How to Make the Most of Your Design Sprint

I participated in my very first design sprint two years ago and recently got a chance to be part of another Google Ventures (GV) inspired design sprint. Although, the process was effective and I agree with the principles of the GV design sprint, I do think there are a handful of gaps in the process. Based on my learnings, I thought I’d pull together a little guide on how to make the most of your design sprint.

Since 2012, Google Ventures has been introducing design sprints to their portfolio companies and other companies around the world. However, in the last year or so, design sprints have grown in popularity due to the book Jake Knapp (and friends) published: Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days.

Some product professionals swear by this design sprint process and attribute major innovations in their businesses to following this methodology. However, as I mentioned earlier, I think the book left out some crucial pieces. These pieces become even more crucial when you have someone who has never participated in a sprint before running (or facilitating) the sprint.

The basic idea of the design sprint is that a team can quickly learn and iterate without spending precious time, money, and other resources on the actual development of a product. This means the team will be getting invalidation on a bad ideas quickly and allow the good ideas to bubble up.

The book divides the days up with one main task for each day and then several activities that support the main task for the day. In this guide, I’ll go through my top recommendations on how to make the most of your design sprint.

Here we go!

Find an Experienced Facilitator

The facilitator is someone who is crucial to making the most of your design sprint. This person is the one who keeps the team on track, takes notes, and makes sure the process is running smoothly. The best sprint facilitators are ones who are somewhat experienced in facilitating design sprints.

If you in a bind and need to designate someone who may not be an experienced sprint facilitator, that is okay… but keep in mind, it is NOT ideal and may cause a few hiccups in the process.

The benefit of having someone experienced run your design sprint is that they will quickly and easily be able to detect problems as they arise. For example, the facilitator can direct the team to ensure activities are properly executed or settle any debates that come up.

Handing the power to navigate a sprint to one (experienced) person gives the team permission to follow that person’s direction. This eliminates confusion and is the best way to make the most of your design sprint.

Be Okay with Uncertainty

The most difficult part of day one, in my opinion, is for everyone on the team to be okay with uncertainty. People who are familiar with creative processes in general are pretty familiar with uncertainty when solving problems and these people have learned to let solutions arise at the right time.

As I mentioned earlier, I got to participate in a design sprint a few weeks ago as the “UX/design expert” on the team. This was a design sprint for a very small technology startup that wanted to solidify their product-market fit before building a product solution.

In this recent sprint experience, I noticed it was tough for some of the team members to put aside their urgent need for a product solution and surrender to the process. It was also initially difficult to be open to new ideas. The team members that had been working on solving this problem for months had already gone through iterations and ideas and it was tough for them to put some of those preconceived notions aside.

Looking back, I think it is important to spend time at the beginning of the process to lay out an agenda and set expectations about what is open to change and what is not. It’s important to set the precedence and let everyone get comfortable with the “gray area’ or not knowing the answer right away.

It is also important to let the group know that the research they have done until now won’t go to waste, but they need to let this process work before mentally committing to  those solutions (especially on Day 1).

Sometimes it takes living in the gray area for a while to be able to wade through options and come up with the appropriate solution.

Embrace the uncertainty; it’ll serve you well for this five day whirlwind.

Set the Right Goals

This lesson is crucial. In fact, the design sprint I was a part of recently got incredible derailed by this one piece. The team had failed to set a specific goal on Day 1 of the sprint, so by the time day two rolled around and we began the activities, we were feeling overwhelmed by the broadness of possibilities.

What we had to do to solve this was to actually go back and redo Day 1 (in an abbreviated manner) so that we could come up with an appropriate goal that targeted a specific area of the business.

We could have avoided this mishap by going over some basic criteria of what the sprint goal should include. Though the GV book covers this loosely, it didn’t provide enough color for the team to feel confident on how the final sprint goal should look.

I think it’s worth thinking about the sprint goal as a non-leading question on a specified area of the business in question. This way the team is not feeling limited or overwhelmed when going into Day 2, 3 and so on.

Recruit Someone to Recruit

One thing that we quickly figured out during our five day sprint was that each participant and the facilitator needed to be 100% focused on the sprint activities for the day. This meant, in reality, we didn’t really have time to recruit participants for Day 5 of the sprint. (Day 5 in the GV sprint is supposed to be a full day of user interviews to test the hypothesis and prototype that were the outcome of Days 1 through 4).

The GV book sneaks in extra tasks during the week to get done during the “down time” of the sprint. In reality, we found that there was really no “down time” since there was so many activities packed into each day. In fact, the book gives you a detailed scheduled down to the exact times of breaks and lunch!

So if there is no time to recruit participants for Day 5, how do you still make Day 5 happen? My recommendation is to actually recruit an additional person who doesn’t participate in the sprint, but can can take the lead on recruiting participants.

This person needs to be briefed on the sprint goal, sprint questions, and the requirements of the study participants for Day 5. This person can then post an ad or Craigslist (or wherever), send out screeners and schedule participants.

This makes life SO much easier.

Trust me.

Since we had to do this in addition to being in the sprint itself, we had many little mistakes in the process of scheduling, sending out confirmation messages and so on. This person perhaps spends 10 hours or so during the week to help in the recruiting process and probably doesn’t participate in the sprint. Having someone designated to just recruit will help keep stress levels lower during a week where every minute is packed with important activities.

Don’t Get Swept Away in Debates

This one’s tricky. Naturally, you’re going to choose passionate people who have good ideas to be part of your sprint. The difficulty with this is that these are the kinds of people that tend to also get swept away by discussions and debates in the moment.

Most of the time, this isn’t a big deal, but since the GV design sprint is very specifically planned, 10 minute debates can really derail the process. Not only that, but they tend to be counter-productive in design sprints.

In the most recent design sprint I participated in, I saw that every time we had a debate, we didn’t really get to a conclusion in a moment, and we ended up just wasting time. Sometimes this can be avoided if the facilitator takes control of the situation to bring everyone back to the task at hand. But there are also times when even that doesn’t work.

The best way to make the most of your design sprint is to be very clear and set expectations firmly in the very beginning of the sprint. I would go so far as to spend 1 minute setting these expectations at the beginning of every day of the sprint.

The GV design sprint book only touches on this a few times, but I think it needs to be brought up frequently. The team should be extremely aware that debating derails the sprint and ends up being just a waste of time. Don’t get me wrong, some debating is good when (especially in Day 1 and 2 of the design sprint), but there are moments when that will get in the way of the sprint process. The facilitator is the best person to be reminding the team of this on a regular basis during the course of the sprint.

Be Strict About Breaks

The final tip to making the most of your design sprint is to be strict about taking breaks. This one is probably the most underrated part of the GV design sprint. If I had to take a guess, it is also probably the most frequently skipped part of the sprint. When we get caught up in the tasks of the sprint it is easy to just want to keep going and power through the scheduled breaks.

In the design sprint I was part of recently, we only too breaks 3 out of 5 days of the sprint. We often had to push through breaks in order to make up for lost time. This seemed like a good idea at the time, but the issue was that without moments to refresh and grab a snack, we were burning out mentally.

Since the design sprint is a creative process, it is imperative that the team doesn’t burn out. One of the most efficient ways to ensure this is to be strict about taking breaks at regular intervals and letting the breaks run the full ten minute lengths.
Again, this is one of those things that the team has to agree upon up front and the facilitator needs to help implement during the design sprint itself.

And there you have it, folks! These are just my top recommendations to make the most of your design sprint. Have you been part of a design before? What were your learnings from the sprint? Do you think the GV book left some pieces out? Comment below or direct message me on Instagram at @theuxqueen; I’d love to hear your thoughts!!


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