The Great earthware Hackathon

Neil Osmond
Neil Osmond
10 Mar 2017
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As the MD of an agency, we are constantly bombarded with the new ideas and fads that we ‘should be doing because everyone else is doing it’. These include user groups, hackathons, unconferences, lean coffees, popups, lightning talks and basically anything where you provide the food!

"Wow, so cynical" I hear you say. The truth is that you have two concepts in your head that are in constant tension. The will to be new, innovative and try anything juxtaposed with the understanding that the cost (opportunity cost of course) is:

Number of employees involved X hourly rate X number of hours.

In our case, we have twenty people and if we do the sums a day off the road is between £15 and 20k.

So when we decided that we would do a second hackathon, I wanted to be clear what we would get out of it that was worth £20k!


On Friday 24th February, we did our second hackathon, taking into account our learnings from the first time. For our first hackathon, we invited someone passionate about distributing medical guidance to the third world to unqualified, healthcare workers. We all worked as a big team and we delivered a prototype by the end of the day.

However, the second time we had bigger ambitions to see if we could:

  • Deliver four concepts rather than one
  • Make each of them a viable proposition rather than just a piece of software
  • Involve external business owners who were experts in the domain and could advise us
  • Have a theme that we could all work round (in this case we decided on ‘bots’!)
  • Do some thinking in advance to maximise the efficiency of the team on the day
  • Allocate roles and responsibilities to team members in advance
  • Create a one page brief (with the situation, target and proposal) in advance so team members were free to do some thinking
  • Encourage people to play roles that are in line with their future development but that they didn’t normally play on a day to day basis (the junior developers played the tech lead roles and vice versa)

Many of the earthware team work remotely, so one of our hackathon teams was entirely remote, aligning with our aim to become a 'location agnostic' organisation.


By the end of the day we wanted to go from a concept to having the following:

  1. A Why Spiral – the earthware way of putting the proposition on a single page with 'Why' at the centre. You know how much we love to ask why!
  2. A Beneficiary Snowflake – mapping out all the potential users and 'gainers' from the solution and working out who is most, and least, important in design terms
  3. User Personas – at earthware we put our users at the heart of everything we do. If we can't get the users in the room, at least we can try and get in their heads by understanding their characteristics, gains and pains and what problems our proposition might solve
  4. User Stories – this is what we use to ground every piece of functionality in the need of a user rather than an invalidated idea in the bosses head!
  5. User Experience – using one of our UX designers to mock up what the experience for a user should look like
  6. Prototype – using some of our development team, to test out how this might work in practice and produce a simple 'bot'
  7. A proposal for crowd funding – making sure that what we were doing is grounded in the practicalities of what an investor would be looking for.

I would be more than happy to share some of the templates we used so if you fancy adopting some of these things to run your own hackathon please drop me a line at

Our creations

At 5pm we all stopped and presented what we had done. My team consistently amaze me as to the talents they can demonstrate when given the freedom to think differently. By the end of the day we had potential solutions for:

  • Screen capturing websites automatically for medical/legal submissions for sign off
  • A chat bot to make time recording easier
  • An automated pharmaceutical news collation and curation app
  • A chat bot for monitoring the journey of a mental health patient to recovery

I guess I would say that it was fantastic, especially in the public domain! What may be more interesting to you is what the external partners said…

"I think this was a great process and I am sure pharma could benefit from it." and some things that the team said…

"It was cool that the ideas put forward for the project all seemed to have some tangible business value too."

"Having external users coming in to revolve the teams around was really interesting and made the day seem more “real”.

"Having the whole team as remote workers worked well".

Our next steps are that we would love the opportunity to see if we could bring in a team and run a similar day but for an organisation/client of ours where we provide the framework, facilitation and some technical expertise and the organisation provides the business acumen and the ideas.

If you would be interested in having a chat about this, please get in touch.

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