How to develop ideas for hackathons

Author: Jérémy Bourhis

14th March 2016

We’re currently preparing for Hack24 as both sponsors (check out our challenge!) and participants, so we decided to write a mini-series of blog posts to sit alongside it. The first post in this set is How to prepare for a hack event, so don’t forget to check that out if you missed it the first time around!

In the meantime, here are our top tips for finding inspiration for hackathons.

1. Create a pool

If you don’t have one already, build a pool of resources to spark inspiration. This can be as simple as a list of interesting scripts, extensions and plugins, software, APIs, repos, etc., and comes in useful for all kinds of things beyond hacks. Ideally you want to grow your pool slowly over time, rather than trying to find things you can force into it. However, if you’re looking to build one in a short space of time, going through your installs, tweets, browser history and bookmarks will do the job in a pinch.

From here you can create a shortlist of tools and ideas for this particular hack. If everyone in your hack team does this, set aside some time to go through them together and build a strong idea. Don’t be fixated on taking existing concepts literally – think about how different adaptations and combinations would work for different problems and audiences, and work from there.

2. Take inspiration from the media

Visit tech news sites or use a feed reader? Have a scroll through and make a note of new products, services and ideas that catch your interest or are repeatedly written about at the moment. Keep a look out for negatives (your own opinion or the media’s) – how could you fix something or do it better?
Ideas for hacks

3. Streamline your interests and tone

Eliminate formats you’re not interested in (bots, apps, websites, games, data mapping, mining, visualisation etc.) which will help get you closer to a working idea of what you want to do in seconds. Same goes for the tone you’re trying to invoke – will your hack be clever? Interesting? Funny? Helpful? All those things?

4. Find a problem to solve

What’s annoyed you recently? What have you heard other people complain about? What frustrates you in your day job? These are all good places to start for inspiration.

5. Bridge a gap

When two or more services are used together, there can often be missing pieces or a gap. How could you develop the relationship between these things to increase value? This can be applied in all kinds of ways, from increasing efficiency between social media channels and blogs, to cross-device analytics and user tracking, to building a solid relationship between an app or plugin and a website.

6. Take advantage of trends

What’s popular in the industry at the moment, and how can you simplify that into a day or weekend hack? Don’t forget to consider timeless topics that are always in the spotlight, such as security, accessibility, and time management.
Finding hack inspiration

7. Update something

Look around you. How could you update an everyday item or service to make it smarter? To keep it efficient enough for a short hack, think about adding or changing just one feature.

8. Work back from your audience

Thinking of the audience or niche first can help you create ideas that genuinely solve problems. If you have a brief/challenge in mind, consider adding types of people or roles into the mix. For example, what could improve the day of a doctor, or a stay-at-home parent, or a small business owner? Stick to groups and roles you already have some familiarity with for best results.

Putting an existing product or service in a different context can produce very different ideas, for example recreating a common business tool for charities, or taking something global and making it more locally applicable.

9. Add a third party

What tools, add-ons, connectors, integrations and plugins do you already love? What software do you use that would benefit from an extra feature? Adding a third party into the mix, such as Slack, Evernote or Zendesk can kickstart your thinking. Check out our Sample Apps for inspiration.
Evernote Calendar Connector

10. Go through available hack information

Find examples of previous hacks for the competition (especially winning ones), take a look at all the documentation, suggestions, and examples provided by challenge setters, and pay close attention to set criteria. Make sure you aren’t doing something that’s already been presented at that hack or to that company before.

11. Draw inspiration from current and past hacks

If you’ve been to a hackathon before, reflect on what worked and what didn’t – both for your team and others. There are thousands of great hack videos and outlines online too, plus sites like and TopCoder who run events regularly (see also 35+ programming challenges to get your teeth into).

We also have a huge list of all kinds of hacks we’ve written about.

How do you find inspiration for hack event ideas? Tweet us @cronofy with your tips!

Avatar of Jérémy Bourhis

Jérémy Bourhis

Date: 14th March 2016 | Category: Developers, Events, How To