Hackathons: research, idea development and prototyping grow together

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Hackathons are becoming increasingly popular as a method and opportunity to develop innovative concepts in a short space of time. And in a wide variety of areas. The first major education hackathon, HackingEDU, took place in San Francisco in October 2015. Over 1,000 students from across the US came together to develop innovative, digital solutions in higher education to change and improve the way knowledge is delivered in higher education.

Hackathons are collaborative, often interdisciplinary programming events that aim to develop digital products and prototypes in a short space of time. The effectiveness and low risk associated with this development format mean that hackathons are establishing themselves just as quickly in the non-profit sector as in large companies. The term “hackathon” is a neologism made up of the two words “hacking” and “marathon”: The “hacking” represents the agile and creative use of technology; the “marathon” alludes to the effort that a hackathon demands, as the events usually go on for 24 to 48 or more hours without breaks. The goal is to arrive. Hackathons are often organized outside the companies or organizations that participate in them. The format is an open format that aims to promote the collaboration of heterogeneous skills – outside the restrictions that arise from the context of the company or organization. However, this does not mean that hackathons cannot also function as an internal development format. IBM, Microsoft, the Bosch Group and Eon are just some of the companies that regularly organize hackathons at companies, universities, conferences and other locations.

Even though hackathons tend to result in digital products in the true sense of the word, companies that are still in the early stages of digitalization can also use this approach as a development method to boost their digital business model. Whether for digital or analog products, whether organized externally or within the company, the decisive factor is the speed with which the participants in hackathons translate ideas into initial prototypes. The speed helps to quickly make completely new or already existing, diffuse ideas tangible. Both the Like button and the Facebook timeline, for example, are the result of hackathons. Rapid development makes it clear which ideas are feasible and which are not. Things become conceivable that would never have been on a company’s agenda outside of hackathons. This is because the approach and therefore the results stem more from the creative and emotional impulse than from rational thinking. The likelihood of success arises from heterogeneity and diversity, as well as from the fact that different teams work simultaneously and in a concentrated manner on solving the same problem or at least on a similar task. The competitive element also increases the involvement of the participants.

As an agile development method, hackathons can be an inexpensive and effective alternative or supplement to in-house R&D work because they accelerate the collective creative process and their results are initial, concrete prototypes that can then be further developed. This shortens the phase in which you deal with abstract concepts on paper. The art of implementing this development method is to create a meaningful and robust strategic framework that gives direction to this concentrated burst of creativity. For all its effectiveness, the hackathon cannot answer one question: Why should I implement what I have discovered for myself? The hackathon is a tool that opens up possibilities. However, it creates little meaning and direction on its own.

Thinking with your gut – and how qualitative market research can help us do this

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Let’s start with a little thought experiment: Imagine you are a turkey. You live on a farm and every day at the same time the farmer comes to feed you. You will be cautious at the beginning. You can’t be sure whether you can really trust the man in the blue trousers. After a few days, however, they get over themselves and – despite a queasy feeling – approach the master and are rewarded with delicious food straight away. You therefore repeat this behavior over the following weeks, collect the tasty reward and your initial insecurity seems to gradually disappear. But then it’s the day before Thanks-Giving and as you can imagine, the daily feeding will not end well for you this time.

Prof. Gerd Gigerenzer, Director of the Department of Adaptive Behavior and Cognition and Director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy at the Max Planck Institute, used the story of the turkey to illustrate the limits and pitfalls of quantitative data-based action. Because, like the turkey, algorithmic forecasting models also run the risk of predicting the future based solely on the past. But haven’t we learned: “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior”? Isn’t the past the best data material for drawing a valid picture of the future? Actually, yes, but this maxim only has limited validity. Because the future only remains predictable as long as we find ourselves in contexts of fixed rules and recurring phenomena, i.e. if the future can actually be extrapolated from the patterns of the past. However, if we find ourselves – like the turkey – in contexts that are characterized by unpredictable events and general uncertainty, a firm belief in the predictability of the future can create false expectations of the future and its predictability.

But does this mean, conversely, that we have to remain in a state of ignorance? That the future ultimately remains a product of chance and that we have no chance of consciously helping to shape it? This would be a sobering realization, as companies are more often than ever responsible for constantly renewing themselves, voluntarily entering into contexts of high uncertainty and daring to innovate.

Don’t panic. Gigerenzer also provides a solution to this apparent problem in his talk. For him, the conscious application of heuristics – by which psychologists mean mental shortcuts, simple rules of thumb or the conscious consideration of one’s own intuition when making a decision – represents a practical alternative to data-based management practice. If the turkey had listened to his gut feeling from the start, he would probably have escaped the axe.

However, an important prerequisite for being able to make correct intuitive judgments is that you have acquired a certain level of expertise in the respective domain. Our brain has the amazing ability to apply existing expert knowledge to issues within a very short time. We are often not yet able to specifically name why we think an idea is good or bad. But our gut feeling already gives us a clear signal as to whether an idea has potential. Because the processing speed of our brain is much faster than we think. Within fractions of a second, we compare and interpret information – taking into account all the information available to us. However, this usually happens unconsciously and without us intentionally pursuing it. However, we can only make a rational assessment by using considerable cognitive resources and without being able to access the full wealth of intuitive knowledge. What at first sounds like the message of a spiritual self-discovery course has actually been empirically proven many times, for example on the basis of judges’ verdicts.

However, if we rely on our own intuitive judgment, a problem arises. If we cannot clearly state why we think an idea is good, we find it difficult to convince others of this idea. Because persuasion is still based on rational arguments, which we unfortunately lack. It is not uncommon for a worse alternative to win out over the perceived best, simply because it is easier to find arguments for it. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way to share your gut feeling with others?

Qualitative market research provides a suitable approach here. This is because it creates a space in which product ideas and people who will one day use these products come together. And even though we may not all be designers or product developers, we are experts in dealing with people. We can sense joy, confusion or anger. What is perhaps difficult to verbalize rationally becomes empathetically and intuitively comprehensible when observing the interaction between user and product. And this is also a value of qualitative market research: a symbiosis of language, meaning and action is created in the interaction with the test subjects. Emotions can be observed and their causes explored. An active process of understanding takes place. Such moments are priceless, especially for the client. Because when he accompanies the implementation of qualitative studies, for example in the observation room or via video link, they are able to experience the effect of his product idea on the target group for themselves. We therefore always recommend that our customers accompany our studies at least in part. This not only creates a common understanding, but also additional added value for the client. Observing and understanding actively trains your own gut feeling, which is almost priceless, especially in complex decision-making situations. With this in mind, we look forward to welcoming you to our observation room in the near future.