Digital Conversations

2014: the year Hackathons got serious

19th March 2014

‘Hackathons’ and ‘retail banking’ are not phrases that most people would think would go together. Last week I attended an event run by Lloyds Banking Group that certainly changed my mind about that. The event, Innovation Jam, was a hackathon for developers, business analysts and technologists to come together and make mobile apps that might help Lloyds to give better services to small businesses. I attended as a representative of the target audience.

The thing that blew me away was the scale of the event. We’ve done hackathons at Reading Room, our last one was with Prostate Action, our own event had 6 developers and designers in a room for 2 days. Innovation Jam was much, much bigger – 9 teams working competitively against the clock. I think the competitive side worked really well and added a certain energy to the event. It was also very interesting that there were a number of technologists invited as subject matter experts not from the banking industry but from tech start-ups. It’s really refreshing to see an organiation the size of Lloyds asking what it can learn from start-ups, and they certainly seemed to bring fresh ideas about how to do things quickly and collaboratively.

So yes – banks do hackathons now… who knew?

Crossing over into the public sector the words many people might think the word “Hackathon” goes together with “Home Office” no more than it does with “retail banks”. They would be wrong again.

This blog from the Home Office digital team is interesting reading. It tells a story about an approach they used for gathering user input as part of a service design project for their Visa applications exemplar project. Some of their methods owe more to hackathons than they do to ‘traditional’ UX research.

The Home Office team ran a research and testing day where they got a group of potential users together with developers, designers and business analysts and both tried out the new version of the application form and also ran activities to gather input and feedback.

Of course this challenges one of the golden rules of usability testing – in that they were working with a group, whereas usability testing is almost always carried out on a one to one basis. The argument is that using the web is not a group experience, and so in testing you should replicate the actual experience by having people do things individually. That way you get their own individual thoughts, not the combined thoughts of a group which can differ from what any of them would individually have done. But there is clearly value in this more inclusive approach used by the Home Office, involving developers directly in the research so they’re hearing things first hand from users and can play a fuller part in the project as it moves forward.

Finally not everyone would think hackathons are not the sort of thing that arts and cultural sector organisations like the Royal Opera House and the National Maritime Museum would get excited about. Again you would be wrong. Last night at our Digital Conversations Meet-up we heard from Katie Beale, cofounder of Caper and co-organiser of Culture Hack. Culture Hack is huge. The first event was back in 2011, and since then there have been over 100 organisations involved across the UK and North America. Some innovations they have brought include longer timescale hacks – lasting months rather than hours or days, and also the recent launch of an aggregated data repository – building on the ideas of the  which did the same thing 4 years ago for the public sector (and indeed we were proud to have been the developers of the launch version of that website).

It’s fascinating to see how hackathons are starting to go mainstream and how some of the methods and approaches are being integrated into bigger web-projects. If we can capture something of the energy, passion and creativity of hackathons within our project work then we have a powerful proposition indeed.


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I'm the Head of User Engagement @ Reading Room.. i help clients to get the most out of digital through building an understanding of their business and their users and what they're both trying to get out of engaging with each other. No bunnies are hurt during this process.

2 Responses

  1. avatar Humayun Hashmi April 23, 2014 at 9:17 am

    Wow, i had never known that banks are also interesting in such activities, i once attend a hackathon event in my country as an technical marketing manager, it was amazing, i still remembered the hype and excitement. That even t was organized by a local software manufacturer and the main focus of the event was to test and promote their one of new PLC hardware implementation. I think the vendor was Siemens and the project was to test a supervisory control and data acquisition protocol. I am sure most of you wouldn’t understand what i am saying but it is a fascinating topic for engineers and scientists. :) BTW nice blog.


  2. avatar Tim Lloyd March 31, 2014 at 10:21 am

    There’s a nice range of examples here. I think your penultimate line sums up the next dilemma well: ensuring that hackathons are genuinely productive and rewarding for the participants, rather than turning into a PR exercise.
    There is a huge weight of responsibility on the organisers, to ensure that customers and participants get a useful product or service at the end.


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