This is the story of my first Designathon and how I went from an idea to an in-house event.
It all started as an experiment.
I work as a Design Team Lead at Rebel Dot, a software company in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, where I oversee the professional development of my team. Last summer we had been brainstorming how to practice Design Sprints on fictive clients for a couple of weeks already. One day it just popped out of nowhere: let’s do a hackathon!
Cool, but how do we combine a hackathon with Design Sprints?
While a traditional hackathon lasts 24 or 48 hours, we wanted to organize something shorter — an 8-hour event that doesn’t transform you into a zombie by the end.
We thought we could use Google Venture’s Design Sprint process, “dummified” into a one-day version. Growing a digital solution from idea to a pitch-ready concept — and in a single day nonetheless, seemed challenging and fun enough. The team was pretty excited, so we kicked off the planning.
It took about a couple of weeks to set up the logistics. In the meantime, the name came along easily: Designathon. It was the perfect naming for a combination of design methodology and a traditional hackathon.
The big day
So, there we were, on a cloudy September Sunday morning, 8.30 AM with all the teams in place. A mixed group of designers, developers, QA engineers, project managers and IT support guys, all ready to kick off our little Designathon in high gear.
The teams were free to pick a theme of their choice and start deconstructing and iterating it. There were many interesting ideas, amongst which: a support app for seniors, a Jackass inspired betting engine, a restaurant booking app, an intranet generator or a crisis-guidance app for citizens.
Fun fact: one of the teams couldn’t make it due to flight delays, so they were working remotely from an airport.
Each team chose a cozy, relaxed corner or meeting room and then started to get into the Designathon process:
1.. Understand & Sketch
The groups got gradually into the nitty-gritty of their product idea. Lots of post-its and whiteboard notes were “consumed” during this phase — and coffee, as it was early in the morning. The challenge was not only to deep dive into the subject, but also to come up with as many possibilities and to sort out the feasible ideas.
No brainstorming methodology was followed here, excepting that no idea is considered “bad”. The energy level was on a pretty high level inside the teams, each individual being eager to bring the best set of ideas. This is where the participants could go wild and get the most out of their fresh brains in the morning.
We agreed to allocate 3–4 hours for this stage and by the end there was a fair amount of raw solutions within each group. Some of the initiatives born in this stage were so unique, I didn’t even see anything similar on the market before.
This is where teams narrowed down ideas and picked one or two that should go further within the process. Since the groups were no bigger than 2–3 people, we thought there was no need for formal voting systems. The solutions resulted from the previous stage were triaged in consensus; common agreement was the main keyword of this decision-making step.
There was no need for more than 2 hours to complete this. The teams were mature enough to put feasibility and business logic afore personal ego, so they managed to quickly sort and to prioritize the list of ideas.
In each team there was one final solution chosen to be prototyped, the rest of the suggestions have been put in an idea box that we may open in a next Designathon.
Though this is a practical stage, its primary goal is speed. No shiny polishing, nor fancy finishing touches. Whatever was decided in the previous step, was built here in ultra-low fidelity. Using such a process allows you to create/fail fast and move further on your journey to the validation-iteration loop.
This step took somewhere around 2–3 hours. Some teams mocked raw functionalities on the whiteboards, others were sketching on phone-sized pieces of papers to test out their theories. Anything, that can be submitted to a validation and therefore could sustain or contradict your product, is reliable to be named “prototype”. The faster you can create it, the quicker you will get feedback.
We intentionally cut down the validation part from the classic Design Sprint methodology. Partially for time considerations, but mostly because we wanted to involve a sort of a jury, with broader experience both on the business and consultancy side. What we did instead is we asked our managers and senior analysts to an elevator pitch contest where we showcased our findings and received feedback from them.
I think it’s crucial for a startup or an initiative to benefit equally from user, tech, business and legal validations. You can’t kick off you business without some subject matter expert’s opinion regarding your idea.
Our jury gave insights on the business and implementation related sides of each team’s product. Revelation may hit you in such moments, because you get a deeper understanding on how achievable is your startup idea, when could you hit the market, revenue stream, possible bottlenecks and so on.
This was, in a nutshell, our event. We believe in Design Sprints and Design Thinking, and their added value to a product’s success.
Are Design Sprints for Designers only?
Certainly not! Design Sprint ensures deep understanding, fast iteration, validation and quick fail (if needed) of a subject. Regardless of your role, this methodology gives you a different way of solving problems or of getting from point A to point B. It can be applied to almost any challenge, regardless of its nature.
Will we repeat the Designathon?
Certainly! Besides the bonding and fun we had, we managed to transform our raw ideas into pitch-worthy concepts. In just one day! So, I’m thinking big and, if the second in-house event is at least as successful, I intend to make the third one publicly open.
Idea Box. Why to have such a thing?
Everybody has more or less random ideas on all sort of business initiatives or improvements. I bet, at least once you’ve had a day when a crazy startup idea hit you, you played around with the thought of taking initiative but after a while your daily todos knocked out the mighty intention. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but we tend to forget ideas by the time goes by.
So every time you have a revealing moment, take some notes. You can never know, when will you decide to turn dreams into reality.
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