An exploratory study of experiences of design at hackathons
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Hackathons are popular events where participants “hack” together a project, from ideation through to the final presentation, in 24-48 hours. It is typical for hackathons to be tech-centric; therefore, the attendees tend to be mostly computer programmers, designers, and engineers. Hackathons have been hosted by communities, corporations, and educational institutions with goals of producing artifacts or products, networking, and learning. Hackathons are inherently collaborative, as attendees typically work together in small groups. The participants depend on team skills to complete their projects in the short event time frame. Hackathons hold a lot of potential for design research; however, the community has been slow to recognize the potential research opportunities. The existing research on design at hackathons is limited, despite the consideration of hackathons as a setting where participants engage in design activity. Motivated by the popularity of hackathons and the lack of significant research on design at hackathons, this thesis presents an exploratory research of hackathon participants’ experiences of design at these unique events. The research is motivated by three main research questions: 1) what are the characteristics of the design process followed by hackathon participants, 2) how does the design process at hackathons differ from more typical design projects, and 3) how does team composition impact the design experience at hackathons? To answer these research questions, 16 semi-structured interviews were conducted with participants who had collectively participated in 65 hackathons. The transcripts of the interviews underwent a thematic analysis, a methodology that identifies themes in the dataset. Codes were assigned to interview transcripts, resulting in 90 codes on 684 excerpts. The codes were then clustered thematically to identify five major themes: the typical hackathon experience, design at hackathons, collaboration, evaluation of hackathons, and miscellaneous. These themes informed the findings of the study and their presentation in this thesis. Interview results suggest that the main stages of the design process at hackathons are ideation, building, and pitch preparation and delivery. While some research, including user research, and design iteration activities may occur, the short time frame of the hackathon severely limits these activities and forces participants to instead prioritize the building phase. Further, due to the continuous nature of the event, participants are not able to take significant breaks from their design tasks, thus not benefiting from potential incubation periods. It is concluded that while hackathons share many characteristics of the design process with more typical design projects, the nature of these events causes the design processes to be adapted in significant ways. Team composition is found to be highly influential in the projects and processes of hackathon teams. Participants’ motivations for attending hackathons - to win, network, learn, or have fun - play a role in what activities they participate in at the events and how they approach their hackathon design project. Motivations for attending, along skills and interest are an important factor considered in team formation. Hackathon teams tend to comprise of three roles: developer, designer, and business analyst, which are determined based on knowledge and experience. The interviews reveal conflict between developers and designers based on their desired approaches to the hackathon design process. Whereas developers are eager to begin building almost immediately, designers encourage a more thorough progression through the design process. The contributions of this thesis hold implications for hackathon participants and organizers, design researchers, and design educators. The research frames hackathons as design-centered settings that generate rich data. As an exploratory study, the research builds a foundational understanding of design at hackathons, offering a new direction for design research and prompting a number of future research opportunities.
Cite this version of the work
Meagan Flus (2021). An exploratory study of experiences of design at hackathons. UWSpace. http://hdl.handle.net/10012/17259