What happens when you take 80 coders, designers, and business people, leave them in an urban garden for 48 hours, and give them access to the data and features of one of the biggest banks in Ireland?

For those unfamiliar with the format, this is a Hackathon. A marathon event, at which teams go from initial idea to working digital prototype in just two days. Four Nilers joined Ulster Bank’s Bank of APIs Hack at Dogpatch Labs in Dublin, over the 17th February weekend, as mentors. Our role was to help teams better understand banking customers, develop their ideas around real insight, and create more commercially viable solutions.

So what did we learn from the Hack? Here’s our top 9:

1: It’s not about winning
The most important lesson from the weekend. On a Saturday night, after eleven hours of intensive thinking, designing and coding, every team was still there. This doesn’t happen unless people really love what they do. Teams were there tackling challenges for the pure thrill of tackling challenges, and there was an atmosphere of camaraderie that would rival any Band of Brothers episode.

2: Multidisciplinary teams have an edge
This is something we see in our work with client teams all the time. Teams with individuals with different complementary skill sets produced really well rounded concepts. Developers with the skill to build impressive prototypes, supported by designers who understood the target users and user experience. Folk from Ulster Bank itself, knew the banking industry and its challenges, while business or marketing gurus sculpted early, yet convincing, business cases. At pitch time the teams that had all of these individuals working together stood out.

3: People stick with what they know
The drawback of such a tight turnaround time is that the majority of teams focused on the familiar aspects of retail banking. Many set their sights on mortgages, banking for kids, or new interfaces for online banking, and as a result the issues and easy wins that exist in the business and commercial banking worlds were overlooked. Commercial banking is a more complicated area – but after watching the teams in action, it would be phenomenal to see them supported to apply their skills in disrupting this field.

4: Sense in simplicity
“Don’t try to boil the ocean.” This is a much repeated pearl of wisdom from Nile’s own level-headed Operations Director, which is why I was so impressed to hear one of the Hack teams saying it. A common pitfall is to build a mass of cool new features, that can’t possibly be explained in a 3 minute pitch to a judging panel of Banking Executives (this is how long the teams got to playback their concepts). The most memorable ideas were the simple ones, focussing on solving one or two specific problems.

5: Know your customer and what makes them tick
In order to be specific, teams needed to focus on a concentrated group of target users. One of Nile’s missions for the weekend was to help teams better understand different banking customers and their needs, enabling them to draw insights from them and define the journeys to refine their solutions better.

Kate Bordwell, Head of Design Research at Nile, proudly standing beside a team’s user persona.

Kate Bordwell, Head of Design Research at Nile, proudly standing beside a team’s user persona.

6: Know your business (where it is and where it’s going)
It’s all very well to have a great idea, but how do you get it to market? How do you make a business plan? Our other key mission of the weekend was to encourage the teams to get beyond the dream and think about how to make it a reality. We helped the teams to think about the resources they needed, the marketing channels they’d need to use, and even how to make money from their solutions.

A battle worn Nile Marketing Canvas, soaked in the coffee of its enemies/team.

A battle worn Nile Marketing Canvas, soaked in the coffee of its enemies/team.

7: Describe the experience, not just the technology
Describing your concept through the experience of the user is much more powerful than explaining the technology that delivers it. This is extremely important when pitching to people whose understanding of Python is that it is a legless reptile – these tend to be the people who have funding. The team from Nile, set out to help Hackers design their customer experiences, making ideas instantly relatable to a wider audience, and demonstrated their value and desirability. A lot of teams showed exceptional skill at understanding their user base. Sadly, a couple of teams with fantastically built concepts narrowly missed out at award time purely from not promoting the use cases for their idea.

8: Play more games
One thing we learnt from the canvases was that better insight, ideas, and understanding came out of the ‘games’ we gave people to play, the activities that generated answers, rather than just prompts for responses. While time was tight during the weekend, teams fully engaged with these activities, challenging themselves to push their ideas and role playing different attitudes towards their concepts. As a result, we will be developing the Nile canvases to include more of these activities, helping people to see the problems they are presented with from lots of different angles.

9: There is always the day after the Hack
A good idea, is still a good idea, regardless if it has evolved out of a weekend of caffeine fuelled madness or an innovation team at a multinational company. The event produced a lot of promising concepts, that the team at Nile hopes Hackers will continue to pursue and realise. The life of a start-up is not an easy one, but there are many ways we can help. If you are struggling to understand or communicate your concept’s value to customers or investors, or you just don’t know what to do next, we would love to hear from you.