Design Sprint explained: What, when and how to apply it for problem solving
A design sprint is a five-day framework to help you tackle design problems before investing tons of money and time into a project. In this article, we look at this problem-solving methodology in detail and help ambitious startup founders and project managers. We also look at how a design sprint could help them transform how they launch their next project. If you search “What is a design sprint?”, you’re met with blogs on a similar narrative: definition, process, steps and conclusion.
We wanted to go beyond this, revealing our real-life design sprint process and how you can follow it. In this guide, you’ll learn:
- What is a design sprint?
- Who should use a design sprint?
- Are design sprints only for startups?
- The importance of prototypes
- Step-by-step design sprint process
- An outline of the five-day process
When starting something new, we often fall into one of two extremes:
- We focus on the obstacles in the way.
- Or we charge ahead without considering the challenges.
Both extremes are dangerous, whether you are starting a business or trying to snowboard. A design sprint allows you to minimise both risks by helping you unravel myths and assumptions about your endeavour before you get started. In our opinion, project planning becomes more exciting when starting with a design sprint. Boring RFPs and panning sessions become questlines with a series of creative tasks. And, they give everyone more confidence to do their best work.
What is a Design Sprint?
Design sprints bring clarity by allowing you to develop a hypothesis, prototype an idea and test it rapidly with as little investment as possible in as realistic as possible environment. Invented by Jake Knapp from Google Ventures in 2014, design sprints are defined as “a unique five-day process for answering crucial questions through prototyping and testing ideas with customers” as Knapp outlines in his book Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just 5 Days.
Google gives a similar definition: “a proven methodology for solving problems through designing, prototyping, and testing ideas with users” The primary objective of every design sprint is de-risking and cheap validation. We’re lucky that modern prototyping tools like Figma and InVision allow us to test a product with real users before writing a single line of code.
Who should use a design sprint?
Anyone can use a design sprint – when done correctly, you can apply it to new apps, packaging, business processes or even personal life. But, since we’re a digital product development company, all our examples will revolve around this topic. So, you’re an ambitious startup founder, or you’re responsible for the IT sector in a company that wants to launch a mobile app... Or, maybe you’re a project manager, and your next big project requires you to create something digital. If any of the above sounds like you, keep reading.
Are design sprints only for startups?
You don’t have to be a newly-established business to be a startup. In fact, once we start using the term “startup” in a much broader way, we can begin to change our mindsets and plan for success. Every time you create something new, you’re an entrepreneur. And every time you’re an entrepreneur, you’re working on a startup.
This concept is taken from Eric Ries in his book The Lean Startup: “The concept of entrepreneurship includes anyone who works within my definition of a startup: a human institution designed to create new products and services under conditions of extreme uncertainty… I believe ‘entrepreneur’ should be considered a job title within all modern companies…” It’s these “conditions of extreme uncertainty” that makes a startup founder and Netflix’s product manager similar. Let’s compare a design sprint to a spaceship launch. Your new digital product – or startup – is the spaceship itself. And to launch your spaceship, you need a project blueprint, an engineering team to build it and a professional crew to operate it. But what happens if the ship explodes mid-air? This is where a design sprint comes in...
The importance of prototypes
SpaceX launched 14 Starship prototypes until SN15 was a real success. A prototype is a simple-yet-effective idea: it either works, or it does not. But it answers the question above. If it works, perfect. But, if critical issues are found, you start working on them without risking your crew or cargo. According to classic DS process, prototyping is a Step #4. However, if we come back to the point that you’re dealing with a startup under “conditions of extreme uncertainty”, your goal will be to remove or minimise this uncertainty. You’re looking for what Ries calls “validated learning” - and this is one of the most valuable assets a startup can acquire. In other words, you may not have the resources to do something, but as soon as you know how to do it, it becomes a matter of realisation. Therefore, this is why we started by telling you about the importance of a prototype as a critical tool for running user tests and getting this validated learning. It’s much easier to understand the design sprint framework if you know this. So first, we do a lot of prep work to fully grasp an idea and decide what should be our current focus, then we visualise it into a prototype and finally, we get to hear what users think about it.
Step-by-step design sprint process
A design sprint is the structured art of bringing together the elements of success of your future startup. Below are three key ingredients you need:
- Cross-functional team
Design sprint fundamentals.
The fundamentals of a design sprint are the principles and approaches that lie at the core of the framework:
- Design thinking as a tool for creating human-centric products.
- Agile methodology for quick and flexible actions.
- Ongoing teamwork to fully cover all the expertise needed to solve a challenge.
A cross-functional design sprint team.
Design sprints shrink months of preparation and discussion because they unite cross-functional teams. Using collaborative exercises, a design sprint covers a broader range of topics and often brings new opportunities to the table during brainstorming.
The side effect?
Rapid decision making.
Not only will a design sprint make your startup happen much faster, but collaborative team building also sets the tone for the whole development process upfront.
There should be no more than seven people in your team and you should consider inviting at least one of each of the following:
- The decision maker – usually the CEO or VP of Product.
- A facilitator – someone who can organise everyone and facilitate the sessions.
- A talented designer – someone who can visualise your ideas and set expectations.
- An experienced engineer – someone who knows how to test and create prototypes.
- A customer expert – someone who knows how to speak your customers’ language.
- An expert marketer – someone who has marketing knowledge and experience in your industry.
A clear design sprint process.
A design sprint is a five-day process, but what should be done on each of these days?
This step is all about learning. Take a look at the idea, existing team developments, research and blitz reports created by each specialist. At DataMix, we do a lot of prep work ahead of the sprint, so that during the workshops our team can already discuss relevant questions and be on the same page with our client’s team.
Define what your main focus is during this design sprint. Avoid trying to tackle everything all at once, as this will make your sprint less successful. While it’s okay to have a vision of a future SaaS platform with multiple functionalities, customer segments and several monetisation models, it’s impossible to try and start everything all together at once. Pick something critical to your customers and essential to be tested during this sprint.
This step is the most creative part of the sprint. Your team should reach for the skies and bring all ideas to the table – even the craziest. Note your ideas on sticky notes or start visualising them in sketches.
Discuss all ideas to understand every idea and see if any ideas intersect. Then, vote to select the best ideas that are must-haves in your MVP.
The must-have ideas should now be visualised in a prototype. At DataMix, this is a job for a UX/UI designer, and we don’t expect clients to dedicate the full day to this stage.
Carry out a series of user tests and follow up with in-depth questions about your MVP. Gather feedback from users to help guide you in your next steps. It’s no surprise that design sprints are becoming more and more popular among companies of all sizes and in all sorts of industries. Since 2016 when the methodology was published, they have been a powerful tool for teams to identify and work around “blind spots”. We hope you found this guide useful – why not share it with someone else?
DataMix develops robust applications from scratch, helping founders, startups and entrepreneurs take their ideas from MVP to enterprise scale. If you’ve got a project in mind or want help visualizing your idea, get in touch with our team.