What is a design sprint?

A design sprint condenses endless debates and discussions to help a team go from strategy, ideas and prototype to testing with real customers in just five days.

Here’s a short 90-second video to explain by Jake Knapp, Design partner at Google Ventures and inventor of the Design Sprint.

Get it right, and a design sprint can deliver benefits that far outlast those energetic five days. They help businesses question established ways of working, feel comfortable with uncertainty, see the benefits of cross-discipline collaboration and put aside organisational structure to deliver great customer experiences.

With all these benefits, it’s no surprise that businesses are eager to start using design sprints and other design thinking and Agile development techniques over traditional ways of working.

However, for design sprints to be successful, they need to be used with caution.

When should you start sprinting?

I’ve heard plenty of horror stories around unsuccessful design sprints, which isn’t surprising – travelling at high speed comes with its fair share of risk, and derailing is common. But if you’re keen to start gathering speed, here are some ideal times to start a design sprint:

  • At moments of failure – a sprint helps teams restart when they’ve previously been unsuccessful
  • When you’ve reached an impasse – it brings people together to crack a big and gnarly challenge
  • When you’re short of time – sprints fast-track when you can’t afford to get stuck in a long, drawn-out processes
  • When motivation is low – a high energy, highly collaborative sprint can reinvigorate teams
  • When the organisational structure of the business is a barrier – sprints can foster collaboration across the business and bring different groups together

Gearing up for a sprint

When it comes to getting the most out of a design sprint, you can’t just hit the ground running. There’s planning that needs to be done first. In large organisations, this can take weeks or months. And once you’ve decided to embark on a design sprint, you’ll need to convince the business that it’s worth the investment.

It helps to namedrop some of the big, innovative companies that use design sprints, like Google and Slack. To get you started, here’s a handy guide to making the case for design sprints, written by the lead designer at Airbnb. Be sure to focus on the benefits, communicate why design sprints differ from the existing process and provide examples of who it’s helped in the past.

Getting others to join you

Once you’ve sold the concept of running a design sprint, the next challenge is getting the right people to turn up. Here are three tactics I find helpful:

1. Meet them first, invite them last

Asking for five days of someone’s time shouldn’t be done without explaining, face-to-face, why they should care, why they should invest so much of their time and what they’ll get out of it. If you can’t meet them face-to-face, set up a phone call. Whatever you do, do not send a meeting invite unannounced as you’ll scare people off.

2. Tackle their biggest worry

“I don’t have time for this” is the most common response I hear when inviting people to a design sprint. Demonstrate how a five-day sprint is a way to save, not waste, time. Reassure them that the days will start later, finish earlier and include longer lunch breaks to allow them to take care of other work commitments.

3. Offer support roles

Some people simply won’t be able to commit to all five days. It’s vital to be flexible, especially for more senior stakeholders. Consider asking them to come along at specific times on specific days, or if they’re really short on time, conduct a 20-minute expert interview with them on the first day of the sprint. A quick, expert interview is not only highly time efficient, but is a great opportunity to check with experts that you are on the right track and gets value senior buy-in through their involvement.

How to put people at the heart of your sprint and keep them motivated

Design sprints can easily go off-track if you don’t take care of their most important element – the people. A five-day sprint can often feel more like a marathon, at times uncertain and uncomfortable for its participants.

The design sprint process expertly combines techniques from business strategy, design thinking, behavioral economics, UX and more in a fundamentally different way. The aim of the process is to confront and weed out our human inefficiencies and biases like long debate, difficulty in making decisions and worry about consensus.

It helps to be aware of the key techniques and strategies involved in staying on track during a design sprint.

Sprint efficiency techniques and strategies

  1. Cross business representation – getting a variety of departments on board for cross-business collaboration
  2. No devices – avoid the distraction of phones and laptops until predefined breaks
  3. Keep the team small – having approximately seven of the right people in the room
  4. Set solo work – individual-generated ideas are quicker, better and more plentiful than group thinking
  5. Set inescapable deadlines – looming deadlines force focus and make people more efficient
  6. A bit of competition – putting individuals against each other gets the best from people
  7. Independent decision making – decide and move on rather than time sapping consensus
  8. Short, energetic bursts – breaks every sixty to ninety minutes to not drain the battery
  9. Divide and swarm – divvy up the tasks to work concurrently and increase productivity
  10. Prototype – answer questions by producing prototypes (not PowerPoint presentations)
  11. Finish with a test – put your final prototype in front of real customers

A day-by-day guide to putting people at the heart of a sprint

Each day people will experience highs and lows of emotions as they come face-to-face with the rigid sprint process and encounter the above techniques. Knowing when these highs and lows can occur can help you better anticipate and deal with these fluctuations.

To help illustrate, I’ve created an emotional map, where you’ll see that the first day should be up and up, but days two and three can be trickiest, and day five will leave people feeling like they’ve achieved something extraordinary.

(Click to enlarge)

design sprint day-by-day framework

Getting the best from people each day

Here’s a day-by-day guide for getting the best out of people on each day of your design sprint.

Day One – make a map

Start by agreeing a long-term goal. Then compile a list of questions that need answering in order to meet that goal and create a map of the problem. Like any good map, it should show the destination, key landmarks and potential pitfalls. Validate the work so far with experts from across the business in a series of 20-minute interviews, then revisit the goal, questions and map before picking a target area for the sprint.

Distilling the sprint into a single goal focuses the team, helping them feel calmer and less overwhelmed by the process. The map is a quick and effective way of chunking up the problem space in a way that people can understand and navigate.

Critically, at the end of the first day, the story of the map will be shared with experts in short interviews to gauge that the team is on track. Done right, at the end of the first day, people should feel in good hands, trusting in the process and excited about what’s to come.

Day Two – start sketching solutions

Start the day with some lightning demos for inspiration, followed by a review of previous efforts to remix and improve during sketching, so people leave for lunch feeling energised and inspired. In the afternoon, ask the team to formulate these ideas into competing sketches – this may feel new, pressured and even uncomfortable. One particularly effective but also testing technique is ‘Crazy 8s’, which asks people to take their favourite idea and sketch eight variations in eight minutes.

Reassure the team that it’s normal to feel uncomfortable and remind them of the benefits of working and sketching this way – it’s the fastest way to generate and develop more concrete ideas. Comfort them that you are not looking for Picassos – so go fast and messy. It’s also worth reminding them that they don’t need to share every sketch with the group – just those they’re happy with and the one at the end.

Luckily, the process is step-by-step, so ask people to just take it a step at a time. Let them know that if they are struggling, then you are there to help. Finally, inspire them into action by letting them know that often exercises like Crazy-8s can bring revelations.

Day Three – decide what works

In the morning, the team will critique the many ideas generated the day before and decide which ones to turn into a testable hypothesis in the form of a step-by-step storyboard. A straw poll is a quick way for the whole team to express their opinion on which is the best solution. Everyone has three votes, but the decider’s vote trumps everyone else’s. That also means that if the decider votes for three solutions, all three should be taken forward, either by incorporating them into one prototype, or as part of different, competing prototypes.

It’s worth pointing out up front that day three can feel unnatural but effective. Explain that there won’t be lengthy discussions because today is all about making decisions. Remind them that every vote counts, discarded ideas may be revisited later and the voting system is the most effective way to move towards achieving the end goal.

Day Four – build a prototype

Today is where it all comes together, but not without a big push from the team. They’ll turn the previous day’s storyboard into a realistic prototype in just seven hours. It’s important to move away from the idea of creating a ‘perfect’ prototype, in favour of generating something that’s ‘good enough’. It needs to be believable for the next day’s testing, but not so high-quality that you don’t get it finished in time.

People may feel as though it’s impossible to create a realistic prototype in just seven hours. Remind them that most of the thinking has been done, they have detailed sketches to work from, that people will be allocated specific tasks and that it doesn’t need to be perfect. It’s a day when it’s easy to let time slip, so continue to apply the sprint techniques and strategies like inescapable deadlines, divide and swarm.

And at the end of the day, celebrate a job well done. Remind them how much they’ve achieved in such a short space of time.

Day Five – test it with real people

The team – and the experts – will learn a huge amount from testing the prototype with real people. And by the end of the day, you should know exactly what needs to be done. The interviews will involve the customer ‘thinking aloud’, where they verbalise their thoughts as they move through the prototype – something most people aren’t used to doing.

First put the customer at ease by reassuring them that it although it feels unnatural, it gets easier as they go along. And remind them they aren’t being tested. Make sure you don’t interrupt them and give them time to formulate their thoughts before they speak.

Secondly, get the observing team to take note of as many direct quotes as possible, both positive and negative, to avoid simply capturing what they want to hear. The final day should be a revelation for those who do not usually get face-to-face with customers. The team will leave tired but with a huge sense of accomplishment and wanting to do it again for other projects.

Hints and tips for great sprint facilitation

The success of a design sprint hangs on good facilitation. As a facilitator, you’re there to offer guidance, not to take over. Here are some core principles to stick to:

  • Ask permission
  • Stay neutral
  • Listen actively
  • Ask questions
  • Stay on track
  • Give and receive feedback
  • Test assumptions
  • Collect ideas
  • Paraphrase what’s been said
  • Point out behaviour e.g. “I see you’ve gone quiet”
  • Summarise clearly

And finally, good facilitators must:

  • Be informed – get to know the people on your team, the business and the problems they face
  • Be optimistic – to weed out shyness and cynicism
  • Be consensual – focus on achieving the best outcome for everyone
  • Be understanding – remember that your team have busy lives and work stress
  • Be alert – keep gauging the group dynamic
  • Be firm – be assertive in order to stay on track
  • Be unobtrusive – know when to get out of the way and let others speak

If you want to read more about good facilitation, I’d recommend Facilitation at a Glance by Ingrid Bens.

Get sprinting

Design sprints may seem tough but they’re worth the effort. They take you from a problem that needs solving to testing a prototype with customers in just five days. They bring people together and show businesses a different, more effective way of working – a tantalising glimpse into the world of a start-up.

But to be successful, they need to take care of the needs of the people involved, from addressing the concerns of the senior stakeholders, to keeping the core team motivated and inspired. Done right, design sprints can have a long-lasting effect on a business. Done wrong, and you may never get the chance to try one again.

Further reading and resources