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What we did - Technology enablement, Experience design

At a glance

Allstate wanted to explore how emerging technologies have the potential to solve business challenges. Together, we co-discovered the virtual reality technology, Oculus Rift, and challenged how the company approaches innovation.

Accelerating innovation at Allstate

With technology changes and customer habits accelerating, Allstate wanted to find commercial applications for new ideas and enable employees who were eager to experiment with emerging technologies.

The insurance giant has already made big investments in innovation, from partnering with startups to building apps that protect teen drivers and help customers archive possessions.

But it wanted to accelerate its growth as an efficient and open organization that embraces innovation among employees. That meant understanding things like how to hold hackathons, and how to use them to explore emerging technologies such as 3-D virtual reality.

Part of the answer was a joint hackathon with Slalom Chicago and its Cross-Market delivery center to explore both process and technology.

 

Building a “culture of engagement”

The mutual goal: Road-test the capabilities of Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets to address specific Allstate business objectives.

“We wanted to role model that kind of exercise,” says Brian Gore, director of talent development, organizational culture, and customer strategy at Allstate. “We thought our biggest deliverable would be advancing our problem solving and innovation skills.”

Along the way, says Gore, a deeper benefit emerged: a “culture of engagement.”

Exploring emerging technology

Allstate’s examination of virtual reality technology used a two-phase approach.

Man wearing the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset

Oculus Rift 101

Rift, developed by Oculus VR, is a virtual reality head-mounted display headset. It uses state-of-the-art displays and optics to immerse the wearer in a virtual reality—whether playing a game, participating in a hands-on demo experience, or in the case of Allstate’s claims department, simulating its leading-edge training facility. The Rift is the first of two mainstream VR devices and launched March 28, 2016.

In the first phase, Slalom engineers explored the edge of the envelope as it existed at the time, looking for the art of the possible—and barriers likely to waylay newcomers.

During one of the Cross-Market team’s regular hackathon explorations of emerging technology, the teams were directed to have fun, but also gain familiarity with building environments and finding out which approaches yielded compelling results.

For instance, Slalom developers quickly discovered that 3D environments for virtual reality headsets leant themselves to a “roller coaster” experience—where, for example, a goggle-wearing participant could enjoy a 360-degree view of their surroundings while traveling through an environment along a set path. Or it could be used to explore a defined space, as in first-person video games.

Other practical lessons emerged:

  • The relative simplicity of the tool for users who were new to the technology
  • The importance of version control and coordination for developers as they did rapid iteration the day of the hackathon
  • Discovery of how “pre-fab” virtual environments, such as walls, floors, construction materials, and cars, could be employed to speed hacker teams toward a day-of proof-of-concept

Their collective takeaways were shared with Gore and the greater Allstate teams.

Virtual reality hackathon

Excitement built as the second phase approached: A daylong hackathon for Allstate teams, alongside seasoned Slalom developers, at which some of Allstate’s most tantalizing business challenges were fair game.

Allstate employees volunteered from across business units, including technology, claims, and finance. They were encouraged to form teams in advance and brainstorm a plan for the hackathon to best push the technology—and themselves—to unexpected insights.

Useful interconnections emerged and, says Gore, “competencies were built, as well as a culture of engagement.”

The approach asked more from Allstate engineers and developers, who had to think beyond the technological limits of the technology to explore concepts that could support real-world business goals.

Business-driven ideation

Nimble teams, pairing technologists with business leaders, formed prototypes around business ideas. Teams created a business case for each idea to help inform whether to pursue it further or not.

Aided by Slalom engineers, UX designers, and business advisory consultants, the teams used the VR technology to uncover surprising ways to understand business questions.

“Attendees were inspired to think outside of their normal areas of expertise.”

Andy Kong, Slalom senior engineer

Tangible results

“I think attendees were inspired to think outside of their normal areas of expertise,” says Andy Kong, a senior engineer in Slalom’s Cross-Market delivery center.

“They were able to see something tangible through the Oculus Rift within the first hour of the hackathon,” he adds.

Within six hours, thanks to environments pre-built by Kong and his Slalom peers, the teams were presenting digital proof-of-concepts of their ideas to the group.

people working at their computers during the hackathon

Hacking a new approach to problem-solving

For Slalom, “the rapid ideation helped us understand what problems the client was dealing with,” says Arcot Naresh, a solution architect on Slalom Chicago’s content and collaboration team.*

For Allstate, “it was an approach to innovation that helped elevate the people doing it,” says Will Capellaro, a Slalom UX designer/researcher who led the Allstate brainstorming exercise around which business problems to address.

“They didn’t overthink the hackathon as a goal. It was an enabling exercise,” adds Capellaro. “That approach has a broader reach for problem solving, and I felt like we could leave the building in good hands with a model for the future. People would have seen it work.”

Scene of the room during the hackathon with people working at their computers and having group discussions

Allstate’s ongoing commitment to innovation

Allstate’s march to innovate has continued. But for many of the company’s employees, the virtual reality hackathon has infused ongoing efforts.

“The behind-the-scenes pre-work that Slalom did allowed us to enter at a more common point,” says Gore.

That was table stakes to the big bet that followed, he says: “The process opened the mindset to opportunities.”

Arcot Naresh and Will Capellaro are no longer with Slalom.

Slalom’s hackathon history

Hackathons align nicely with Slalom’s culture of curiosity. Our people love a good challenge, whether it’s an internal hackathon to explore the potential of Amazon Echo or Oculus Rift, or a chance to compete in events such as the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference’s inaugural hackathon, AT&T Developer Summit, Technology Association of Georgia’s 24-hour international hackathon, or the high-stakes Tableau Iron Viz competition—to name a few.

            

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