Design Sprint 101: What Is a Design Sprint, What Are They Used for, and How Can You Run Your Own?

What is a Design Sprint and what is it used for? How can you plan your own? Learn everything you need to know in this ultimate Design Sprint 101 by AJ&Smart.

You’ve heard of the Design Sprint and now you want to know: What exactly is it? Why is it so popular, and how can you incorporate it into your own work? Well, you’re in the right place. This is the ultimate Design Sprint 101. Keep reading!

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.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

Buckle up! You’re about to embark on the ultimate Design Sprint adventure…

From thinking to doing: the origin of the Design Sprint

Who doesn’t love a good team brainstorm? Fresh sharpies, wild product pitches, free snacks—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 to suggest that they’re not (like this Harvard Business Review piece on why group brainstorming is a waste of time, or this Fast Company post highlighting where brainstorming falls flat).

And, while reviewing the outcomes of his own brainstorms at Google Ventures, Jake found that all the ideas that were actually built or launched came from focused, solo work.

His mission was clear: to design 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 and how does it work?

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 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, which we’ll explain in the next section).

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. It gets relevant stakeholders together in one room (or on a video call) and encourages them to focus on one single challenge. This channels the group’s energy towards coming up with solutions and taking action, as opposed to endless discussions which don’t lead anywhere. 

You’ll learn more about how it works later on in this guide when we show you how to plan and run a Design Sprint. 

What is Design Sprint 2.0 and how is it 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 advises that 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.

Want to learn more about the Design Sprint? Join Facilitator Club and connect with experts in the field

Why the Design Sprint is the hero you need

The Design Sprint is, quite simply, the antidote to unproductive brainstorms and meetings.

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:

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

What are Design Sprints good for? When should you run a Design Sprint?

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.

Marketing campaigns and 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.  

When NOT to use the Design Sprint method

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 to plan a Design Sprint (and who should be involved)

There are several key steps involved in planning a Design Sprint. We’ll take you through them now, and point you to a more comprehensive guide you can follow when it comes to actually implementing them.

1. Understand the challenge you need to solve

You’ll define the challenge on Day 1 of the Design Sprint itself, but it’s helpful to get familiar with the ‘problem landscape’ ahead of time. Take some time to understand the team and/or organization, and the main challenges they’re facing. You can do this by chatting with key stakeholders and conducting your own initial research. This will give you a good starting point to build on during the Sprint. 

2. Establish a clear goal

Every successful workshop starts with a clearly-defined end goal. Without one, how can you possibly know where you’re headed and how to get there? Your long-term goal should emerge fairly organically as you identify the main challenges you need to solve, but it also helps to ask your Sprint team directly: “Why are we doing this? What do we want to achieve? Where do we hope to be in six months’ time?” 

3. Recruit your dream team

Who exactly should be involved in a Sprint? Good question! 

First and foremost, you’ll need a designated Decider. This is the person who will ultimately cast the deciding vote when it comes to making a decision, and it’s usually the business owner, CEO, or product manager. Your Decider will also help you assemble the rest of the Sprint team.

You should involve a mix of stakeholders and experts who can provide different insights and perspectives on the challenge. Exactly who ends up on your guest list will depend on the challenge you’re addressing and for whom (is it a whole company challenge, or something relating specifically to the marketing team?) We recommend involving no more than seven people to keep things lean and manageable. 

4. Write your Design Sprint brief

Your Design Sprint brief is a document which you’ll share with your Sprint team ahead of time to prepare them for the upcoming session. It details the problem you’re aiming to solve in the Design Sprint (i.e. the goal), the deliverables you’ll produce, a project overview (what do you already know about the challenge? What existing information and insights can the team build upon?), and a breakdown of the Sprint agenda. 

5. Prepare the room and gather the necessary materials

Design Sprints are all about shutting off from the rest of the world and focusing on one challenge. You’ll need a dedicated workspace where your Sprint team can do their thing without distractions and interruptions. If possible, find a separate room that’s clutter-free, gets plenty of natural light, and has a whiteboard and comfortable seating. 

In terms of materials, you’ll need:

  • Post-it notes in various colors and shapes/sizes
  • Small red dot stickers and large green ones (for voting)
  • Sharpies
  • Masking tape
  • Scissors
  • Glue sticks
  • White A4 paper
  • A5 paper
  • Timer
  • Speakers (for playing music—we strongly recommend having a carefully curated playlist prepared)

As promised, you’ll find a thorough step-by-step guide to planning your Design Sprint here

Next up: What actually happens in a Design Sprint? 

How to run a Design Sprint 2.0: Days 1-4 explained

Now that you have the theory behind why and when we choose to sprint, as well as how to plan your own sprint, let’s 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:

  1. Day 1: Define the challenge and produce solutions
  2. Day 2: Vote on solutions and create a storyboard
  3. Day 3: Build a prototype
  4. Day 4: Test your prototype

Let’s dive in!

Design Sprint 2.0 Day 1 Monday

Design Sprint day 1: Part 1—Define the challenge

1. Ask the experts

The first part of Monday of a Design Sprint is dedicated to identifying all the key challenges the client is facing. This is done through an exercise we call Expert Interviews. This is where company experts (usually CEOs, 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? questions (HMW), that frame stated problems as potential opportunities. So, an expert insight like “Baked goods sales are much lower than our coffee sales” would become “How might we make our cake selection more attractive to customers?”

2. 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. 

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).

3. 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: Part 2—Produce solutions

1. 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.

2. 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 2.0 Day 2 Tuesday

Design Sprint day 2: Vote on solutions

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

First up: the heat map.

1. Heat map

With your sketches lining the walls, it’s time to revisit those childhood days of yore and vote with stickers! During the heat map phase, participants move 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.  

2. 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.  

3. 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.

4. 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 2.0 Day 3 Wednesday

Design Sprint Day 3: Build that prototype

Marvin said it 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 5pm.

Design Sprint 2.0 Day 4 Thursday

Design Sprint Day 4: User testing

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.  

1. 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!).  

2. 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 is: “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.  

Join Facilitator Club and discover the support and resources you need to take your facilitation skills to the next level!

How to run a remote Design Sprint

How about running a remote Design Sprint? Is it possible? And, most importantly, is it as effective as doing it in person?

Yes, and yes! With some tweaks and adjustments, you can adapt your Design Sprint for the remote environment (which comes with its own unique challenges). 

We’ve got a whole guide dedicated to remote Sprints which you can download for free here: The Ultimate Guide to Remote Design Sprints

We’ve also got a (slightly shorter) post on how to run amazing remote Design Sprints here

In a nutshell, you’ll need to:

  1. Swap your Design Sprint room for some virtual collaboration software: Opt for a tool like Miro so you can all collaborate in real-time and have access to crucial digital tools like virtual Post-it notes, a virtual whiteboard, and participant video and chat functions.
  2. Make sure everybody’s set up on, and familiar with, your chosen software ahead of time: This is crucial for making sure that you don’t lose precious time troubleshooting on the day. Get everybody set up on Miro (or whichever tool you’re using) well before the Sprint is due to take place, and consider offering a practice run or a tutorial for those who have never used it before.
  3. Have a plan in place to deal with potential hiccups: In an ideal world, your remote Design Sprint will go off without a hitch. But, this is the real world, and there’s always a chance that technical issues or shaky Internet connections will throw a spanner in the works. Anticipate these issues when planning your Sprint and build in extra buffer time so you can deal with any hiccups and still keep your workshop on track.

 For the full rundown on remote Design Sprints, don’t forget to download our free guide

What happens after a Design Sprint?

The real beauty in the Design Sprint is that it produces actionable outcomes and solutions. After a Design Sprint, it’s essential that those outcomes are brought to life and actually implemented in some way. 

What happens next will depend on the exact nature of your Sprint.

If the product already exists and your Design Sprint is focused on improving that product, the results of your Sprint may be immediately implementable. In that case, you can probably go straight into production after the Design Sprint.

If you’ve used the Sprint method to come up with a brand new product or concept, you’ll need a follow-on Sprint to validate your idea and make sure that it’s really worth pursuing. After that, you can plug it into your usual development process. 

Design Sprint case studies: Which companies use them?

We’ve learned a lot about Design Sprints. Now you might be wondering…which companies actually use them?

[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 NDAs and stuff), there are a few interesting case studies we can share:

  • AJ&Smart’s Design Sprint Masterclass
  • Share Foods: Using the Design Sprint to design a physical product
  • Oak App: Using the Design Sprint to redesign a digital product

Keep reading to learn more about each case study. 

AJ&Smart’s 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 AJ&Smarters to figure out how we can teach as many people about the Design Sprint as possible!

What was the Design 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!

What was the 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 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: Using the Design Sprint to design a physical product

What was the Design 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.

What was the 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: Using the Design Sprint to redesign a digital product

Design Sprint for the Oak App

What was the Design 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!

What was the Design Sprint outcome?

What started as a redesign of one screen turned into an overhaul of the entire app. Using the Design Sprint method allowed us to complete what would normally 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.

How to get professionally trained to run Design Sprints

If you love Design Sprints as much as we do, you can actually become a professional Design Sprint leader. We’ve got all the resources you’ll need to master the art and skill of running Design Sprints, including:

And that’s a wrap for our Design Sprint 101! You now know exactly what a Design Sprint is, what they’re used for, and why they’re so awesome. You’ve also got lots of tools and resources to help you plan and run your own Design Sprints. Woohoo! Happy Sprinting! 

Emily Stevens