop for ecological home improvement goods. One of her teams, WeCare — the psychological counseling app — made it to the event’s finals.
The mentoring process itself involved a lot of walking around, listening in on the conversations (and trying to figure out where the teams were heading) and pitching in with questions and advice.
Often the teams didn’t know how to best tap into the vast knowledge of the mentors at hand, so the mentors had to ask a lot of questions to understand a team’s knowledge level and then make suggestions based on that.
For example, the very first team Mari-Liis talked to proudly showed off the logo they had spent hours working on. A logo is good and all, but a UX/UI designer can help with more than graphic design — with skills such as user mapping, customer journeys and much more.
The very first team that Mari-Liis talked to proudly showed off their logo that they had spent hours working on.
Mari-Liis added that a lot of her work involved prioritizing and introducing practical design tools. Prioritizing as in making sure her teams understood that logo design is not a primary concern. Development of the actual product or service should always come first, along with things like homepage, landing pages, app wireframes and the like.
Mentoring also involved introducing teams to practical tips and tricks that would make their lives easier — apps for prototyping, methods for user journey mapping, online logo generators (can be done in less than five minutes!) and so on.
Once the teams knew about the tools, more specific questions on how to use a particular app or tool started coming.
The winner was Salamat-e, a vacation passport in mobile app form. It provides information about vaccinations and other prevention needed for epidemic diseases in the region of the travel destination.
This article is based on an interview conducted with Mari-Liis Kärsten.
She has over eight years of experience working as a designer. Previously worked on mobile game graphics, branding and identity, and now focuses on information system interfaces, designing user experiences and their visual appearance.