Labrats: the second experiment

9 Mar 201712 minutes read

Could you make something awesome in 5 days? These guys did.

Labrats is our replacement at Etch for the traditional intern opportunity. We started it because we felt that ‘typical’ internships were broken; for the most part young designers and coders don’t get anything from them besides the rubbish jobs that no-one wants. So while we enjoy having tea/coffee made for us on demand, we decided to bring in a group of students to our studio for a week of design sprinting, using the blueprint set out by Google Ventures.

The aim here is to solve unique problems and produce tangible results quickly.

Could you make something awesome in 5 days? These guys did.

The test subjects

Our labrats need to be problem solvers. It doesn’t matter if they’re a designer, a developer, an accountant or a physicist, they need the drive and curiosity to thrive off of working with a team to solve puzzles. After a series of tests and interviews, we found a team ready and willing to work collaboratively on the brief — a brief that we would only tell them right before they started!

So meet the 2017 January Labrats: Matt, Laura, Kamil, Edoardo, Patrick and Ewelina.

The brief

The ultimate aim is to present the team with a problem they wouldn’t usually come across in their university projects. The second experiment’s theme is based on the Fire and Rescue Services.

The emergency services as a whole are constantly looking at ways to improve their communications with those that are on the frontline. Information needs to be detailed and quick to understand due to the nature of certain operations.


Firefighters are presented with so many different scenarios and situations on a day-to-day basis. The public will primarily see Firefighters cutting the roofs off of cars to free someone or entering a burning building to extinguish fires on the news. But their role expands beyond these types of scenarios. They have specialist teams that are trained in confined space rescue, rope rescue, water rescue, animal rescue. The list can go on depending on the requirements for certain areas.

Currently firefighters have radios to talk to their team, but due to certain elements in the environment these can sometimes fail or be difficult to hear, they also require manual operation, PTT (Push to talk) button for example. If radios fail, they can rely on hand signals that can convey information, but in a smoke filled room, how can you tell that someone is signalling to you? While these techniques have been proven reliable, there is still room for improvement.

Setting a target

Before you can get started on a journey, you need to know the destination. The team needed to look ahead to see what a long term goal might look like. Why are they doing this project? Where would they want to be five years from now if this project was to continue after the week? It is important that the team slowed down with this part of the process. If they got it wrong then time and effort would be wasted solving the wrong part of the brief.

 The team reflecting on their long term goals and sprint questions, What can they answer in a week? Did they miss anything? How do they achieve this?

The Labrats decided that “conveying better quality information” was the main goal. If they achieved this, they would achieve everything else they had come up with.

Once the long terms goal was set, it was time to map out the entire journey and choose a target area. The team may not know everything that happens during an incident, but having a base to work from was important. It would also help focus them in finding a specific area to work on.

Getting first hand insight

As luck would have it, Etch has a few contacts in the Firefighting industry and when we asked them to come and take part, they jumped at the opportunity!

Robin Jackson, Senior Fire Officer of Tata Steel and Neil Moore, the head of IT at Hampshire Fire and Rescue were able to come in and give us a unique insight into the types of environments that firefighters find themselves in. As well as let us know how the Fire Services were utilising technology to enable them to be more effective at their job. The Labrats were put through their paces and even allowed them to experience some of the equipment Firefighters use.

Conducting a 'right hand' search in a smoke-filled building

This also provided an opportunity to take Robin and Neil through the journey map. This allowed them to gather context around the decisions that were made at each point of the map.

Robin talking the team through scenarios firefighters have to deal with

Taking Neil through some ideas, and receiving some insight as to how each could work practically

At the end of their time with Robin and Neil the team had discovered 3 key things;

These findings lead the team to a couple questions; do they focus on a specific type of incident? or find a way of fitting something into the standard PPE?

The most important thing; now the Labrats had first hand information to act upon.

Remixing and iteration

With all of the information gathered and a target in the journey map now selected, the team go back to basics and start to sketch. Nothing fancy, just a doodle and a couple of words to get the idea across. This allows the team to generate and iterate quickly on ideas.

Taking over the walls in the office with concepts

As with any team, we encourage the Labrats to look around each others ideas, take inspiration from each other and more importantly discuss the concepts potential. Getting rid of the lone wolf mindset is important for developing ideas. Having everything on the walls allowed the team to quickly reference and remind themselves of everything they had discovered up until this point.

Getting rid of the ego

The issue with many young designers and developers starting out is that they get attached to ideas. While this is good to be passionate about something, to be able to let go and approach another idea with the same passion easily is a great trait to have.

With so many potential solutions to take forward and only one being chosen to prototype, the team could not afford to get too attached. After presenting and discussing their ideas one last time, they now had to decide which of them had the best chance of achieving the long term goals.

Choosing one from many isn't an easy task. We had to employ a 'decider' to make the final decision.

Building the prototype

As soon as we began the week, the designers wanted to open Sketch or illustrator and the developers in the group were itching to start coding, but they weren’t allowed.

Now that it is day #4, the team now have a well defined focus for the project. Each step of their journey was mapped out and it was time for them to turn pencil to pixel and start giving their idea life.

The concept that the team wanted to build had two parts:

The Labrats split into two teams that met regularly through the day to ensure both ideas still aligned with each other.

The firefighter HUD team discussing how to utilise colour instead of words to convey information

Presentation day

It’s been a long, tough week, but it’s not over yet! Now the Labrats needed to present their findings and explain how their concept and prototype solves the long term goal they set themselves.

Part of the design process is getting buy-in from key stakeholders. So we take time out of Friday morning to teach some presentation tips and tricks.

The Labrats needed to get across the research they did, targets they were aiming at as well as present their prototype. Collating a weeks worth of intense work into a 20 minute presentation is no easy feat. But these guys did it! The team showcased the prototype they created to Neil, University lecturers and the team here at Etch. Everyone loved it.

Neil trying the VR firefighter HUD the Labrats created


The second experiment was a success. The Labrats succeeded in what they set out to do and made something awesome in 5 days!

The incident commander UI. From here the Incident Commander can do more than just send messages

The HUD for a firefighter showing that using colour and motion can provide messages and context to what a firefighter needs to do. For example, blue for objectives and red means leave the building. 

Both of these interfaces allow various people to track teams and their locations. whether it was the telemetry on the Incidents commanders UI or the locations on the compass in the Firefighters HUD.

All of this could be linked with a network that is set up on arrival at the fireground. Devices on the PPE of firefighters can also amplify the wifi signal, making each firefighter a ‘hotspot’ (yes, that play on words was 100% intentional).

The Labrats went above and beyond what was expected of them. They created a VR experience for people to put themselves in the shoes of a firefighter as well as create a prototype platform for the Fire Services to manage incidents. All in 5 days!

Well done guys! You were amazing, good luck with the rest of your studies! You’re welcome in the studio anytime.


Thank you to Robin and Neil

I want to take this opportunity to thank Robin and Neil for coming to to talk to us and being on hand throughout to answer any questions.

Your experience and insight into how we could make ideas work is massively appreciated, you guys are awesome! I hope you enjoy the results!

Want to make something awesome in 5 days?

As much as lectures and coursework teach you specific “how to” practical skills, the experience you’ll gain from working in a real live studio will teach you the essential soft-skills that you’ll need to excel and push your ideas to the next level, but in a more condensed format than a gap-year or internship alongside your studies.

We are offering 6 driven students the opportunity to come into our studio to learn the ways of the industry. You’ll learn how to unpack and solve any problem you are presented with as well as how to prototype, conduct user tests and iterate an idea using simple UX and development techniques and frameworks.

Apply and get more info at