PR1-Methodology for product hackathons in physical and virtual environments


Pro Hackin’ (Product Hackathons for Innovative Development) is an Erasmus-sponsored international project aimed at advancing higher education approaches. Four universities – UL-FME, TUW, POLIMI and UNI-ZG are the leading institutions in this project.
The main goal of the project is to introduce product hackathons in engineering design courses, with the aim to improve the quality of the students’ learning experience. The concept of hackathons is not new in areas such as programming and software development, however, it is still insufficiently explored for use in other engineering domains.
Numerous benefits of the hackathons, e.g., the fast and effective idea generation in a short time span, the increased focus and motivation of participants, and the intense collaboration and teamwork are some of the aspects that could significantly improve project-based engineering design courses. This project, therefore, aims to investigate the potential of hackathons in engineering design education and develop the methodology for their implementation as a means of open innovation practice between universities and companies.

Product hackathons

Product hackathons are a new form of time-intensive problem-solving competitions, that are focused on the design of physical products. Designing and developing physical products typically encompass a timely and complex process, which has its specificities and characteristics. The overall goal of this project is to embed the key elements of the engineering design process into hackathons, in order to provide a new, engaging and participatory learning approach for engineering students, that would encourage open innovation initiatives. To develop the methodology for conceptualising and conducting product hackathons and integrating them into engineering education, first, we identified the main characteristics of hackathons:

  • Time-bounded event
  • Short duration (1-2 days)
  • Closed environment
  • Stakeholder inclusion
  • Starts with introduction
  • Open real-world task/challenge
  • Competition
  • Participants
  • Teamwork
  • Awards
  • No imposed working structure 
  • Results are solution designs 
  • Pitch presentations 

As a part of the traditional teaching of engineering design process in the project-based learning courses, students experience problem-based learning, which can be described as a five-step process (Hmelo-Silver, 2004): 1) Understanding the problem, 2) Exploration of the problem, 3) Identification, retrieval and interpretation of relevant information, 4) Exploration of possible solutions and formulation of the solution to the problem, and 5) Analysis of the solution and of the process that led to its generation. There are different implementations of the problem-based learning, depending on their focus – problem identification or solution generation (problems defined by industry or students). As such, this concept of problem-based learning can be easily transferred into the engineering design process context and mapped to the different process stages.
The design process can more broadly be viewed as the iterative of Problem clarification, Ideation, Evaluation, Prototyping and Testing. These steps are very well aligned with the solution development process present in hackathons. However, due to the predefined order of stages in engineering design, the introduction of hackathons requires setting up the course structure with specified milestones that would guide the design process. While conducting product hackathons, the time-restrictive nature of hackathons has to be considered along with the minimum time necessary to produce tangible design results. For this reason, product hackathons will be the most efficient if they will cover only few stages of the design process at a time, with a clearly defined output.
As stated above, the design process is divided into a number of design stages [Pahl&Beitz], where each stage should result in a tangible, more clearly defined product design solution. The stages of the design process with their expected results are shown below:

Stages of design process [Pahl&Beitz]

In an industrial setting, innovative design projects usually start with an open/ill-defined problem posed by the organisation, which provides enough space for creativity. Through the fuzzy-front end, the design problem is gradually clarified using different user and market research techniques and the requirements for the product are formed into a design proposal. In the next stage, product functions are defined, and several concepts are proposed. After identification of the promising preliminary concepts, the development continues with researching possible working principles and defining partial design solutions. These solutions are then combined, and the appropriate physical product components are chosen. In the final stage, the virtual and/or physical product prototype is typically built, tested and evaluated, before the product can go into production.
Therefore, the key aspects of the innovative design process, that should be accounted for in the product hackathons are:

  • Open design task 
  • Design stages and milestones 
  • Appropriate duration 
  • Design methods and tools 
  • Result in a form of design prototypes 
  • Solution and product presentations  
  • Stakeholder involvement  

Implementing hackathons in engineering design course

In this project, we explore how product hackathons can be implemented into learning curriculum for engineering students. This approach encourages self-regulated learning, but unlike common project-based courses, through product hackathons, students could acquire valuable knowledge and skills for time-restricted problem solving. More details about the execution of a university course where we implemented product hackathons are provided in as a part of the second project result: Case study.

Methodological framework

Designing and engineering physical products encompass a lengthy and complex processConsidering the time limitations of hackathons and their execution throughout a university course, we decided to divide the conventional design process with defined milestones into a series of hackathons. The design challenge comprised three consecutive product hackathons, each focusing on one major phase of the design process: ideation, conceptual design and embodiment design. This allowed us to clearly set the expectations and specify the required outputs for each hackathon. With these three hackathons, we wanted to explore the role of hackathons and to what extent they can benefit the learning process. During every hackathon few design solutions were proposed, each time with different level of detail. Figure below shows a comparison of the traditional design process with the process based on product hackathons.

Figure 1. Comparison between conventional and hackathon-driven product development process

Hackathons should be distributed evenly across the whole duration of the university course in order to balance their workload with other course obligations within the same semester. In the course of hackathons, students should be able to produce the majority of the tangible results, i.e., design ideas. Between the hackathons, student teams shall have the time to consolidate the received feedback from the company representatives with their proposed ideas, evaluate the results, identify potential improvements and clarify the direction they will take.

Prior to each hackathon, students need to be provided with the instructional materials on design methods and tools that should/could be used n respective hackathons. These materials should provide students with basic theoretical foundations and best practices for using different methods and tools. In addition, academic coaches should be available to each team to help and advise on these matters.

Hackathon #1: Ideation

To properly conduct this initial hackathon, the students were instructed to perform:  

  • Market research  
  • User research 
  • Brainstorming on product ideas and directions  
  • Define at least 3 product visions per team 

Together with the introductory lessons and tutorials given by lecturers, students were provided with the scaffolding materials for self-paced learning (in the week before the event), which they could also use during the hackathon.


  • Presentation and instruction slides explaining the ideation phase
  • Introduction to market & user research with the overview of their methods 
  • Examples and templates for brainstorming techniques 
  • Techniques and examples for conducting market research 
  • Techniques and templates for conducting user research  
  • Tools, examples and templates for product vision creation 

From the methodological standpoint, it is important to emphasise that the 1st hackathon was conducted as a virtual event. Also, in order to introduce hackathon as event and integrate it as a part of the course, lecturers had to take into account other academic obligations of the students. For that reason, the hackathon was split into 2 consecutive days, 4 working hours each day in the afternoon. To facilitate collaborative aspects in a virtual environment during this type of time-bounded event, e-learning infrastructure was previously prepared by coaches. The teammates (students were split into teams of 8) were communicating via MS Teams, and they were able to split into smaller subgroups within the team upon request. In addition, majority of the teams used the tool Miro as a whiteboard for sharing, presenting and grouping their problems, ideas and solutions. Occasionally, the students would ask their coach to help with the explanations of the methods and advise them on how to organize the work.  

Hackathon #2: Conceptual design 

In the second hackathon students were assigned to:  

  • Find solutions for product functions 
  • Generate several product concepts 

Provided instructions and materials were:

  • Presentation and slides explaining the conceptual design phase 
  • Lecture and templates for defining design requirements 
  • Lecture and templates for the conceptual design methods and techniques
  • Reading materials: selected chapters from engineering design books on techniques for conceptual design 

The 2nd hackathon was conducted again as a virtual event. It was divided in 2 consecutive days, 4 working hours each day in the afternoon, with the added breaks. The communication and collaboration between the teammates was supported in a similar manner to the 1st hackathon. However, in this hackathon, the use of graphical tools for idea visualisation was more emphasised than in the 1st phase. Again, students were allowed to ask teaching staff for clarification and elaboration on the usage of different design and ICT tools. 

Hackathon #3: Embodiment design 

In the 3rd phase students were required to:

  • Define product embodiment: product parts and materials
  • Conduxt feasibility and manufacturability studies 
  • Create a virtual product prototype (3D models/detailed sketches, calculations) 

They were provided with instructional materials:

  • Presentation and slides explaining the embodiment design phase 
  • Slides and tutorials for CAD modeling and simulation tools (OnShape, Simscale) 
  • Lectures on CAD and CAE

This hackathon was organized as a live event in a physical environment. This event was organized in a CAD (computer-aided design) classroom at the TUW in Vienna, Austria and lasted 12 hours in total. The students used collaborative cloud-based CAD tool (Onshape) to create virtual prototypes of their designs. The students had to split and delegate workload and each team member had to contribute individually using their own computer and account.The main objective of this hackathon was to integrate their subsolutions (for different functions) into one coherent whole and generate the virtual representation of their solution. 
Digital communication tools were still used for communication with the members that were not present in person (only two of them), and to support certain discussions and item sharing during work. The hackathon was concluded with a design review, where the virtual prototypes were discussed and analysed.  

Design challenge finale

Finally, after the third hackathon, the students had a bit more time to finalize their designs and prepare final presentations of their ideas. The result of each team was a detailed product/service solution, which included multiple design subsolutions for different functions of the design. The final design solutions were pitched to the industrial representatives and a wider audience at the final closing event.


To develop and validate the methodology for introducing and conducting hackathons as a part of engineering education, the project was divided into 3 consecutive academic years during which a series of product hackathons are planned to be implemented in different settings. Settings may vary in terms of the type of environment (virtual, physical, hybrid), different stages of product development process (conceptualisation, embodiment, etc.), intracurricular/extracurricular activity, stand-alone event/series of hackathons etc. For that reason, throughout the project, the better understanding of the learning outcomes and effects of hackathons will be obtained. 

As the main validation activity, students will be engaged in the international engineering design course. This course will serve for validation of our preliminary findings throughout the first two project years, but also for defining improvement steps for years to come. Each year a group of 40 engineering students will take part in an engineering challenge assigned by an industrial partner, during a 1-semester product design and development course. The students will work in mixed international teams (up to 8 members) and collaborate using various design and communication tools. At the end of each hackathon, they will present their outcomes to the industrial partners, who should then review and point direction of the further product development for each team. The final results of the hackathons consist of the number of the detailed product solutions developed by student teams. They are shared with the industrial representatives, who can use the ideas for their future products. Through the hackathons, students learn the design process in an engaging way, and get a hands-on experience working on a real industrial task. In addition, through the challenge the connections are created between all the project stakeholders. In this way, the open innovation is enabled between the students, academic staff and the industry.   

During the challenge, each team is mentored by a coach, an academic advisor, which helps them with the explanations and suggestions for the methods and tools to use. To encourage creativity and innovation, the overall challenge will be defined as an open-ended and ill-defined task, which will allow students to explore and conceptualise various alternatives in order to develop innovative design solutions. 

As stated above, within the course each product development challenge shall comprise 3 product hackathons, for different phases of the design process. However, their main objectives and expected outcomes may vary depending on the lessons learned from previous year. As such, different timings and scopes of hackathon activities could be tested to maximise potential value for both students and industrial partners. Additional aspect which became more relevant in recent years is to distinguish between working principles and pratices in physical, virtual and hybrid environments. The duration of every hackathon should be adjusted according to the planned setting and expected outcomes, e.g. online or live event, and should last between several hours to a full day (e.g. 12 or 24 hours). Different design activities and communication media will result in different demands on participants and could affect the stress levels, motivation and engagement. Therefore, in this project, numerous aspects of hackathons will be considered, tested and evaluated to find the optimal parameters for the product hackathons.