On hackathons, UX, and communities that make things together

This time exactly a week ago, I was running on fumes and what remained of my adrenaline after a couple of nonstop days spent at the 2014 Steel City Codefest. My second such experience with these types of weekend competitions, the codefest was a blast with its share of ups and downs. That my team finished among the finalists was a thrilling bonus. To echo one of my teammates, I made friends, met contacts, and learned a thing or two … and that’s a win-win-win, no matter who takes the top prize. It was also tremendous just to be exposed to so much talent, energy, and enthusiasm. Hopefully, my team and the third-place winners who worked on the same challenge will be joining forces in the coming weeks to continue development of a better mobile website for nonprofit Pittsburgh Cares.

One observation I was left to ponder in the codefest’s wake was how much I felt in the minority among the event’s 100-plus participants. Not that I’m surprised that something called a codefest or hackathon would draw mostly coders, programmers and developers, leaving UX architects or designers few and far between. But I feel like that’s a shame.

Interestingly, the very next night I was at Carnegie Mellon for a meeting of Open PGH, a newly founded Code for America Brigade, and one of the agenda items was what the fledgling organization should call itself. The debate was spirited. A few people preferred “Code for Pittsburgh” or something with code in the name, because it would signal an emphasis on building things and keep the group’s focus sharp. But the majority wanted “Open PGH,” arguing it was more inclusive and appealing to important communities beyond just programmers. In fact, the diversity of people in attendance — including coders, data geeks, community organizers, designers, government officials, and academics — was really quite impressive.

There’s something to be said for criticism of hackathons — see here and here for two well-articulated examples. But what hackathons can lack in substance or lasting impact, I feel they make up for by simply bringing people together. That’s no small feat, getting busy working individuals to drop what they’re doing for a weekend and invest their time and energy in a madcap side project. And I’m all in favor of anything that gets people connecting and working together in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise. To quote Monet: “One never gets anywhere in isolation ... one cannot invent all alone, in a corner of some province, without criticism, means of comparison, and firm convictions.”

Which is all to say I wonder whether there should be “hackathons” for UXers. To my delight, a quick Google search reveals there actually have been a few such events, including one organized by General Assembly in Los Angeles last month. But that’s a trickle compared to the widespread flood of coding competitions, participation in which I don’t think even crosses the minds of many who do user experience work.

What should a UX hackathon look like? In what ways would it be different from a typical hackathon? What would be its goals? That’s all to be determined if I decide to pursue this possibly crazy idea for an event in Pittsburgh. This much I know:

(1) A UX hackathon has the potential to draw people out of isolation and into a space where they meet, talk, design, create, and collaborate … and no, conferences don’t count. I love conferences and they’ve been invaluable to me in this newfound career, but nothing gets made at conferences. I’ve met a ton of great UX people, and I haven’t made a single thing with any of them, because beyond the occasional meetup or conference we’re all preoccupied with and partitioned by our day jobs. That feels like a missed opportunity.

And (2) a UX hackathon can expose our communities at large to the value and practice of user experience design work. Imagine if a UX hackathon were like the Steel City Codefest, specifically organized around challenges for the civic good with nonprofit clients who would otherwise never be able to afford even a mid-level agency. Imagine all the people working for the very first time with information architects, interaction designers, content strategists, UX architects, and so on. More people understanding the work we work do by experiencing it for themselves cannot be a bad thing.