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How to win hackathons without coding at all! 5 tips. (For everyone including developers)

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

Hello, before we go into this amusing topic I would like to give you a quick introduction to myself so you get a slight better idea about what this article is going to be about and where is it coming from. I am Suyog Sunil Risbud I am finishing my masters in Product Service System design from Politecnico di Milano. I am a mechanical engineer. I have a professional experience in Music with over 100 concerts. I make videos on YouTube with the handle The fun Indian guy. Yes, I am from India. And I also have a weekly podcast called The fun Indian guy Podcast. This is to give you an idea that what I am saying comes from having different perspectives over things and I am pushing the idea of being dynamic for the overall betterment.


So, in last couple of years I have been through bunch of hackathons and also won bunch of them without even having a single developer in the team. Yes, it is very possible because of less awareness about required things when it comes to hackathons. So, in these steps/tips to win hackathons I am going to note down some of the key insights from my experiences. If you happen to be a developer, stick around. This is going to add value in your approach as there are some missing links when it comes to hackathons. These tips are going to make your hackathon game super strong, of course there are various other things involved in the process but let’s focus on these basic but amazing tips for now.

Also, I have already made a video about this on youtube. Check that out if you prefer to get an audio visual experience than reading. (How to win Hackathons without coding video)

Let’s begin!


1. Know the company and their vision

Hackathons are generally organised by the companies. So usually they will give you the challenges in advance. Sometimes they might not but it’s our responsibility to do our homework right. By that I mean studying the company. The companies organise hackathons to get possible future projects and approaches in their ongoing development. So, I will encourage you to research on what company is looking for or what is the direction they are heading in. You can go through their websites, articles, even social media campaigns. If company has their own blog, it’s the best place to get some idea. All this is important because even if your solution is out of the box and if it does not match with the company’s vision and future direction, chances of you winning the hackathons going to be reduced.

Pro tip: To understand the vision better, you always have mentors at the hackathons who usually are working for these companies. I always try to have conversations with them right from the beginning. I ask them questions and statistics regarding the company. You might not get the accurate answer but these people end up discussing some hands on insights with you which can shape your solution way better.


2. Know the target well Well, some hackathons will give you the target in the challenge, for example make a healthy food service solution for MILLENNIALS. Here, you know your target is going to be Millennials but if not mentioned you must define one. We will talk about PERSONAS to help you with this step. If you don’t know what is a persona, basically it is a person you define in the target group. It could be a boy or a girl depending on the service. You then define their nature and characteristics. There are many templates to do so. By this you understand the possible user better. For this explanation, let’s say Rita is a 24 year old girl, studying at a University. We define her to be a bit lazy person, always running late.  Next thing we will do is CUSTOMER JOURNEY MAP. Don’t get scared by the words. We will narrate her whole day and note it down, for this also there are templates to give you an idea. I am not going to go deep in this as I will be making dedicated videos/articles on these topics. So for our context, Rita wakes up late, she is in panic, somehow gets ready and leave the house, now she is hungry too so she just picks up some snacks in a supermarket or just grabs a take away coffee and brioche from a cafe and runs to the lecture as she is already super late for the University,…. This is how you will tell the story of Rita.

These stories help you to understand the user better if you do it right and you end up having great insights which we are going to discuss in the next step. This approach of understanding the user before ideating is the core of USER CENTERED DESIGN.

Note: No coding involved till now whatsoever!


3. Insights to opportunities Now we are talking about the ideation, the actual mental battle ground to come up with crazy solutions. So, now we are going to find the insights from the user’s perspective. We will study the journey of the user and find the PAIN POINTS. These are the points in the map where you know the user needs a better offering or solution. Ex. Rita is lazy and she couldn’t prepare a healthy breakfast and ended up grabbing food from outside. This is the pain point. This is your insight. Note it down. By analysing the whole journey you will come up with multiple insights. Note all of them down. Now it’s also time to consider the insights you have got through studying the company under the tip one and the things you understood from the mentors. Put all of these insights on the table.  This is the exciting step to turn these insights into opportunities. The opportunities which we can address to come up with crazy innovative ideas. This is a great structure to channel ideation well.  To make it clearer we will turn these insights into design challenges and the best way to do it is framing “HOW MIGHT WE…?” questions. Ex. How might we provide a healthy food solution to Rita seamlessly while she runs to the University? By framing these questions, you and your teammates can then start putting your ideas on the table. The goal is to fill the table with as many ideas you can. Now this is all about your creative thinking and problem solving skills. Once you have ideas you can then decide all together to pick the ones which are stronger and worth working on.

Pro tip: While you are on the adventure in the hackathon, don’t forget to drink water. Drink a lot of water. Keeps your brain fresh and active. Also, walking to loo will refresh you.


4. Prototyping

Till now we have not touched developing or coding. Most of the hackathons are usually regarding making an app for phone or computer. So to fulfill that, we will have to show some sort of prototype. The best way to tackle this is by making a mockup. Where you will make the screens in applications like Illustrator and make the prototypes on the platforms like Marvel, Invision, Adobe XD, Figma etc. This is very easy to achieve. But keep in mind that other teams with developers are going to make working prototypes so to rise above them you will have to have a great idea and a decent prototype which is presentable. In my experience, we were able to crack this. It’s all about the right solution to the problem. I will be doing videos and articles on these specific topics in coming future so you can subscribe the YouTube and keep your self posted with “Innovation 101” series.


5. Presentation

So finally, it all comes down to presentation/pitching. No matter what you have done or how much you have done, what you present and how you present is going to be the decider. Everyone has their own style of presenting and pitching so I am not going to go deep into that here. But we are going to talk about the crucial things which will make your proposal stronger. As I said, this is the time to show what you have got. I will encourage you to go back to the tips. Know the company, show the insights you got from the company, show them you studied their vision. The jury members will appreciate this a lot. They like if you are concerned about the company’s vision and future. Show them that you studied the target and their real needs. This displays your user centered approach which is really important and will be counted. Present the pain points you worked on. Mention the insights into opportunities in couple of slides. This solidifies the reasoning behind your actions and decisions, making your proposal clearer. And make sure that you present the prototype with immense passion. You don’t have to be best. That’s not the point of the hackathon, but you have to solve the right problems with smart solutions. All the things we discussed might not fit into the available time for the pitch. In that case, pick the ones which are stronger and tell the story. We were able to touch most of it in most of the pitches.


(Bonus tip) Study competitors

As you have read through the whole article, I am really thankful for that. As a nice gesture, I am going to offer you a bonus tip. As you read in the title of this one, we are talking about the competitors. Assign someone from your team to go through who are the competitors and what are they doing in the same market. Do this from the beginning so it will also help you in the ideation. Try to put one or two slides in your presentation saying what competitors are doing and how your solution stands different and better. Jury loves this for sure as it gives them a quick primary market check of the new idea. This will add up to credibility of your solution.

So with all that being said, I would push you to have fun. Try to enjoy the moments, try to enjoy the feeling of being in a hackathon. There will be super competitive people around you, try to ignore them. If you are having fun with your team and enjoying every bit of it, this makes your experience better and you do get beneficial side effects of good spirit. I wish you good luck with your hackathon journey! You can find all the cool stuff I do and talk about on my youtube @thefunIndianguy. I am usually talking about Design, Music and all the creativity. You can also see my work on my website www.thefundianguy.com. I hope you had some sort of value out of this article. I would love to hear from you so do comment and let me know! Again, Don’t forget to have fun because having fun is not an option!


About the author

Suyog aka The fun Indian guy is a Service designer, musician, filmmaker and a podcaster.

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