One of the big challenges to overcome at a themed hackathon (like NHS Hack Scotland) is getting domain experts to mix with the developers well.
If this isn’t done, then what’s produced will be of little value. Developers left to themselves will produce things that don’t solve real problems or things that rely on unrealistic assumptions and thus will never work in practice. Meanwhile the domain experts won’t fully grasp what technology can do for them and will come up with something vague (“we could have an app?”).
If this is done right, then people will learn from each other and the concepts produced should be a much better fit. Even if nothing concrete is produced, the collaboration should educate and enrich both sides and send them back with renewed energy and focus.
The first simple step is to make sure the event does not do anything to prevent this. I’ve seen one hackathon that made people wear different colour wristbands and then made all the domain experts leave at a certain time to let the developers work – thus instantly throwing a barrier between them.
But this collaboration is something that has to be explicitly encouraged. People will tend to talk to the people they know when they arrive, but you want to force them to go and talk to the people they don’t know from the “other side”.
One tactic is “organised fun”. For instance, the game where you are given a sheet of stickers. Some are blank and some have general titles on them like “Educator”, “Innovator” and “Maker”. You can’t stick these stickers on yourself – you have to talk to someone, ask what they do and stick it on them. This is great for getting people to start a conversation by asking others what they do. Note some people get a bit uncomfortable at “organised fun” that is to forced or twee – you have to ask what is the overall benefit of making everyone feel more connected and find a balance.
Another tactic is to give space for ideas or peoples thoughts to be aired. Having a structure for this means that people who may be to shy to go up and speak to someone will have a way to engage. Have a board where anyone can pin up a sheet with an idea on it or another message. Have a space at the start for anyone who wants to stand up for 30 seconds to mention what they want to do over the event. Have someone who tracks what people are working on – then if someone is looking lost it’s their job to go and find out what they want to do and introduce them to some people. If there are several different themes have banners for each one in a different part of the room with people standing by them, so attendees know where to go to talk to someone.
I’ve seen other hackathons have bookable slots for sessions with domain experts where teams can go and get feedback in an informal chat session. It’s better to have the domain experts in the teams if possible, but this is still good.
Somehow, you must find a way to get people together. For a themed hackathon, getting domain experts and developers to mix is the essential ingredient!