Using Design Sprints to Build Better Products

April 4, 2022
10 min read

Designing and developing technology almost always takes a lot of time and money. It requires balancing the wants and needs of users, technical feasibility, and economic viability of the solution. If you’re going to do it, it would be great to know that you’re doing it right. Design Sprints are one of the fastest and most cost-effective way to quickly validate solutions - and make sure that they are right for your users. The goal of the sprint is to generate as many ideas as quickly as possible, then validate and develop the ones that resonate most with your users. By the end of the sprint, you’ll have a prototype of your solution and clear next steps based on the feedback you gather.

Design Thinking
Before we jump into how we like to structure our sprints, let’s go over every design agency’s favorite term - “Design Thinking.” Design Thinking is an approach that helps you understand your user, redefine problems, challenge assumptions, and identify alternative solutions. Design Sprints are Design Thinking in action. Here are a few of the main tenets of Design Thinking to keep in mind as you run your Design Sprint.

Empathize With Your User
Everything always starts with understanding your user. The more insight you can gain into their habits, constraints, and emotional and mental states, the better your solutions will be. Put yourself in their shoes by listening to them, and compiling a detailed story of how they use your solution.

Divergent & Convergent Thinking
The cycle of divergent and convergent thinking is one of the core pillars of Design Thinking. Divergent Thinking is the process of generating as many ideas around your solution as possible, without judging or eliminating anything. Convergent Thinking helps you select the best ideas to move forward with.

Embrace Ambiguity
To invent solutions that have never been thought of before, you have to explore the edges of what’s possible. You’ll come up with ideas that aren’t great, or aren’t feasible - which might make you wonder where you’re heading. So it’s important to keep a curious, open-minded, and optimistic mindset that embraces the ambiguity of the process.

Find The “A-ha Moment”
The design process is messy and ambiguous. For most of it, we’re following threads without knowing exactly where they’re leading us. The “a-ha moment” is the moment when there’s suddenly a clear path forward. All of the divergent thinking, analysis, and testing reveals an elegantly simple solution that seems obvious in retrospect. Trust the process until you get there.

Move Fast & Start Prototyping Right Away
Design Thinking is a way to focus ongoing efforts around experimentation, sketching, prototyping, and testing. It’s not about making something that’s perfect or pretty right off the bat - it’s about cycling through a high number of ideas as quickly as possible to eliminate the bad ones and surface the good ones.

The Design Thinking process is iterative, flexible but yet focused when carried out in collaboration with various designers and users, with an emphasis on bringing ideas to life, based on how real users think, feel, and behave.

Design Sprints
The Design Sprint structure has been developed to guide you to make design decisions based on what people really want instead of assumptions or out-of-date information. The structure of sprints can vary but the format is typically follows this general flow.

Day 1 | Define The Problem
Day 1 is all about understanding who your user is and defining what success is for the sprint. By the end of the day, you and your team will define the problem, set goals, and talk to users. aligning the sprint team on what has already been learned about the problem and goals for the week. This is also a great opportunity to have experts outside of, and at the company share what they know with the sprint team. You’ll then review the problems together and start talking to users. Get out of the office and immerse yourself in your user’s perspective. Capture stories about how they are currently solving the problem by observing them in their current context, and familiarizing yourself with the competitive landscape.

Day 2 | Brainstorm
After a day of exploring the problem and how to frame it, your second day is focused on solutions. You’ll review your findings from the day before and then get into sketching solutions that you’re going to text later in the week.  Cluster the stories and data that you gathered into groups around the different aspects of the problem. This will give you a map of your problem so that you can create a full solution. The purpose is to churn out as many solutions that address your problem as possible. Throughout the day, identify any assumptions that the group is making that aren’t based on user feedback and make a list that you can validate when you talk to users again later in the week. Defer your judgement - at this point we don’t know what’s a good idea and what isn’t. Refine and rank your solutions to choose which ones you will prototype first.

Day 3 | Prototype
At this point you have a clear idea of what you’re going to prototype. Day 3 is all about bringing your insights and assumptions into a prototype that you can put in front of users on Day 4. Before you get started, assign roles to each member of the team, roles like maker, writer, reviewer, interviewer, organizer (to document and bring different ideas together in real-time). You can assign people differently depending on how many solutions you’ve decided to prototype. Then spend time storyboarding and wireframing your solution - create a clickable prototype and testing script to get ready to put it in front of users. The key at this stage is to start with simple lo-fi-prototypes so you can move as quickly as possible through validating initial concepts.

Day 4 | Test
You’ve identified a pain point, ideated multiple solutions, prototyped the best one, written a script, and now you’re ready to test. The best way to conduct user research in a Design Sprint is to set up a research lab where you have one room with the test subject and interviewer, and another room with the rest of the team and a whiteboard. Set up a computer in both rooms for a video call so that the entire team can stream a feed of the test screen and view the reactions of the tester. If that’s not an option, recording a remote video call will work great too. The purpose of the test is to see how people would use your product to complete a certain set of tasks without any help - so the role of the interviewer takes a bit of finesse. Be careful not to lead testers on to what you’re looking for them to complete. While the interviewer is focused on running a clean test, the rest of the team is in the other room observing and taking notes.

Day 5 | Review & Plan
Now you’ve got everything you need to make informed decisions on what the next best steps are for your product. Don’t be discouraged if your prototype wasn’t a smash hit. The goal isn’t to create a final product, it’s to get the feedback you need to get going in the right direction. You want to fail fast when the stakes are low. So whether people like it or not, focus on learning what you need to change to build what’s right. Share your insights and findings with the other stakeholders at your company. Start with the goal of the sprint as it relates to your broader business goals, and the user story you focused prototyping testing efforts on and why. Then go into what you found in testing and what the path forward looks like. Make decisions as a group on what elements of the product you’re going to improve and prioritize the features you’re going to design and test next.