Last week I spent a very romantic Valentine’s Day at Mozilla’s London office participating in the BBC News Connected Studio event. The program was started in 2011 as a way to find and develop innovations for BBC digital offerings, with separate events for different products like BBC News, BBC Sport, and Children’s BBC. Each Connected Studio starts with a goal in mind (here’s the brief for News) and then goes through three stages:
- Creative Studio is an all-day event open to all comers. Participants get a sort of “State of the Product” address from key BBC staff for context, and spend the rest of the day brainstorming and fleshing out possible product innovations. Teams can get guidance from BBC staff experts and book audience feedback sessions, where they have a chance to try out their idea to a focus group of actual BBC users. The day culminates with 3-minute pitches from each team to a panel of judges, and a handful of pitches are invited to move on to the Build Studio.
- Build Studio is a two-day affair in which the invited teams roll up their sleeves and prototype their idea, giving a 10-minute demo and presentation to a panel of judges at the end of the event. As with the Creative Studio, BBC staff are on hand to answer questions and help point you in the right direction. In the case of News, this was three weeks after the Creative Studio.
- Pilot is the final stage, where the BBC selects the best Build Studio proposals and ponies up real money (up to £50,000) and BBC staff time to bring them to life. They’ll work with you to build out and integrate your idea, do a live pilot with a portion of the audience, and, if it passes muster, fold it into the core product, where it will go out to hundreds of millions of people around the world (in 27 languages!).
It was fascinating to see an approach that was trying to tap into the same potential of traditional “hack day” formats but with a more targeted, incubational spin. Key differences include:
- Institutional Support - At Connected Studio, you don’t just get WiFi and a free lunch; you get access to a variety of BBC staff to guide you along and explain what separates a fun idea between friends from something that an organization like the BBC can use. They also provide audience focus groups, servers, and IT support for whatever you build.
- Goal-setting - The BBC invests so much in these events because they’re looking for concrete outcomes that improve their products, and they structure the event to keep things pointed towards that goal. Everyone is preparing for a real presentation where they’ll stand up in front of a room full of Very Serious People and pitch the value and feasibility of what they’ve been building all day. The results were the most thoughtful and substantial show-and-tell of any hack event I’ve attended.
- Feedback - Rather than working largely in isolation and then coming back up for air at the end, you have access to a strong feedback loop throughout Connected Studios. Teams are in frequent contact with BBC folks and each other, answering questions and providing updates. You get thoughtful, written notes from the judges about what they liked in your pitch and what questions need to be addressed before the next stage. You also go through trial-by-non-developer in the audience sessions. The value of these feedback mechanisms was tremendous, and something that I’d love to see more attention to in hack days of all shapes and sizes.
I thought Connected Studio was a great event, but to compare it to a typical hack day would be misleading; the motivation behind it is totally different. The real takeaway for me is that there’s a lot of room to play with the structure of an event where people get together to make stuff. There’s a natural tendency for organizers to emulate whatever they’ve seen done before, especially if it seemed to work last time, but it’s useful to take a step back and think about WHY you’re putting together an event in the first place and then figure out the structure that best promotes that.