A designer’s guide to participating in hackathons

Everything you need to know to get started wt your first ever hackathon as a designer!


Yutika Pahuja

3 years ago | 4 min read

Are you anxious about taking part in your first hackathon? Hackathons may be intimidating, but apart from the challenge itself, they are packed with exciting networking and learning opportunities.

When I first chose to participate in a “hackathon”, I was terrified as I not only had forgotten about it, but I also had no idea what to do post the signup procedure. 🤦‍♀️ But a little encouragement, a jolt of adrenaline, and A LOT OF COFFEE pushed me to participate in my first hackathon, and I’m glad I did.

But, what is a “hackathon”? 👀

The word “hackathon” is derived from the words “marathon” (long-lasting task) and “hack” (exploratory programming). During a Hackathon, you build, develop, and deliver a product in a short amount of time, generally within 24–48 hours (or as long as a week/month depending on the hack).

Who can participate? 👫

Literally anybody ranging from computer programmers to software developers to designers! It’s a collaborative exercise that intends to collaborate in an extreme way, starting from the ground up and ending with a functional prototype.

Why should I participate in one? 🤨

Honestly, why shouldn’t you?

  • It is a wonderful way to test your skills as it requires you to perform under a lot of pressure and under time-constraints.
  • It is a concentrated learning experience, that will most definitely help you obtain more practical knowledge than in months of lectures.
  • Helps with practicing collaborative work.
  • They’re great for networking with people from backgrounds of similar interests.
  • Cool swags!!!!! 😉

But I understand it’s easier said than done. I recall doubting my abilities, the worth of my input as a designer in the midst of all those programmers, and even the notion of being a “newbie” in a place full of people who seemed to have it all together. I completely understand your fear or intimidation towards this.

But humour me. What’s the worst thing that might happen? You’d most certainly be disqualified, or worse, someone could discover you made a rookie mistake. But guess what? You would still have made the first step toward attempting something new and challenging yourself like you’ve never been challenged before, which is a lot more than many people do!

Hackathon’s are designed to bring individuals from various fields together to experience what it’s like to work in a collaborative environment, particularly with people you’ve never worked with or met before. You’re going to make mistakes (you like it or not 🙊). So why fear the worst? Instead see it as an opportunity to learn and grow from!

Coming down to the million-dollar question:

How do we as designers approach a hackathon or how do we get started? 🤯

Well it’s simple. You follow your gut. Trust your instinct in terms of what you think would best help you deliver a good solution. While working on the project, be sure to keep your design thinking mindset and thought process in mind. The approach would be slightly different to that of a case study on the grounds of the time itself.

Here’s what you should most definitely cover during your hackathon in my opinion:

  1. Understanding and brainstorming over the problem statement. 🤔
  2. Creating a timeline/roadmap for the entire duration of the hackathon. ⏲
  3. Secondary research!!!!! This is what would make or break the project, make sure to do a fair bit of this before you move ahead. 🤝
  4. User stories to view the project from the user’s perspective. 😊
  5. Task flow/Site map (saving time by not doing IA or user flows) 🧭
  6. Interaction design 😏
  7. Prototype 📱
  8. Pitch /presentation /video as suggested by the organisers. 📽

This framework covers basic ground for any problem thrown at you as it covers some level of understanding, research, empathy and design. You may choose to add or eliminate any of the above given processes as per your requirements but at the same time making sure you cover all ground (this is my approach, you may or may not follow the same). If developers are involved in the team, include them in your processes and have open discussions on what you’re working on. Remember, communication is key!”

On an ending note, here are a few tips I feel have helped me perform better during a hack:

  1. A good night’s sleep a day before the hack starts and if possible on the day as well. A fresh mind is essential to get yourself moving through the night. 🧘
  2. Have a tentative design system/guide (typography, colour library, buttons, components, icon libraries etc.) ready at your disposal in order to save time defining the same during the hack. This will help the team be on the same page w.r.t design decisions. 👯
  3. Create a timeline before the hack keeping their schedule in mind to better manage your time through the hack. Time is most DEFINITELY of the essence! ⏲
  4. Create the project keeping not just the user goals in mind but also the business goals! Most of us make the mistake of not doing the latter and lose out on brownie points due to the same! 📈
  5. Try to be as authentic and different with your approach towards the presentation as that’s what will define the future of your hack. 🧐
  6. Document your journey as it will help you reflect back on your processes and approach later and help you improve on the same based on the feedback received by the judges/panelists/organisers. 📄
  7. Most importantly, have fun and NETWORK!!! 🥳🥳🥳🥳

And lastly, how do I get involved?

For a list of future student and professional hackathons in India, the United States, Europe, Canada, and other countries, stay tuned on the MLH, Devfolio or Devpost websites.

Hope to see you at the next hack! 😇

Happy Hacking! 🥳


Created by

Yutika Pahuja

Hey! I'm Yutika Pahuja, and I'm a 20-year-old final year psychology, journalism, and mass communication undergraduate student from Bangalore, India. I have a protogonist personality which means i'm quite extroverted, and channel my energy into the creatives! I'm a self-taught designer particularly looking into UI/UX design. I'm an adventurer who like to travel by road, with my longest trip being a round-trip from Bangalore to Ladakh. In my spare time, I enjoy binge-watching on shows, cooking, playing the guitar or ukulele, and goofing around! I'd like to connect with you, my socials are in my bio :D







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