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November 29, 2012

How To Run a Great Hackathon - Five Lessons Learned

Recently, our company took a 24-hour hiatus from client work to innovate and ideate. We call the event MoFiDy - Make it or Fake it Day. A MofiDy is our take on doing a hackathon; it's an opportunity for staff to take on an innovative challenge and show their creative chops.

Our latest challenge? Alice in Wonderland meets Kinect: take your favorite chapter from this classic story by Lewis Carroll and bring it to life using Microsoft Kinect

The experience was a great success, surprising us all on the depth and variety of innovation possible in 24 hours. Here is what we learned:

1. Building anticipation gets everyone fired up

2. Constraints give focus to creativity

3. Competition fuels the fire

4. Collaborative storytelling takes practice

5. Embracing the afterglow requires some forethought

And now the highlights.

Building Anticipation

To build excitement and anticipation over the weeks leading up to MoFiDy we 'leaked' clues in controlled doses. While everyone was given plenty of notice on the date and time commitments, we kept the theme - Alice in Wonderland meets Kinect - and other specifics a secret until the day before. In ARG-like fashion, our MoFiDy planners generated buzz in timed beats as we got closer to the big day. 

To get ready for a firehose ramp up, we compiled a slew of useful Internet links and inspiring video clips on both Alice and the Kinect. We lined up an inspirational guest speaker, Erik Kiss, Head of Development - Microsoft Games Studios, for our kickoff. Erik got everyone jazzed about the Kinect's capabilities and some recent user research findings. 

For the event itself, we signed out a pile of Alice books from the library, including this little gem... 

Annotated Alice

Here's the agenda we prepared.


The entire kick-off deck is available on Slideshare.

Providing Creative Constraints

For our MoFiDy, here are the main constraints we used:

  1. You've got 24 hours
  2. Pick a chapter from Alice in Wonderland
  3. Ensure Microsoft Kinect is integral to the experience
  4. Make it or fake it, but if you fake it, try not to get caught 

By providing the right balance of constraints, we avoided cramping people's style. We actually got them focused faster and galvanized on the task. A challenge like "pick your favourite story and use Kinect to bring it to life” would have been too vague. Sounds simple, but we had our share of false starts and learned just how valuable it is to get the formula right.

Fueling the Competition

About a week before the event, we finalized teams and let everyone know in advance. At this point, they still didn't know what the challenge would be. But they could see how the competition stacked up. 

Each team knew it would come down to a five minute, tightly crafted presentation that would be judged by a panel of peers. The make-it-or-fake-it factor has proven to be part of the secret sauce. Team members just love the idea of putting one over on your audience, keeping them asking "is that real?"

With competition, we needed clear criteria, a rubric by which to judge and score. For Alice, this is what we used:


We're still figuring out what the optimal team ratios are, but findings to date suggest erring on fewer teams (three to four) even if they are larger in size. It's more important to provide each team with a strong cross section of skills than it is to limit the size. Three to four teams is manageable for judging and it makes the competition feel a bit more intimate. 

Practicing Collaborative Storytelling

With only five minutes to present 24 hours of preparation, you don't want to mess up. The teams quickly figured out how critical it was to practice, practice, practice. On their first pass, a team might take over eight minutes. Careful scripting, culling and editing was required by each team to deliver a compelling story and keep people guessing. 

Team presentations were typically comprised of a short set of slides to set the stage and a live interactive prototype. Because we were using the Kinect we had to factor in both design and practice time that could be done in secret. Teams also had to be really tight when it came to their turn and hooking everything up.

Team 1: The Mad Hatters

 Mad Hatters

Team 2: Tactile & Touchless

Tactile and Touchless

Team 3: Off With Their Heads!

Off with their heads

What we learned here was to trust the teams to self organize around the judging criteria, but it didn't hurt to provide friendly reminders while teams were caught up in the heat of competition. In addition to the obligatory stickies, whiteboards and technology, we had to give teams lots of room to spread and to feel safe from prying eyes.

Embracing the Afterglow

You can produce a lot of innovate stuff in a 24-hour period. And it's impossible to share everything in five minutes. What happens after MoFiDy, after the presentations and judging are done, is arguably just as important as the event itself. 

While we did not require teams to work through the night, we knew some would. Not only did we need to keep them well fueled we also needed to give them an opportunity to decompress the next day.  

We also underestimated how many people would take interest in what we did. We figured with all the hackathons out there, we'd be just another blip on the calendar. But storytelling is addictive. That's what compelled us to share our Alice in Wonderland meets Kinect experience with you. That's what has us psyched to do another Make it or Fake it Day really soon.