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Design sprint: a high-pressure week

Successful innovation is no coincidence – it is the result of a design process that consistently focuses on the user and is open for experiments while being efficient and tailored to the project at hand. To this end, we use design sprints* for our projects. Svenja Noä, Senior User Experience Consultant with UID, explains the method:

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Svenja: "Just like a 400m hurdle race, design sprint combines speed and concentration. In only five days, we perform a mammoth task together with the client’s multidisciplinary team:

  • Monday: analysis – developing a common understanding of the target and the questions to be answered during the week; defining the sprint’s focus
  • Tuesday: ideation – gathering inspiration and generating ideas in a multi-tier process
  • Wednesday: decision – selecting the ideas to be developed as prototypes; planning prototype development
  • Thursday: prototyping – bringing the idea to life as realistically as possible
  • Friday: test – testing the solution with five real users; the team evaluates the tests "on the fly"
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Who should participate?

A good mix of professions widens the horizon and the knowledge base for sprint ideas. Do not hesitate to invite participants from other fields. This allows for new team solutions reflecting various fields of expertise that nobody would have considered otherwise. If the design perspective is not sufficiently represented in your teams, I suggest taking external experience designers on board. Professional lateral thinkers often manage, in no time at all, to inspire the sprint team to keep thinking – and to keep thinking differently. This also makes life easier for the moderator who, in his role, only has limited influence on the technical development of the process.

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What needs to be prepared?

The tightly scheduled sprint week leaves no time for elaborate discussions on the context of use. Any information on targets and requirements of users and stakeholders needs to be provided upfront, including qualitative user interviews supplemented by customer service data or survey findings. Invite providers of such information for a short presentation on day 1 or even ask them to attend the entire sprint.

What is indispensable?

The design sprint requires the decision maker to be present – at least temporarily. It is mandatory for the role of the decision maker to be taken on by the person that bears the responsibility for the product or solution to be developed. This ensures that decisions remain binding beyond the duration of the sprint and that the participants’ time is spent wisely.

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What are the prerequisites?

The sprint format is quite demanding on the participants: For six hours per day, they have to be highly focused in the workshop room while their daily business comes to a standstill. For many participants this means that they have to put in extra early-morning or late-night shifts. Therefore it is all the more important to provide a pleasant atmosphere and good food: breaks, healthy snacks and beverages as well as a team lunch keep spirits up.

When to use which process?

What is the right scenario to use design thinking, design sprint or human-centered design?
"What is the future of public transport in Munich?" is a very open question that is perfect for design thinking. Design sprints, however, are used for very specific questions that are closely related to the current situation. For example: "How can demand in public transport on weekends be increased to achieve a better utilization?"

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Design sprint focuses on speedy, creative answers to a specific question – and generates real user feedback within five days. It is therefore perfectly suited for early project stages when fast and well-founded decisions need to be made. In the course of the project, individual questions can be easily addressed in sprints, too.

In order to achieve quick exploitable results, the sprint needs to be limited to individual aspects of a solution. The human-centered design process, however, – following or independently of a sprint – can be used for detailing the product.

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False starts in design sprint

Obstacles for efficient sprinting:

  • There is no management buy-in: the management considers design sprints to be optional playgrounds and does not expect relevant product decisions.
  • No decision maker is available or decisions are delegated to the team.
  • The decision maker is already convinced of a particular solution before the sprint and only attempts to legitimize it through the team process.
  • Team members are not released from the daily duties to perform the sprint.
  • The team is very homogenous and has already repeatedly pondered over the current problems in the same constellation.
  • Team members feel insecure about their role in the sprint or are not used to their ideas being valued.

This goes to show one thing:
Apart from the speed and concentration of a sprinter, it takes the stamina of a marathon runner and the team spirit of a relay team to make the sprint week a success and to keep the sprinters happy.

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About Svenja

Svenja Noä is a Senior User Experience Consultant with User Interface Design GmbH in Mannheim. Being an interaction designer with additional qualifications as a usability consultant she works at the interface between design, psychology and computer science. The graduate designer compensates the efforts of creative sprinting with gardening, drawing and yoga.

* design sprints based on the Google Ventures model, as described by Jake Knapp in "Sprint. How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just 5 Days", Redline 2016