What’s a Design Sprint and Why Does it Matter?

Design Sprint is a proven methodology to answer critical business questions in record time. Discover how it works and how you can use it for your business.

We all want to believe we’re just about to reach it — our eureka moment.

That moment when light breaks, clouds part and all those torturous months of thinking, planning, re-thinking, and re-planning finally pay off in the form of the perfect solution to our problem.

Except that day never comes. And back to countless meetings we go.

Perspiring towards perfection has a certain romantic appeal, but ultimately it robs us of the thing we want most: progress. This article is designed to give perfectionists in every form — product designers, marketers, business leaders, [insert your job here] their first introduction to a better method for getting things done: the Design Sprint.

But first, a quick look back at how we came to Sprint.

From thinking to doing: the origin of the Design Sprint

Who doesn’t love a good team brainstorm? Fresh sharpies, wild product pitches, free beer — if you’re lucky! It feels good, it feels creative, even if it leads nowhere.    

The inventor of the Design Sprint, Jake Knapp, was one such believer in brainstorms until a fellow Googler dared to ask: how do we know they are actually working?

As it turns out, there is a ton of evidence here, here, and here to suggest they’re not. While reviewing the outcomes of his own brainstorms at Google Ventures, Jake found that all the ideas that were built or launched came from focused, solo work.

His mission was clear: designing a process that combined the benefits of group work: diverse opinions and expertise, with the benefits of individual work: highly detailed solutions to problems. And so, the Design Sprint was born.

What is the Design Sprint?

Design Sprint method

The Design Sprint methodology is a five-day process for testing ideas and solving complex problems. The principle behind it is simple: getting started is more than important than being right.  

You select your dream team, clear your schedules, and start designing and testing solutions all in one week (or less with AJ&Smart’s updated Design Sprint 2.0).

The goal of the sprint process is to convert vague ideas of “what’s wrong” and “will feature X fix it?” into concrete solutions you can actually test with your target users.

How is Design Sprint 2.0 different?

Design Sprint 2.0 process

Design Sprint 2.0 is AJ&Smart’s ultimate supercut of the original week-long sprint.

One of the biggest differences between the original Google Ventures Design Sprint and the Design Sprint 2.0, is that 2.0 is optimized to work not just in startups, but also in large organizations that may not be able to commit a full week (though LEGO’s Eik Brandsgård told you shouldn’t accept b.s. excuses).

The only update approved by sprint-inventor Jake Knapp, Design Sprint 2.0 shaves an entire day off the process so you leave with a testable solution in just four days. Your team can use that Friday to chill, paint, draw, snack — but we encourage you to use it to reflect on the last few days of work with fresh, rested eyes.

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Why the Design Sprint is the hero you need:

Unstructured brainstorms tend to reward extroverts, punish introverts and prioritize quantity over quality. Summary: they are a poor choice for generating useful solutions.

Here are the top reasons you should use the Design Sprint approach instead:

  1. Group work and individual work can peacefully and productively coexist in sprints. Structured, timed exercises encourage diverse perspectives and developed ideas (with minimal distractions).
  2. You get a tangible, repeatable problem-solving process that you can use at will to push your business ideas forward.
  3. Getting real feedback from your target users means you can champion design based on data, rather than bias or intuition
  4. You can secure buy-in from stakeholders from the beginning, before investing lots of time and money.
  5. You walk away with a prototyped, tested solution.

Sprints — what are they good for?

Sprints are ideal for solving many of the problems common to start-ups and corporations alike. From high-risk business challenges to new product launches or situations where you need buy-in from stakeholders.

Here are some areas where you should definitely choose sprints:

Designing digital (and physical) products.

Design Sprints cut out months of strategy and planning discussions by adding that sexy s-word to product design: s-t-r-u-c-t-u-r-e. That means you don’t have to rely on creative intuition or divine intervention to pick the perfect package design. You can rapidly prototype and get real insights on what works.

Making customers care.

Words matter. And while you may have your winning product ready to ship, knowing how to sell it is another matter entirely. What need does it address? What’s the right tone of voice? Design Sprint exercises help you create and test broader marketing campaigns so you know what your audience likes.

Hiring the right people.

Sprints can help us make better decisions about people too. Google’s HR team used the Design Sprint methodology to help build a unified vision in their hiring process. Their goal was to identify the key values they cared about when making hiring decisions and incorporate those into their SaaS: gHire.  

Are Sprints good for every problem you have?

No. Try sprinting through your marriage problems and you’re on your own, buddy! If you’re faced with a low-impact or overly broad challenge (or a problem you can easily solve yourself) Sprints are not the best option. Watch our video for more details on when Design Sprints may not be the answer.

How exactly does the Design Sprint work?

Now that you have the theory behind why and when we choose to sprint, we’ll jump into how it’s actually done. The following overview will give a quick intro to all the juicy details (exercises) included in our updated version: Design Sprint 2.0.

Let’s dive in!

Design Sprint Day 1: Define the challenge

Design Sprint 2.0 Day 1 Monday

Ask the experts

The first part of Monday of a Design Sprint is dedicated to identifying all the key challenges being faced by the client through an exercise we call: Expert Interviews. This is where company experts (usually CEO’s, product owners, and marketing executives) answer questions about the nature of their business and the challenges they’re facing.

We put this exercise first in Design Sprint 2.0 so everyone in the group can start with a full overview of what we’re about to tackle (and it ensures we don’t spend 3+ hours rehashing these details on Day 2).    

Throughout the interviews participants create How Might We statements (HMW), that frame stated problems as potential opportunities. So an expert insight like “baked good sales are much lower than our coffee sales” would become “how might we make our cake selection more attractive to customers?”

Setting the two-year goal and noting Sprint Questions

Expert interviews become the fertile ground from which we generate our Two-Year Goal: the North Star that keeps everyone moving in the same direction. The two-year goal should be as specific as possible and approved by the Decider: the person in charge of all final decisions. Read more about what makes a good two-year goal.

Next, we consider, “what might stop us from realizing this goal?” Each concern is noted as a “can we” statement so, “we don’t have time to build in a new feature” becomes, “can we hire more developers to help speed up the process?” Stay tuned: these sprint questions will come back into play on Day 4 (or Day 5 of Design Sprint 1.0).

Map it out together (in 45 min tops)

The Design Sprint mapping exercise helps teams identify all the user’s pain points along their journey and identify a target area for your sprint.

In Design Sprint 2.0, we’ve condensed this into a high-level snapshot rather than an extremely detailed user journey. Why? Hundreds of sprints have taught us that more detail does not equal better insights. Instead, it sucks up hours of time (and tiny bits of your soul). Get the big picture and move on.

P.S. Jake Knapp, the creator of the Design Sprint, thinks that zooming out on the map is the best tactic for the exercise. Find out why in this Q&A article.

Design Sprint Day 1: Producing Solutions

Rapid-fire research and lightning demos  

Lightning Demos give your team a chance to venture out into the wild (but mostly online) and find inspiration for the Design Sprint.

The idea here is to get people researching and thinking about all the ways they can generate solutions. This could be in the form of related products, industry insights — or somewhat unrelated (but extremely inspiring) GIFs.

The 4-step sketch

Shut the laptops, close the iPads. The sketching exercise is designed to get people moving around, taking notes and sketching the solutions that appeal to them.

How it works: collect all the ideas that have been submitted throughout Day 1: from “How Might We” notes to “Can We” questions. If you see something you like, draw it! The doodling phase helps identify areas that participants find interesting. Note: ugly drawings are A-OK.

Next, we move from doodles to masterpieces-ish. Clarity and focus is everything here. Your solution sketch doesn’t have to be pretty,  but it does have to stand on its own. To remove bias throughout the sprint, each sketch will be anonymized (i.e. you won’t be there to explain the deeper meaning behind any illegible squiggles).  

And that’s day 1 done! Knowledge, acquired. Target, locked. Sketches, complete.

Design Sprint Day 2: Vote on solutions

Design Sprint 2.0 Day 2 Tuesday

Decisions, decisions, decisions. The goal on Tuesday of a Design Sprint is to have the team vote (with Decider casting the final vote) on what will be prototyped on Day 3.

First up: the heat map.

Heat Map

With all those sketches are lining the walls, it’s time to revisit those childhood days of yore and vote with stickers! During the heat map phase, participants walk around the room and identify (with tiny stickers!) all the parts of sketches they find most interesting, enabling “hot spots” to form around the most popular ideas.  

Solution presentation + Straw poll

Now it’s time for the moderator to make their way around the room, presenting all the sticker clusters (or hot spots) to the team, as well as each individual (anonymized) sketch. We then do a straw poll — a voting round where everybody places one sticker on the solution they want to move forward with.  

The final vote (dun, dun, dun!)

The morning comes to a close with the Decider’s vote — the long-anticipated moment in which one or two concepts are chosen to be prototyped. This is usually a smooth-as-butter operation, but there are times where the decider can decide (as is their right) to pull the plug.

Create the storyboard

Good news: in Design Sprint 2.0 we’ve added an exercise to the storyboarding phase of Day 2 that eliminates the “design by democracy” trap that has consumed many a great idea. It’s called User Test Flow and goes like this: everyone designs their own (rough) storyboard and we vote on the one we end up prototyping. By the end of Day 2, you’re left with a clear direction that’s ready for the build phase. Also, you can tell your experts to go home (nicely). Decision-making is done.

Design Sprint Day 3: Build that prototype

Design Sprint 2.0 Day 3 Wednesday

Marvin said it is first, “Ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.”

Wednesday of a Design Sprint is all about creating a prototype of your solution that looks and feels real. This is key to getting user-test results that reflect how your target audience would actually experience your product in the real world.

Build day is the day when all the designers and prototypers on deck put their heads down and get to work. There are usually two check-ins with the decider, a few impromptu huddles and then we p-o-w-e-r through. All building stops at 5 PM.

Design Sprint Day 4: User-testing  

Design Sprint 2.0 Day 4 Thursday

The final day has arrived! Thursday of a Design Sprint 2.0 is dedicated to user-testing. This is where we see all that hard work pay-off in the form of hard evidence about how our target market will respond to our proposed solution.  

Recruiting and scheduling

At AJ&Smart, we recruit six users: 5 + 1 extra, in case someone can’t make it (see why five users are more than enough) that match the profile of the target audience. We schedule the first set of tests for the morning and the second for the afternoon. This gives us a nice buffer zone to fix any little design inconsistencies, color changes or typos (these things happen when you are moving at superspeed!).  

Asking the right questions

The Sprint comes full-circle when we call upon the “sprint questions” identified on Day 1 to guide our conversations with users on Day 4. This is our opportunity to pose all those little doubts and concerns directly to the user to see what they think.

The main goal here is to keep your interviewees comfortable and talking. You’ll gain much more valuable sprint insights with open-ended questions that give your people a chance to speak without inhibition. The key question we pose: “If this product was the most perfect product you’d ever used, a life-changing product, what would it need to have? What would make it the best?

And that’s a wrap, folks! After four days of thinking, sketching and making some hard, fast decisions you should now be in the presence of a user-tested solution.

Use your free Friday (on the would-be Day 5) to reflect how far you’ve come and what happens next.  

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Which companies use Design Sprints?

[Raises hand!]  AJ&Smart use the Design Sprint methodology every day to build better products for our clients and help them answer key questions about their business. But we’re not alone! Since its invention, the Sprint method has become the go-to designs strategy for the world’s leading companies: Slack, Airbnb, Google, Lufthansa, LEGO (and those are just the ones we work with!)

While we can’t spill the beans on all the particulars (strict NDA’s and stuff), there are a few examples we can share.

AJ&Smart’s Design Sprint Masterclass

Design Sprint Masterclass

Yes, that’s right, we practice what we preach! Because, well…it works!  We’ve used the good ol’ Design Sprint to work on our internal challenges at AJ&Smart as well, and in 2018 we brought together a team of AJSers to figure out how we can teach as many people about the Design Sprint as possible!

Sprint Challenge

You might have picked up on this already, but we loooove spreading the word about the Design Sprint, and one of our deepest passions is teaching. Flashback to early 2018 and we were constantly traveling the globe (we still often are, actually) teaching people about the Sprint whenever we had a break between actually running Sprints for our clients. We were always getting asked if we could run more training events, and we did, but naturally, the approach of sending our team around the world doesn’t scale too well and means there’s always going to be a cap on the number of people we can help. So, in March of 2018, a team of AJSers did what they do best – a Design Sprint focused on how we could teach the Design Sprint at scale!

Design Sprint Outcome

We followed Design Sprint 2.0 to a T and it enabled us to add a whole new pillar to our business, very very quickly. Within just 4 days we’ve had a solution to the scalability problem – creating the concept for the best online course made for people who want to learn how to run Design Sprints. The prototype launched on day 4 to a test group, which then led to the launch of the Design Sprint Masterclass we know and love today, which now has over 1,000 happy customers.

Curious about how a multi-million dollar business born out of a Design Sprint looks? Check out the Masterclass website.

Share Foods

Design Sprint for a physical product of ShareFoods

Sprint Challenge

Share Foods is a European grocery brand using the one-plus-one model to provide food for people around the world suffering from hunger. Their first business hurdle was identifying what exactly their market wanted and how to create products that reflected that need — and the social mission of the brand.

Design Sprint Outcome

The Sprint process enabled Share Foods to hone their original hypothesis about their product, include more stakeholders in their design process, and get invaluable feedback about how to build the right product. As CEO Sebastian Stricker noted it also helped confirm that risk appetite and process are key for building an interesting product.

Related: Share Foods Case Study

Oak App

Design Sprint for the Oak App

Sprint Challenge

Oak is a meditation and breathing app where users can track their progress and goals. Our challenge with Oak was to help them 1) redesign their Meditation Select screen. And 2) do it all remotely!

Design Sprint Outcome

What started as a redesign of one screen, turned into an overhaul of the entire app. Using the Design Sprint process allowed us to complete what normally would be a long tiring process in a slight four weeks. The Sprint framework also gave us a watertight process to rely on to avoid unnecessary discussions and pondering, which is oh-so-important when collaborating with a remote team in remote work settings. Being featured as the App of the Day in the AppStore AND Product Hunt was a cherry on top of this Sprint.

Read more on how Oak leveraged the power of the Design Sprint here.

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