4 min read

Designers, Hackdays Want (and Need) You.

Hackdays. To the average punter, they sound downright dodgy (“don’t they do illegal stuff?”) and even to those more in the know — like designers — they sound like the kind of thing that require you to be confident with the command line.

I certainly thought so. In fact, my first hackday experience was a terrible one. It was in Auckland (no, I won’t say which one it was), and I turned up, only to find that no one really needed me. I left at lunch time.

However, when I recently asked a hackday veteran (and frequent winner) whether I should even bother going, the answer was “yes, designers are rare and sought after creatures at a hackday”. Was this true? I decided to take a punt, and applied for a place at the Rewired State Parliament Hackday. I was accepted, and took part in it at the (utterly gorgeous) Guardian Offices at King’s Cross over the weekend.

The short answer to whether designer are welcome: yes. Even if you head along alone (though it may help to pair up with another designer in that case as well, more on that later). I was part of a team of six that included three devs and myself and one other designer. And we were flattered to get one of the best in show prizes!

Here’s what I observed:

Devs or not, hackdays are a self-selecting — i.e. awesome — crowd.

Give up a weekend (and a lot of sleep therein), for no money, to play with code and ideas? Yep, you’re not going to get just any old person at a hack day. (Actually, Rewired State Hackdays are ones that you have to apply to, but even still, it appeals to a certain type of person). There were an amazing group of people at the RSA Parly Hack, ranging from teams of experienced devs who came down for the day to the frighteningly good and energetic teens who won the Young Rewired State Hack earlier this year. The non-devs also ranged from interaction designers to social entrepreneurs. What they all shared was a desire to make some cool stuff within the short time frame, and to stick around for most of the time in order to do it.

People at desks working
Young Hackers Alert! Also: this was at 1am. They were buzzing. I was not. I feel old.

It’s cool to come with ideas, or to not come with any at all.

You’re given the data beforehand to investigate, but the organisers also brief you at the start of the event what the team are looking for, and people say at the start what they’re looking to play with. You can either see if there are others you want to work with, or get together and brainstorm.

How You Can Help

  1. Idea generation.
    I really enjoyed walking around at the start and dipping into the brainstorming sessions going on, especially as I’d been on the tour of parliament earlier in the day and had picked up a few things that could be of use. Another aspect of this is pushing ideas to the extreme.
  2. Going beyond the obvious.
    A hint that a regular winner of hackdays has given is that you have to go beyond the obvious. You could argue that with ‘worthy’ informaton like parliament data that it’s all to easy be earnest and think about things like transparency, rather than more outrageous and interesting angles. Certainly the more memorable hacks from the event were subversive ones, be they playing the Price is Right with MP’s expense claims, or finding the MPs that you’re most likely to be able to get to rebel against their party line on a given topic.
  3. User Experience and Visuals.
    I was really happy that some of the developers grabbed me for input on UIs (e.g. search engines for people that aren’t very tech savvy), and conversely saw a few other that I wish I’d been able to give a bit of advice to.

Tips for being involved as a designer:

  • Sit with the team, stay engaged. This sounds blindingly obvious, but if you’re going to give a different perspective, you need to stay in touch with what’s going on technically, in case things start to change (and believe me, they will. Most of the teams changed major technical deliverables over the course of the weekend).
    Speaking of being engaged, we also found that if you’re working with devs, Git is the easiest way to share, with designers, a shared Dropbox folder.
  • Help tell the story. While my team didn’t have a completely working demo, we had a coherent story: we were able to give a good rationale, have a few working bits, and be able to show how it would work along with supporting information about how we might make it work. Myself and the other designer (Tim Brooke) really made it a priority to understand and champion the customer story, and I’m personally really proud that we maintained it throughout the technical changes.
  • Stay around, if you can. Hackdays that go across a weekend are kinda like being at design school again: the late nights, the crazy ideas and conversations at 1am, the cross polination of ideas … it’s all part of the fund. (Though I wouldn’t advise it quite so much if you haven’t had a good sleep the night before — I came down from Newcastle on a 6am train and started to struggle as the night went on).
  • Have fun, take risks. If you can’t do it during a hack day, when can you do it?

For those that are interested, here’s more on the project I was involved in, “Politics I Care About”. And I can’t resist a picture of my prize:

House of Commons champagne
Commons Champers!

[EDIT: Oops, I didn’t say who my team were! I’m missing a few, but I think they were me, Tim Brooke, Matt Parker, David Durant, Jack and Julian (missed last names) ]