What’s in our toolkit? Today we discuss Design Sprints

Foto del autor

By Maria Victoria De Santiago

September 14, 2022

This article is the first in a series that centers on Design Sprints. Find Part 2: a guide on when to apply it here, and Part 3: a guide on when to apply other methodologies here.

I’m sure you’ve heard about it a number of times. Of its benefits, speed, and the results it can bring forward. Of its adoption by big-name companies, including Google, Slack, Uber, Airbnb, Dropbox, IDEO, Lego, the United Nations, and so many others. But whether you are familiar with the term ‘design sprint’ or not, what’s certain is that this methodology lives up to its reputation as a fantastic tool for product development and iteration.

Design sprints are a tried and tested methodology that looks to answer critical business questions in a rapid manner. It relies on designing and prototyping, as well as testing ideas directly with users. As a short process that only takes 5 days, it’s been estimated that it can help teams save between 4 and 6 weeks of development time by aligning them around goals, deliverables and solutions. It also helps businesses save effort and resources by having a glimpse of how customers react to their product before investing in developing the proposed design. I’ve seen firsthand the amazing results that this methodology can bring forward and that’s why I want to share it with you!

Design sprints have been around for upwards of 10 years now, and in this time they have maintained their central tenets of a short timeframe, an integrated team, checklists that guide the process and iterative solutions. Each of their five phases – understand, sketch, decide, prototype and validate – can be carried out in a day. This methodology requires the assembly of a small multidisciplinary team that can work together and integrate their visions, with a clear schedule for a complete week. While the design sprint is a linear process, it’s always a good course of action to iterate and pivot based on the results of a first sprint.

Credit: The Sprint Book, by Jake Knapp with John Zeratsky & Braden Kowitz from Google Ventures

Let’s analyze the phases of a design sprint together:

Day 0 – Getting everything ready

In this phase, we’ll set everything up for success. This is admittedly a broad concept, but just to mention some of the elements it includes, think of: picking the right team, selecting a Decider, blocking their calendar for a week, booking and preparing the place where we’ll work, ensuring we’ll have enough supplies (especially coffee, trust me).

Set a specific session with all selected participants to review what is the goal of the design sprints and review what you’ll be doing each day. Knowing in advance what will happen and why you are doing the different activities will help with focus and is also a good moment to review doubts. Its also a good moment to have everyone introduce themselves as it might be their first time working together!

Tip: We recommend you prepare everything at least 1 week before the Sprint. Make sure everyone can block their calendars. To ensure you get the most out of the week,  review with the team your users’ personas and any user research and product information you might have. And more importantly, craft the challenge carefully in advance to ensure everyone is aligned.

Day 1 – Mapping the problem

On Day 1, the goal is to map out the current challenge and choose a target: the moment on the map that represents the greatest opportunity or risk. To accomplish it, the team will need to absorb as much information as quickly as possible (hence, coffee!).

The first thing the team will do is define the key questions as well as a long-term goal. Afterwards, they will work on mapping the current challenge. During the second part of the day, the team will interact with experts who will share their knowledge, and finally pick a target: an ambitious but approachable part of the challenge that can be solved in 5 days.

TIP: If you are running a remote sprint be mindful of breaks. Encourage everyone to have ample fresh water available, something sweet to bust those brains and try to fit a break every 90 minutes at least so they can run to the kitchen or the bathroom.

Day 2 – Sketching possible solutions

Day 2 looks to solve the problem using optimized deep-thinking methods. Instead of going the group brainstorming way, we’ll choose to work alone, together. Each person will sketch their own detailed solution ideas (I know what you’re thinking, but don’t worry about the quality of your artwork; most solution sketches are just rectangles and words!). Before that, the team can look at demos -great solutions, inside or outside the company-. Make sure to give everyone time to develop solutions on their own. When everyone has completed the task, collect all ideas and save them for the next day.

Day 3 – Deciding on the best solution(s)

All the solutions the team created the previous day are now ready to be examined. But instead of debating or compromising in a give-and-take approach, use the “Sticky Decision” method to identify the best solutions. I’ll tell you more about this method in future articles, but for now, think of it as a way to choose the ideas that resonate the most with the group via techniques such as heat maps and polls . Ideas should stay anonymous for as long as possible, to avoid placing people above proposed concepts. This is something you should be especially mindful of if your teams include different hierarchical positions.

Even though the team will vote on their favorite ideas and solutions, the final decision is up to the Decider. Once he or she has made a decision, it’s final. However, because you won’t be committing to a single idea but rather to a group of ideas, it’s now time to combine the winners into a storyboard: a step-by-step plan for your prototype.

Day 4 – Building a prototype

It’s time to build a realistic prototype of the solutions you agreed to in the storyboard. This part is really exciting! The more realistic it gets, the more accurate the feedback you will receive from real users about it on day 5.

Apart from the prototype itself, the team will need to craft the interview questions that will probe into the value of the solution. This is a very busy day, and everyone has something to contribute!

Day 5 – Testing with target customers

Now it’s time to show off your prototype. With just 5 users in one-on-one interviews, you’ll gather enough information to answer your most important questions. While one member of the team will conduct the interviews, the rest will observe (remotely) and register reactions, comments and observations. 

Afterwards, the team will gather to unpack all of that information and come to a conclusion on the sprint’s result.

There are three possible outcomes to a design sprint:

  1. Efficient failure. Ok, so your idea didn’t work as planned. But you learned a lot during the process and saved your team a lot of time and work going down a path that does not lead to where they expect.
  2. Flawed success. Some ideas worked as you imagined, but others didn’t. You can derive insights on what can be improved as well as what you should work on next.
  3. Epic win. The selected ideas were a hit! You are now looking at an implementation phase.

Notice that the 3 of them are wins! There is no losing when it comes to design sprints.

Design sprints are efficient and present us with a unique, interesting and respectful way to solve problems in a group setting. I hope this outline helps you dive into a design sprint with confidence. If you have any more questions, or need expert facilitators, be sure to reach out to me at vico@arionkoder.com and discover what we can accomplish together!