What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘sprint’? You might conjure up images of:
A sprint is an intensive rush of effort, energy, and brain power, condensed into a short framework. It’s only natural that the speedy pace of work today calls for a high-velocity approach to problem-solving. Enter… the Design Sprint.
The sprint is a step-by-step process aimed at speeding up the design process and testing big ideas, quickly. You start the week with a challenge in mind, and end it with a high-fidelity prototype of a testable product.
The sprint originated when three people from Google Ventures wrote the book Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days, and coined the term to define the process step-by-step. It combines business strategy, behavioural science, design thinking, and innovation into a package that’s accessible for any team.
The original design sprint was five days long, and other teams have experimented with running the sprint over three days. For the purposes of the AJ&Smart sprint model, this design sprint takes place over four days. As AJ&Smart now work directly with Jake Knapp, the author of Sprint, you can take this as the “current version of the Design Sprint”.
In general, you do a design sprint to prototype and validate ideas as rapidly and effectively as possible. More specifically, sprint if you want to…
Before a product is created, you can validate whether your idea or potential business model makes sense. Should you proceed with your MVP or should you scrap it? Before you commit too much to the build, a design sprint allows you to jump forward in time and evaluate.
PDFs full of charts and graphs are so 2000-and-late. A design sprint is a tangible deliverable. It proves that your team is aligned on process, projections, and prototyping. If you need to come together to pitch an investor or a higher-up at your company, a sprint comes in handy.
You want to drastically improve one part of your existing product, or you have a recurring problem with your existing product, but you haven’t been able to fix it during your normal day-to-day. You need to electro-shock your routine to get proactive about a solution.
Your team is having conversations and producing ideas, but these thoughts and meetings and chats aren’t really going anywhere. The design sprint brings these disconnected conversations and ideas together. You remove the uncertainty that comes with having several stakeholders that can’t find cohesion.
Entrepreneurs face tough decisions all the time. Quite often, outcomes aren’t realised until months have passed. The sprint is one way to short-circuit the decision-making process. It tests different alternatives in a compressed time frame.
Your trainers are laced up and you’re hunched over the starting block, ready to go. Before the starting gun goes off, this is your time to 'set the stage.'
You’ll need a designated space for your design sprint. This is usually a conference room or a blocked-off area of the office that’s dedicated to your sprint for the duration.
You may want to have a pre-sprint meeting or two to decide who will participate, what the logistics will be, and how your week will play out.
You need a decision-maker to be part of the sprint, so that once decisions are made, they stay that way. Although this person doesn’t need to be present for the entire sprint, it’s helpful if they have a delegate who is around.
The facilitator keeps the process on track. They manage time, referee conversations, and help move things toward the finish line. The facilitator is a leader who can synthesise discussions that pop up throughout the sprint. Sometimes (especially for a first sprint) it makes sense to bring in external facilitation – someone who has experience facilitating sprints and who knows how to avoid common pitfalls.
Now, runners take your marks…
The purpose of this day is to map out your problem and pick a focal point. You’ll share knowledge with your team that leads to an understanding of your big challenge. Today’s discussions will create a path for the rest of the week.
In the morning you’ll:
In the afternoon you’ll:
When day one is finished, you have:
The purpose of this day is sketching out some competing solutions on paper, and making critical choices to develop a testable hypothesis. You understand the problems, now you’re going to produce the solutions. Sketching will help you move from an abstract idea to a concrete reality.
In the morning, you’ll:
In the afternoon, you’ll:
When day two is finished, you have:
This day is all about action. You’re nailing down your prototype. You’ll use to tools that are fast and flexible to allow you to turn an abstraction into a visible solution.
In the morning you’ll:
In the afternoon you’ll:
When day three is finished, you have:
Today is the real test – your prototype goes into the hands of actual users. You’re looking for honest feedback from users, so you’re learning as you’re watching them react to your prototype. Then, you’ll use the data from your tests to create clear next steps.
All day, you’ll:
Before you leave, you’ll talk with your team about what to do next. Look back on the first day’s questions – which ones can you answer?
If you took risks then surely, certain things didn’t go well. Perhaps your users got confused or failed to understand certain aspects of what you were going for.
If customers didn’t react well to the prototype, you’ll have efficiently found that out, without wasting huge amounts of time and resources. Regardless of the results of your sprint, decide with your team how you want to follow up. You may want to do another mini-sprint.
AJ&Smart were asked to help the UN World Food Programme’s Share The Meal initiative. We were tasked with an ambitious challenge: help to create a solution to reduce the confusion and 'hidden fees' of charity donation.
We used initial design sprints to create an app, then bring it to market quickly. We then workshopped the app when it gained more users. Once the app was up and running, we sprinted every few months to tackle specific app-related challenges.
Our tests helped us understand that if we implemented our prototype, we’d have a good chance of increasing donations per person by changing the focus of the donations.
We also identified a few key problem areas, so users understood our copy in a new way. In other words, we fixed something we hadn’t even known was a problem yet, instead of wasting months in development.
The app won a spot as one of Google and Apple’s best apps of 2015, and won gold the SXSW 2016 and the Webby’s 2016 awards.
Watch the case study on how Design Sprints helped Share Foods
Thousands of companies have used the design sprint methodology to solve major challenges. A few of them were even kind enough to blog about it, or vlog about it, or share insights and lessons learned.
Create office hours. Some sprint facilitators will create literal 'office hours' by sitting outside the conference room where the sprint is taking place. They’ll make themselves available as a sounding board for questions and comments. One facilitator recommended this take place on Day 2 in the afternoon.
Document the process by taking photos and/or scanning notes into a PDF. Time flies when you’re having fun...and when you’re sprinting. So consider rigorously documenting the entire process. You want to capture all your hard work for posterity, so you’ll have something to refer to later.
When storyboarding, get everyone to agree on an action sequence. Product designer Tim Höfer suggested a Storyboarding 2.0 hack to the original storyboarding process described in the Sprint book. Instead of going straight into storyboard sketching, he recommends a new exercise designed to combine individual ideas into one master timeline.
Your transitions are just as important as the rest of the day. It’s a sprint, not a marathon, so every moment counts. When you’re planning out daily timelines, factor in the learning curve. For example, if you need to leap right into user interviews after a lunch break, make sure to set up the interview exercise and explain everything before breaking for lunch. That way, everyone can jump right into the afternoon’s exercise, without wasting critical moments.
You don’t have to make every decision perfectly. The design sprint is about making high-impact decisions rapidly, so you don’t have to worry about being perfect or parsing out every little detail.
Consider a post-sprint meeting. Revisit the critical questions you were asking at the beginning of the week, and make sure you’ve closed the loop on them. When the dust has settled, maybe your team will have further insights from the sprint experience. There may be new concepts you’d like to further explore, and new steps you’d like to collectively take moving forward.
AJ&Smart’s special tip: The Lightning Decision Jam. Introducing the Design Sprint process at your company can be challenging, because it’s a process that is quite radical compared to more traditional ways of working. To help here, we designed a super short exercise you can do with colleagues in 15 minutes that easily shows the benefit of working in this way, and has proven to be a reallllly powerful tool in getting companies (even the sceptics!) to start adopting the Design Sprint process.
Watch how the Lightning Decision Jam can help introduce Design Sprints at your company
If you’re a Design Sprint beginner, it may be overwhelming to think about participating in or facilitating a design sprint with your team. Luckily, you’ve got several resources at your disposal, namely the sprint book that started it all. You’ll come away from the sprint with a real prototype, a bunch of valuable data, answers to some pertinent questions, and in all likelihood, an increased sense of clarity about your team’s next steps.
You can also call upon AJ&Smart to run a design sprint for your team, train a design sprint facilitator, or help you create a kickass digital product.
Off to the races!