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Both approaches are used to define and generate an idea, or solve a problem within a specific time frame. In this article, we define these two unique collaborative models, and discuss the highs and lows of each to help the reader to decide which method would best suit their requirement.

What the hack?

If you’re anything like me, you could be forgiven for thinking that a hackathon involves some kind of concentrated gathering of cyber criminals, coming together to pull off some kind of super hack. Don’t panic. It’s not.

In a nutshell, a hackathon (The name evolved from the less catchy “Hack Marathon”) is a dedicated event designed to bring together a group of creative talent for a specific focus; solving a problem, or generating an idea. The participants form teams, collaborate and compete to create unique solution within an intense, tight timeframe. Typically, hackathons are centered around coding and computer programming, but a broader definition is simply creative problem solving.


  • The energy of the creative environment, and networking with a diverse group of talented people while collaborating to transform ideas into reality.
  • Getting it done; coming away from the experience with product ready to be marketed to external stakeholders
  • Food and swag! Large, sponsored tech hackathons are well known for providing an unlimited supply of caffeine, food low on the nutrition spectrum, and goody bags to participants.


  • A hackathon can last anywhere from 24 to 36 hours. The environment is intense, high energy, and sleeping is optional.
  • If you’re holding a 36 hour hack, you need to feed people at the very least. Showering and sleeping facilities are also recommended; it all adds up.
  • Creative freedom means exactly that. Be prepared to relinquish some control over the end product.

Design Sprints

Typically, a design sprint is a 5-day collaboration of time, carefully selected talent, enthusiasm and energy used to overcome a challenge or come up with an amazing idea, fast. The idea behind a sprint is to move from a challenge, to a solution, to a realistic prototype within a 5-day framework:

Day 1.    Define your problem

Day 2.    Come up with multiple competing solutions

Day 3.    Choose the best solution

Day 4.    Build a basic prototype

Day 5.    Test your prototype on your target market

The mix of people in your sprint is key; though you’re working collaboratively, there is an element of individual work by each person in their particular area of expertise.


  • Particularly in the case of a start-up constrained by limited resources, a sprint can generate a workable, market-tested prototype in a matter of days.
  • Collaboration with handpicked talent from various key areas allows each person to focus on their area of expertise, and focus on a complete solution, rather than a ‘consensus’ result.
  • At the end of the sprint, testing your prototype on actual users allows you to obtain targeted feedback to refine the product.


  • A failure to fully understand the ‘problem’, and assuming a sprint will give clarity to the issue. Going into a sprint without a focus is a surefire way to frustrate everyone in the room.
  • The critique of the possible solutions on day three can be challenging. It’s a critical evaluation, not a personal one. Leave your ego at the door.
  • The prototype stage is nicknamed “quick and dirty” for a reason. The final result is not necessarily the most sophisticated product, and will often require significant refining.

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