How to Design Sprint: A Step-by-Step Guide

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘sprint’? You might conjure up images of:

  • Usain Bolt, flying around the track at 28 miles per hour
  • A cartoon-like whooosh-ing action
  • A typical work day wherein you feel you’re almost literally sprinting around, attempting to conquer the world’s largest to-do list

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.

But what exactly is a Design Sprint and how do you do it?

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”.

Why 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…

…Time travel!

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.

…Pitch to your team or a stakeholder to unlock a budget.

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.

…Upgrade an existing product.

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.

…Get rid of uncertainty.

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.  

…Shortcut months of debate and development.

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.

Before the Sprint

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.'

Get a room.

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.

Assemble your superheroes.

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.

Appoint a decision-maker.

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.

Appoint a facilitator.

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.

Check Point!

You’ve set the stage. You have:

  • A big, sticky problem you want to tackle
  • A room
  • A sprint team – ideally 7 people or fewer
  • Time blocked out on your calendar to run the sprint
  • A timer
  • 1-2 white boards
  • A decision-maker (and maybe a decision delegate)
  • A facilitator
  • Black dry-erase markers
  • Yellow sticky notes
  • Pens and paper for sketching
  • Scotch tape for posting sketches on the wall
  • Dot stickers for plotting decisions and voting on team-wide solutions
  • Snacks and coffee (very important!)

Now, runners take your marks…

The Sprint

Day One – Define the Challenges and Scope of the Week

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:

  • Agree on a long-term goal with your team: 2 years down the line, what does the ideal future look like?
  • Discuss all the challenges you have – risks, assumptions, and obstacles that might prevent you from reaching this ideal future
  • Map the customers and key stakeholders and how they move through your product and service

In the afternoon you’ll:

  • Interview subject experts to help you improve your map and enhance your understanding of the problem
  • Take notes while doing the How Might We exercise
  • Choose a focal point to solve by the end of the sprint
  • Map a range of solutions

Check Point!  

When day one is finished, you have:

  • A long-term goal
  • A map of users and their user journey
  • A focal point for the week

Day Two – Curate the Solutions

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:

  • Review great solutions from other industries and companies
  • Capture these ideas and what’s great about them on the whiteboard
  • Do structured decision-making exercises and critiques to weigh in on which components to take into the prototype

In the afternoon, you’ll:

  • Sketch solutions based on the great ideas from the morning
  • Create a storyboard and fill it out, based on your sketches, to plan to prototype
  • Curate and vote on the best solutions

Check Point!  

When day two is finished, you have:

  • Inspiration from other industries and companies so you can ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’
  • A range of solutions
  • A prototype that’s been defined through storyboarding

Day Three – Rapidly Build the High-Fidelity Prototype

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:

  • Choose your tools
  • Assign roles – interviewer, asset collector, etc.
  • Use your storyboard to create micro-scenes and assignments

In the afternoon you’ll:

  • Prototype
  • Do a trial run
  • Write an interview scripts for your user tests
  • Set up your user tests

Check Point!  

When day three is finished, you have:

  • A workable prototype thats ready to be tested
  • Interview scripts
  • A schedule of user tests for the following day

Day Four – Test the Prototype with Real Users

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:

  • Put your prototype in front of users
  • Conduct a series of interviews, taking notes for things that go well and go poorly in the prototype
  • Put interview notes up on the board
  • With the team, search for patterns within your interviewees answers and reactions
  • Create an action plan for next steps

After the Sprint

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.

Design Sprint in Action: A Case Study

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.

The Process

  • We set a goal – We created a concise, clear target. Increase the donation amount / can we get people to donate for a whole week instead of just a day?
  • We created a team -From the CEO of Share The Meal to the CTO, plus several AJ&Smart strategists, we had key stakeholders across the board.
  • We used 4-part sketching – This strategy, as described in the Sprint book, helped us ramp up the team and create dozens of potential solutions.
  • We storyboarded the details – Storyboarding helped us align the team on what to test, and provided detailed outlines for UI designers and prototypers to follow.
  • We built two variants of the donation screen to test – these were our basic prototypes, hastily thrown together in one day but detailed enough to show to users.
  • We tested with 6 people in one day – These tests allowed us to see some clear patterns emerging.

The Results

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

Tips From Veteran Sprinters

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!

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