How Hackathons Can Help Designers Learn and Grow

Geunbae "GB" Lee
Mar 6 · 7 min read

Since Facebook’s earliest days, it has been hosting hackathons — dedicated, marathon-like periods of time in which people with similar interests and ideas work together on projects, usually until the wee hours.

Each team develops, designs and codes meaningful solutions that aim to solve specific problems. At the end of the event, each team presents and pitches potential solutions to our peers. The teams that create something super-impressive even get to share their ideas with the company’s executives.

At Facebook, hackathons are regularly promoted and encouraged for all employees, whether they’re engineers, product designers, researchers, content strategists or something else. It reinforces the culture that we’ve built for years, and it seeds ideas that contribute to the direction-setting of the company.

It’s how many of the foundational ideas for our products, including the Like button, came to life and continue to be iterated on. Hackathons also provide opportunities for individuals to collaborate on problems they’re motivated to solve with other similarly motivated colleagues. Because hackathons encourage collaboration among people who work on different products and across different job functions, we can find new perspectives with diverse sets of colleagues that we might never have worked with before. I bring knowledge from my work as product designer on advertiser-facing experiences, and I hope to walk away with insights that I can apply to my job or that can otherwise help me in the future.

Participating in hackathons as a designer

Frequently, the people who participate in hackathons are engineers who can actually build things that are functional and real. However, having a designer on the team makes a huge difference in terms of the visuals and the user experience. Designers are able to demonstrate the user’s perspective. Anyone can construct a building if they have the skills. However, designing a building that is easier for people to navigate, functionally effective and even attractive from all angles isn’t possible without a dedicated person who is in charge of making those things happen. This is what I particularly love about participating in hackathons — the unique ability to influence the product or feature direction in ways that other people might easily dismiss or underestimate.

During my time at Facebook so far, I’ve attended a few hackathons, during which I made extra effort to work through problems that I was passionate about solving. Before and during the event, there were ample opportunities to connect with people who were passionate about similar problem areas, making it easier to effectively collaborate and discuss the details of the projects.

As a designer on the team, I raised questions like:

  • What is the problem we’re trying to solve?
  • How do we know if it’s a problem?
  • Who are we designing this solution for?
  • What are the user’s goals?
  • Has anyone ever done anything similar?
  • What does success look like?

The purpose of these questions is to help our problem-definition process and to take a user-centered approach to designing the right solutions. It also pushes us to try to understand our users and their needs first, versus putting our own ideas forward (which sometimes biases how we try to solve the problem). Ultimately, having a clear understanding of the problem helps us to identify, prioritize and scope out what we are planning to build within the short amount of time we have at a hackathon.

Each time I’ve participated in a hack, I’ve learned something new and valuable that helped me grow as a designer. One of the biggest skills that I was able to develop was around storytelling and the quick crafting of ideas. I began to truly understand the power of storytelling when it comes to explaining ideas in the short amount of time at hackathons. The new tools I learned and practiced were helpful in conveying ideas to the team and helped what we were building come to life. The more effectively you can tell a story — of potential solutions, of users’ expectations — the better the chances that the product will be successful.

Unique aspects of hackathons at Facebook

One fascinating aspect about hackathons at Facebook is that we can work on areas that are outside our expertise and day-to-day work. This allows employees to gain insights about many different product areas within the company and provides the opportunity to work on challenging problems we might never have had the chance to consider.

For designers specifically, the breadth of experience gained from working on other product areas and domains, as well as understanding different ways to design solutions, keeps us motivated and inspired. Hackathons help us broaden our perspective about how we approach problems. They seed ideas for our everyday work streams and future road maps. The most exciting part is that hackathons provide us with opportunities to stoke our product passions and discover new ones.

One key to Facebook’s enormous scale is our productive cross-functional collaboration. This concept is certainly accurate with regard to our day-to-day product teams, but it’s even more so during hackathons, when participants are pushed to quickly understand other products and their goals in order to collaborate more efficiently and effectively. The cross-pollination among products and teams that happens at hackathons helps us practice balancing specific problems to solve with the need for holistic and systematic thinking toward solutions.

This is particularly important for designers, because how we approach design solutions should reflect our understanding of the different contexts, user behaviors and user interaction patterns across our company’s products. Hackathons are not about just one person’s opinion or even their expertise. In the most effective collaborations, autonomous, responsible and self-empowering employees interact to find solutions. In so doing, the individual Facebookers who aim to make the world more open and connected build upon each other’s knowledge and ideas. Here, participation in hackathons doesn’t just mean that you get to work on cool and innovative projects for fun; the expectation is that you will learn from the collaborative process and take those lessons into your future work. I have certainly taken many such lessons into my work as a product designer on the Ads team.

Recommendations for designers

Designers can grow from attending hackathons, and teams participating in hackathons need designers. I’d like to share some tips and recommendations for designers who are looking to attend a hackathon for the first time or get more out of their next one.

Whether you want to learn new tools, meet new people across the company or think up design solutions for other products, having a clear goal will help inject real meaning into your hackathon project. Some examples:

  • “I have a great idea for a new feature and want to build a quick prototype to show to the other members of my team.”
  • “I want to gain experience designing for mobile or AR/VR.”
  • “I want to learn a new design tool that is different from what I’m using now.”
  • “I want develop my communication and leadership skills.”

I’ve noticed that if everyone on the team is passionate about the problem to be solved, a clear momentum builds, contributing to a better outcome. Once you’ve found the right project, think carefully about the input you give and then actively voice your opinions. I would advise against jumping into a project without being fully invested in collaborating with others on it. Doing so will likely not be effective in helping the larger team move forward.

Hackathons are designed to be short. This mirrors the agile product-development process. But this can be tricky, because design solutions are oftentimes difficult to envision and build in the time allotted. Keep in mind that at the end of the hackathon, you will need to present what you’ve built or prototyped. Therefore, it’s essential that you prioritize the most important parts of the feature you’re building so you can demo it. You need to balance your vision and the artfulness of the design with the very real need to create a working model.

I’ve found that seeing mockups excites the team and kicks off fruitful discussions about scope, features prioritization and the overall user experience. It also creates an atmosphere of storytelling and underscores the need for a thorough explanation of the problem before prototyping the product itself. Additionally, mockups can allow you to show a glimpse of potential futures for the feature or product beyond what the team will be able to build during the actual hackathon.

At Facebook, our mission is to bring the world closer together. The first step toward accomplishing that starts within our own company. Hackathons offer the opportunity to connect and get inspired by one another.

Ultimately, hackathons allow you to exit with an awesome project that you can really feel proud of. If you go in with high but clear expectations, motivation and passion, you will leave with a collaborative product that you’ve created with colleagues, as well as additional knowledge that you can apply to work and life.

Some of my hackathon projects have been selected to be presented to my colleagues, Facebook executives and even the public. Those were all proud moments for me that wouldn’t have been possible without my participation in these intense but special events.

Thanks to Genevieve Isola and Anna Wahrman for their help with this piece.

Facebook Design: Business Tools

Stories from like-minded product designers, UX researchers…

Geunbae "GB" Lee

Written by

Product Designer at Facebook, doing cool stuff :) https://geunbaelee.com

Facebook Design: Business Tools

Stories from like-minded product designers, UX researchers, and content strategists who are passionate about improving the world through the creation of well-crafted business tools.

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