Clear Thinking

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Hackfarm- One Week, a Dozen Projects, 20 “Lefties”

“Welcome to Clearleft” they said, “Now get in the car”- less than 24 hours since I left my old job (R&D dept of a certain public service broadcaster you may have heard of) and I was heading for the wilds of the Wolds of Lincolnshire with over a dozen new colleagues in a convoy of people carriers. The luggage piled up behind us boded well- telescopes, electronics, acres of flipcharts- and last year’s hackfarm website led me to expect a very interesting week of focussed effort.

Hackfarm 2013

Once we were settled in to our grand new accommodations the plan for the week was revealed by Andy - rather than a single effort covering the whole week, this time around the week would be split into three chunks of increasing duration, and within each there would be four or five teams working on separate small projects. For the first project, which was to take about a day, there were four team leaders (short straws) and teams voted with their feet to join them on a range of fun projects to start us off:

  • April Fools Kickstarter- Jon led the team that built Bleige- the new colour that’s “Like beige, only blander”.

  • Ideate!- Victor and team brainstormed concepts for an app for superpowers, coming up with 100+ abilities and methods ranging from the technological to the magical for getting them.

  • Hardware Hacking- Tea Alert! If I remember right there were arduinos and RFID tags used to lash up some sort of tea focussed comms system for the office. With a game element. Mark was leader for this project (but sadly indisposed for much of the day).

  • Molecular Gastronomy- Jeremy , Jess , and co managed to synthesise something very close to mucus from cucumbers and a lot of swearing. Even more impressively the rest of us ate it.

Even at this early stage one of the advantages of the venue was clear- we had loads of different rooms of various sizes to work in, including a second kitchen that was quickly coopted as a makeshift hackspace. And Jeremy was able to find quite corners to play his mandolin when the mood took him.

Viv hides around the corner

After presenting back all our projects in the lovely big drawing room, we were issued our second batch of tasks:

  • Passion Project- the first of the week’s opportunities to work on a project of the team captain’s choosing. James Box suggested Tiny Planner- cracking little idea that really had legs.

  • Pop Up Shop- Viv , Ben , and Killian ended up making a complete architectural model of our new office’s ground floor, fitted out as a public hub space for the Brighton Digital Festival.

  • Ideation Tools- Rich led a team working up a really cool set of tools as an app that can support ideation and design research workshops. Somehow they even demoed an arduino based local wifi hub/app server for use at remote locations.

  • Eye Eye- conceptualising applications for the third generation of Google Glass- Ant (me) working with Vic and Zas hacked a projector and camera to mock up some really interesting second screen TV experiments.

Hackfarm 2013

So, by halfway through the week pretty much everyone has worked with everyone else and had a go at presenting, and there are already a couple of quite nicely defined project ideas coming together, and a few interesting research pieces. We’ve also been working in teams cooking meals on a rota for the whole house every night. The meals were becoming steadily more complex and increasingly printed with more refined table setting- by midweek there are tablecloths and a selection of wines with each course, and the port makes a showing after desert, along with the ‘Cards Against Humanity’ .

Hackfarm 2013

For the last batch of projects we had a bit more time, so the stakes were raised that bit higher, and we actually merged teams so there were just three parallel efforts:

*Coffee as a Service was how one project started, but with Rich, Viv, Jon and Killian on board it pivoted slightly, even producing a distinctly NSFW single service website along the way. In the end they presented a really comprehensive service design for Agency Fuel- a one stop shop for all the supplies that a creative agency really needs to function day to day. Mostly coffee, but also some other bits and bobs. Muesli. More coffee.

*Passion Project mk2 was picked up by Ben, who led Vic, Mark, Zas, and Andy Dennis in the design of a really beautiful physical and digital product to fullfil a similar role to Jerry Seinfeld’s calendar about nothing . The final design presented incorporated some beautiful visualisations of a calendar device using very tactile materials, and also hooked it into low friction digital interfaces. Like many of the projects over the week the value of the effort also included sharing the research that had gone into the concepts with loads of really interesting ideas around the psychology of encouragement being surfaced.

*Tiny Planner beta- the Tinyplanner team from round 2 really had the bit between their teeth now, and wanted to have another run at their elegant simple planning tool- with the hope that they could ship by the end of the week. I joined the team, and my first role was guinea pig for an intense user testing session with various levels of mockups and prototypes- within 90 minutes the user journey was radically simplified and the overall system distilled down, halving the number of pages and interfaces. Once the revised interface model was agreed, I was set to work with Boxman on the promo materials for a possible launch, James Bates completely refactored the visual design, while Andy P learned the gently soul crushing art of video editing in an intense 36hours. Jeremy and Graham carved into a spectacularly novel use of local storage to make the architecture of the app truly network independent, and also ensured it remained eminently extensile via APIs.

Hackfarm 2013

TinyPlanner actually launched very shortly after the weekend- do take a look and let us know what you think.

As for me- I can’t imagine a more brilliant way to start a new job. Huge thanks to all my new colleagues- I’m looking forward to next year already.