The design sprint was created by former Googler, Jake Knapp. It’s a time-bound process, with five phases typically spread over five full 8-hour days. The goal is to solve a critical design challenge through designing, prototyping, and testing ideas with users. The benefits of a design sprints include: saving time, creating a path to bring a product to market, prioritizing the user, and testing a product before launch. Before starting a design sprint, ask yourself: Are there any potential solutions to your design challenge? Are cross-functional teams needed to weigh in on your design challenge? Is the design challenge’s scope wide enough for a sprint? If you answer yes to any of these, a design spring might be the right move.
The Five Phases of the Design Sprint
Each phase takes one full day, is hands on, and requires creative collaboration. The five phases of a design sprint consist of the following:
Understand. This phase sets your sprint on the right track and helps your team get a clear picture of the design challenge by having conversations with other people, like experts in different departments and industries. In this and all phases, you focus on the user.
Ideate. Come up with ideas and build off of them to create solutions. Sketch and present these ideas. Prepare for testing. Start your target profile with an inclusive approach.
Decide. Which solution do you want to build? Discuss each possible solution and select one that is most likely to excite users and achieve the design process goal. Create a step-by-step blueprint for the prototype phase.
Prototype. Build the first version not the finished product; something realistic enough to test with users. Confirm the test schedule, finalize interview questions, and make sure the prototype is ready to go.
Test. Put the prototype in front of users. Observe how they react and interview about their experience.
Design sprints put the user first. Throughout the creative collaboration, every person is valued and the best ideas rise to the top. The time is distraction-free, giving time for collaborators to focus. By running a design sprint, the team lowers their risk of an unsuccessful market debut. It can be scheduled at any point during a project.
My Design Sprint Experience
In my experience, I have rarely come across companies who implement design sprints. I have seen all five phases, but they lacked this scheduled, 5-day timeframe, and the collaborative approach. The ideate and decide phase would for example only involve the project owner and key stakeholders, or the UX designer, product manager, and client. Phases would stop and start during intermittent meetings scheduled across weeks. Looking back on my time as a web development manager, I attribute the great success of our flagship product to the collaborative approach we took across departments, valuing every voice. It not only brought the best ideas to the fore, it also built a strong sense of teamwork and individual satisfaction. However, it could be difficult to organize all of those voices across the span of a year, and the design sprint approach would honed those contributions into succinct focus. It would be fantastic if more companies and collaborators adopted the design sprint into their workflow.
A design sprint would help me design with the user first. By talking to experts in the Understand phase, and utilizing my team members and their diverse perspectives, my understanding of the problem we’re trying to solve and its potential solutions has a much better chance of solving the problem than solving it with a limited team in a silo. The Ideate phase allows everyone’s ideas to be heard, and even if a lot of the ideas might be bad, it ensures that all of the cool ideas are heard, too. Similarly, the Decide phase has everyone vote, and the solution that has the most potential is chosen. With this clarity, preparation for the Test phase will lead to appropriate testers, survey and interview questions, and necessary equipment. The Prototype phase is massively hands-on in creating, asking questions, offering ideas, and reviewing the completed prototype. Details won’t get missed or forgotten thanks to the sprint’s condensed timeframe. The Test phase collects user feedback by observing and interviewing users. I think I’d have the most interest in this phase, because it’s a moment of truth: were we successful in putting the user’s needs first? Again, this will determine whether the solution is a success based on the user’s experience, rather than a single person or a very limited group of decision-makers’ assumptions, which means a higher rate of success at the product’s release.
In design sprints and otherwise, it’s good to take a retrospective on what went well and what could be improved. In my projects, I have found the best approaches have been to share all my ideas and create an environment where others are comfortable and confident to do the same. The only bad suggestions are the ones not shared! This created the strongest solutions because we harnessed the brilliance from our whole team. However, there could be frustration if someone missed a meeting or notes were not taken so potential ideas fell through the cracks. Next time, I would much rather take this 5 day design sprint approach to dedicate everyone’s time together, without losing any momentum.
I recently worked on projects at a large organization that would have benefited from a design sprint. The Understand, Ideate, and Decide phases involved the key stakeholder requesting a product to the product owner, who tried to gather as much information as possible. The PO took this request to the development team, who usually needed more information from the key stakeholder. Time was spent circling back, but the PO did not fully grasp the developer’s needs, nor, as a result, did the key stakeholder. Furthermore, the product was for an end user that was not the key stakeholder, and there was no research done on the end user’s experience. The project would have benefited from an Understand phase where the team could interview the key stakeholder, as well as any experts on the end user’s experience, such as the customer service representatives.