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How to pack multiple Design Sprints into a hackathon format

How to pack multiple Design Sprints into a hackathon format

In this short article you’ll learn how to compact a Design Sprint into a two-day hackathon-alike format, and to make that available to several companies at the same time by involving UX design students and professionals. Although it sounds genuinely crazy, you might consider to do that if your mission includes helping companies in developing better products, and you can leverage on young design talents. At Hub Innovazione Trentino (HIT) we’ve been doing this since 2017, and it works pretty well!

Beyond dealing with patents and hard tech developed by research scientists from Trentino (northern Italy), at HIT we help companies (often SMEs — Small and Medium Enterprises) innovate products and processes with researchers and innovation professionals. Overall, we seek to nurture the regional innovation ecosystem, strengthen its value chains, and support a growing industry of innovation services.

As for myself, I personally come from a user research background. For some years I’ve managed a team in charge of setting up and enabling real life trials of mature ICT prototypes developed by high tech research project consortia — mostly funded by European funding. We used to outreach citizens, create large user panels, plan and enable the collection of usage data, and provide feedback to the companies developing the products. In four years of projects we ended up creating a database of almost 2K users.

Doing extensive tests with real users has been very useful as they allowed companies to spot crucial pains with the user’s experience with the products. However, these trials costed a lot and often did not impact as we though on the new product development process: indeed, many observed issues regarded problems at a value proposition level, and could therefore not easily be refactored into a new version of the product.

Anyway, we learned how crucial was for companies to engage with real selected users, and how very few companies (including the largeer ones) do it, because of many reasons: lack of time, lack of needed competences and networks with providers, but ultimately lack of awareness of benefits of design and knowledge of how designers work. They would just keep develop apps and software with a suboptimal UX because their market strength and positioning would allow them to do so. Differently, nowadays UX is a must have.

With that in mind, in 2017 we decided to make it easier for companies to engage with users to design better products. Especially, we wanted to raise the awareness of benefits of user-centered design in SMEs. To stay lean, we designed an innovation contests calling together companies, UX design professionals and university students with the aim to test and improve the user experience of digital products, whatever the maturation stage: from concepts to products well established on the market. We’ve called it UX Challenge: from the outside it looks like a hackathon (2-day timeframe, problem-solving setting, competing teams, prizes, informal setting): instead, it has a Design Sprint as its core.

The Design Sprint is a 5-step-based process developed by Google Ventures to help teams design and deliver validated solutions to product development challenges in just a few days (normally either five or three), normally with the help of a facilitator. Apart from the duration (2 days only) the notable thing about the UX Challenge Design Sprint is that it is delivered to companies “as-a-service” by teams of solvers. Solvers are interaction design young talents (both university students and post-graduates) forming teams, and working 2 days with the support of UX design professional (mentors). One challenge (a specific design problem over selected products) is assigned to every team. Overall, during the two days about fifty solvers organized in ten teams design UX solutions to five selected products. By the end of day two, teams deliver newly designed interface mockups, wireframes and interactive prototypes on state of the art platforms such as Sketch, Adobe UX, InVision, Figma. IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) of prototypes are entirely exploitable by companies.

Let me just say a few words about to the core part of the UX Challenge. The very last step of the Design Sprint is the testing phase: you want to test your prototyped idea of design solution in order to validate or tune it. Given our background in real life trials, at HIT we take this very seriously: one month before the Challenge we outreach to our 1700+ user database to select forty citizens acting as testers during the Challenge. On day two, each team carries out sound tests and interviews on the developed prototypes with four users, one hour each. Though tests are prepared in basically no time, they are a goldmine of feedbacks and design insight for the projects. Also, video recordings from test proved to impact a lot on companies’ opinion about their product; some companies want to take part to the tests as observers to see with their eyes. Indeed, they seldom get to have a frank, unbiased user feedback on their product.

Overall, we observed that during the UX Challenge companies get to know what design thinking is, how UX designers works, and, most important, they get in touch with both junior and senior UX designers (respectively, solvers and mentors); normally companies follow up with them on the results of the Challenge, mostly via activating internships, work collaboration or service contracts. Overall, we think that the UX Challenge is a very effective (and reasonably cheap) mean to impact on companies’ awareness about benefits of digital design. So, if you want to replicate the UX Challenge in your region/country/city, or running other innovation contests inspired to it, here are a few tips that we’d love to share with you to succeed in that!

1. Outreach appropriately. The UX Challenge is something that you are selling to companies, students, professionals. And users. They’re all smart and busy people who do not want to waste their time. You’ll have to convince them coming (and staying) at an unknown event for two days on a working week. Make sure you have good marketing and communication people doing this because you’ll have at least four audiences to target, who do not know anything about this and are wondering why on earth they should trust you with their time and effort.

2. Select carefully. You’ll need to have open calls and selection processes in place to select companies (in case you use public money this will probably be mandatory). Also, you might want to select the solvers: you promise to companies that you’ll fix their UX — you definitely want to have control on who will show up at the Challenge to do the job. The same goes for testers, who will be selected on the basis of the selected products — so you will have to manage dependencies between the call for selections. Our suggestion is to launch the three calls in this order, starting no less than 4 months before the event.

3. Prepare scrupulously. Let’s make this clear: two days is basically an impossible schedule to complete a Design Sprint. If you want to deliver credible outputs you’ll have to do a lot of work upfront. This involves three very demanding tasks: i) talking to all the selected companies to identify ten challenges and describe them both in terms of problem and expected outcome of the solution (the so-called start at the end); ii) create teams, possibly accommodating wishes from the solvers (e.g. staying with friends which spark momentum) and match them with challenges and mentors. You’ll do that by looking into the solvers’ background and skills: some challenges are more technical (e.g. for UI designers) while some involve service design and value proposition aspects (economics and business innovation students might have a say in these); iii) host a 2-hour training session for the solvers and a shorter meeting briefing the mentors a couple of weeks before the Challenge: that’s important because people get to know each other before the event. If you do these three things, everybody will (ideally) know exactly what to do at the very beginning of the Challenge, and you’ll maximize results (and minimize the issues).

4. Launch soundly. Day one starts with an initial one-hour meeting between companies, solvers and mentors to focus on the challenge brief. This meeting is crucial as after that companies will likely leave the building and the teams will start working on their challenge. Failing this meeting means to fail the Challenge. To have an idea of the complexity of the challenge brief meeting, consider that that is the very first time where companies, solvers and mentors meet with each other; everybody is pretty anxious (companies included): many will still have huge doubts about how the whole thing works. Some solvers might feel the pressure, doubt about their skills, and will start consider to just have a good time with newly met likeminded people!! Mentors will have a crucial role in handling this meeting: making the right questions, and making sure solvers have understood the challenge brief (included what kind of output they are meant to deliver) will be of outmost importance.

5. Support and empower. Scoping the problem is not enough. Once the company leave, mentors will have to support solvers go through the next four phases of the Design Sprint. Although we provide solvers with training some ten days before the event, very often the submitted challenges somewhat requires tweaking or angling a bit the Sprint. For instance, in some cases teams start with a heuristic usability evaluation of the as-is version of the product: in case that is already in the market and it needs to be redesigned in some parts, this test helps understanding better the product, its pains, and the involved constrains. More likely, sometimes teams might feel lost, or a bit hopeless (time management is really an issue). That’s the time when the mentors’ know how and coaching abilities kick in to save you: as an organizer, you are fully busy with a thousand other micro tasks, and you barely know what’s going on within each team.

6. Schedule precisely. Make sure to prepare and share in advance with all participants a detailed schedule of the two days, including exact timing of all the five Sprint phases. Scoping has to be done within the morning of day one; ideation cannot last more than a couple of hours on early afternoon of day one. The prototyping phase can endure the rest of the afternoon and the evening, until 22:00. Somebody keeps prototyping at home, night time (though we discourage this), to get ready for the tests which start early morning day two, and last until lunchtime. Then teams have a couple of more hours to update the prototypes according to what found out during tests, and to prepare rpesentations for the companies (at 16:00) and to the plenary (at 17:30). Crazy uh? 😊

7. Amplify the results. Make sure that the delivered outputs (prototypes, wireframes, mockups, user insights, etc.) are presented to a larger public. At the UX Challenge we have a final event open to the public hosting around 120 people (the plenary). Teams have only 3 minutes to pitch their solutions, and the same goes for companies with their challenges, before teams. We also host a keynote speaker to show best practices of UX design projects, clarify UX ROI — Return on Investment, and therefore put in perspective the shown outputs, and the whole initiative. We end by awarding the winning team and having a networking buffet. And do not forget to take a finally family pic (we forgot to do so in our first edition :|).

8. Create the right climate. Find an appropriate location (open space, moving tables, walls for post-its, relaxing environment); put on some music from time to time, and try not to be too serious as an organizer (making some jokes helps in breaking the ice, letting people feel more comfortable and mitigating the anxiety). And cater for the food, so that solvers won’t interrupt the process (avoid junk food: you don’t want solvers to get sleepy!!). And a lot of coffee of course. Overall: don’t forget that both solvers and mentors are there voluntarily, and companies are basically taking a chance: try to give them a great user experience!


1. Starting September 2019, we are coordinating a European project that will replicate the UX Challenge in 6 other countries beyond Italy, for validating its impacts on companies. Stay tuned to #200SMEchallenge if you want to know more about this!

2. We do other innovation Challenges to support research-industry collaboration and the adoption of new technologies. Check the PROTO Challenge on our website: www.trentinoinnovation.eu/PROTO-challenge-eng

3. The European Commission has funded us a project to develop a Canvas that an innovation intermediary can use to design innovation contests and other problem-solving initiatives to support innovation in SMEs. We ended up developing a beautiful Visual Guide: go and get it at: www.innochallenge-project.eu.

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