Design Sprints Exposed. Why they are Failing Designers

June 3, 2024
John Vetan

Part 1

Design sprints have been around for a while now. The concept was introduced in 2016, thanks to Jake Knapp’s book “Sprint.” The book became an instant bestseller, and the design sprint was the new kid on the block. A design sprint is a five-day process for solving problems and testing new ideas through prototyping and user feedback. You can read the article "What is a design sprint?" from our blog for more details.

It seemed to have a bright future ahead. Yet today, design sprints have not lived up to the hype and promise. There is no large-scale adoption of the method like Agile Sprints. They are not a golden standard or an example of best practice in any domain or workflow. However, that doesn't mean they lack value—on the contrary, but we’ll get to that a bit later.

Why is that? And are design sprints still relevant in 2024?

After running design sprints since 2016 and teaching the process to over 3,000 people, we have gathered enough data points and insights to have some informed answers.

In short, the answer is yes. Design sprints still have lots of potential and great benefits for organizations, but where things went wrong was the path to adoption and, ultimately, the misuse of design sprints. In this article, I will go into more detail about this and then show how organizations should approach design sprints to reap the benefits.

Let's dive into the reasons why design sprints haven't reached their full potential.


The Naming Confusion

When design sprints were first introduced, many designers quickly adopted the method. The process had the term "design" in it, and the book was written by designers; it seemed like a perfect fit. 

When we launched the first design sprint training in the world in 2016, guess who made up the majority of the participants? You guessed it, designers. In fact, designers made up most of the cohorts until 2020, when we discontinued the public boot camps due to the pandemic.

Also, the world of design initially repelled pretty much everyone, and it took a while until corporate innovators, product managers, agile coaches, business consultants and freelance facilitators started to show interest.

Designers were early adopters 

As I mentioned, designers were the early adopters, many turning design sprint facilitators (most very good ones actually). However, as the novelty wore off, designers found the process less useful than anticipated. Here’s why:

Skill Overlap:

Designers already possess the skills integral to design sprints. Activities such as user interviews, ideation, prototyping, and testing are part of their daily routine, making the structured format of a sprint feel redundant. While this familiarity initially drew designers to design sprints, they quickly started to see it as a waste of time and inefficient for a group of people to perform ‘designer activities’ over several days when a designer could accomplish it much faster on their own. Additionally, some designers feel threatened, fearing that others might encroach on their roles.

To illustrate this perspective, here is a snapshot from Reddit where a designer expresses their views:

A good designer with a good team is able to leverage their strategic thinking and solid relationships to efficiently gather date (tech limitations/abilities, past research, priorities) and produce ideas. Far more effectively than a Design Sprint.

Granular Level Work:

Designers often work on detailed aspects of projects that don't justify a design sprint's broad, intensive investment. While there are exceptions, the major decisions have already been made by the time projects reach the design phase. The direction is set, stories are written, and designers are focused on delivering a great user experience and intuitive interfaces. They conduct necessary usability testing and ensure everything is ready in time for development to start. Designers have the tools and methods to accomplish this, so ​​design sprints might not always be the best fit for highly specific design tasks.

Design Sprints are not the best approach here

Lack of Authority

In most organizations, product decisions are made by, no surprise,  product managers. And design sprints are about making product decisions, whether that's validating a product idea, direction, or vision. That's why pushing forward the results of a design sprint often exceeds the decision-making power of a designer if they ever attempt to do one. This can lead to frustration, making the process feel like a wasted effort. 

However, this point brings us to who design sprints are really for and where they can bring significant value. Stay tuned for Part 2, where we’ll explore how organizations can harness the true power of design sprints and use them as a competitive advantage.