While good design traditionally demands time, care, and consideration, not every project has the luxury of extended timelines. The good news is there’s a method to fast-track creating impeccable design without sacrificing quality.
Design sprints offer a targeted approach to innovation, which lets teams rapidly explore and test ideas. Pioneered by a team at Google Ventures, this method condenses the basic design thinking process — empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test — into a fast-paced, focused effort with a tight deadline to drive rapid development through highly efficient and productive bursts of creativity.
Whether they’re used for crafting new product designs or strategizing marketing campaigns, design sprints offer a robust methodology that inspires quick and quality results. But the true power of a sprint isn’t in immediate perfection — it’s in the rich insights and knowledge the team amasses. Each sprint, irrespective of its outcome, paves the way for refined and elevated future endeavors.
What is a design sprint, and what are its benefits?
A design sprint condenses a complete design cycle into a short timeframe, allowing teams to quickly validate concepts and respond to user needs without extended design iteration timelines. Sprints foster team collaboration, streamline communication, and kick-start the design process by leveraging the condensed cycle length to promote creativity and efficiency.
This means design teams can home in on identifying and understanding the users’ needs and quickly come up with a prototype that solves their problems. Plus, designers can start getting feedback on that prototype right away from user testing.
Teams typically allow five days for the process, but some opt for a condensed two- or three-day sprint. Some teams might choose these shorter timelines because they have tighter deadlines, want increased efficiency, or believe that a more intense focus ignites quicker decision-making and innovation.
Beyond the immediate benefits of rapid concept validation and collaborative ideation, design sprints also nurture a cohesive interdepartmental culture by fostering open communication, breaking down team silos, and prompting a shared understanding of project goals and user needs. The collaborative environment encourages diverse teams to bring their unique perspectives to the table, ensuring a holistic problem-solving approach and forging interdepartmental connections that can benefit future projects.
Here’s what you can achieve with this five-day process:
- Develop new products: Bring your ideas to fruition and assess their viability in a short time span
- Add new features to existing products or services: Elevate current features with timely additions, avoiding lengthy development cycles
- Design and redesign websites: Overhaul or fine-tune your site quickly
- Design or redesign brands: Craft a new identity or reinvent your existing one
- Improve UX and UI design: Iterate rapidly on user experience and interface designs
- Create marketing campaigns: Create targeted sprint campaigns to react to market needs and changes quickly
It’s imperative that the design problem’s circumstances align with the design sprint methodology of rapid ideation, prototyping, and testing. If the design challenge lacks definition or a resolution already exists, the design sprint isn’t as valuable. The process truly shines and leads to innovative outcomes when there’s room for exploration and refinement.
The design sprint team
A design sprint team works best with four to seven members, and achieving creativity and efficient decision-making relies crucially on the team composition. Your team should include a selection of the following people to achieve the best results:
- High-level decision-maker: Holds the authority to make final calls on designs to ensure the team can make quick decisions without bureaucratic delays
- Facilitator: Leverages their expertise with the design sprint framework to guide the process and keep it focused
- Product manager: Brings a clear understanding of the product’s goals to align the sprint with business objectives
- Designer: Offers creative input and practical insights to shape visual and functional aspects of the project
- Engineer: Lends a technical perspective to ensure that ideas are feasible and align with the technology stack
- Business strategy expert: Provides a macro view, anchoring sprint outcomes within the overarching company strategy
Running a 5-day design sprint: A day-by-day guide
According to the original Google formulation, there are six design sprint phases: understand, define, sketch, decide, prototype, and validate. Since most design sprints last for one business week, experts recommend a five-stage plan to ensure a smooth, manageable team workflow.
Here’s our step-by-step guide to the five-day design sprint process.
Day 1: Define the problem
On the first day of a design sprint, the emphasis is on understanding and articulating the long-term goal. Participants collaborate to define the business problem, establish the metrics for success, and outline the desired deliverables. This focus shapes the rest of the sprint, ensuring a unified direction for everyone involved.
Activities for Day 1 include:
- Lightning talks. These brief (five-to-15-minute) presentations tackle topics relevant to the issue. For example, the product manager might share market insights, or an outside legal expert could outline regulatory compliance. These talks provide essential context and foster a shared understanding.
- User journey mapping. Whether you’re dealing with existing products or envisioning new ones, mapping the user journey highlights tricky areas and pain points. This visual representation aligns the team on user experience goals and sets the stage for innovative solutions.
- How might we… (HMW). Individually brainstorm problems and user pain points, then reframe them as possibilities with “How might we…” phrases. Team members can write each phrase on a sticky note, then vote on them to identify key focus areas for the sprint.
- Focus point identification. Link the winning HMW statements to the relevant part of your user journey. This becomes the focal point of the sprint, guiding subsequent stages of problem-solving and prototyping.
Day 2: Generate possible solutions
On Day 2 of the design sprint, the team picks up from the focus point identification concluded on Day 1. Before diving into solutions, align everyone with the specific issues you’ve pinpointed to ensure team members clearly understand the challenges they’re addressing. With a solid understanding of the problems, the emphasis transitions to fostering individual creativity and exploring potential solutions.
Possible activities for Day 2 include:
- Crazy 8s. In this brainstorming activity, each person folds a sheet of blank paper to create eight blank squares. Set a timer for eight minutes, and have each member fill in each square with a sketch of a different possible solution. This time constraint encourages innovative and perhaps unconventional ideas that remain unexplored.
- Developing one solution each. After sharing Crazy 8s, team members select the most promising idea (either theirs or their colleague’s) and develop it further through additional sketches and descriptions. This flexible process, usually 15 to 30 minutes, allows individuals to invest in and refine one idea to make it more concrete.
Day 3: Choose the best solution
On Day 3, the team transitions from individual solutions crafted on Day 2 to refining and validating ideas collectively. The team collaborates to share, analyze, and determine how these solutions fit the larger user journey or system. It’s a crucial step that requires the team to evaluate, debate, and align on a shared direction.
Activities for Day 3 include:
- Presentations. Each person presents their sketch and explains how the design works. Allott three minutes for each presentation and two minutes for questions to ensure that every idea is heard and understood without getting bogged down in details.
- Voting. Team members then vote for the best solution. Provide each member with one sticker for voting and key decision-makers with three stickers (the deciding vote) to ensure a balance of power. The sketch that receives the most stickers wins. Consider using a private ballot if you’re concerned about bias or influence.
- Storyboards. The group collaboratively creates a storyboard of five to 10 sketches illustrating how the user will interact with the chosen design. This series starts with the context in which the user encounters the product and concludes with a successful outcome.
Day 4: Design and build a prototype
Day 4 is dedicated entirely to prototyping. The prototype design and development process is accelerated in design sprints, requiring a keen focus on what’s essential. The goal isn’t to create a polished product but to develop something operational to test and learn from. If you have time left over, consider polishing it further.
The activities for Day 4 are:
- Prototype building. Start with a design collaboration tool you’re familiar with, like Keynote or InVision, to create a functional version of the chosen solution. Familiarity with these tools significantly speeds up the process and allows the team to concentrate on design solutions rather than technical hurdles. If you’re developing a website, consider using a template to save time.
- Preparing for user testing. Alongside prototyping, allocate time to write the script for the next day’s user testing. This script guides how to present the prototypes to users and ensures you’ll obtain the insights you need.
Day 5: Conduct user testing
On Day 5, the team validates the prototype with real users, or “design partners,” and focuses on uncovering usability issues and gathering critical feedback. Web usability expert Jakob Nielsen suggests five users as an optimal number for user testing, balancing the need for diverse input against the law of diminishing returns.
Activities for Day 5 include:
- User research. Engage five people representing different personas within the target audience to explore the prototype. As they navigate the design, prompt them with sentence starters like “I expected…” or “I was surprised when…” or pose specific questions to understand their experience better. Document their feedback through recordings or detailed notes to capture pain points in the customer journey and collect feedback on the user experience.
- Stakeholder consultations. Invite key stakeholders separately from the users so they can participate and share their insights, emphasizing any long-term implications or business perspectives they foresee, such as market trends, potential revenue impact, and scalability. This feedback, rooted in a broad understanding of business objectives, can reveal overlooked aspects.
- Technical check. Include a technical expert’s assessment of the prototype to ensure it aligns with feasible development practices.
- Wrap-up. Conclude the day with team debriefs that summarize the design sprint’s insights and define the next steps. This includes reviewing the main findings from user research and consultations, identifying key patterns and areas needing improvement, and outlining the immediate course of action.
After the sprint concludes, you can schedule additional design iterations or further testing if there are specific areas where the prototype fell short. If the prototype meets its objectives, transition to the development phase by creating detailed design specifications, aligning with developers, or setting a development timeline. Consider scheduling time for the team to reflect on the sprint process to capture what worked well and what to improve for future sprints.
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4 tips to get the most out of your design sprint
The value of a design sprint hinges on understanding the process and tailoring it to your team’s dynamics and organizational needs. As you delve deeper into these intense brainstorming sessions, keep these foundational tips and best practices in mind to maximize their impact.
1. Educate yourself
Understand the process by reading resources like Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, and Braden Kowitz, inventors of the technique. Complement this by browsing case studies to discover how other companies conduct their design sprints. This dual approach will inform your planning and execution and offer insights into how other companies use their sprints effectively.
2. Plan ahead
Organize the sprint well in advance to ensure all participants can clear their schedules. Team members should also jointly select and secure a conducive, distraction-free environment to foster focus and productivity.
3. Involve decision-makers
Include a high-level decision-maker in as many sessions as possible. While they may momentarily step out if needed, their consistent involvement anchors the team by providing timely guidance and expediting pivotal choices. Their insights can effectively steer the sprint to ensure alignment with broader organizational goals.
4. Adhere to the schedule
If something threatens to delay the team — such as unforeseen technical challenges, unexpected stakeholder opinions, or a tangential discussion — for more than a designated buffer time (say, 30 minutes to an hour), set it aside for later consideration. Timely execution keeps the momentum going and guarantees the process remains purposeful and on track.
Try a design sprint on your next design project
In the face of pressing design challenges or limited time, a design sprint is an ideal approach. Sprints can adjust to different business sizes and contexts, offering valuable processes in a limited time span. The next time you face a sticky design problem or time crunch, consider a sprint — you might be surprised at how much you can accomplish in just five days.