8 secrets for a designing a successful hackathon

Hackathon: A hackathon (for most purposes) is a 2–3 day competition where multi-disciplinary teams come together to solve a problem. At best, they can produce a prototype ready for VC funding, at worst they’re a stressful, unorganised event with minimal outcomes.

These eight (8) little-known secrets were collated by our Bourne Digital Hackathon Alumni.

1. Keep ’em running

People like to know what they will be doing. Sending out a running sheet a week ahead outlines expectations and prepares attendees. It also highlights the fast-pace of the event and suggests prompt attendance (people will show up on time and avoid leaving early when they know the day is mapped out minute by minute). Good Hackathons generate a focused and productive environment, GREAT Hackathons push people to their limits to produce the impossible.

Example of a Hackathon Running Sheet

2. Pay peanuts get monkeys

Although it’s tempting to ask a friend to act as the official Hackathon SME (subject matter expert), actually paying for an SME is a worthwhile upgrade. You’ll receive expertise specifically tailored to the design challenge and avoid squirrelling away time. Additionally, you ‘purchase’ the power to solicit pre-reading from your SME and can expect them to possess a thorough understanding of the Hackathon challenge. This ‘investment’ will force you to carefully plan the day-maximising their time to achieve a return on investment. You’ll work harder to glean value and they’ll work harder to earn their keep. Ensure their presence at key validation stages throughout the day to confirm or disprove the teams’ industry assumptions.

3. Small Bang Theory

Make sure you organise rapid design activities. The more you can divide the processes into micro time-frames the better. Short activities generate energy and a sense of pressure to push the teams creatively. Use a timer, make it loud and proud.

“OK, everyone stop what you are doing, take what you have and draw a prototype in 10 minutes.” | Image: Sam Duffy-Yates

4. Blame the Baby

There’s nothing more challenging for a Hackathon facilitator than stopping people when they’re on a roll. If you activate a timer from the get-go you’ll jumpstart a respect for the schedule. At @bourne_digital we like to use Bessie, our one-eyed Bad Baby. She keeps the teams on track and takes the tricky job of interrupting participants out of your hands. “It sounds like you are getting some excellent insights here, I’d like you to continue, but unfortunately Bad Baby says Times-Up!”

Bessie, the one-eyed Bad Baby Timekeeper | Image: Melissa Voderberg

5. Stranger Danger

Nothing like an outsider to keep teams on their toes. Inviting unexpected ‘intruders’ to attend early pitch sessions will push attendees to create a clear, succinct message. They’ll need to work harder to sway a newcomer, someone who hasn’t been subject the infamous Hackathon ‘groupthink’.

6. Charge Stations

Ever stay back late working on a deadline with The-Sad-Vending-Machine as the only viable food source? Providing a mix of healthy (and some sugary) snacks will keep teams fuelled up and able to stay focused on the task. Leave the alcohol for later, you want your teams to be as sharp as possible, ‘beer-brainstorm-breakthroughs’ don’t sound nearly as good the next day on stage during your pitch.

7. Do a Blockie

Never underestimate the power of a change of scene. Einstein credited many of his discoveries to his daily walk. If he was stuck on a problem, he’d write it down, then head out on a walk. When he returned, the answer would be apparent.

Image: Melissa Voderberg

Hackathon headquarters get hot and heavy with participants harried and hurried. Plan for an official ‘blockie’, set the timer and ensure everyone gets out the door. You’ll find ‘idea blockers’ will subside and the energy in room will regenerate.

8. To assume makes an ‘ass’ of u and me (Jerry Belson)

Make sure all teams interview at least 1 person/user to confirm their concept. At best- a real user, at worst- a family member. Yes, this takes time. Yes, people will need to leave the building. But feedback comes fast and furious and can be a turning point in the Hackathon process. It’s always better done earlier than later. Get teams to collate a set of assumptions for validation, and encourage them to start ringing.

Taking the time to plan out the schedule, materials, resources and activities is integral to a hackathon’s success. Using these eight secrets will ensure you’ll get better results for your design sprint.

Good luck!

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