Aug 04, 2011

The Way We Hacked: Looking Back at Hot’s Inaugural Hackathon

Hot Studio’s first-ever Hackathon, which wrapped on Monday, represented a unique opportunity for both the company and the Hackathon’s participants. For Hot, the Hackathon was a kind of internal experiment, a way of kickstarting new ideas and seeing what small teams could achieve in the space of just one weekend. For participants, it meant a chance to work in a lower-stakes, more improvisational way, as well as an opportunity to work in new teams and with new people. Beyond these few basic expectations, however, neither the Hackathon’s organizers, Dan Harrelson and Josh Damon Williams, nor the two-dozen participants knew exactly what might happen.

The results were wide-ranging and impressive. Projects included the Truth Index, a product that would promote transparency in the political process; Platypus, an app designed to help facilitate design workshops; Pocket Monsters, a gamified approach to time management; and GreenRoom, a concept born from the team’s desire to reduce e-waste.

“Teams followed their inspiration,” said Josh Damon Williams, “but also anchored their ideas in product thinking and strategy.”

In the days following the Hackathon, we caught up with each of the six teams to find out about their projects and their experiences in the Hackathon. Here’s what they had to say:

Hotties Think Charitably...

Half of the projects presented had overt social goals—a not-so-surprising finding considering that Hot Studio annually reserves 15% of its portfolio for work with non-profits and NGOs.

Perhaps no team represented the weekend’s social overtones, in both name and spirit, more than Greater Good. Their project, The Social Impact Index, was designed as an easy way for consumers to learn about the real commitments that companies they support make to non-profit work and charitable initiatives.

Transparency was also a theme of the Trust Index, the project from Seahorses Forever. Intended as a way of making politicians back up words with actions, the Trust Index helps voters find the disparity between politicians’ rhetoric and their voting records. Or, as the team put it in their presentation: “How do we keep those bastards honest?”

GreenRoom, the pitch from Hackathon winners The Deciders, also had an element of social consciousness.

“It’s an easy way of reusing e-waste,” said a Decider, Bill Fisher.

And They Also Think About Solving Problems

Other proposals offered practical solutions to everyday problems that businesses and designers face.

VizBox, a touchscreen app designed to help businesses run through quick design workshops, is based on the visual design workshops that Hot runs with each of its clients.

Platypus, a platform for small businesses to connect with people in their communities, springs from the “app overload” syndrome that so many business-owners face today.

And Pocket Monsters from first runner-up Hot Pockets is a fun, gamified way of tracking hours spent on client work. According to the team, Pocket Monsters springs from the difficulties that one team member, Ed, had tracking hours over the years.

The Hackathon Was A People Mixer

In speaking with each team, it seemed one of the biggest perks of the Hackathon was the chance to work closely with new people, and the chance for participants to see the work of their colleagues in a new way.

The Hackathon gave members of VizBox, a team composed primarily of visual designers, a rare chance to work together, since no more than one or two visual designers are typically staffed on the same project.

For Laurel Tripp, a member of The Deciders and a relative newcomer to Hot Studio, the Hackaton was a great introduction to her colleagues’ talents. “I’m surrounded by a bunch of smarty-pantses,” she said.

“We have a lot of new faces at Hot these days,” said Hackathon co-organizer Dan Harrelson. “And the Hackathon was a great opportunity for people to work together and get acquainted in more casual way.”

“Iron Chef” Hackathons?

A few participants voiced hope that future Hackathons would be centered around a particular theme, problem or cause, which each team would then have to solve in different ways.

“It could be like ‘Iron Chef,’” said one member of Team Platypus. “They lift up the curtain and we’re working with... pork. Well, not pork. You know what I mean.”

Pork aside, one thing seems certain: there will be more Hackathons in the months and years ahead. And if this first run is any indication, it seems there’s lots of great work in store, just waiting to be hacked together.

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