Traditionally, solving a large business challenge can take months of going back and forth between different stakeholders. Brainstorms are chaotic and fluffy, and too many opinions make for an uncertain and undefined outcome. Companies are often venturing into the unknown with still many questions unanswered. Is there a market for this product? Will this product help people solve their problems? What should we build, and where do we start?
The answers to these questions just raise more questions: Do people understand this product? Will people find this product useful? Can people use this product? As the project continues, each answer reveals new challenges and unknowns, and the last thing you do is involve the end-user. Sounds familiar?
Truth be told, nobody has all the answers. Especially if you are trying things that nobody has ever done before. Whether you’re a big corporation looking for new ways to do business or a startup with the ‘next best thing’ in your hands, you need to find a way to overcome challenges and uncertainties without having to spend your precious time, money and effort into building it right away. Luckily, there’s a process for that. It’s called a Design Sprint.
What is a Design Sprint?
The Design Sprint is basically a four-day workshop where you gather a dedicated team around the table and focus on solving certain questions, challenges or uncertainties by making solutions very tangible and testing them with your target audience. The purpose of a Design Sprint is to gain speed and momentum when tackling a challenge and to get a sneak peek into the future as if the proposed solution would already exist.
Bridging the gap between thinking and doing.
Sprints are ideal for solving many of the problems common to both start-ups and large corporations. From high-risk business challenges to new product launches or situations where you need buy-in from stakeholders. After having run 50+ Design Sprints with companies in various industries — Belfius, Telenet, Unilever, UCB, bpost and BNP Paribas, just to name a few — we're pretty damn sure a Design Sprint is a great way to kick off any project, really.
- It gets right people around the table and on the same page:
Unlike the linear 'waterfall model' of project activities, the Design Sprint breaks down silos and gathers a multidisciplinary sprint team into a room to work on a clear-cut challenge for one full week. Everyone that’s close to the challenge should be in the same room. A finance expert, marketing expert, tech expert and designer usually participate. Last but not least comes the “decider” or “decision maker”, usually a CEO or PO or head of product, because there’s nothing more off-putting than having your hard-earned solution being blown out of the water by someone that wasn’t even present in the Sprint, right?
- It combines the benefits of group work and individual work:
Next to having the right people with the right background present, the Sprint process also combines the benefits of group work, like diverse opinions and expertise, alongside the benefits of individual work, like laser focus and highly detailed solutions to problems. Because we all know group brainstorms actually don’t really work. Right?
- It's an airtight, repeatable process, with no time for busy work or distractions:
The Design Sprint formula is a battle-tested process that any team can use. With time-bound exercises and artificial deadlines, we're cutting through busy work (I.E. endless email threads, back-to-back meetings, …) and thus making room for more focused work. Yes, we're really putting our devices away during a sprint. Once you're getting the hang of it, it is a repeatable problem-solving process that you can use at will to push almost any business ideas forward.
- It goes beyond the traditional way of brainstorming and creative problem-solving:
Who doesn’t love a good team brainstorm? Fresh sharpies, wild product pitches, free beer — if you’re lucky! It feels good, it feels creative, even if it leads nowhere. Unfortunately, unstructured brainstorms tend to reward extroverts, punish introverts and prioritize quantity over quality. Summary: they are a poor choice for generating useful solutions. The Design Sprint turns traditional brainstorms around by using new techniques for idea generation, prioritization, and testing.
- It helps in making things tangible and avoids endless discussions:
It is hard to talk about something without having something to show people. By drawing and sketching our ideas, and using votes to gauge the teams preference, we avoid endless discussions and let our ideas speak for themselves. Also, nobody gets left in the dark either this way. And after the last day, you get a tangible, high-fidelity, prototype that has been validated by your potential customers. What’s not to love?
- It involves your customers from the start:
Instead of waiting months or years to get something in your customers hands, the Design Sprint offers the possibility to gain customer insight early on. Getting real feedback from your target users means you can champion design based on data, rather than bias or intuition. You walk away with a prototyped, tested solution - so you will know right where your priorities for the new solution should be at.
- Its premise is that getting started is more important than being right:
During a Sprint, there are often moments of doubt and confusion, and times where everything feels like it’s falling in place. Although some of the exercises might feel uncomfortable and going 'way too fast', it's crucial to stick to and trust the process. It is more important to get started with something than being right about everything. Because, once again, nobody has all the answers from the start. But if you don’t start - you’ll never get them either!
How does a Design Sprint work?
As stated above, a Design Sprint week consists of 4 jam-packed days, all with their own purpose. The image above should give you a quick overview of what goes down each day. I'm not going to go into too much detail here, otherwise this article would take you a full hour to get through.
We like to start at the end by agreeing to a long-term goal. We'll create a map of the challenge by asking field experts to share what they know. Throughout those interviews participants create "How Might We?"-statements, which frame stated problems as potential opportunities. When arriving at the end of the morning, after various exercises, we will be ready to pick an ambitious but manageable piece of the problem that we will solve within the week.
Innovation is built upon existing ideas, repurposed with vision. So the afternoon is spent showcasing what we call "Lightning Demos", which we will use as inspiration for our individual concept sketches. The sketching exercises are designed to get people moving around, taking notes and sketching the solutions that appeal to them. People start out with just doodles, and by the end of the day end up with a solid and complete concept sketch, serving as solution to the challenged posed earlier in the morning. What those exercises are, I'll keep that for another time.
Naturally, Tuesday kicks off with a stack of concept sketches drawn by every sprint participant. By critiquing and filtering solutions, we ease the path towards the best chance of achieving our business objectives. We tape all of the sketches onto the windows, and now it’s time to whip out those cute little dot stickers and create a heat map! During this phase, participants walk around the room and identify all the parts of sketches they find most interesting, which creates “hot spots” around the most popular ideas. This way, it becomes a lot more clear which features deserve the most attention. Eventually, a single concept needs to be chosen by the decider of the group. We then create a storyboard in the afternoon, in which we will line out a step-by-step plan of what our solution is going to look like. This is going to serve as the foundation for the prototype.
“Fake it till you make it” is exactly what we will be doing on Wednesday. In short, we'll be designing a visualization of the winning concept sketch of the day before. Using our storyboard from Tuesday, we will start building a realistic prototype (usually using Figma for this purpose), that focuses on the customer-facing product. By finishing this façade, we ready ourselves within the day to start testing our clients insights on Thursday.
Monday morning gave us a duet of two elements: a big challenge and an excellent team. Today is Thursday and here we are: promising solutions that were built into a realistic prototype. We’ll take you one step further by interviewing real life customers to learn from their reactions as they test our prototype. Thursday evening will then bring us to knowing exactly where to go next to end up launching this product.
Usually, we recruit around 7 people: we schedule five interviews, and 2 in backup, in case someone can't make it. We schedule the first set of tests for the morning and the second for the afternoon. This gives us a nice buffer zone to fix any little design inconsistencies, color changes or typos, because these things are bound to happen when you're trying to finish your designs as quickly as possible.
The sprint comes full-circle when we call upon the “sprint questions” we identified on Monday to guide our conversations with users today. This is our opportunity to pose all those little doubts and concerns directly to the user to see what they think.
And that’s a wrap, folks! After four days of thinking, sketching and making some hard, fast decisions you should now be in the presence of a user-tested solution ready to take to the board!
If you're in the market to learn more about this sort of stuff, head on over to our Knowledge Hub. We've come to the point where we're adding bi-weekly updates and insights to it as we speak!
Lastly, more info on Design Sprints can be found here.
Thanks so much for reading! Until next time,