Hackdays and hackathons are a fantastic way to engage your development team in new challenges. At Comic Relief, we’re pretty pleased with the outcomes of our hackdays – while we may not always get a product out of the day, we never leave a hackday without gaining clearer view of what we need to do to solve user and business problems.

This post is just a few practical tips for anyone who’s looking to organise a hackday – sharing what we’ve learnt from organising our latest hackday. 

Pick your problems

We’ve approached hacks in a variety of ways in the past, but what I feel was really good about this one was having two problems across four teams. We also went to different directorates within Comic Relief to identify new problem spaces – having these stakeholders available on the day to provide their insights and context to the teams was an effective way for teams to really get to the route of the problems.

Problem 1

The Impact & Investment team provided us with a problem for organisations applying for grants which are not suitable to them – wasting both the organisation’s and Comic Relief team’s time.

Jacqui Lowe explaining data on a PowerPoint slide
Jacqui Lowe, Impact & Investment team, giving context about the grants application problem

Problem 2

Brand and Creative director, Bill Griffin, gave us the challenge to convert people’s fleeting moments of intense giving-a-shit (my rephrase, not his) into action.

Bill Griffin presenting at Lightful / Comic Relief hackday
Brand and Creative Director, Bill Griffin, giving the teams context on the problem space

The difference to previous hackdays was we didn’t arrive with potential technical solutions in mind… ok, we had some inklings, but it wasn’t going to be a day where a pre-defined solution would be slapped together in rapid timing. It was also interesting to address two very different problems – one which was business specific to Comic Relief and one which was less defined but a wider societal problem.

Collaborate with your hackday hosts

Lightful were great to work with, they put in a lot of effort and worked with us to define what the day would be. They are well-experienced at working with different charities so had tons of good advice. The biggest difference from previous hacks, in my opinion, was agreeing that we would set up teams ahead of time rather than have teams self-form. While others may not agree with this approach, it meant that we saved a lot of time on the day.

The advantages of mix-and-match teams

Our teams on the day were roughly 50/50 between Comic Relief and Lightful team members. As we had set these up ahead of time, we were able to get teams chatting on Slack beforehand which gave a head start on the creativity.

Team collaborating at hack day
Team 4 tackling Bill’s problem – obligatory post-its, code on screen and Macs on display

It was interesting to get new eyes on some of the reusable tech we’ve been building recently – three teams made use of the pattern lab to give their prototypes the Comic Relief style, as well as the grants API getting some use in a prototype. The Lightful team provided fresh ideas from our usual tech stack, introducing technologies (such as different open source libraries) to build our prototypes. It’s also advantageous to work in teams where ‘known-truths’ about the problems, users or tech can be questioned and reexamined.

Two software engineers collaborating on work - both using Macs, naturally!
Comic Relief and Lightful engineers collaborating on the build of their team’s prototype.

Introducing a little competition goes a long way

We have never judged our hackday outputs before, this was something proposed by Lightful – and it was actually a real motivator for the teams. We had a judging panel including Zenon Hannick (Comic Relief CTO), Vinay Nair (Lightful CEO) and Susie Perks (Lightful Client Director), each team gave a 10 minute pitch/demo at the end of the day.

Zenon and Susie on a couch listening to a pitch from the team.
Zenon Hannick and Susie Perks on the judging panel for the hackday.

The pitching element also meant that non-devs had plenty of work to do while the devs could knuckle down on getting the prototypes up and running. The competitive factor obviously appeals to certain personalities so it may not be for everyone, but it worked well for us with the groups we were working in.

Outcomes from the hackday

The hackday problems were chosen with the knowledge that we had internal teams who could help develop these solutions; we wanted to make sure that the prototypes from the day wouldn’t end up in the big hackday graveyard in the cloud.

The winning prototype was an Alexa skill which would enable users to give donations to charities. We’d like to do more user validation on the concept – we know it’s technically feasible, now we need to gain greater user understanding before moving forward with this idea.

Team of 5 people with their prizes - a bottle of prosecco each
Winners of the day Team 2

The grants application issue is something we know we can help solve, it will not only benefit Comic Relief but also countless organisations who apply for funding too – so we will be trying to get an initial trial of a solution on comicrelief.com in time for the next grants initiative launch.

We’d like to thank our hosts, Lightful, for a fantastic day – stay tuned for more on the future development in these problem spaces coming soon.

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