Hacking the Human Element

Last weekend, Hard Yards had the opportunity to support an MD5 - National Security Technology Accelerator Hackathon.

What is a hackathon?  Traditionally, hackathons are a way to quickly develop new software applications or identify novel approaches to technology problems.  Companies have even formed because of hackathon events.  For example, GroupMe was formed at a 2010 TechCrunch hackathon and was later purchased by Skype for $80 million.  However, not all hackathons are about software.  They are increasingly used to support the overall design process, like the Google Ventures Design Sprint process.  A 2 or 3-day hackathon can go from problem statement to prototype and user testing on a range of technology, product, and business challenges.

Hard Yards had the opportunity to support MD5’s Hacking the Human Element event held in collaboration with USSOCOM at SOFWERX in Tampa, Florida.  In preparation for the event, the Hard Yards team conducted interviews with warfighters from several different special operations elements, civilian first responders with experience in flood, hurricane, and disease disaster relief, and technology experts and innovators using wearable technology to help operators in all sorts of interesting ways.

We then synthesized the insights gained from those interviews into a challenge brief presentation that was leveraged to kickoff the event.  You can see our presentation here

Folks pitching their ideas based on the challenge brief

Folks pitching their ideas based on the challenge brief

Our goal was to connect the teams with the problems, challenges, and unmet needs we uncovered.  Ultimately, we wanted to inspire teams to tackle a problem and come up with a new, novel approach to addressing that problem.  The outcome of a hackathon, like any design process, is greatly dependent on the work put into defining the problem.  In order develop these stories, we used ethnographic interviewing techniques.  Ethnography is not user testing, or brainstorming.  It is not solution development.  It is about understanding context and culture, and uncovering the challenges and unmet needs that each person experiences. Anytime we are conducting these interviews, our goal is to have the interviewee do 75% or more of the talking.  If you are interviewing, and you are doing the talking, then you are making it about your needs, not theirs!

With the proper context and understanding of common pain points, we were able to unleash teams with the following guidance:

  • Select a human problem or need you are passionate about solving
  • Make your solution first and foremost about your users and their problem and unmet needs vs. the technology solution
  • Clearly define your goal and your definition of done
Teams self-organized around the most popular pitches

Teams self-organized around the most popular pitches

It was great to see teams take user needs that we uncovered and tackle them head on.  In many cases teams were made up of individuals who met for the first time at the event.  They self-formed around the challenges and ideas that most appealed to them.

There were 4 winning teams selected at the end.  These teams will have the opportunity to advance their concept in partnership with MD5.

We grateful for the opportunity to support MD5 and SOFWERX for hosting a top-notch event.  Thanks to the teams for their hard work and dedication to helping our warfighters. 

Most importantly, we appreciate the end users, the operators, that gave up their time to talk with us and share their stories!