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Hack to the future: inspiring digital innovation at Macmillan

9 January 2018

Last June, we held our fourth digital development hack day. It was our biggest yet and demonstrated the novel ways technology can help us deliver support.


As an ambitious national charity, it’s important we take advantage of new technology and ways of thinking to help us achieve our mission. Hack days – or hackathons – are a fun, collaborative and effective way to do just that. They help generate new ideas, promote a culture of innovation and encourage the use of new technology.

As Chris Trenning, one of the organisers, also pointed out,

Our hack day is an important opportunity to demonstrate what technology can bring to Macmillan. People tend to shy away from technology if they’re not working in it, because they feel they don’t understand…Hack days help to break down those barriers.

They demystify what we do and the people who do it and so remove that fear of interaction.”

So, how did we do it?

Our hack day has grown from a team-building exercise among digital development staff to an event which encourages input from across the organisation. This year we asked the whole charity for hack day ideas and over 40 were submitted. They came from six of our seven directorates and included staff from all over the country as well as some home workers.

We asked staff to think about areas of our work that could be improved by technology, from boosting donations, solving a business problem or improving our services. We were really impressed by the nationwide engagement with the project.

Following this, organisers within the digital development team held an ideas workshop with representatives from our innovation, UX (user experience), creative and digital editorial teams where 40 ideas were whittled down to 12.

Four teams of developers then chose a shortlisted idea to work on, as follows:

  • Team Beaver: gamification of giving – tying donations and volunteering into a points system that you can get achievements for.
  • Team Floppy: a transcription tool for our support line calls to reduce resource and allow staff to quickly identify user needs
  • Team Brahma: a good news page to give users the flexibility to see news articles from chosen topics and filter out negative news.
  • Batteries Not Included: use location software to promote our Mobile Information Support Service (MISS) more effectively online.

Macmillan Hack Day, 2017

What happened on the day?

Our four teams had a single working day to produce their prototypes.

Unlike last year, there were no overall prizes but rather opportunities to win in six different categories:

  •  Innovation: is tech being used in a novel way?
  • Creativity: are you surprised by the way the product works?
  • Technology: is it clever? Does the implementation demonstrate something new?
  • UX and Presentation: is it easy to use? Does the design make it enjoyable to use?
  • Marketability: can you imagine this product being utilised in the organisation.
  • Best team name!

This enabled us to recognise merit in each prototype and allowed teams to give their products a specific value if they wished.

If trying to develop these ambitious projects in a day wasn’t hard enough, the teams then had to present their work in a two-hour market stall. Equipped with ballot paper and pen, staff where invited to grill the teams, check out the prototypes and cast their votes.

Macmillan Hack Day, 2017

The results:

Most Innovative Hack

Team Floppy

Most Creative Hack

Team Brahma

Best use of Technology

Team Floppy and Team Brahma

Best User Experience and Presentation

Team Beaver

Most Marketable Hack

Batteries not Included

Best Team Name

Batteries not Included

But these weren’t the only outcomes of the event.

The prototypes produced this year have demonstrated real value to the organisation. Team Floppy’s transcription tool is being considered for development by our data insights team, and work is underway to make Batteries Not Included’s prototype a reality. We are currently working on an expansion project for our mobile services and their MISS promotion work fits very neatly into that. Having been on a mobile unit myself, I can see that they provide a valuable and convenient service for members of the public. With more effective promotion on our website, we can support many more people in this way.

Batteries Not Included’s tool also got us thinking about the potential of IP location software to provide relevant and personalised cancer information and we anticipate this influencing future digital projects at Macmillan. For example, we could signpost residents to information about the most commonly contracted cancer type in their area, to encourage early diagnosis.

Future hacks

What does the future look like for hack day at Macmillan?

As Steve Knight, web development team leader and hack day mastermind reflected,

The future is promising. This was the first time we involved other teams [such as creative and UX] in the shortlisting process and they were all eager to get more involved.

This means subsequent events could be much more than a technical exercise. They could see a diverse mix of teams creating tools that aren’t just functional but also offer a fully formed digital experience.”

More like this:

Innovation report

It’s time to talk innovation

Aderonke Olutunmogun

digital content editor, Macmillan Cancer Support

Addy Olutunmogun works in Macmillan’s digital content team. She helps the charity develop and deliver inspiring, engaging and accessible user journeys on their website. She is passionate about digital innovation and makes this known through Macmillan’s digital blog, Think.Grow.Create., which she manages.