Crafting Effective Hackathon Judging Criteria: A Step-by-Step Guide

by Tejaswini , 19 April 2023
by Tejaswini ,  19 April 2023
Crafting Effective Hackathon Judging Criteria: A Step-by-Step Guide

Hackathons are events that bring together people with diverse backgrounds to collaborate and create innovative solutions to real-world problems. One of the most crucial aspects of a successful hackathon is effective judging criteria. Judges evaluate projects and determine winners based on predetermined criteria, which need to be well-defined and communicated to ensure fair and consistent evaluations.

Crafting effective hackathon judging criteria can be a challenging task, but it's an essential step towards a successful event. This article provides a step-by-step guide to help organisers identify event goals and objectives, determine key criteria for evaluating projects, address the nuances in developing judging criteria, develop a rating scale, communicate criteria to judges, and get the best out of your hackathon judges.

By following these guidelines and incorporating successful examples from past events, organisers can develop fair, comprehensive, and effective judging criteria that will ensure a successful hackathon.

1. Identify Your Event Goals and Objectives

Effective hackathon judging criteria must align with the goals and objectives of the event. The first step in crafting effective judging criteria is to identify the event's goals and objectives. This ensures that the hackathon's judging criteria reflect the event's purpose and are relevant to the participants.

1.1 Importance of aligning judging criteria with the event goals and objectives

Hackathons can have various goals and objectives, including:

  • Encouraging innovation and creativity in the development of new ideas and products
  • Fostering collaboration among participants and stakeholders
  • Supporting entrepreneurship and economic development
  • Promoting education and learning: According to a report by HackerRank, a platform for technical assessments and interviews, 73% of developers say they have participated in a hackathon, with 48% of them citing "learning new skills" as the primary reason for participating. [Source: HackerRank]
  • Addressing social or environmental challenges

When judging criteria align with the goals and objectives of the hackathon, it becomes easier to evaluate the success of the event and determine the winners. Moreover, aligning judging criteria with event goals and objectives also promotes transparency and fairness in the judging process.

1.2 Tips for Identifying the Goals and Objectives of the Hackathon

To identify the goals and objectives of the hackathon, organisers should consider the following:

  • Who is the intended audience of the hackathon?
  • What are the challenges or opportunities that the hackathon aims to address?
  • What impact does the hackathon hope to make in the industry or community?
  • What are the desired outcomes of the event?


Hackathon organisers may also consult with stakeholders, sponsors, and partners to identify the goals and objectives of the event. It's important to ensure that the goals and objectives are clearly defined, measurable, and achievable.


1.3 Examples of goals and objectives that could be used as a starting point for crafting judging criteria

Here are some examples of hackathon goals and objectives that organisers could use as a starting point for crafting judging criteria:

Encourage innovation and creativity: Judging criteria could focus on the originality and creativity of the project, the potential for disruption in the market, and the level of risk taken in developing the idea.

Foster collaboration: Judging criteria could consider the level of collaboration between team members, the quality of the team's communication, and the degree to which the team incorporated feedback from mentors and other participants.

Support entrepreneurship: Judging criteria could focus on the potential for commercial viability, the feasibility of the business model, and the potential for scalability.

Promote education and learning: Judging criteria could consider the level of learning demonstrated by the participants, the application of new technologies, and the ability of the project to inspire and educate others.

Address social or environmental challenges: Judging criteria could focus on the impact of the project on the community or environment, the degree to which the project addresses a pressing social or environmental challenge, and the potential for scalability and sustainability.

Overall, effective hackathon judging criteria must align with the goals and objectives of the event. Identifying the goals and objectives of the event is the first step in crafting effective judging criteria that are relevant and meaningful to the participants, judges, and organisers.

2. Determine Key Criteria for Evaluating Projects

Hackathon Judging Criteria viaHVTechfest.jpg
Hackathon Judging Criteria via HVTechfest

Once you have identified the goals and objectives of your hackathon, the next step is to determine the key criteria that will be used to evaluate projects. The criteria should be aligned with the goals and objectives of the event and should be measurable and objective to ensure fairness and consistency in judging.

Here are some examples of specific criteria that could be used to evaluate hackathon projects:

  • Technical complexity: Use of cutting-edge technology, demonstration of advanced programming skills, evidence of scalability and flexibility.
  • Creativity: Originality of the idea, evidence of innovative problem-solving, uniqueness of the solution.
  • Potential impact: Evidence of addressing a real-world problem or need, potential to make a meaningful difference in people's lives, potential to disrupt the status quo.
  • Execution: Quality of the user interface, design and aesthetics, functionality and ease of use.
  • Presentation: Quality of the pitch, clarity of the presentation, effective use of visual aids and storytelling.

Finding the right blend is paramount. A survey by Devpost found that 52% of hackathon participants believe that judges should prioritise creativity and innovation in their evaluations while 28% believe that judges should prioritise the potential impact of the project. [Source: Devpost]

Overall, it is important to strike a balance between the different types of criteria and to ensure that they are objective, measurable, and aligned with the goals and objectives of the event. This will help to ensure that the judging process is fair, consistent, and effective in identifying the most promising and impactful projects.

3. Nuance in Hackathon Judging Criteria

Section 3: Nuance in Hackathon Judging Criteria

Crafting effective judging criteria requires nuance and careful consideration. The criteria must balance technical skill with innovation and creativity, and be relevant to the goals of the hackathon. In addition, the criteria should take into account the specific focus or theme of the event, such as social impact or education. Furthermore, judges must evaluate projects that may be in different stages of development, which presents its own set of challenges.

3.1 Balancing Technical Skills with Innovation and Creativity

One of the biggest challenges in developing hackathon judging criteria is balancing technical skills with innovation and creativity. While technical skill is important, hackathons are often focused on creating new and innovative solutions to problems. Therefore, the judging criteria must take into account both the technical skill of the participants and the innovation and creativity of their solutions.

According to a survey of hackathon participants, the most important criteria for judging hackathon projects are creativity (51.2%), technical complexity (24.5%), and feasibility (24.3%) (Hackathon.io, 2015). This underscores the importance of balancing technical skill with innovation and creativity in developing effective judging criteria.

One example of a hackathon that effectively balanced technical skill with innovation and creativity is the Hack4Climate hackathon, which was focused on developing solutions to address climate change. The judging criteria for the event included technical feasibility, social impact, innovation, and scalability (Hack4Climate, n.d.). By including criteria related to innovation and social impact, in addition to technical feasibility, the judging criteria effectively balanced technical skill with creativity and impact.

3.2 Incorporating User-Centered Design in Judging Criteria

User-centred design (UCD) is a process that focuses on understanding the needs and behaviours of users to inform the design of products and services. In the context of hackathons, UCD can help ensure that solutions are designed with the needs of users in mind. Therefore, incorporating UCD principles into the judging criteria can help ensure that solutions are designed with the end users in mind.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) hosted a hackathon focused on developing solutions for patients with substance use disorders. The judging criteria for the event included UCD as a category, which required participants to demonstrate how their solution was designed with the needs of patients in mind (NIH, 2018). By including UCD in the judging criteria, the NIH hackathon effectively incorporated user needs into the evaluation of the solutions.

3.3 Criteria Development for Hackathons with Specific Focuses or Goals

Hackathons often focus on specific topics or themes, such as social impact, education, or health. Judging criteria for these events must take into account the specific focus of the hackathon. For example, a hackathon focused on social impact may prioritise solutions that have the potential to make a significant positive impact on society, while a hackathon focused on education may prioritise solutions that are designed to improve the learning experience for students.

The Code for Africa hackathon is an example of an event that had specific goals related to social impact. The judging criteria for the event included social impact, creativity, technical feasibility, and user-centred design (Code for Africa, 2017). By including social impact as a specific criterion, the event effectively communicated its focus on creating solutions that have the potential to make a positive impact on society.

3.4 Addressing the Challenges of Evaluating Projects in Different Stages of Development

Hackathons often involve teams working on projects in different stages of development. Some teams may have fully functional prototypes, while others may only have a rough idea. This presents a challenge for judges, who must evaluate projects that may be in vastly different stages of development.

One approach to addressing this challenge is to break down the evaluation criteria into stages, with different criteria being used for projects at different stages of development. For example, projects in the ideation stage may be evaluated based on the creativity and potential impact of their ideas, while projects with prototypes may be evaluated on technical complexity and functionality.

Judges need to take into account the stage of development when evaluating a project and not penalize teams for not having a fully functional prototype. Judges should look for potential in the idea and the team's ability to execute the project.

Another approach is to have different categories or tracks for projects at different stages of development. For instance, a hackathon might have a category for early-stage ideas and a separate category for more developed prototypes. This ensures that projects are evaluated against similar criteria and have an equal chance of winning based on their stage of development.


Overall, the key to addressing this challenge is to be mindful of the different stages of development and to develop evaluation criteria and categories that are appropriate for each stage. This approach ensures that all teams have a fair chance of winning, regardless of the stage of development of their project.

Some hackathons have successfully implemented this approach. For example, the annual Code for the Kingdom hackathon, which focuses on creating technology solutions for social impact, has separate categories for ideation, prototyping, and scaling. This approach allows projects to be evaluated based on their stage of development and provides an opportunity for projects at all stages to be recognised and rewarded.

In summary, judges must take into account the stage of development when evaluating projects in a hackathon. By developing appropriate evaluation criteria and categories for each stage, judges can ensure that all teams have an equal opportunity to win, regardless of the stage of development of their project.

4. Develop a Rating Scale for Your Hackathon Judging Criteria

Example of Hackathon Judging Rubric viaClagaryhacks.webp
Example of Hackathon Judging Rubric via Clagaryhacks

Developing a rating scale is essential for ensuring that hackathon judging is consistent, fair, and objective. A rating scale provides a framework for judges to evaluate projects against the established criteria, and it helps ensure that all projects are evaluated using the same standard.

4.1 Importance of Developing a Rating Scale

Developing a rating scale is important because it helps ensure that judging is fair and consistent. Without a rating scale, judges may use different criteria to evaluate projects, or they may have different interpretations of the same criteria. This can lead to inconsistent evaluations, and it may result in some projects being unfairly disadvantaged or advantaged.

A rating scale also helps ensure all projects are evaluated using the same standard. This is important because hackathon projects can vary widely in terms of complexity, creativity, and potential impact. By providing judges with a rating scale, organizers can ensure that all projects are evaluated based on the same criteria and that no project is unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged due to its particular strengths or weaknesses.

4.2 Tips for Developing a Rating Scale

When developing a rating scale for hackathon judging, there are several tips that organizers should keep in mind:

Clearly define the different levels of performance: A rating scale should clearly define what constitutes excellent, good, average, and poor performance. This will help ensure that judges have a clear understanding of what they are looking for when evaluating projects.

Use simple and understandable language: The rating scale should use simple and understandable language to ensure that judges can easily understand and apply it.

Be specific: The rating scale should be specific and provide clear examples of what constitutes each level of performance. This will help ensure that judges have a clear understanding of what they are looking for when evaluating projects.

Align with the event goals and objectives: The rating scale should align with the goals and objectives of the hackathon. For example, if the hackathon is focused on social impact, the rating scale should include criteria related to the potential social impact of each project.

4.3 Examples of Rating Scales

Example of hackathon Judging Criteria viaAigolearning.png
Example of hackathon Judging Criteria via Aigolearning

There are many different rating scales that organizers can use for hackathon judging. Here are a few examples:

Example 1: Technical Complexity

  • Excellent: The project demonstrates a high level of technical complexity and sophistication, and it is likely to be very difficult to replicate or improve upon.
  • Good: The project demonstrates a moderate level of technical complexity and sophistication, and it is likely to be moderately difficult to replicate or improve upon.
  • Average: The project demonstrates a basic level of technical complexity and sophistication, and it is likely to be relatively easy to replicate or improve upon.
  • Poor: The project demonstrates little or no technical complexity or sophistication, and it is likely to be very easy to replicate or improve upon.

Example 2: User-Centered Design

  • Excellent: The project demonstrates a deep understanding of user needs and preferences, and it has been designed to meet those needs in a user-friendly and intuitive way.
  • Good: The project demonstrates a basic understanding of user needs and preferences, and it has been designed to meet those needs in a generally user-friendly way.
  • Average: The project demonstrates some consideration of user needs and preferences, but it may not be particularly user-friendly or intuitive.
  • Poor: The project does not appear to have considered user needs or preferences, or it is poorly designed and difficult to use.

Example 3: Social Impact

  • Excellent: The project has the potential to make a significant positive impact on a particular social issue or population, and it is likely to be sustainable and scalable.
  • Good: The project has the potential to make a moderate positive impact on a particular social issue or population, and it may be sustainable and scalable.
  • Average: The project has the potential to make a small positive impact on a particular social issue
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5. Communicate Criteria to Judges

Once you have developed your judging criteria and rating scale, it's important to effectively communicate them to your judges to ensure they understand the expectations and goals of the hackathon. Without clear communication, judges may have different interpretations of the criteria and rating scale, leading to inconsistent and unfair evaluations.

Here are some tips for effectively communicating your criteria to judges:

Provide Clear Instructions: Clearly explain the purpose and goals of the hackathon, the judging criteria, and the rating scale in the instructions provided to judges. Make sure the instructions are concise, easy to understand, and leave no room for ambiguity.

Provide Examples: Provide examples of successful projects from past hackathons that align with your judging criteria. These examples can help judges understand how the criteria should be applied in practice and what a successful project looks like.

Host a Judges' Briefing: Host a briefing session for judges before the hackathon begins to ensure they fully understand the criteria and rating scale. This session can also be an opportunity to answer any questions judges may have and to encourage discussion and collaboration among the judges.

Use Visual Aids: Consider using visual aids such as diagrams, online flowcharts, charts, and infographics to illustrate the judging criteria and rating scale. This can help judges visualize the different levels of performance and ensure they have a clear understanding of what each level represents.

Provide Feedback Forms: Provide feedback forms for judges to fill out after they have evaluated each project. These forms can be used to collect feedback on the judging criteria and rating scale, as well as feedback on the overall judging process. This information can be used to improve future hackathons.

Here are some examples of materials that can be used to communicate judging criteria to judges:

  • A judging manual that includes all the instructions and information judges need to know about the hackathon, including the judging criteria and rating scale.
  • A presentation that provides an overview of the hackathon, the judging criteria and rating scale, and examples of successful projects.
  • Infographics that illustrate the judging criteria and rating scale, and provide examples of successful projects.

Effective communication of judging criteria is critical to ensure that the judging process is fair, consistent, and aligned with the goals of the hackathon. By providing clear instructions, and examples, hosting a judges' briefing, using visual aids, and collecting feedback, you can ensure that your judges have a clear understanding of the criteria and rating scale, and can effectively evaluate hackathon projects.

6. Getting the Best out of Your Hackathon Judges

Hackathon Judges viaMadebywifi.jpg
Hackathon Judges via Madebywifi

Hackathon judges play a critical role in the success of any hackathon event. It is essential to ensure that the judges are selected based on their expertise and experience and that they are provided with the necessary guidance and support to make informed evaluations. Here are some strategies to help you get the best out of your hackathon judges:

6.1 Strategies for Selecting Judges with Relevant Expertise and Experience

Selecting judges with the right expertise and experience is critical to ensuring fair and informed evaluations. When selecting judges, it is important to consider their professional background, technical expertise, educational qualifications, such as an MD degree and experience in the specific domain or industry that the hackathon is focused on. For example, if your hackathon is focused on healthcare innovation, you may want to consider judges with expertise in healthcare, medical devices, or healthcare IT.

It is also important to ensure that judges are diverse and represent a variety of perspectives. This can help to mitigate unconscious bias and ensure that evaluations are fair and inclusive.

6.2 Providing Feedback to Hackathon Participants

Providing feedback to hackathon participants is an important part of the evaluation process. Feedback can help teams understand where they succeeded and where they can improve, which can be valuable for their future development. It is important to provide constructive feedback that is specific, actionable, and supportive. This can help teams feel more engaged and motivated to continue developing their ideas.

6.3 Avoiding Unconscious Bias in Judging

Unconscious bias can influence evaluations and undermine the fairness and objectivity of the judging process. A study by the University of Southern California on hackathon judging found that judges tend to be biased towards teams that are more extroverted and confident, and that have more polished presentations. [Source: University of Southern California]

To mitigate this, it is important to provide judges with training on unconscious bias and encourage them to be mindful of their biases when evaluating projects. Some strategies for avoiding unconscious bias include using blind evaluations, where judges do not have access to identifying information about the teams or individuals behind the projects and diversifying the judging panel to ensure a variety of perspectives and experiences.

6.4 Addressing Potential Conflicts of Interest Among Judges

Conflicts of interest can arise when judges have personal or professional relationships with some of the participants or teams. It is important to identify potential conflicts of interest before the event and develop a plan to manage these situations. This can include recusing judges who have conflicts of interest from evaluating certain projects or providing guidance on how to evaluate projects objectively despite the potential conflict.

6.5 Handling Tiebreaker Situations and Disagreements Among Judges

In some cases, multiple projects may be closely matched in terms of judging criteria, resulting in a tiebreaker situation. In such cases, it is important to have a clear process for determining the winner. This can include providing judges with additional information or assigning a separate judge or panel of judges to evaluate the tied projects.

Disagreements among judges over the ranking of different projects can also occur. It is important to have a process in place for handling these situations, which can include providing judges with additional guidance, revisiting the criteria or rating scale, or assigning a separate judge or panel of judges to review the projects in question.

By providing guidance and support to your hackathon judges, you can help to ensure that the evaluation process is fair, objective, and effective, leading to a successful and impactful hackathon event.

7. Examples of Successful Hackathons Judging Criteria from Past Events

One of the best ways to understand effective hackathon judging criteria is to examine successful examples from past events. Below are a few examples of hackathons with well-designed judging criteria.

HackNY is a non-profit organisation that hosts an annual hackathon in New York City. Their judging criteria focus on technical skills, creativity, and practicality. Specifically, they evaluate projects based on:

  • Technical Achievement (40%): The complexity and quality of the code, as well as the use of relevant technologies.
  • Creativity (30%): The originality and inventiveness of the project.
  • Practicality (30%): The usefulness and potential impact of the project.

By including criteria for both technical achievement and practicality, HackNY emphasizes the importance of building projects that are not only innovative but also useful and impactful.

The HealthTech Hackathon is an annual event that focuses on using technology to improve healthcare. Their judging criteria are designed to evaluate projects based on their potential to solve real-world healthcare challenges. Specifically, they evaluate projects based on:

  • Significance (40%): The potential impact of the project on healthcare.
  • Feasibility (30%): The likelihood of the project being successfully implemented in the real world.
  • Innovation (20%): The originality and inventiveness of the project.
  • Technical Quality (10%): The quality of the code and technical implementation.

By emphasizing the potential impact and feasibility of the projects, the HealthTech Hackathon encourages participants to build solutions that have real-world applications.

TechCrunch Disrupt is one of the largest and most well-known hackathons in the world. Their judging criteria are designed to evaluate projects based on their potential for commercial success. Specifically, they evaluate projects based on:

  • Potential (40%): The commercial potential of the project.
  • Execution (30%): The quality of the implementation and user experience.
  • Creativity (20%): The originality and inventiveness of the project.
  • Impact (10%): The potential impact of the project on society.

By emphasizing the commercial potential and execution of the projects, TechCrunch Disrupt encourages participants to build solutions that have both technical merit and commercial viability.

Wrapping up

Crafting effective hackathon judging criteria is an important step in ensuring the success of any hackathon. By identifying event goals and objectives, determining key evaluation criteria, and developing a clear rating scale, judges can provide fair and consistent evaluations of all projects.

Selecting the right judges and providing them with proper guidance can ensure the best possible outcomes for hackathon participants. By examining successful examples of hackathons with well-designed judging criteria, organizers can learn from the best practices and design criteria that best align with their event goals and objectives.

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