This week I wanted to talk about ‘Design Sprints’. Design sprints are a step by step system for solving problems and testing new ideas. Jake Knapp wrote Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days back in 2016. Since then, AJ&Smart have been working with Jake to improve the design sprint process as well as making the whole system super accessible on their YouTube channel.

First I need to clarify the difference between design thinking and design sprints. Design thinking is a philosophy and mind set, used to creatively solve problems. There are quite a few interpretations online but fundamentally it's a human centred approach to design problems. 

It starts with empathy. Truly understanding the people you are designing for, talking to them and gaining insights into how they might use your new product or service. These insights will make it easier to define the problem you are trying to solve. It's then time to ideate, matching solutions to the insights you have gained from studying your customer or user. From all the concepts created in the ideate phase, a few will make it to the prototype stage and then on to the test phase, where the end user will get to test the product or service. The feedback gained will send you back to the define and ideate stage again and the process will continue to cycle until you have nailed the final product or service.

Design thinking is a broad map used to take ideas to final products or services. The problem is there is a lot of personal interpretation in design thinking. Innovative companies have countless ways of implementing design thinking and the actual execution of the product or service can get lost in the countless cycles of define, ideate, prototype and test.

A design sprint takes that same process and fits it nicely into a super structured four day* timetable. It removes any interpretation and has a set of hard and fast rules to follow. It requires a facilitator (either someone internally or externally) who is the time keeper for the whole sprint and makes sure people stay on task and on topic. Other than that you really only need a space, some whiteboards, post-its, paper, pens and some small sticker dots.

The design sprint starts on Monday with all stakeholders present (no more than 8 people max) - you want the key decision makers - the owners for example and of course the facilitator. The morning is spent creating the ‘map’ and getting everyone to agree on what problem or challenge is that they are trying to solve and what success might look like (an 30% increase in sales for example).

Monday afternoon is a time to sketch different solutions. This is a ‘together alone’ time, where people are to work quietly on their own ideas - its quantity over quality. It’s about getting all the ideas out rather than refining or editing. Working this way removes the bias of discussion and gives everyone's ideas an equal weight.

Tuesday morning all the solutions are put up on the walls and people go around the room, reading and voting on (using the little stickers) the ideas they think are the strongest. Before lunch there should be one or two strong ideas that everyone agrees are worth pursuing. 

Tuesday afternoon you storyboard the ideas. If you are designing a website for example, you’d mock up (on paper) what you want the user experience to be like, walking through the site. Monday and Tuesday will have all of the stakeholders present. It's important to get buy-in from everybody and that everyone is on board with the solution moving forward.

Wednesday is dedicated to prototyping. Depending on the product or service you're trying to build this can take all sorts of forms. You might mock up a ‘website’ in keynote or figma for example, it doesn’t have to be a real website just something that you can test on Thursday.

On Thursday you get five users to test your product. An interviewer will sit with them and watch them go through the ‘mock’ website noting any pain points and asking open questions - how did you feel that went? rather than was that confusing? Recording these interviews is going to give the immediate feedback to the team and you will be able to decide on the next steps from there. After four days you should have a tested prototype and a clear path forward.

One of the super interesting things about design sprints is that it doesn’t rely on ‘creative types’ taking the lead. The system itself allows for creativity to happen naturally. This means design sprints are super inclusive and people who might not consider themselves as design thinkers are given equal opportunities to share their ideas. 

Not all problems or challenges require a design sprint. However, if you are a start up and are looking at launching an app, it would make sense to use the design sprint to quickly test your app on actual users before you have spent a cent on designing or building it out. 

While I may not be about to run any design sprints soon, I’m super interested in helping my clients solve problems. The further I progress in my career, I’m spending less and less time on the actual design and more time working with clients helping them solve problems or overcome challenges that they face. Understanding how design sprints work is another power tool in the toolbox.


*The original design sprint by Jake Knapp was over five days, design sprints 2.0 how been refined to span four days only.

Video of the week
What is Design Thinking? | AJ&Smart
Podcast of the week
Catherine Dockery, Founder Partner, Vice Ventures
Font of the week
Orelo designed by Adrien Midzic

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