The emergence of UX-driven hackathons are tackling one of the challenges of UX education by providing participants with an opportunity to learn while creating.
UX (user experience) hackathons have been exploding in popularity. They’re a great way to immerse oneself in the end-to-end UX workflow while collaborating with other likeminded, passionate designers.
I’m one of many who got my start in design by going to a UX hackathon. In August 2016, I attended the Empathy Jam, hosted by The UX Lab Meetup group. Initially, I thought coding experience would be needed in order to build a product at UX hackathons. I learned later on that prototypes are completely acceptable as final deliverables to communicate my ideas.
What made the Empathy Jam unique was its mini workshop on user research. That was extremely useful for the challenge involved: using technology to improve the experience of living in a city by designing new ways for people to connect with one another. It was a great way to validate my interest in transitioning into UX design. I walked away with a great project and expanded my network. And that’s what’s great about all UX hackathons. Whether focused on empathy-driven research, prototyping, or some other area of UX, they help develop skills and network.
In this piece, I will discuss what UX hackathons are, why they’re valuable and how to make the most of the experience.
What is a UX hackathon?
UX hackathons are competitive design events for problem-solvers to come together and collaborate on a meaningful, short-term project.
- Timeline – It could range anywhere from three hours (those would typically be called mini-hackathons) and go up to 72 hours, with most of them being an all-day competition. They are mostly held in-person but there are also virtual ones.
- Host – Anyone could host them, including well-established companies or passionate designers through local Meetup groups all around the world, with most being concentrated in startup-driven cities like San Francisco and New York.
- Cost – UX hackathons receive sponsorship so many are free but even the paid ones are reasonable. Registration spots for UX hackathons sell out quickly so it’s recommended that participants seek them out in advance and register early on.
- Attendance – Expect anywhere from 80 to 300 participants. Most end up working in groups of 3-5 but there are people who compete alone as well. The optimal situation would be to work with people of varying skill sets and levels to get work done efficiently.
- Challenge – Usually, the host sets a theme and gives participants guidelines on how to go about it. Designers are free to interpret the challenge however they like and use research to influence their final products.
Who should go to a UX hackathon?
The short answer: anyone who loves problem solving and tackling new challenges while working collaboratively with others.
Generally, UX hackathons are geared towards the tech which includes:
- Design researchers
- UX/UI/product designers
- Product managers
- Data analysts
- Web developers
- Students of human-computer interaction programs
HCI students and junior designers should definitely go to a UX hackathon because it’s an effective way to learn the process, expand their network and build their portfolios. Veteran designers also benefit by working on new challenges that help hone their craft.
Entrepreneurs and non-technical professionals will also benefit from UX hackathons because they can experience the end-to-end problem solving process to validate ideas through research and using data to develop solutions.
Why is a UX hackathon valuable?
In the last year, I’ve participated in five UX hackathons. They were very different from one another but I benefitted from each of them because they’ve all had the following:
UX hackathon challenges can range extensively from data transparency to environmental conservation. It pushes designers to be innovative and think about the implications of the problem in context of the bigger picture. These meaningful challenges turn into excellent case studies for portfolio work.
UX hackathon hosts want designers to succeed so most of them feature introductory skillbuilding workshops built in the agenda to help guide their workflow. They go over facilitating user interviews and discuss best prototyping practices in a short amount of time. Mentors will almost always be present to provide guidance.
Simulation of real-life problems
The purpose of UX in the real world is to synchronize users’ goal with business goals. These events aim to simulate real-life problems so participants walk away with the experience of incorporating business goals of building revenue and scaling into their workflow.
Exposure to the UX community
What I learned from immersing myself in the UX community in New York is that people are open and willing to help out. I keep in touch with most designers I meet who have been resourceful for my further development. UX hackathons are an amazing collection of wonderful people who serve as catalysts in helping further designers’ careers.
One of the best features of a UX hackathon is that delicious food is always guaranteed and there is plenty of coffee to go around to keep participants sufficiently fueled for the day.
How can designers make the most of the experience?
For students and junior designers who are making the transition into UX, attending a UX hackathon is a great way to validate one’s interest. For veteran designers, UX hackathons can be refreshing and give them an opportunity to work with new people.
Here are ways to make the most of a UX hackathon experience:
Junior designers should familiarize themselves with the design process, if they haven’t already. A good place to start is look at the schedule for the event. This is a great outline of what parts of the process one could expect. There are also tons of blog posts out there that outline the design thinking process and UX workflow.
Participants should bring the necessary equipment needed – having a laptop is a given but also having a notebook helps. Downloading any apps that might be useful beforehand could work to their advantage. Having post-its and sharpies handy to do affinity mapping and plain paper to sketch out wireframes is extremely helpful.
Since UX hackathons are extremely short, teams should work together efficiently. Rather than brainstorming out loud, it’s more effective to ideate and sketch in silence and regrouping, similar to the design sprint model. Teams should divide up the work and have different teammates working on different tasks. Half the team could work on the final prototype while the other half could focus on the presentation.
When meeting teammates for the first time, it is also recommended that everyone has an upfront, open discussion about what each person hopes to gain and what their strengths and weaknesses are. These discussions are crucial in setting the tone for the rest of the day in terms of how a team tackles the challenge and the process they use to approach the problem.
Document the process
Documenting the process and keeping track of what was completed at the event is a great way to add value to the UX hackathon experience. Some designers go to sharpen their skills and refine their process so documenting it can be extremely helpful. It allows designers to reflect on the experience more objectively and identify areas of improvement for the next time around.
During the hackathon, designers should be actively photographing the activities they conduct. Pictures of post-its, user interviews, journey maps and rough wireframes are great to have when reflecting back on the process. It might also be beneficial to have a designated note taker to document the ideas that were discussed throughout the day. Projects completed at UX hackathons are great starter pieces on portfolios and having them is a great way to communicate to hiring managers how they think and they are willing to immerse themselves in new challenges.
Focus on the experience
Designers should go into every UX hackathon expecting to learn something new and get excited about meeting new and like minded people. These would be the ultimate takeaways from any UX hackathon that participants would walk away with so it’s crucial to take advantage of every moment of the event.
Designers shouldn’t get too attached to their ideas and let the competition cloud them of why they came in the first place: to have fun and learn something new in the process. At most UX hackathons, there will be a competition aspect to it and the best designs would be awarded with prestigious prizes. These incentives, however, should not be the main reason to attend. Participants should set goals prior to attending and focus on them.
Keep in touch
Finally, keeping in touch with other participants can be one of the best ways to take advantage of the experience. Exchanging emails and sharing resources can be a great way to build a designer’s network and opening doors for bigger opportunities. Just exchanging information isn’t enough, though. Follow them on LinkedIn, write to each other, share resources and keep that communication stream alive.
What are the next steps?
- Check out Hackathon.com.
- Do a Google search for UX hackathons in your area. Sometimes, “UX hackathons” might not yield results so try to be creative with your search. “Design jam” or “UX competition” might work.
- Join Meetup groups in your area. They have a list of past events – if they have hosted UX hackathons before, it is likely that they will host ones again.
- Follow companies and design communities (XX+UX, IxDA, UXPA, ProtoHack, etc.) on social media. They usually announce events on their social media handles.
- Look for UX hackathons on Eventbrite and other event promotion platforms.
- Ask your UX network directly! See if they know of UX hackathons that may be coming up.