What Is A Design Sprint And How Does It Work?

Released in 2016, the original Sprint Book was a bit of a revelation. It describes a five-day process for planning & testing new ideas.

This process is called a “Design Sprint”.

It originated at Google, as a way to help startups in their Google Ventures investment programme. Back then, the industry was already familiar with concepts like “Lean UX”. But a five-day design project? That was unheard of. Having just one week to go from concept to prototype seemed like fantasy.

But ask yourself: why do most UX projects take so long?

In my experience, overlong projects are generally caused by unnecessary admin.

Unneeded presentation decks & documentation.
Seemingly endless back-and-forth feedback cycles.
Important people not being involved early enough, and raising issues too late.
Overall lack of communication causing setbacks & delays.

Design Sprints aim to cut through these issues. They bring everyone together for a week of focused, uninterrupted work. Not just for the designers, but every single project stakeholder. Decisions aren’t deferred. They‘re made collaboratively, right there and then. With the correct attitude, it’s an immensely effective way of working.

How do Design Sprints work?

Everyone is brought together into the same working space for a single week. A facilitator (often the UX designer) leads a number of group activities throughout the week. These activities move us towards the all-important end goal on Friday : A working prototype, tested with real users.

Design Sprints generally follow a similar structure :

Monday : Define and map the problem area.
Tuesday : Collaboratively sketch potential solutions.
Wednesday : Prioritises a single solution, and form a hypothesis.
Thursday : Build a design prototype.
Friday : User testing and retrospective.

One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to Design Sprints. Facilitators are encouraged to adapt the process, switching things up based on the individual team and product being designed.

The benefits of a Design Sprint.
The visible benefit : Speed.

The most obvious benefit is right there in the name. Design Sprints are fast. They help us agree and validate an idea as quickly as possible. Imagine if we had spent months developing a concept, only to have it utterly fail when finally put in front of users?

Design Sprints significantly reduce the impact of failure, giving teams more flexibility to experiment with crazier, more innovative ideas. And hey. even if an idea fails, we still learn so much. The process helps get us to the right place sooner, shedding light on what works and what doesn’t.

The hidden benefit : Teamwork.

There’s another important benefit. One that’s not be quite so obvious. The Design Sprint process is highly collaborative. Stakeholders who would have previously been absent for most of the design process now get a front-row seat. Better still, they’re actively contributing their ideas and expertise.

Having these people involved earlier gives them a sense of ownership. It makes them more invested in the product going forward, and more enthusiastic about its development. It helps bridge the gap between design teams and the wider business. After all, design is a team sport. The importance of getting everyone’s buy-in at these early stages can’t be underestimated.

Not just for startups.

The original Design Sprint process was created with startups in mind. The examples in the original ‘Sprint’ book depict scrappy teams validating their early business ideas. It makes sense. The process lends itself perfectly to startups by quickly assessing the desirability of a proposition (like a new business idea), reducing the risk of failure. After the success stories began to circulate, it’s no surprise that larger organisations started to take note. Successful startups are using Design Sprints to trim the fat out of their design process. They’re validating ideas in a shorter amounts of time, saving on time & resources.

For larger companies who can adapt, these same benefits are just waiting to be had. It takes the right kind of organisational structure & culture to successfully use Design Sprints. Part of it involves building more self-contained ‘product teams’. Groups that can work together closely (both literally and metaphorically). When a team can apply themselves to more specific problems – and is given the autonomy to make decisions – they’re ready for a Design Sprint.

Jake Knapp, author of the ‘Sprint’ book recently published information about the Design Sprint 2.0. It recognises that larger companies are starting to adopt the process, and has been revisited to be more accommodating for traditional organisations. The Design Sprint 2.0 involves compressing the process down to just four days. Activities have been adjusted to require slightly less senior stakeholder time, too.

My company, JUST, offers UX consultancy – including the running of Design Sprints. In the last year, we’ve noticed a huge shift in the way our clients want to work. Organisations who have traditionally run multi-month ‘discovery projects’ are now shifting towards this process as a way to see results sooner. For the first time, we’ve had large corporate clients (think FTSE500) asking specifically for design sprints.

Design Sprints are a game changer.

If you’re a UX designer, you should be considering Design Sprints as part of your toolkit. Know the structure and the activities. Be ready to facilitate them. Design Sprints aren’t here to outright replace the existing models. There will always be a need for ‘deep dive’ design work. A longer amount of time is needed to plan the intricacies of a full product, and all of the scenarios & screens that come with it.

When it comes to initial discovery and ideation however, Design Sprints are invaluable. It’s the best way to answer big questions in a quick and collaborative way. In a world where ideas can live or die by the efficiency of their execution, the Design Sprint is here to stay.

Chris Myhill is a guest on our blog. Find out more about contributing and join us at #MUXL2018 to join our UX community. One day Conference of Talks, Workshops & Networking! MUXL Annual Conference returns for its 4th iteration this November, to bring you insights from the best minds in User Experience (UX) and Design.

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