Solve complex problems through design sprints

Design Sprints: Resources I use to solve problems and define innovative product strategies through design sprints.

Photo by gustavo Campos on Unsplash

The design sprint is a methodology for solving problems. A small team clears its schedule for a week (or less) to rapidly progress from a problem to a tested solution. The team develops a hypothesis, prototypes an idea, and tests it rapidly with users in a natural environment with as little investment as possible.

As an innovation leader, you may use this process to tackle a significant challenge within your company.

This article will share the essential resources I use to lead sprints with my team. Whether you have 30 min to get a quick introduction, 4 hours to understand what it is, or 8 hours to plan one with your team and learn to facilitate it, this article is an entry point to articles and videos that will help you reach your goal.

#Intro. Is the Sprint Design the Right Tool to Solve your Problem?

If you wake up one morning and tell your team that you don’t want them to do anything else for a week other than solving a single problem, you might have a bad day. You’ll need to be a little more convincing.

There are many different ways to move from a problem to a solution: user interviews, diary studies, participant observation, prototype testing, etc.

The design sprint is different as it compacts these methods to fit in a week, thus generating a continuous flow of deep and uninterrupted work. Its efficiency and speed of results, therefore, characterize the sprint.

Articles to gain team and leadership buy-in:

  • How do I know if it’s the right time to run a Design Sprint? by Xander Pollock. A design sprint is a suitable tool if (a) there isn’t an obvious solution to your problem (if there is, just prototype and test it); (b) the problem requires a cross-functional team to solve it; © the problem is big enough to worth investing effort to solve it.
  • Scope and structuring the sprint by Google. Don’t sprint if you don’t have a strong understanding of your users, leadership buy-in, or have a clear product direction.
  • Stop Brainstorming, Start Sprinting by Jake Knapp. A sprint is a better use of time as decisions are made fast without useless brainstorms or sales pitches. By the time the sprint ends, the team has clarity about what to do next.

Is your team convinced now? Let’s move on to the next step, preparing for the sprint.

#0 Plan the Sprint

Preparing for the sprint is as important as running the sprint itself.

Sprint: Set the Stage

#0.1 Identify the Sprint Challenge

It’s the northstar that keeps your team focused and ensures you get the necessary leadership buy-in.

#0.2 Assemble your Sprint Team

5 to 7 participants. Include people who will be responsible for executing the solution after the sprint. Involve key members of leadership or have an official delegate in the room. Include troublemakers.

Invite external experts for the Lightning Talks (15-minute interviews during the “Understand” phase of the sprint).

#0.3 Create a Sprint Agenda

3–5 days most of the time. A sprint alternates six divergence and convergence phases. Pick workshops for each phase to meet your sprint goals and create the expected deliverables. Plan time accordingly.

Design Sprint Methodology by Google
  • Design Sprint Methodology by Google. It lists methods, exercises, and workshops you can pick to define your schedule.
  • Recipes by Google. It’s a list of sprint recipes provided by the community to tackle specific challenges.

If you’re new to sprints, you may want to skip this step and use a proven sprint recipe. You can use the 5-day agenda from The Sprint Book.

The Design Sprint by The Sprint Book
Sprint: 90-Second Intro
  • The Design Sprint by The Sprint Book. It’s a detailed description of each day’s schedule with checklists and resources.

You can find variants of this process on the Internet:

  • Design Sprint 2.0 by Jonathan Courtney. It’s a 4-day sprint variant with little hacks that make the process more efficient. You’ll need the entire sprint team for two days instead of five.
  • Design Sprint 3.0 by John Vetan. It’s a 4-day sprint variant where the problem is clarified before the sprint begins.

We’ll mainly walk through the standard sprint process from The Sprint Book in the following.

#0.4 Prepare the Physical or Digital Space

Choose a flexible space with lots of whiteboards or walls. Gather supplies. Or prepare a digital board.

Tour the Google Ventures war room in San Francisco

#0.5 Recruit Users for the Prototype Testing

You’ll test the prototype with five users in the last phase of the sprint. So you’ll need to recruit them in advance. Be selective in your recruitment.

Why five users? Jakob Nielsen scientifically proved that five tests help you find 85% of the problems. So, it’s more efficient to conduct five tests, solve the issues identified, then iterate again.

#0.6 Write a Sprint Brief

As for any design work, you’ll need to align your team and stakeholders on the goals and deliverables for the sprint.

  • Sprint Brief Doc and PDF by Google. A sprint brief specifies the sprint challenge, the deliverables, the logistics, the participants, the project context, and the sprint schedule. It’s a living document as you define these elements with your team.

#0.7 Build a Deck

You might need to lead the sprint with a projected presentation.

#0.8 Learn to Facilitate

As with any skill, facilitation takes practice to master. However, here are some tips from facilitators to get started.

Yes, a sprint is a lot of prep. Let’s move to the sprint itself!

#1 Understand and Define

The sprint starts by creating a shared knowledge base across all participants, then establishing focus. These are two distinct phases in the Google method but condensed into one day in The Sprint Book method.

Sprint: Monday
  • Monday by John Zeratsky. A schedule of the first day of the 5-day sprint. The team sets a long-term goal, defines sprint questions, makes a map, asks experts while taking “How Might We” notes, then pick a target.
  • Understand and Define Methods by Google. A list of workshops that you can facilitate to complete these phases.

#1.1 Explain the Sprint

Give the participants an overview of what to expect during the sprint.

  • 5-day sprint presentation deck PDF, Keynote, and PPT by The Sprint Book. A 10-min presentation before starting the sprint.

#1.2 Set a Long-Term Goal and List Sprint Questions

Ask questions:

Why are we doing this project? Where do we want to be in six months, a year, or even five years from now? How could we fail? — John Zeratsky

Long Term Goal & Sprint Questions

#1.3 Map User Journey or Experience

Draw a simple user-centric map with the team.

  • User Journey Mapping by Google. A user journey visually illustrates a specific user’s interaction with a product or service.
  • Experience Mapping by Google. An experience map generalizes the concept of user journeys across multiple user types and products.
  • The Design Sprint Note-n-Map by Steph Cruchon. It’s an efficient way of mapping, not as a group, but rather each individually, then sharing the results at the end.
The Map

#1.4 Conduct Lightning Talks

A lightning talk is a brief 15-min interview with a sprint participant or external expert on topics relevant to the sprint challenge during the planning phase.

  • Lightning Talks by Google. The team asks the sprint participant or external expert about the sprint challenge.
  • Lightning Talks Deck Template Google Slides and PDF by Google. Example of questions to explore in the problem space.

While asking the experts, participants reframe insights and pain points positively into opportunities (not solutions), starting with “How Might We.”

  • How Might We” by Google. Explain to your team how the HMW process works before lightning talks begin. Aim for quantity over quality.
  • Affinity Mapping by Google. Share and cluster HMW notes into themes.
  • HMW Voting by Google. The team prioritizes opportunities by voting on which ones they feel are most important.
Ask the Experts

#1.5 Define a Target

At this “understand” phase stage, the team has shared and acquired knowledge. The team then selects the user and the step of the user journey to address in the sprint.

  • Pick a target by Neha Saigal. The team finds the point in the customer journey that is most critical to get right.

Depending on your sprint challenge, you can spend more time on this “Define” phase with additional exercises.

#2 Sketch

Each participant works individually to create a detailed solution sketch for the target or a section of the target.

Sprint: Tuesday
  • Tuesday by John Zeratsky. A schedule of the second day of the 5-day sprint. The team captures inspiring ideas from other projects; then, each participant sketches a solution. It’s working alone together.
  • Sketch Methods by Google. A list of workshops that you can facilitate during this phase.

#2.1 Get Inspiration from Lightning Demos

Disruptive innovations come from existing ideas.

Innovative thinkers connect fields, problems, or ideas that others find unrelated. — Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s DNA

The Sketch phase starts by looking for inspiration.

  • Comparable Problem by Google. The team searches and shares the ideas relevant to the challenge used in other industries, fields, or projects.
Lightning Demos

#2.2 Review the Sprint Results

Before the ideation session, give the team some time to review the sprint results.

  • Boot Up Note Taking by Google. The team reviews what they generated during the sprint and writes rough ideas.

#2.3 Run a Crazy 8's

Time to ideate.

  • Crazy 8’s by Google. Eight ideas in eight minutes. The first two ideas are apparent; the last two are crazy.
  • Crazy 8’s Sharing and Voting by Google. Each participant presents their ideas in 3 min. The goal is to eliminate those which are not feasible or don’t help users achieve their goals.
  • Crazy 8’s timer app by Design Sprint X. A tool to track time.
Crazy Eights

#2.4 Solution sketch

A sketch illustrates how an idea works. It is composed of 3 frames and a catchy title. It can stand on its own without explanation.

  • Solution Sketch by Google. Each participant articulates one main idea on a solution sketch.
4-Step Sketch

#3 Decide

The team decides which concept to prototype to address the sprint challenge.

Sprint: Wednesday
  • Wednesday by John Zeratsky. A schedule of the third day of the 5-day sprint. The team chooses the most robust solutions, then plans the prototype with a storyboard.
  • Decide Methods by Google. A list of workshops that you can facilitate to complete this phase.

#3.1 Choose the Strongest Solutions

Pitches and debates waste time. The sprint method promises to make the best decisions efficiently and without bias.

  • Silent Review and Vote by Google. Participants view sketches silently and put dot stickers beside the parts they like, thus creating a heatmap.
  • Heatmap Voting by Google. Additional directions for creating a heatmap.
  • Dot Vote by Google. After a 3-min discussion per sketch, participants vote for their favorite idea.
  • Rumble or All-In-One by Google. When there is more than one winning solution, the team decides whether to combine them into a single prototype or prototype them separately.
  • Note and Vote by Google. Each participant writes down their ideas, then the group votes. It’s an exercise you can use whenever you need to get ideas and a quick decision from the team — more about it by Jake Knapp.
The Decision

#3.2 Plan the Prototype with a Storyboard

The team converts the sketch solutions into a storyboard. A storyboard illustrates the story’s main events through a sequence of panels.

  • Storyboard by Google. The team maps out each step of the experience they want to test and clarifies the pieces they need to prototype.
  • Storyboard 2.0 by Tim Höfer. A tweak to save time and align the team: everyone agrees on a rough sequence of actions before diving into storyboard sketching.

#3.2 Plan the Prototype with a Storyboard

The team converts the sketch solutions into a storyboard. A storyboard illustrates the story’s main events through a sequence of panels.

  • Storyboard by Google. The team maps out each step of the experience they want to test and clarifies the pieces they need to prototype.
  • Storyboard 2.0 by Tim Höfer. A tweak to save time and align the team: everyone agrees on a rough sequence of actions before diving into storyboard sketching.
Storyboard

#4 Prototype

The team creates a prototype that is just real enough to test the solutions with users.

Sprint: Thursday
  • Thursday by John Zeratsky. A schedule of the fourth day of the 5-day sprint. The team prototypes the solution and writes an interview script.
  • Prototype Methods by Google. A list of workshops that you can facilitate to complete this phase.

#4.1 Pick the Right Tool

Use a tool that you or your maker are comfortable with.

For a digital product, there are many prototyping tools. Depending on your skills, you can:

To prototype a physical product, you can either use an existing product and modify it slightly or prototype the marketing of your product (landing page, poster, press article, etc.)

#4.2 Assign Tasks

Divide and conquer.

  • Assign Tasks by Google. Each participant has a clear role and is responsible for specific tasks to build the individual sections of the prototype.

#4.3 Build the Prototype

The team assembles the prototype and checks that it’s consistent from beginning to end.

#4.4 Write a Script

A script helps you plan the interviews. It consists of an introduction, context questions, tasks, follow-up questions, and debrief.

#5 Validate

The team tests the prototype with users to validate the solutions and gather precious feedback.

Sprint: Friday
  • Friday by John Zeratsky. A schedule of the last day of the 5-day sprint. The team interviews users and learns by watching them react to the prototype.
  • Validate Methods by Google. A list of workshops that you can facilitate to complete this phase.

#5.1 Set up the Research Lab

The team watches the interviews, takes notes, and summarizes the findings.

  • How to build a simple UX lab anywhere by Michael Margolis. A simple, flexible, and inexpensive setup for testing mobile and desktop prototypes.
  • UX Watch Parties by Michael Margolis. These are guidelines on gathering the team to watch the interview sessions. Coach your team to be good observers, give them jobs, and debrief together while it’s fresh.

#5.2 Conduct Interviews

The Five-Act Interview

#5.3 Conclude the Sprint

The sprint is coming to an end. It’s time to review the findings.

The challenge is to maintain the enthusiasm and concretely implement the identified solution!

--

--

Product Manager

Love podcasts or audiobooks? Learn on the go with our new app.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store