Enterprise Design Sprints

Beyond the five phases


by Richard Banfield

The design sprint process works because it’s flexible. My advice is to treat it as a framework and don’t get bogged down in the exact processes outlined in this or other books. Every situation and organization is different enough that some customization will be necessary. Let’s talk about how to customize a design sprint for your specific needs.

There’s really no limit to how you can use the elements of the design sprint. Each exercise in each phase can be used in isolation or scaled to meet the needs of the problem. After all, the process is the scientific method applied in a highly efficient and time-boxed manner.

Time constraints

As important as the timebox is, it’s more important that you choose a time frame that suits your needs and fits the team’s availability. You don’t have to stick to five days if that means your team can’t be there. Doing something is better than not doing anything at all.

Jenny Gove, Kai Haley, and Marta Rey Babarro from Google discuss tactics for getting participation from people across the organization, including stakeholders and executives.

Conversely, trying to tackle too wide a scope or running too many back-to-back design sprints can result in the team running out of bandwidth or suffering from fatigue brought on by the intensive thinking and creative work required.

Instead of being too optimistic, tackle one problem at a time. Solving one juicy problem per design sprint is good enough. Focusing on one problem also helps avoid participant burnout. Asking people to step away from their desks for a whole week to participate in a design sprint is always a significant ask. It’s a worthwhile endeavor, but if you recruit participants for multiple design sprints, you’ll run into resistance pretty quickly and find it hard to recruit participants for future sprints.

Switching exercises

Swapping out a few activities in the course of a design sprint is common practice. Depending on your goals and what research you already have, this is perfectly acceptable.

When it comes time to create an agenda you can also prioritize certain exercises. For example, you may choose to spend more time exploring the user versus exploring the problem. You wouldn’t want to completely ignore the problem statement, but allotted less time for it if understanding your customers is the priority.

In short, consider that each exercise in a design sprint is also a standalone tool that produces clarity on an issue. These independent building blocks give you flexibility over the scope of the process. Adding more exercises gives you more confidence in your answers, but requires more time. Ultimately, what you add or subtract will depend on the level of risk you’re willing to accept.

Planning for your specific organizational needs

Because almost all the exercises have the ability to function independently, you could conceivably use many of them for different purposes. For example, having your team do eight-ups at the start of a design session can open up new creative pathways and get them thinking differently about a solution. Practicing interview sessions with teammates at the end of the Understand phase can fine tune the way you think about both the problem and the solution.

Once you’re familiar with the five phases, you can start experimenting with when and how you might fine tune them for your organization. For example, we mentioned in chapter 1 how Home Depot’s design leads formalized a preliminary research process. “We decided to partner with our user-research team to really get an understanding of the necessary research inputs that we need for each of the design’s frontiers,” said Brooke Creef.

Laine Henry, senior UX Designer at Northwestern Mutual sees customization of the design sprint structure as critical to their success, too. Her teams build presentation time into design sprints to share the ongoing work with the larger organization. “We will structure our [stakeholder] presentations either post-launch or during the process. We structure in-depth presentations along with the design sprint process, so you can see the iterative approach, you can see that fidelity, you can see the key decision points, the problem statements, the design principles,” she explains.

Laine Henry and Scott Yim from Northwestern Mutual talk about how sprints help teams build alignment on vision.

Henry believes the in-line presentation structure gives them the momentum they need in their large organization. “We are effectively reinforcing the design sprint value and also getting buy-in at the same time, so everyone becomes super familiar with that process, and they almost expect it.”

The structure and timing of a design sprint might also change to match how a company plans its product delivery or roadmap. “We map our design sprints to what we call inline innovation. So we’re tying the design sprints to the current roadmap items and ideating around those,” says Creef. “But then additionally, as the program is gaining traction, we are getting ahead of the roadmap, and we’re pushing some roadmap items as well. So it’s been kind of like a dichotomy of the two, of being roadmap driven, and then also driving the roadmap.”

Industry-specific applications of design sprints

Over the years, I’ve seen how design sprints can be applied to many enterprise scenarios. I’ve run design sprints for marketing teams, executive groups, and to tackle internal operational problems. I’ve heard of design sprints used to develop fundraising solutions for large nonprofits and even to plan individual careers.

To demonstrate the variety of scenarios in which a design sprint can be used, I’ve asked some of my colleagues and facilitators to share stories about their favorite enterprise sprints:

Industry: Pharmaceutical data

Problem: How will our customer access the data we collect?

How the design sprint helped: This particular organization had a very strong engineering culture and would lean toward software solutions for every problem they encountered. The design sprint was used to clarify how the customer, in this case, physicians, preferred to be engaged and what solution would be most attractive to them. Testing a prototype revealed that the customer preferred a non-digital and face-to-face approach to interacting with the data. This saved the company a year or more of effort.

Industry: Education

Problem: Should we develop a national scholarship program that will also increase awareness of our brand?

How the design sprint helped: The design sprint addressed this question, establishing that the scholarship would be welcomed by the market, but may not have the brand impact the company was seeking. The new insight allowed this education business to separate one initiative—the scholarship—from another, the need for better brand awareness. The design sprint work also acted as a workshop to educate the product team on how to facilitate design sprints.

Industry: Software development solutions

Problem: How do we take a difficult-to-use solution and make it easier for new customers to use in a way that makes them more successful?

How the design sprint helped: The participant team initially thought they had to design for a very sophisticated and meticulous user. During day one of the design sprint, user personas were separated from functional roles to ensure that buyers of the product weren’t being conflated with users of the product. The new personas mapped directly to different levels of sophistication. The result showed that small changes could be made to the product to serve less sophisticated customers and prospects without sacrificing functionality for the more sophisticated user base.

Industry: Biopharmaceutical

Problem: Do we need to modernize the UX and UI of an existing application to ensure customer loyalty?

How the design sprint helped: The problem assumed that external customers would need an improved UX/UI experience to secure their commitment to the product. The design sprint revealed that updating the UX/UI was not a problem the customer cared about but that internal customers, the employees of the company, were frustrated with the product UX/UI. By creating a prototype with an improved user flow to support the most common and critical employee tasks, the employee’s satisfaction was measurably higher.


Maintaining momentum after the sprint

After the heavy lifting is over, what should you do with the findings of your design sprint? The nature of seeking answers means every design sprint will have a different outcome.

The mantra for post-sprint action is: capture, iterate, and continue.

Although the team will have been capturing individual notes, insights, and test results throughout the design sprint, it’s also important to document the overall impact of the sprint. I like to remind my teams that we’re creating understanding, not just prototypes. The artifacts created will be the most visible part of the sprint, but those don’t tell the whole story. At the close of the design sprint, facilitators and note takers need to write up a summary of the week’s work. My recommendation is to try to do this in one page or less.

The path forward will be determined by your validation test results and the clarity of the answers. If a test invalidated your assumptions, that is as much a path forward as a result that validated your assumption. A clear answer means you’ll have strong signals as to what comes next. Weak, or unconvincing answers, usually means you’re going to have to narrow your focus.

Reporting out to the organization

Without exception, in the enterprise organization, it’s important to close the loop and provide feedback to stakeholders. Planning a formal what-we-discovered session on the last day of the sprint for senior stakeholders is a highly effective way to get the support needed for ongoing efforts.

Senior stakeholders are not the only people that need to be kept in the loop. Momentum is far easier to maintain when frequent follow-up with participants is scheduled.

“What we have implemented is a two-week check-in,” says Pluralsight’s Bhavika Shah. “Every two weeks after the sprint, we check in and everyone reports back on progress either on individual work that relates to our overarching outcome or the experiment that we want to do. We start vetting the feasibility of that experiment and chipping away at that, assess where we’re at, and figure out what we want to do next.”

It’s often worth booking a room for an extra week so team members have plenty of opportunities to walk non-participants through the artifacts and outcomes. But remember that the design sprint is less about creating pretty artifacts and more about finding answers. To ensure that these answers reach the influencers or senior decision makers, it’ll also be important to define what needs to be done next and who is responsible for doing the follow-up work.

“I was really nervous about setting this up because I had never really done anything like this before,” says Shah, “And I thought I had to have it figured out before it would be worth everyone’s time to come together. I guess my lesson learned is that there’s always value in collaborating. You don’t need to have a perfect session figured out in order for it to be worth everyone’s time. Just spending a couple of days together can bring a lot of ideas to the surface that have been kind of in the back of people’s minds. And just the power of having so many different perspectives in the room can make it really easy to flesh out ideas or problems that you’ve been thinking about but you haven’t necessarily had the space to resolve on your own.”

A powerful tool in your belt

As Shah suggests, the advantages of the design sprint are immediate and go well beyond the outcomes of the sprint itself. “We want to take over the world with this,” says Home Depot’s Paul Stonick, talking about the power of the design sprint. “You probably read the article by Lego. If you read it, line-for-line, and compare that with what we’re doing line-for-line in Brooke’s articles, and how we’re operating, we’re doing exactly the same thing.”

Stonick is referring to Lego’s use of design sprints to teach an entire organization the value of design thinking. “We’ve been doing it from a grassroots level in terms of scaling, and now making partnerships with different parts of the organization. It’s something we can bring to other parts of the organization.”

The momentum that companies like Home Depot, Lego, and Pluralsight are building is fundamental to their competitive advantage. These enterprises are benefitting directly from the transformational work of the design sprint. “There is a cultural shift in how we work,” says Stonick. “Even our CMO has been exposed to what design sprints can do, and the benefits of it. Basically, he’s said, ‘We should be working like this all the time.’ So there’s a lot of business transformation going on through design sprints.”

Stonick and Shah’s insights are not unique. The opportunity to connect people from different backgrounds and experiences seems to be a foundation for positive collaboration and the basis for digital transformation. Many of the people I’ve worked with and interviewed consider the design sprint a clever tool to get people talking to each other. I hope you discover that same thing.


About the Authors

Richard Banfield
CEO, Fresh Tilled Soil

Richard recently published Enterprise Design Sprints, a collaboration with InVision. Before that he published Product Leadership: How Top Product Managers Launch Awesome Products and Build Successful Teams, which he co-authored with Nate Walkingshaw and Martin Eriksson. He also authored Design Leadership and Design Sprint: A Practical Guidebook for Building Great Digital Products, which he c-oauthored with CTodd Lombardo and Trace Wax.

Richard is the CEO and co-founder of Fresh Tilled Soil, and under his leadership, Fresh Tilled Soil has delivered UX and product design to 700+ clients across the world. Clients include American Express, FedEx, Keurig, Intel, Harvard University, GE, Walgreens, BBVA, Shopify, Titleist, Citrix, and Genetech. His colorful life experience includes being an officer in the army and a dive master on the remote Islamic Republic of the Comoros.

Currently listening to: Loving J.S. Ondara’s Tales of America. This young, Kenyan born musician has a healthy dose of Dylan with the soul of Rodriguez.
Currently inspired by: Paul Klee inspires me every day. Transformed himself a dozen times through diligent introspection and a willingness to abandon old habits for new learning.
Cultural thing I’m lovin’: Loving all the Yuval Noah Harari books, and inspired by the work of Japanese architect Tetsuya Nakazono.