Posted 08 January 2020

How to develop a great idea in limited time: Learnings from the Google hackathon

This November, in collaboration with Google we invited 56 emerging creatives to a day-long hackathon at the company’s London offices. Kicking off early and running late into the day, the session was made up of a talented multidisciplinary group – spanning skills that included art direction, coding, copywriting and design. With briefing, mentoring and guidance from the Creative Lab team, creatives were divided into groups to find innovative solutions to issues around digital wellbeing, before presenting and receiving valuable feedback from the Google team. Here, we’re sharing some of our biggest learnings from the event – particularly when it comes to nailing a simple but effective idea in a short turnaround.

The Google hackathon briefing, captured by Aliyah Otchere

If you can’t make it alone, collaborate!
If you’re not heavily embedded in the world of creative tech, UX or coding, the idea of a hackathon might be slightly abstract, or even, a little intimidating. But as we discovered, working with a melting pot of diverse skill sets, interests and backgrounds can really set a project apart. While it’s true that the outcome of a hackathon is often on the more tech-heavy side of things (be it an app or browser plug-in), anyone can come up with great ideas that will appeal to a wide range of users.

On the day of the hackathon, each dedicated team included only a few people with knowledge of coding or digital product design. Far more important was the ability to collaborate, cooperate, openly communicate and be resourceful, in terms of developing and explaining an idea that works. At the end of the day, some projects were presented with coded, interactive elements, while others were communicated using sketches, a well-worded presentation or a short video – to demonstrate functionality, look or feel.

Structure your time to make the most of tight turnarounds
Before the hackathon fully kicked off, the Creative Lab team introduced the session with some brilliant insight into the way they work. This included shared advice on how to structure your time – especially when working to a tight deadline.

Then it was time to hone in on the theme of the day: digital wellbeing. The brief? To create an experiment that helps people find a better balance with technology.

With just four hours for the individual teams to work on their concepts and get them to a presentable stage, the team suggested working in the following way:

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An example of one of the insights (left) included in the Hack Pack as part of the briefing

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The Hack Pack, photographed by Luke Evans

Simplicity is key
If there’s one piece of feedback we heard loudest on the day of the hackathon it was this: Keep it simple. This included comments on everything from an app’s features and functionality, to its visual identity. If anything is unnecessary or doesn’t serve a clear purpose, you might be best to cut it (even if it’s an element you love). And when in doubt, hone in on a single problem, rather than trying to solve multiple challenges.

When it came to functionality, the advice was to keep it straightforward, in some cases reducing a project (i.e. a digital product or app) to a single feature. This also becomes particularly useful when explaining the concept to others. For the Creative Lab team, one way they’ll test whether a concept is strong enough is to ask themselves: could I design a good poster for this idea? Is it easy to summarise visually and with just a few words?

Don’t lose track of the problem you’re solving
The best way to avoid a project going awry is to go back to the original problem; is the solution still meting the brief? This is a particularly handy pointer when working in varied teams, as new and exciting extra elements can easily pile up during the making phase. Keep yourself in check by returning to the initial insights that sparked the idea in the first place.

One way to stay focused while coming up with ideas, is to work against the three key prompts below, as suggested by the Creative Lab team:

• The problem is…
• So what if we…
• To help people…

This structure also forms a valuable basis for a presentation or script when communicating your idea to the rest of the group (or world).

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An example of how to use the prompts suggested by the Creative Lab team

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Make the most of what you’re working with
During a hackathon, time and resources are often limited, so be sure to develop a clear idea of what you’ll be presenting at the end of the session. With this in mind, consider what’s achievable; will a simple video demo or set of sketches do the trick? Or are you able to build and code an example of a feature in that time?

Also – and we know this might seem obvious – do ask yourself if the idea is actually realistic, ideally at your ‘Refine the idea’ stage. Check in with team members who possess relevant skill sets to see how you might bring something to life.

A weird idea might be your best idea
Remember, no idea is a bad idea, especially during the ideation phase of a hackathon. One point that was emphasised throughout the day was that your solution doesn’t necessarily have to be a serious, game-changing product to be used every day. Instead, the group were encouraged to embrace ideas that might also be used just for a day for two, which created space for more abstract concepts.

After watching the presentations, it was some of the funnier, weirder ideas that really stuck in our minds and made us want to try them for ourselves. And while this urge doesn’t always equate with a successful solution, it definitely reflects its potential to attract attention and traction.

Testing and feedback = stronger solutions
As any UX or service designer will tell you, the key to a strong product is thorough user research, testing and feedback, so do make sure this is factored in to your making time. A good way to approach this is to try and create something usable as early as you can (which might include producing a simple mock-up or designing the user journey) and go through the motions of using it, to see where it needs attention.

Testing things in this way also means embracing mistakes and bumps in the process – and the earlier you can do this, the better. As Creative Lab’s creative lead David Bruno shared, “We spend months trying to get it right, and get so many things wrong… Just keep going.”

The Google hackathon, captured by Aliyah Otchere
One of the teams at work during the Google hackathon, captured by Aliyah Otchere
Attendees at work during the Google hackathon, captured by Aliyah Otchere

Get the tone right
When dealing with a sensitive topic such as digital wellbeing, taking a thoughtful standpoint is essential. You don’t want a user to feel judged or criticised, especially if the aim of the solution is to improve habits and find calm. The tone of your product lives across various elements, including the copy you use, its features, functionality and visuals – so you’ll want to check how it comes across as you develop it.

Consider how you’ll share the idea
Towards the end of the hackathon, groups presented their ideas on projected slides in just five minutes each, with an additional five minutes allocated for feedback from the Google team. The ways ideas were shared took on a wide range of formats – from including wireframe sketches to a quick video or illustrated demonstration – all with clear wording that captured their thinking and the functionality. So you’ll want to try and land on a method that works well for you, too.

Want to submit an experiment of your own?
If you’re keen to develop and share your own experiment, you can submit here for the chance to be featured on the Experiments with Google page. An idea should ideally be communicated with up to four images, or using a video.

In terms of the criteria, the team asks that each experiment is developed to a usable stage, as well as sharing the technologies implemented for its development as part of the submission. It’s also suggested that you open-source an element of the code used to build it. See here for the current collection to get inspired!


Google is a Lecture in Progress brand partner. Every year, Lecture in Progress partners with like-minded brands and agencies to support our initiative and keep Lecture in Progress a free resource for students and emerging creatives. To find out more about how you can work with us, email [email protected]

Written by Creative Lives in Progress
Mention Google