Hacking isn’t just for engineers anymore. During Spotify’s Hack Week 2020, we followed four designers to see why they hacked, how they hacked, and what they learned during five frenzied days of collaboration and experimentation.
Once a year, Spotify changes its tune. We take our usual projects, processes, and routines, and we pile them into the nearest freezer. “See you in a week!” we merrily shout, slamming the freezer door. And then, with our normal work on ice, we have the opportunity to spend five days exploring other topics that interest us. This is called Hack Week.
Hack Week is a chance for everyone at Spotify to experiment, create, test, and learn. And do all of it really, really fast. Some Hack Week ideas are improvements on existing Spotify features. Some are new products or business models. And some are internal tools that could conceivably make our working lives easier. Everyone approaches Hack Week a bit differently, which makes it exciting. And despite its chaotic nature, Hack Week leads to genuine innovation. Did you know that Discover Weekly started as a Hack Week project?
It began with engineers
Back in the day, companies like Spotify would set aside time in engineers’ schedules so they could pursue new ideas and be creative with their code — hence the term “hack.”But over time, hack days and weeks have become a popular way for teams of all types to find solutions to problems.
As more people experienced the benefits of hacking, we made Hack Week an official event for everyone at Spotify in 2013. And year after year, Hack Week has proven its value by helping employees collaborate, decompress, and spark creativity. Spotifiers look forward to Hack Week as an opportunity to let their brains run free.
Designers do it, too
Spotify designers have typically played a huge role in how Hack Week projects turn out. They have a knack for turning ideas into things that look real. And the week’s compressed timeline can feel like a design sprint, which is when designers go from concept to user testing in just a few days.
For the 2020 edition of Hack Week, designers company-wide jammed with engineers, writers, researchers, and other Spotifiers to deliver dozens of ideas during the first week of February. We followed four Spotify designers in different offices to get their take on the event, and to see if there’s anything the design community at large can take from it. Our designers all had different experiences, as well as a common takeaway: Hacking is a form of happiness. And it should happen as often as possible.
“Even if nothing further happens with the hack, having those 5 days to switch gears and focus on something new allows me to come back to my work re-invigorated and re-energized.”
Say hej to the four designers we followed during Hack Week:
Product designer on the Premium team in London
Product designer on the Core Experience team in Stockholm
UX writer on the Core Experience team in London
Product designer on the Creator team in New York
None of the designers we followed were first-time Hack Week participants. But all felt an ample dose of anticipatory glee — that basic desire to have fun and meet people while building something new. And some even had practical plans and aspirations for the week.
Diego and Wii already knew what they wanted to hack on. Daniela, on the other hand, was hacking on something that had yet to take shape. "It’s been a few months since I had the opportunity to design something without many constraints,” she said. “This week I’d like to forget about what we can and can’t deliver, roadmaps, missions, tribes, OKRs, etc. and think outside the box for a bit.”
When asked about his expectations, Lee went straight to the point: "I'm expecting to win!"
Teamwork makes the hack dream work
Beyond chasing the thrill of victory, Lee was also motivated to collaborate with disparate groups. "I’m a UX writer, I can work as a consultant across a number of projects,” Lee said. “In my first year of Hack Week, I worked on one project. In the second year, I realized I could profitably work on two (and won twice!). This year: three." Meeting new people is one of Hack Week’s best outcomes, and this time around Lee collaborated with what he called a “smorgasbord” of product managers, user researchers, data scientists, designers, and engineers. "Each of my three groups has about 8-10 members."
Wii collaborated with two other designers, two engineers, one product marketing manager, and one product insights manager. Diego had a designer, two product managers, and seven engineers on board. Daniela took a radical approach, embarking on her Hack Week adventure with a team composed entirely of designers.
While some of the designers came up with the Hack Week idea their team was working on, others had been recruited. By eavesdropping on some elevator conversation we learned that, for many people, Hack Week is a great opportunity to have easier access to people on other teams.
“I've worked with some of these people, but not all of them, or at least not directly with them, and this is a very nice aspect of this week, to have the chance of meeting and working with new folks in a more fun/relaxed fashion.”
The same, but different
During Hack Week, all the designers we followed worked on projects at least tangentially related to Spotify’s main products. In other words, no one was trying to design a Spotify jetpack with built-in speakers that still sound great at 50,000 feet. So if they're Spotify designers working on current-ish Spotify projects, how is Hack Week different from any other ordinary week?
According to them, the main difference lies in the dynamics of the week. Even though Wii hacked on something related to his team's existing work, he considered the Hack Week version to have a much more ambitious vision. "We hope the hack project acts as a way for us to align, rally, get inspired, and reference often—to make something feel tangible and real and set the tone for an ideal future state," he said.
Diego highlighted the flexibility Hack Week brings. To him, the week is all about working in an organic way: "For this project, I didn't build a complete design specs file, for instance. [...] I knew that the design would have to adapt along the way as we were finding constraints of new possibilities." Designers at Spotify constantly encounter business and technology challenges that impact their work, so Hack Week is a good reminder of how to stay flexible.
“On a regular basis, the work I do has a lot of requirements defined before I even start designing. [...] It doesn’t happen very often that you get the opportunity to 'explore whatever you want, with no tech or business constraints.”
Winning isn’t everything
As Lee made abundantly clear, Hack Week is also a competition. At the end of the week, teams display their hacks at a science-fair-esque showcase, where they can pitch their ideas, get votes from other Spotifiers, and try to convince Spotify’s leadership to pursue their project. Just participating brings about a certain satisfaction. You’ve made the thing, and now you get to explain the thing to people.
Daniela said she’d been concerned about what other teams and judges would think of her project, but everything went great. "We started to do our demo and show it to people and everyone’s reaction was super positive and encouraging. We finished the week feeling super inspired and immediately started to talk about how to continue working on it."
Wii was also happy and impressed by how much everyone had accomplished in such a short period. "The week was productive, inspiring, and informative—not only from what we were able to accomplish in those five days as a new team, but to see all the amazing hacks that came from everybody else. It’s a week that really brings the company together and celebrates the amazingly talented Spotifiers across each office."
Note: Lee’s team didn’t win. But that didn’t stop him from finding an alliterative upside:
“(I feel) re-energised, revivified, reanimated, ready to go.”
As Hack Week ended, the designers were faced with a question: So, like, now what? Some designers would go back to the projects they’d paused for Hack Week. Others were buoyed by the week’s excitement and felt committed to keeping their hacks going in some form. But they’d all taken something from Hack Week with them.
Daniela said designers can hack anytime they want — it’s all about the mindset: "Don’t wait to have a fully working prototype and three fleshed-out journeys to put things in front of users. For Hack Week, we only had two half-baked screens and 45 minutes [for user testing], and we got an insane amount of insights and validation!"
Make every week a hack week
Even if the practical differences between a regular work week and a Hack Week are clear, hacking shouldn't be a once-a-year exercise. The opportunity to investigate problems, collaborate with new people, and freely experiment should be a regular occurence. But how? Here are a few tips to make any week more like a hack week:
Set yourself a seemingly impossible deadline
The less time you have, the more quickly and often you’ll have to make decisions and move forward, even if you’re not confident.
Prioritize conceptual delight over concrete details
Instead of jumping to build a solution that fits your current restrictions, take time to think about what the best solution might be. It’ll be the north-star design goal to strive for, even if you can’t bring it to life right away.
Put those regularly scheduled projects in the freezer
Lee stressed that Hack Week reinforces the importance of focus. After Hack Week, he'll take with him:
“The knowledge that, if you completely remove extraneous meetings from your week and focus on a problem, you will Get S**t Done.”
So let’s get it done. Let’s all hack together.
A shout out to all the people within Spotify Design who jumped on board with us to bring this story to life. You are amazing! A special and huge thanks to Daniela Fernandez, Diego Martins, Lee Ward, and Wii Yatani for letting us shadow you during Hack Week.
Senior UX Writer
Chris Diken is from New Jersey and lives in Sweden. He tries to use words as a force for good.