USABILATHON — how we started the 1st usability-focused hackathon

During my time at Iowa State, I was approached with an opportunity to build and foster a UX event. I helped co-found ISU’s USABILATHON, the first hackathon-style event focused on usability, with my dear colleagues Alex Lim, Melynda Hoover, and Kaitlyn Ouverson.

My role:

Co-Founder, Co-Organizer, Event Host, UX Researcher, Designer, Project Manager

My tasks:

Event planning and strategy, competitive analysis, journey mapping, set and ensure brand, help recruit industry sponsors, create event materials and templates, website creation and design, host main event, mentor participants


6 Months (Sep — Apr)


Main website, Twitter, Featured article, 3rd yr anniversary article


An event dedicated to usability and design-thinking experimentation. This event allows students the opportunity to tackle challenges in a safe place where experimentation is the norm. Our mission was to focus on the journey of each team as they worked together towards an end goal.

1- Successful Event
Successfully ran the whole event without hitting any major hurdles during the day-of.

2- 9 Sponsors
Managed to get 9 sponsors to help us fund the event. This allowed us to keep the event free for participants.

3- 22 Participants
Over 30 RSVPs; had 22 final participants show up and finish the Usabilathon challenge.

4- Increased UX Exposure
Build up excitement and a new team to take over for the next event. Participants are now able to build portfolios.


How might we help bridge partnerships between students and industry while helping them gain UX experience?

I was approached with an opportunity to build and foster a UX event. I knew this was the opportunity I’ve looking for after discovering the desire for people to build their portfolios, practice their craft, and of course bring UX to the front-page.

There wasn’t a need to reinvent the wheel in terms of hackathon-events, and we saw this as an opportunity to expand from the original idea, but cater it to ISU students’ needs.

This usability based hackathon-style event focused on bringing interdisciplinary students together where they would spend a whole day designing, iterating, and developing solutions. At the end of the event, participants will get an opportunity to showcase their solutions in front of judges and fellow participants.


  • Expose participants to interdisciplinary team collaboration (simulate real-world experience).
  • Provide a safe space that allowed students to experiment and leverage existing skills.
  • Bring in mentors and judges from established companies and allow them to network with participants.
  • Showcase the HCI, Human Factors, and UX community.
  • A completed case study for students to use in their portfolios.
  • Build and foster a community.


  • Limited budget and resources
  • No previous predecessor


What exactly is USABILATHON?

Usabilathon (pronounce usabil-a-thon) is ISU’s usability hackathon-style event, bringing together students both graduate and undergraduate students (20–30 total) from many departments to compete in this user-focused event. Participants will spend a whole day designing, iterating, and developing solutions. At the end of the event, participants will get an opportunity to showcase their solutions in front of judges and fellow participants.

How did we make it happen?

I knew I had to use my planning and design thinking skills. The main mission was to not re-invent the wheel, but leverage existing resources out there such as George Mason’s guide and the MHL Hackathon guide book. Since we didn’t need to start from scratch, this allowed us to focused on making sure it was catered to Iowa State students.

Mapping out the journey

To better understand our needs and timeline, we mapped out all the different moving pieces to help us better understand where to get started and track how where we needed to be in order to make the event happen.

Mapping out event timeline
Mapping out participants, sponsors, and volunteers timeline

Understanding user needs and opportunities

Student persona
Hiring Manager persona
user journey map

Distributing roles and responsibilities

In order to make all of it happen, we divided and conquered. In order to keep each other accountable, we kept a Trello board and set weekly meetings. Here’s a list of things I mainly focused on:

  • Event planning and strategy
  • Competitive analysis
  • Journey mapping
  • Set and ensure brand
  • Help recruit industry sponsors
  • Create event materials and templates
  • Website creation and design
  • Host main event
  • Mentor participants
Using Trello for task delegation (Kandan approach)


Event execution pillars

1- Duration

  • 1-day event — maximize resources and minimize hesitations
  • Pre and post networking

2- Number of participants

  • Even distribution between disciplines
  • Small group — enough to handle

3- Location

  • Leverage available venue
  • Ensure location serves our needs (Wi-Fi, seating, projector, team spaces, bathrooms, convenience)

4- Budget

  • Be clear on needs vs wants
  • Breakdown by category
  • Allow for in-kind sponsors/donations

5- Date

  • Downtime for students
  • No overlapping events

6- Prizes

  • Sponsored/donated vs bought
  • 1st and 2nd places
  • Motivate participants

Branding, event promotion, and website

Branding, logo, resources, and templates
Event schedule
event pictures


Our biggest hurdles…

Trying to sell another hackathon-ish event to sponsors was not easy. Although we have an awesome industry community, we needed to make sure we were worth their time. Along those same lines, coming in fresh to the game, we didn’t have an established name for ourselves, so we relied heavily on our marketing skills and our connections.

​We worried that we wouldn’t be able to deliver on our promise — judges were hard to find, we didn’t have the money without donations and sponsorships, and it took a while to recruit participants.


In the end, it all worked out!

I learned to hone my strategy planning and project management skills — Organized and ran an event based on sponsorships, volunteers, and 22 participants.


We sent post-event feedback surveys and were able to get 9 responses. Overall, participants felt satisfied with the event’s outcome, all would recommend to a friend, and almost everyone would participate again.


I am happy to say that, years later, the event is still up and running. We have been able to establish a relationship with outside businesses, gather more sponsors, and increase participation.

USABILATHON is something dear to me, and I will always root for its success. Although I will forever be jealous of those who got to participate, I will always cherish the fact that I helped start this wonderful event.

Special thanks to the original crew — this wouldn’t have been possible without you.

UX Designer