Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Researchers @ hackathon


a hackathon

I spent 44 hours with hackers to learn that everything I thought I knew about hacking was wrong. In the process, I learned that events like hackathons represent a similar social hub to those Jan Chipchase identifies in his book Hidden in Plain Sight. These hubs help researchers find their feet quickly in new cultures. As a research community, we can help one another by sharing details of these hubs and some of the reasons we have for choosing them.

Hackathons attract lead users, which makes them useful to people tasked with delivering formative research. If you work in the tech field, they should be on a list of essential events to attend together with Maker Faires and the various gatherings of the ever growing Meet Up culture. They represent a strategic starting point for field inquiry. My own journey went something like this…

1: Begin at a hackathon

2: Establish contacts to visit a tech hub in the local community

"CommuniTech" sign

3: Network to visit a larger hub for tech entrepreneurs and start-ups


Hacking culture has a special place in the hearts of the West’s techno-literati, and carries with it all the cultural relevance and formative power of a good frontier-myth. In these heady techno-cultural days of attention and experience economies, with our self-actualizing big data sets, commoditized selves, and will-to-be-empowered dispositions, the hacker appears in various positive guises as cultural sage, revealer of truth, battler of hypocrisy, leveler of unchecked and unrevealed power, or, more generally, a person who gains an idyllic satisfaction in sticking it to the man. The hacker has ideals, and lives according to a code, their life given unique and driven purpose to uphold those ideals. In my head, this is how I’d pictured a hacker: someone with the star power of Keanu Reeves, the synaptic voice of Aaron Swartz and the cunning brilliance of Lisbeth Salander; a Shakespearian masked Guy Fawkes with the dietary choices of an American suburban-teenager. Instead, I met real people with a skill and a passion: hobbyists and tinkerers, strategic thinkers and entrepreneurs, students and academics.


To clarify for context, the hacking event I attended was not held in an abandoned building: I did not get directions to the event sent to me via Snapchat 30 minutes before things started, there were no mirrored servers, masked IP addresses, “socially-engineered” passwords, inexcusable abuses of privacy and intimacy, or any other form of technical subterfuge present, and the only reason a guard sat at the door was to redirect revelers from the town’s weekend Blues festival back to their intended musical paths. This, you see, was a sponsored do, designed purely to get developers interested in that kind of thing into the same room with some of the people who made that kind of thing. The thing in this case was a Kinect sensor, which is basically a camera, infrared sensor and set of microphones set within a large piano-ebony pencil-case-sized looking object that rests on or about one’s television or second screen. The Kinects chief purpose is to detect depth, skeletal movement, micro-gestures and audio. With the right code driving it, it’ll pick up the color of ones socks. In the US, the Kinect is known for games, but the people attending this event had some other ideas for it.

But this post is not about technology use cases, and nor will it sing the praises of the Kinect as one idea amongst many in the nascent field of “natural” user interaction. Rather, it is about…

Hackathons as a strategic site for field inquiry

Hackathons have a history, and I don’t know it well enough yet to tell, and even if I did, it would be too long for this blog. Suffice to say that a local team enthused about the space networked to bring a diverse set of developers together to answer one question: can this technology that I have do this other thing that I want it to do?? In the process of answering that question, people had a lot to share, which makes this type of event an ideal site for an interested researcher. Here’s why:

Hackathons draw a diverse crowd– for the networking researcher trying to find his or her feet in the local culture (in this case, the local tech culture), the diversity at a hackathon is a plus. Any event that gathers in shared space a set of developers that are professors, hobbyists, students, professionals, entrepreneurs, bloggers, vloggers, musicians, designers, artists and or hardcore gaming enthusiasts is going to be of some use in an inquiry about how people are using technology. Lead users are hard to find and harder still to recruit into a formal study. Researchers need to get out there and find the places they go.

woman at hackathon people at hackathon computers

The structure of the Hackathon facilitates rapport– in a confined space and with a compressed time frame, people look to form groups and network. Walking around and just being genuinely curious is enough to start you on the journey away from being a total stranger amongst strangers. After a few hours faces become mutually familiar, and, after each conversation, smiles, raised eyebrows or nods of the head are returned, allowing an inclined researcher to better interpret if somebody is interruptible for a set of questions. A special kind of rapport can be built by simply staying up with people, with many of the developers in the early morning happy to take a break from their pads or screens, and, as some projects progressed, bring me into the project by having me test things out as a subject. By the 44th hour, I had some people offering me more details on a question I had asked them at the 12th hour.
man at hackathon people at hackathon man at hackathon with superman image on shirt

Hackathons are short – the compressed timeframe is challenging but rewarding. Having a set of structured questions asked consistently across all attendees meant I could use hackathon downtime to write-up any snapshot posts for teams back home. My own particular structure took inspiration from the User Journey and Attract, Engage Extend frameworks (I believe this was Sonic Rim and Doblin Group, respectively). Research continued after the event, with a personal work space tour of an attendee being incorporated into the study. I was in the field a total of four days. Doing it again, I’d plan for seven.

Hackathons contain “aha” moments of human endeavor and delight – It was around 2 am, and the song 25 Miles was fully into its stride when Paul leapt up, stared at his screen, and then went for a walk. He walked round the bottom of the venue, back up, and then, on the 30 yard walk from the front of the room back to his machine, Paul did a little sway, to the right, the left, forward with a gliding then shuffling synchronized shimmy that added a lightness of step to his not insignificant frame. There was soda, but this was more than a soda break. Something had happened. He was looking pretty bloody pleased with himself. There was dancing involved. So I wandered over, as it seemed like a lovely moment to ask “what just happened?” Being in context with emotion present is as good a place as many to begin a conversation. Paul had formed a three person team with Jim, who’d brought his love of boats from Florida to the event in Canada, and Alex, a systems guy from the local area who knew much about web protocols and APIs. As a team they worked the math, modelling and APIs, yet at 2am, as Jim was taking scans of his hotel room, Paul had taken Alex’s API hacking and seen an essential piece fall into place. And when it did, he did a little dance. FLIP CAMS ARE GREAT for capturing these kind of moments, and when you have a research participant who’s as good at his job as Paul, there is so much more to be learned by using moments like these as the starting point to ladder into other questions.

Five hackathon tips

  1. Be there for the mini-victories by staying up late and being there early – some developers are “larks”, others are “owls”.
  2. Participate to observe – become a guinea pig on projects and join in
  3. Ask questions consistently but revel in going off script
  4. Drink veggie smoothies, water and eat fruit (however see my confession below)
  5. Find your own downtime to write up, sort photos, re-energize or just space out


Confession time
sleeping on air mattress on the floor at hackathon I didn’t last the full 44 hours, nor did I enter the full spirit of things like the attendee in the photo (I actually went my hotel room for a shower and few hours of sleep). The food I ate also didn’t quite match the good intensnack tabletions of the fourth hackathon tip. I didn’t drink veggie smoothies. Or eat fruit.

Link to a YouTube clip promoting the event

About the Author

Jeff Davison is a UX Researcher in Microsoft’s Operating Systems Group. He’s currently occupied with natural user input and interactions and the changing role of technology in our social and private lives. Jeff studied anthropology and communications at Goldsmiths College and is a recent graduate of Applied Anthropology at UNT, where he wrote a thesis on ephemeral communication and the networked self. Snapchat @ ihijinxed



Jeff Davison, Microsoft