The design sprint: a tool for envisioning solutions

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Focus and clarify the goals and needs of a project by creating a prototype in just one work week.

A design sprint is a five-day design process to help answer key questions in a project. Developed by Jake Knapp at Google Ventures (now known as GV), it eventually gained recognition throughout the software development and design communities, and development has continued at dozens of start-ups. We are closing in on two decades later, and although this term is certainly familiar to designers, it is not a buzzword. The design sprint is a precise tool used in specific situations that was created for prototyping and testing ideas in five intensive days.

 

When to implement a design sprint process

The design sprint methodology is useful when you need to organize and clarify a project. It is important to be sure that all of the participants in a project have a coherent picture of the work and of the results to be achieved. A successful sprint will make it much easier to inform the members of the project team what the purpose and vision are for the solution.

A design sprint is great for complex problems such as finding out how users will use a new tool or how they will find their way around a new process. Some more examples:

 

You are planning a new service or application for a selected group of users

Design sprints will enable your team to imagine the how people will actually use the solution. To take this a step further, you should probably invite people from the selected group to participate in user testing.

 

Your IT project is not progressing as needed

A lack of progress could happen because your team members have lost sight of the end product. To gain “focus” in an ongoing project, you can use a sprint to invigorate your team by improving focus and clarifying the goals.

Or you are in a difficult situation due to work overload. A new sprint can help your team discover the highest priorities for increased focus. What most needs to be done right now, and what can wait until the situation passes?

 

You have stopped working with a previous service provider

When the service provider left, they took part of the vision with them. Launching a design sprint with the remaining members will help clarify what you will need from a replacement, or if you’re going forward with the project alone, you can reinvigorate the team and more easily reassign tasks. When you do form a new, hybrid team, a sprint will greatly help to synchronize the members, to set goals, and to test ideas.

 

You want to creatively explore new opportunities

If you have a successful process or solution that you want to capitalize on, the design sprint works well as a structured process for generating new feature and use ideas. You might want to make sure the customer experience is optimal, or find out if new features would improve it. You may wish to adapt your solution for more general public use.

 

Don’t use a design sprint when…

The design sprint is not a magic bullet for all design problems. Even though it’s highly adaptable to many different scenarios, there are situations when applying it would make no sense.

 

You need to fix a small detail

If your problem concerns a product that is already on the market and customers are asking for a change, then unless making the change would cause many more problems, you don’t need to do a design sprint. Similarly, if you want to improve an algorithm, for example, and are looking for ideas on how to write it faster, then it is better to choose a different design framework.

 

The problem is unclear

How can you answer a question when you don’t know what the question is?

Design sprints fail when people get together without having a big question to answer. If you’re looking at an empty backlog and thinking “We have no ideas, maybe what we need is a design sprint,” you should think again.

First, think about the problem you want to solve, the big question you want answered, and then use the design sprint as a pragmatic, effective way to find your answers.

 

A real-world use case for a design sprint

A start-up called Savioke had a goal: to build a robot to work at a hotel, bringing and taking away items ordered by hotel guests such as water, champagne, or even toothbrushes. At the time, however, there were no similar solutions on the market. The team had already built some prototypes of the robot, but wondered how people would react to it.

At their meetings, team members asked and discussed questions such as, How tall should the robot be? Should it have a personality? Will people understand how to use it? Can the robot cope in a crowded lift or hotel lobby?

Since it seemed too risky to spend a few hundred thousand dollars on mass production without having good answers to these questions, Savioke decided to ask for help from the Google Ventures team. They used the design sprint process to create a robot personality within a few days and test the idea at a real hotel.

They then spent some time refining the prototype based on their findings. The design sprint saved millions of dollars by validating the idea months before mass production began. And Savioke continues development today as part of Relay Robotics.

 

Design sprint in detail

For the design sprint to be successful, we need to understand that it’s a full five days of work, and each day focuses on specific activities. There is no time for distractions like emails and phone calls. A sprint is effective and productive, but only with the full attention of team members.

 

The design sprint team

Experience has shown that the sprint team should be a small team, from four to seven people and no more. Roles within the team are key to making the sprint a success. If you have seven, then the team will consist of:

  • The Decisionmaker will make the binding decisions during the sprint. It will be this person who decides what will ultimately be designed and tested.
  • The Marketing Expert plans the communication and marketing strategy.
  • The Funding Expert knows where the money comes from and how it is spent.
  • The Customer Expert is on the front line with customers and knows their real needs and problems.
  • The Technology or Logistics Expert takes a sober look at the team’s solutions. Such a person should know what is possible, but not be close-minded. Brainstormed ideas would be challenged by this person.
  • The Design Expert is often a graphic designer or art director, generally someone who understands a company’s visual communication.
  • The Adventurer will ask pertinent questions and help you understand the wider context of the project. This role is useful if a project has stalled over a design dispute about the best solution. In such a situation, it’s important to invite both sides to the table. An adventurer is a person from that “other” camp who can defend their different idea(s) about product development.

 

Let’s now take a look at how a design sprint week works.

 

The design sprint, step-by-step and day-by-day

 

Design sprint day 1

The first day of the sprint gives us a better understanding of its purpose. The sprint begins with a short meeting to review how a design sprint works. Then we come to an agreement about the aim of the sprint to be sure that everyone understands the aim the same way—good, open communication is vital for this step. Neglecting this part will mean that every day each person’s vision will move further and further away from the others’, and frustration within the team will grow.

The main “product” of the first day is a map of the process we are dealing with. This could be anything from ordering a pizza to a more complex problem such as the process of assisting surgical operations. The ultimate purpose of every solution is to serve someone, so at this stage it is not the technological complexity that matters, the problem we are trying to solve does. We specify people involved in the process, often called process actors and then focus on drawing out in great detail the steps they perform.

Once you’ve created a map, it’s a good idea to invite experts to check whether the map you have drawn reflects reality. We are likely to think of questions during the discussions with the experts, but since this step is not the time to be asking those questions, we quietly write our questions out in short form starting with “How can we…” This way, we immediately adapt our questions to fit the project and put off any premature speculation.

In short, this day is for setting up and organizing our knowledge.

 

Design sprint day 2

On the second day, we focus on seeking solutions. Looking at the map we sketched, we select the element of the process that we will aim to improve. In our example, this could be the process of placing an order. We then move on to a simple exercise where we look for inspiration from outside our immediate environment, whether from a competitor’s website or from entirely different industries. An “about us” story, a cleverly used mechanism, or intuitive navigation can all be inspiring. Each team member will have approximately three minutes to share each inspiration they have. From these inspirations, we will then take their best parts and try to use them in our idea.

The next exercise is the first to involve sketching solutions, and it is divided into five stages:

  • Take notes of the information gathered so far (e.g. answers to the question “How can we…?”).
  • Envision very preliminary concepts.
  • Very quickly sketch out eight rough versions of the concepts in eight minutes (this exercise is called “Crazy 8s”).
  • Decide which is the most promising idea.
  • Work out the details of that idea. Challenge and defend where necessary.

 

After this exercise, the team will probably have piles of cards presenting some ideas for solving the problem.

 

Design sprint day 3

The first task of the third day is to discuss all of the ideas for a solution. To that end, we create an “art museum,” which means that we write out all of the solutions on sticky notes and hang them next to each other on the room’s largest wall space. Each person gets a set of small dot stickers and some time to go through the ideas, looking at them calmly and marking the places that seem particularly intriguing and important on the selected sketches. The result is a heat map – it is easy to see which idea received the most interest.

The next step is for the creators of each of the sketches to come forward to talk about them in a few sentences and answer the team’s questions. After these short discussions, one (and only one) large dot sticker is given to each team member, and all but the Decisionmaker go to the wall at the same time to place their vote for the most promising idea. If the team was unable to reach a decision unanimously, we ask the Decisionmaker to do so. The decider has a “super vote,” which is three large stickers (or a large one torn in three pieces). It should now be clear which idea will go on to the prototyping and testing phase.

At the end of the day, we draw a storyboard that helps us understand the context our solution will be used in. This will be the basis for the plan of our prototype and the user testing.

 

Design sprint day 4

It’s now time to focus all of our efforts on building a prototype. It is important to involve the whole team. A creative person can prepare the right interface elements, someone else the text, and a third person the marketing and sales proposals for the products, including their prices, if that’s relevant. The prototyping process lasts throughout day four so that there is something to test with users on the fifth and final day of the sprint.

In a design sprint there is no room for an advanced, realistic prototype. We have to make a choice between doing only a few in-depth tests for more accuracy (Hi-Fi), and doing more tests that are more superficial and thus less accurate (Lo-Fi). Either way, the prototype should be ready within eight hours. While prototyping can sometimes start as early as day three, it is important not to disrupt the sprint because its main strength is to validate an idea very quickly. Your team might feel tempted to just continue developing prototypes for another day or even a week, but it’s not worth it—the traditional design process is best for refining prototypes, especially since it comes after the concept is accepted by users.

 

Design sprint day 5

The last day of the design sprint involves testing and observing how users react to the prototype you created. During the tests, each member of the team makes brief notes of their individual conclusions. These conclusions are discussed after each test.

If everything went well and according to plan, then we have successfully created a tested solution. We can next decide if we want to deepen our knowledge in further design sprints, or if we already have enough information to move on to a realistic prototype and to complete the project through our normal procedures.

 

The greater the challenge, the better the sprint

It is said that the greater the challenge, the greater the benefit of a design sprint. They will always produce excellent results, though they are sometimes simply ineffective for small-scale projects. Undoubtedly, one of the areas where this approach fits best is in the design of digital products and services. The design sprint allows us to effectively find answers to many questions by testing ideas and even more importantly, we can largely eliminate the risks of creating a customer journey disaster.

Meanwhile, perhaps in response to the growing four-day workweek movement, we now have design sprint 2.0, which shortens the process to just four very intense days. Similar to the design sprint is the concept sprint, which focuses on business strategy. The goal for each is the same: to rapidly progress, where progress may have previously been elusive.

 

Design sprints are not just for start-ups

The design sprint is useful for day-to-day projects such as website design. The design sprint framework provides a structured way to arrive at certain solutions faster, and sometimes helps a design team to find completely new paths for product development. A sprint is especially useful when we have any kind of problem with something in the project, whether it’s with innovating technologies or resolving different team perspectives on the same solution.

 

Design sprints: a highly useful collaboration tool

The five-day design sprint, at its core, embodies a simple “fake it until you make it” pattern. As you saw above, it allows us create a prototype that “fakes” the experience of “interacting” with the target product.

Instead of creating a complex chatbot, we test a chat with users with a real human on the other side faking the chatbot’s answers. Instead of an actual touch-screen interface, we use a series of sketches on index cards. Instead of actual pizza ingredients, we can use sticky paper mockups. (Of course, a real pizza would be a reward at the end of the day, so this is just an example!)

Thousands of design sprints have allowed a prototype to be tested at the conceptual stage many weeks, months, or even years before we consumers ever saw the product. Based on our experience, it’s a tool you should try when designing digital products or services.

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