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Digital Labs wins tech challenge with 'people' design

Christine Miao of McKinsey's Digital Labs whittles 40 questions down to 4 in the online permitting process.

– Most people know McKinsey has analysts. Strategists. Experts of all kinds. But did you know we also have hackers?

McKinsey's Digital Labs sent a team of four twentysomething digital analysts to participate in the first hackathon sponsored by the City of Boston. The challenge? Streamlining the online permitting process for consumers and small businesses. The city processes almost 100,000 permit applications a year—permits to put up walls, to install plumbing, to serve alcohol, to claim a parking space, just to name a few. Each permit application can include up to 40 questions. The hackathon was a way for Boston to tap the tech community for innovative solutions to one its biggest "pain points" for small businesses.

Ten teams participated in the 24-hour challenge including universities, professional hackers, and enterprise software companies. On the McKinsey team, Christine Miao served as product owner/designer, Catherine Lee was a designer, Matt Casey focused on the architecture and Neil Ni handled the back-end development.

When the clock started ticking, most teams dove into the database design and coding. But the Digital Labs team fanned out—and spent 6 hours interviewing the very people most impacted by the onerous permitting process, who had been invited to the event to provide input. They talked to city officials, consumers, and business owners including a burger entrepreneur and the owner of Roxy's Grilled Cheese. "A rep from Main Streets, an organization focused on small businesses, and a city manager actually walked us step by- step through the process of how they help users applying for a permit—as if it were two people sitting at a desk," remembers Christine. "This was a critical conversation.We then translated their physical process into a digital solution they could be excited about." The key takeaway from their interviews was clear: citizens wanted a consistent, reliable process that they could use for all of their permits, whether it was for building an addition to a house or opening a business.

The team worked through the night and next morning developing their approach, sleeping only 3 hours each. They checked in constantly with their stakeholders for feedback by text, phone, and e-mail. "The hardest part was knowing when to stop designing and start building," remembers Matt.

Holistic, 80/20, and integrated

"Our solution was aspirational—rather than fixing the existing process, we created a single set of rules that could apply to most users," says Christine. "We followed the 80/20 rule, developing for one of the most complex use cases—an entrepreneur opening a restaurant—so that what we built could be easily scaled down and optimized for most users." The approach integrated the ability to identify and apply for the right permit, along with a tracking mechanism so a restaurant owner could monitor the multiple permits he or she would eventually need. They simplified the entire process, whittling 40 questions down to 4. The next morning, the Digital Labs team won both for their category and for the overall hackathon.

Would they do it again? "Absolutely!" said both Matt and Christine. "But it has to be the right opportunity. This hackathon hit the sweet spot of what we do at McKinsey in terms of user research and how we can represent data in a new way to solve problems for a large-scale system."

Next-generation consulting

The Digital Labs is a new way in which McKinsey is serving clients: turning ideas and strategies into technical applications—fast. Started in 2010, the Digital Labs today has 300+ digital professionals including UX designers, full stack coders, data engineers, and agile experts. They work on a range of projects, from rapid prototyping to building tailored data-analytics solutions. The Digital Labs can also help organizations grow their own agile development skills in-house. They run 24 hours a day, with teams operating in 10 cities on four continents, often handing off projects across time zones to meet tight deadlines.

"Winning the Boston hackathon exemplified the design principles that make the Digital Labs unique…how we think about scalability, the practical aspects from the design side," says Hugo Sarrazin, a Silicon Valley-based director, who leads the group. "To us, success is to make something people want to use."

Learn more about Digital Labs.