What is a Design Sprint?

March 18, 2021
John Vetan

A little preamble to explain why design sprints came to be. We’re all too busy, have too many meetings on our calendars, and overflowing inboxes make us spend too much time on email. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to do focused, meaningful work on what’s really important. That’s where the design sprint comes in to help us get real work done, to get big ideas off the ground and gain momentum.

What is a Design Sprint?

The Design Sprint is an effective process to solve big challenges and test new ideas in less than a week.

During this intense five-day workshop, a team of cross-functional experts, each bringing their unique perspective and expertise, will tackle a big problem.  The structured approach includes understanding the problem, ideating solutions, making decisions, creating prototypes, and testing these with real users - finishing with actionable insights and validated solutions.

Contrary to what the name might suggest, Design Sprints are not limited to designers or design-related projects only. They are particularly effective for diverse teams across various industries looking to kick off major projects or address complex, multifaceted challenges that require cross-functional collaboration and a mix of expertise. So they work just as well for a company that’s building apps, a bank that’s creating financial products or a manufacturer optimizing how their factories operate.

When to run a Design Sprint?

The Design Sprint framework is ideal whenever an organization or team needs to answer critical business questions, get unstuck from project roadblocks, or tackle complex problems that lack clear solutions and require cross-functional collaboration.

Here are some scenarios where a Design Sprint can be particularly effective:

Testing new business models and value propositions -  when exploring uncharted territories, a Design Sprint can help teams quickly formulate hypotheses and test novel concepts.

Kicking off a big project - At the start of a major project, a Design Sprint helps align the team, clarify objectives, and establish a clear path forward.

Digital transformation initiatives -For digitalization efforts, a Design Sprint provides a platform to explore and test technological options for digitizing manual processes and workflows.

Validating new products/features - when developing new products and features, design sprints help by validating them with actual users before committing to full-scale development.

Optimizing a process - When dealing with slow, broken, or inefficient operational/internal processes, Design Sprints offer a structured approach to identify and implement improvements.

Types of Design Sprints

Based on the above scenarios, let's explore some common applications of Design Sprints and the outcomes teams and organizations can expect after a focused week of work.

Product Design Sprint

Focuses on developing and validating new features and products, enabling teams to rapidly conceptualize, prototype, and test product ideas with users. It’s ideal for quickly iterating on product concepts before committing to full-scale development.

🎯 Outcomes:  Product-market fit and a user-validated prototype.

Vision Design Sprint

Geared towards defining or redefining a company’s future direction. Ideal for setting up new ventures, creating new value propositions or new business models.

🎯 Outcomes:  A vision trailer showing the customers’ journey and experience in an ideal future through storyboards, pitch decks or demo videos - and their impression of it.

Process Design Sprint

Targets the improvement of internal processes and workflows.  It's beneficial for organizations undertaking digital transformation or looking to enhance productivity, quality, or their employee experience.

🎯 Outcomes: A visual blueprint of the future process, complemented by stakeholder feedback.

Strategy Design Sprint

Used for developing business strategies,  addressing strategic challenges, and making important decisions. This sprint type helps teams align on business objectives, explore new market opportunities, and create actionable plans - compressing months of planning into one week.

🎯 Outcomes: A high-level leadership-validated roadmap of next steps.

AI Design Sprint

Focuses on developing AI-powered solutions or integrating AI into existing products, services, or processes. It's suited for companies looking to leverage AI for innovation or operational improvement.

🎯 Outcomes: A visualization of the AI solution and high-level implementation roadmap

Each of these sprints leverages the core principles of the Design Sprint methodology — rapid ideation, prototyping, and testing — while being tailored to achieve specific outcomes. They align teams, provide clarity on future direction, and the early solution validation from actual users allows teams to move forward with confidence.

What Do You Need for a Design Sprint?

Although the design sprint is a powerful tool for innovation and problem-solving, its success hinges on a few key prerequisites:

A Clearly Defined Challenge.

This challenge must be well-articulated, specific, tangible, and worth the effort and investment.

A Team of Experts.

A team of 7 - 10 people, each with expertise related to the challenge, who can contribute different perspectives to the solution. This diversity is important for covering all aspects of the problem - feasibility, desirability, and viability.

A Specific Persona.

Identify and understand the persona who will benefit from the solution. This could be a user, customer, or internal stakeholder, depending on the challenge you are tackling. Their needs, desired outcomes, and pain points will inform the sprint activities.

On the final day of the sprint, you will test the prototype of your solution with these personas to see how well it addresses their needs.

Each of these elements depends on each other and is critical to the sprint’s success. Without a well-defined challenge, assembling a team of experts becomes a shot in the dark. Similarly, without understanding the target persona, solutions will be based on assumptions rather than insights. And without the right mix of expertise, the solutions generated may lack quality.

The 4-day design sprint

What Happens in a Design Sprint?

The cross-functional team of experts moves from the problem to a tested solution in just four days, following a clear and well-structured process with six distinct phases.

Here’s a closer look at the stages:

Day 1 (morning): Understand

The sprint starts with a deep dive into the challenge. Each expert in the team shares their unique perspective on the problem, aligning around a common understanding of the problem space. The team then empathizes with users and maps out their journeys, experiences or processes. This stage is crucial for identifying pain points and opportunities, setting the stage for targeted solutions later.

Day 1 (afternoon): Define

Once the team gains a shared understanding of the problem, they are ready to define the sprint's direction, the most critical point in their customer journey and come up with questions that need answers by the end of the week. These questions would then drive solutions to be built and tested.

Day 1 (afternoon): Define

With a shared understanding of the problem, the team is ready to define the sprint's direction. They focus on the most critical aspects of the customer journey and formulate key questions (risks, blockers, hypotheses) that the future solution must address. These questions guide the ideation process and the development of solutions later in the sprint.

Day 2 (morning): Ideate

With a clear goal and set of questions, the team shifts into solution mode. Each team member creates a distinct solution to the problem, resulting in 7 to 10 unique proposals.

Day 2 (afternoon): Decide

With so many solutions to choose from, this phase is about crisp decision-making. The team evaluates each concept following a fair, unbiased process to select the best ideas, which are then integrated into a “storyboard”—the blueprint for the prototype to be built and tested with actual users.

Day 3: Prototype

The team will spend one day building a realistic façade of the concept for testing. The goal is to simulate the real experience sufficiently to test key aspects and answer the important questions and hypotheses formulated in day one.

Day 4: Test

On the last day of the sprint, the prototype is tested with five users, which will validate or invalidate the solution. By the end of this stage, the team has clear insights on how to move forward, regardless of the level of validation achieved. It’s similar to having a magic crystal ball that shows the future, telling you if something works or not and why that is.

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Why does it work? The Design Sprint Principles

Most meetings and collaboration sessions suffer from common pitfalls: dominant voices overshadow others, not everyone gets a chance to contribute, and bias and groupthink often prevail. Discussions can be unstructured and circular, leading to loss of relevant information. Typically, these meetings result in setting up another meeting, settling for a consensus on the least worst idea, or deferring to the most senior person's likely biased decision.

The Design Sprint method avoids these pitfalls by adhering to the following core principles:

1. Together alone

Design Sprints harness the power of silence. Allowing time for silent reflection enables every team member, especially introverts, to organize their thoughts independently. This encourages everyone to contribute and prevents ‘group think’ or dominant voices to lead.

2. Tangible discussion

In a Design Sprint, everything is captured. Hundreds of color-coded sticky notes replace the team’s short-term memory and help focus attention on what matters the most. This tangible approach to discussions makes it easier to track ideas, identify patterns, and prioritize effectively.

3. Everyone has a voice

Nobody is left behind in a Design Sprint. A Design Sprint Facilitator manages the group dynamics and the conversations and ensures every participant has the opportunity to voice their opinions and contribute to decision-making.

4. Strict time boundaries

Design Sprints follow a strict, structured schedule. Every activity is time-boxed, keeping the team focused on the task and what’s important. The strict time boundaries allow the team to progress efficiently through the week while giving enough attention to each phase.

What Are the Key Roles in a Design Sprint?

🎩 The Design Sprint Facilitator Role

The Design Sprint Facilitator is a ‘neutral’ third-party guide who’s responsible for preparing the sprint, keeping everyone on track, managing the time and the process, enforcing the “rules of the game,” managing the group dynamics and the conversations, and documenting the sprint progress and outcomes for future reference and action.

👑 The Decider Role

The Decider is a business stakeholder with the authority to advance or kill the project. Typically accountable for the project's outcomes and future implementation beyond the sprint week, this role is crucial. It ensures the sprint aligns with organizational business goals and that its outcomes will be implemented. During the sprint, the Decider articulates the project vision, selects the solutions for prototyping, and makes critical decisions to keep the group moving forward.

💪 The Sprint Team Member

Team Members are the subject matter experts whose insights and skills are needed to solve the sprint's challenge. In a Design Sprint, their role is to share their expertise, contribute ideas, and collaborate to find solutions to the identified challenge.

When not to run a Design Sprint?

While Design Sprints are a powerful tool for innovation and problem-solving, it's crucial to understand their limitations, particularly given the significant investment they require. Here are scenarios where a Design Sprint might not be the most effective approach:

❌ Scope is too broad.  Trying to cover all aspects of a complex product or service simultaneously isn't feasible in a Design Sprint, which is focused on addressing specific, well-defined challenges.

The problem is not clear. Although effective in problem-solving, Design Sprints are not suited for defining problems. If the problem isn't well-articulated, a Problem Framing process should be considered first.

Pre-determined solutions. If the solution is already known or decided upon, running a design sprint would be a complete waste of energy and resources.

Purely Technical Solutions: Design Sprints thrive on cross-functional collaboration. Challenges that are strictly technical and require deep, specific expertise (e.g., designing an engine, setting up cloud infrastructure, or performing heart surgery) are not suitable for a Design Sprint.

Lack of an Implementation Plan: Without a clear plan or support for executing the outcomes of the sprint, the effort put into the sprint risks being wasted.

Minor Enhancements: Design Sprints are not intended for minor tweaks to products or services. They are most effective for tackling big challenges and validating strategic directions rather than as a replacement for standard design/UX processes.

Conclusion

Design Sprints have the potential to transform organizations as they help teams break from business as usual and focus on work that really matters. With its structured, recipe-like format, the process is easy to adopt and scale, leading to predictable, effective, and repeatable results.

In today's landscape, marked by geopolitical challenges, technical disruptions such as AI, shifts in work paradigms, and the evolving values of new generations, Design Sprints can be a game-changer. They empower organizations to move fast, stay ahead of the competition, and make confident, informed decisions when facing uncertainty and the unknown.