Testing the Right Things: A Lesson from Collecting 20k Passions

20k Passions is an event that engages the passions of the student body at the University of Delaware. That’s it–no strong call to action, no club to join, no money to pay.

To engage these passions we simply asked. Walking up to people with sharpie and sticky note in hand and asking “Hey, wanna share a passion?” or just “Want to add?” when they look at the board and then look at you. I think we experienced nearly the entire range of responses–from “Oh my god yes I’d love to!” to “No. I’m passionate about not being passionate, leave me alone.” Most, however, were somewhere in between. Considering that many people expected we were advertising a club or trying to sell something, we collected around 1000 passions.

Early on in the planning process, we decided that testing, prototyping, and questioning assumptions were hugely important to maximizing the number of people engaged. Well, actually I declared myself the prototyping guy and no one stopped me. Regardless, our tests started simple enough–a big foam core board with four similar but not identical prompts on it. The goal was to see how people reacted to each, as well as seeing which they chose when left undirected.

For better or worse, this harmless test is where we started going wrong. Testing things about physical setups is important, but its too easy. It’s analogous to the internet marketers who look for the perfect email subject line or opener to make more sales. These things are important to think about, but it doesn’t matter when your content sucks. For 20k Passions the content was the interactions with and between the volunteers–the prompting questions, music we played, color of foam boards, color of sharpie, color of sticky, and specific locations of things on the table were just distractions.

The selection of volunteers was entirely intentional, though not for this reason. The volunteers were highly engaged and willing to think on the fly. They were encouraged to tap into genuine interactions, and adaptability was a side benefit. Once we realized the importance of interactions, the volunteers were a great tool to test on the fly.

To get the best interactions we set up some basic guidelines an let the volunteers tweak it to what works the best. The big guidelines we gave were:
* Do not say “What’s your passion?
* Hand people the sticky notes and sharpie as soon as possible

These are fairly simple, but they address two big problems we had in our small test event. The first was that people are super turned off by something that has big, grand, and life planning connotation of “what’s your passion.” The second is not giving people the option to walk away unless they really want to. The latter evolved into people being chased down (gently), walking with people while we transcribed their passions, saying “just yell it back” for the people who were “too busy,” and generally thrusting the sticky and sharpie at people.


Considering how much progress we made in the first few class changes on the day of, I truly believe we could have set up amazing systems if this had happened days or weeks before. Considering this, the lesson is to think about what’s actually important rather than thinking about what’s easy. The important can be simple, but it’s usually not easy.

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