Sketching with Code

The Exploralaboratorium - six week-long hacks for Comic Relief

Hackdays are brilliant fun, and as I’ve learnt, you can achieve a remarkable amount in a short space of time. But what if you gave them a little more time? And what if you did them repeatedly to some kind of brief for a single organisation?

I met up with Amanda Horton-Mastin, Innovation Director at the charity Comic Relief. I told her about the hacking process that I’d been developing, and suggested a collaboration with Sidekick Studios around making a series of hacks to explore a tough problem the charity was interested in solving.

With growing annual donations, a massive one-night primetime BBC presence, and a huge international reach, you could say Comic Relief was enjoying success. But hidden behind the figures were changing audience dynamics that unless addressed now could lead to future problems. Young men particularly seemed to be a declining audience for donations, and in a much more fragmented world where TV is being challenged by a variety of other things - mobile games, apps, digital channels and so on, there were risks around maintaining their growth without adapting.

They wanted to look at ways that Comic Relief could raise funds all year round, on top of their one-night campaign.

So we suggested a “lab”. An “Exploralaboratorium” to be precise.

The idea was simple:

  • We did some interviews to find people with ideas
  • We installed a small team of hackers in the building - a designer, a software person (me), a project lead (My soon-to-be business partner Nick Marsh) and a “fixer” from the organisation
  • We had conversations around the ideas and filtered the best ones
  • The person with the idea joined the team for a week, starting on a Monday
  • We designed and built the bare minimum of the idea by Friday, and put it on the internet
  • We presented the idea to the rest of the Comic Relief team that day
  • Repeat that six times!
  • Learn things
  • Write a report and present to the board about how to take the ideas forward

You can see the results of what we did on, and I think we were all quite surprised by the quality of what we managed to build and deploy. It wasn’t the case that these were “demos”, or “presentation-ware”, these were six functioning web and mobile apps that users could actually play with and respond to.

Organisational Change via Hacking?

The results of our little experiment were well-received. The idea that you don’t have to go through a loop that looks like “idea -> pitch to the board -> write a full business plan -> get a budget -> set up a team -> build the project over several months” was refreshing to everyone.

Through this process we weren’t suggesting that development of web/mobile/digital things is easy, and that you’d want to put out a hack to a huge audience without building it properly. Instead, we wanted to find a way for the organisation to think about how it could allow good ideas to emerge, and be quickly developed into prototypes, evaluated, and the actually good ideas to be turned into real projects.

In this way, it’s something of a change project around how an organisation can allow itself to have a “lab” function, and our final report was essentially a proposal around a permanent lab function, and how the organisation should change its structure to accommodate. That is, if were to decide to be serious about experimenting with new digital methods.