Planning your design sprint
A TEAM SPORT
by Richard Banfield
Starting before you start
In the first two chapters, we emphasized the need to prepare appropriately to ensure success. This preparation sometimes referred to as “phase zero,” can be easily overlooked in the rush to get started. I strongly suggest giving phase zero the attention it deserves several weeks before a design sprint. Even more time will be necessary for projects that involve senior team members and/or hard-to-tie-down customers.
Getting prepared involves inviting the right people, finding a good place to work uninterrupted, having the right supplies and, most importantly, setting up customer interviews. These are all related but independent tasks, so it might be necessary to delegate to your team. We’ll detail each of these tasks, and more, in this chapter.
Setting a goal
One of the first things to establish in phase zero is the purpose of the design sprint. The previous chapter outlined what sprints are and aren’t good for, so I won’t go back over that but know that phase zero is the time to make those determinations.
Founder & President of Voltage Control, Douglas Ferguson suggests having the end in mind as you plan your sprint. “While I don’t advocate that teams lock their goal in stone prior to the sprint, it is helpful to explore the goal and have a thoughtful perspective on where you’re generally pointed,” he said. A goal also aligns the group and helps them see the meaning in their participation.
Naming your design sprint
One of the frustrations design sprint organizers experience is convincing their colleagues to participate in something with the name “design sprint.” To the uninitiated, it sounds like something only designers should be attending.
If you encounter this bias, consider renaming the session something that will resonate positively with participants. Innovation Bootcamp, Spark Sessions, Discovery Sprint and Deep Dives are just some of the names you could use. Neeta Goplani, who I introduced in chapter 2, says renaming design sprints to Spark Sessions immediately changed the attitude of her senior managers at Manulife / John Hancock and gave her the buy-in she needed.
Goplani isn’t the only one who’s used this tactic. “As a veteran ed tech development director and product manager, I have worked through the development process using many different approaches and techniques, some worked well and others did not,” says Christine Sandvik, product manager at Imagine Learning in Provo, Utah. “While working as a consultant, I started using design sprints, which I called ‘concept sprints,’ to help clients understand why they needed to build a product or feature. The word ‘concept’ better described where I needed to concentrate most of our time—at the very beginning.”
Establishing if you’re sprint-ready
In enterprises with siloed functions, it’s important to confirm that the group knows why they are about to embark on the design-sprint journey. Even if you have an enthusiastic group of people, a facilitator, and you believe you have a good problem to solve, you might still not have the ingredients for a successful session.
Jay Melone poses two questions to help ensure you’re ready:
- Does everyone involved in, and impacted by this problem, understand why this problem that needs attention?
- Is this a problem worth solving?
Melone cautions, “If the answer to either of these is no, you cannot begin a design sprint. Well, you can, but don’t expect it to go well.” It’s better to postpone than attempt to muddle through. The most common misunderstanding is that understanding the problem translates to having a goal to achieve. Goals are not problems.
If you’re in any doubt, Melone suggests conducting a framing session before deciding to do a design sprint. The purpose of the framing session is to avoid “asking 7–10 people to spend five days (not including travel) running a full design sprint.”
The framing session normally only requires a few hours and aims to separate the organization’s goals from the real pain points experienced by the customer. For example, “Launch new single sign-on feature” is an organizational goal, but without evidence that the customer needs this feature, it’s unclear if it’s a problem worth solving. Participants of a framing session each make a list of all their goals (individual and organizational), they then work as a group to discuss which of these goals are motivated by customer problems or by internal desires. Eliminate duplicates, merge similar challenges, or create themes. Finally, discuss and prioritize the issue that will have the most impact, based on the resources (time, people, budget) at your disposal.
If you’re struggling to include the right people, even at this early stage, or if you can’t decide if this is a problem worth solving, take a step back. Rushing into a design sprint can backfire if you don’t have support, so rather take it a bit slower. In my experience, getting buy-in in larger organizations is the hard part, but it has to be done.
But do you feel ready?
Knowing when you’re ready is closely linked to preparation.
Preparing needs to be a balance between understanding what’s ahead and not getting stuck doing too much up front. For a facilitator, an investment in how to run a successful design sprint (like reading this book) is necessary, but how much preparation will depend on the experience and cultural support of design thinking practices. Even for design veterans, this sense of readiness can feel like more art than science.
“We chose the design sprint because we needed to do discovery for a brand new feature, but didn’t have time to do proper directed discovery as usually done,” says Tanya Golubeva, product manager at Pluralsight, an online learning platform that recently completed a successful IPO. “The goal was to understand the feature we wanted to build, design it, and test it with a few internal customers. My UX designer organized how the days would be run. We both read the [design sprint] book, but I wish we would’ve had the entire team read the book first. Also, there were a couple days when we were doing an exercise (like crazy eights), where preparation ahead of that day would’ve been extremely useful.”
In spite of this, Golubeva felt the sprint was a success. “The team was initially really worried about spending an entire week not working on quarter’s priorities but by the end, everyone was very supportive of us doing this work,” she says.
If you’re still uncertain if a design sprint is right for your team, consider doing a discovery needs assessment (DNA). This is an informal session of questions that can illuminate any major concerns and identify knowledge gaps. You can find all the DNA questions in the Appendix.
My advice is to approach the first design sprint as a learning exercise. Allow yourself permission to stumble a little and learn through experience. This mindset will allow you to get your feet wet while remaining mindful that obstacles will need to be overcome through experience.
Who needs to be at your design sprint?
Have you heard the business fable about the chicken and the pig? It goes like this: When producing a dish made of ham and eggs, the pig provided the ham, which required a significant sacrifice. The chicken provided the eggs, which was an easy contribution. Both were needed, but only the pig was deeply committed.
When it comes to including people for the full five phases of your design sprint, try to choose only the pigs. But there are other considerations at play, too.
Four to eight participants is an ideal size for momentum and efficiency. For larger groups, you’ll need to invest more time in preparation and logistics, and an experienced facilitator will be critical to keeping the cats herded.
Douglas Ferguson suggests pre-filtering exercise content with larger groups. “While it is possible to facilitate a larger group, it is important to consider the amount of content they will generate.” Ferguson suggests consolidating the team’s inputs by splitting them into smaller groups during the sprint and asking them to narrow down their exercise answers before they share with the entire group. “When working with larger groups, I recommend having them pre-filter their content. Instead of sharing all their sprint questions, they will just pick two or three. Instead of posting all their ‘How Might We’s’ on the wall, have them pick their top five, four, or three. Depending on the number of participants, you can decide how much content is best.”
The guiding principle here is to have the right people in the room to find the answers you seek. It’s more important than having every department represented. With that said, you’ll want the following domains represented regardless of the group size:
- Product ownership
- Development and/or engineering
- Senior leadership that represents company-level goals
Hiding in plain sight
Employees from support and sales teams who talk with customers and prospects every day often have the best context and insights to share.
You want a diverse group of people in the room. A diversity of backgrounds, functional knowledge, and experiences helps avoid biases that come from groups that have common domain, demographic, and cultural backgrounds. Diversity is also proven to be good for business, so I recommend building teams that reflect the widest possible diversity across your organization or pool of stakeholders.
Northwestern Mutual’s Scott Yim remains attracted to the design sprint because the process supports collaborative culture. “I just found it results in a better end-product for the user,” says Yim, “The diversity of opinion, experience, and thought around the table, where everyone is bought in and feels that sense of ownership. That’s something we can cultivate and make the fabric of our culture. It just results in a better product at the end of the day.”
You still need the chickens
You want to include the pigs whose jobs depend on the outcome of your design sprint. But you still need the contributions of some chickens, too. Trying to include everyone in a design sprint is difficult, but fortunately, there’s another option.
Ferguson suggests conducting “daily office hours” as a way to involve more members of your company without making the core sprint team too large. “Simply invite [the contributors] to attend daily office hours after the sprint team is done for the day. Walk them through all of the assets and activities of the day. Answer any questions they may have. This typically takes only 30 minutes and will allow you to include more people in your process. They will feel more included and understand the process and typically go on to be advocates for the solution.”
Facilitator Jay Melone also sees the value of preparing many but inviting a few. “Sometimes I’ve got a much smaller group in the framing and most of those people join the sprint. In other cases, a company might have a lot more people in the framing and only a subset of those people come to the design sprint.” Melone, who teaches design sprints to companies like Nike, Verizon, Audible, and Boeing, understands that not everyone will be available for the five-day sprint, but there’s no reason you can’t educate all the influencers and contributors. “Doing a problem-framing session beforehand is a good introduction to the mindset and the thinking.”
When you’ve got teams that aren’t familiar with design sprints, that could mean they’re not fluent with the broader UX and product-design world. So a design sprint is a good opportunity to bring a large group of people up to speed while making sure your smaller group of participants is prepared to work with the right attitudes and fluency.
Setting expectations and roles
Design sprints require a lot of work and focused attention from participants. In order to complete a successful sprint, it’s important to manage expectations in advance. This includes making sure everyone knows the goal of the sprint and what he or she needs to do to be valuable to the process. Here are some other important things participants should know:
- A design sprint can’t solve every problem
- The process likely will uncover additional problems that need attention
- You probably won’t learn everything you set out to learn
- Solutions and hypotheses may be partially or completely invalidated
- Some things you test won’t work
- Shared understanding is the desired outcome, not a prototype
Reading through this list you may worry that no one will want to participate. I find it’s helpful to discuss what will happen after the design sprint. Explain that If the original problem is solved, you might move on to refining your prototype and start planning how to integrate it into your product cycle. Discuss the possibility that if none of the solutions you build and test work, you’ve discovered what won’t be a good solution. This is a good thing. You just saved time and money.
When you don’t find a working solution, it might be necessary to go back to phase one and focus on understanding the problem. Did you solve for a problem that was meaningful for your company? Was the problem worth solving for your customers? You’ll have a ton of knowledge from the design sprint that will make a follow-on effort more efficient. If you ended up with more questions than answers, you’re doing a good job. This normally means you’re getting closer to a viable solution. But it’s important for participants to know this.
However your design sprint turns out, you’ll want to set expectations and do some light planning for what comes next. Participants get pretty invested in their ideas and want to know what the next relay of the course looks like after the sprint is over. (We’ll come back to this in Chapter 6.)
The roles of a sprint team
Part of the magic of a design sprint is the separation of work between team members. Unlike traditional brainstorming sessions where all the members simultaneously generate ideas, the design sprint recognizes that a specialization of efforts creates a better result. By giving members roles that create, instigate, organize or collect, the design sprint provides focus where it’s most valuable, and flexibility when it’s required.
The facilitator: This person will lead the design sprint. Their responsibilities are to ensure the right people are there, the background research has been gathered, and the test subjects (customers and stakeholders) are available for interviews. They also are responsible for keeping the team focused on the tasks.
If you’re considering this role, but you don’t feel comfortable directing other people, you might need to hire a professional design-sprint facilitator. You’ll learn a lot just by watching a pro at work. Also, don’t try to facilitate and be an active participant. Facilitation is a full-time job and trying to do more will reduce the value of your participation and of the entire design sprint. Focus on doing one thing well.
Product owner: This is the person at the company with the initial product vision or the person with ultimate responsibility for the product or project. New product ideas tend to be overseen by the person who is leading the innovation effort. Existing products will generally have a product manager or product lead who currently has responsibility for the product or service. Their title is less important than their final decision-making power over the project. If they can shut down your design sprint, then you’ll want them in the room.
Note taker: This person’s job is to document the work. That means collecting all the notes, sketches, Post-its, and taking photos of anything that goes up on the whiteboard. Make sure the note taker has a system for ordering and labeling everything. There’s nothing more frustrating than looking for an important insight only to discover it wasn’t labeled or captured correctly. I highly recommend putting all these documented notes into a shared folder and creating a simple PDF of each of the phases. There’s no right or wrong way to capture notes, but clarity and access are important.
Team members: The rest of the team will be made up of the people you need to get the work done. As discussed previously, who gets invited will depend on what insights you will need (inputs) and who can help you get the answers you need (outputs).
Pre-sprint research is critical not just for setting expectations, but also to enable the overall success of a design sprint. To make the most of the five days of the sprint, you’ll want to have a general idea of the customer’s real pain points. In a recent design sprint with the multinational software services group CA Technologies, the facilitator Jill Starett showed a few short video clips of someone unsuccessfully trying to use their product for the first time. Jill says the video created tremendous empathy between the design sprint participants and the user, and this empathy was the necessary foundation for a true understanding of the pain point.
Customer interviews are another tremendously valuable tool. I recommend conducting between six and 12 interviews with current or prospective users before the design sprint to try to get clear on the problem you aim to solve. These interviews can be arranged and conducted by the facilitator or delegated to other team members. My preference is to have as many participants as possible engaged with customers or prospects before the design sprint starts to increase their sense of belonging and purpose in the sprint.
Along with interviews you’ll want to collect and review any qualitative and quantitative data that will provide valuable insights to the sprint. This could be surveys and studies, or data analysis from current product usage. I’ve found that spending the time to draft user journeys and experience maps before the design sprint also provides a solid foundation for conversations on day one. These user journeys and experience maps needn’t be comprehensive, as you’ll explore them in detail as part of the Understand phase.
Less is more
It’s the organizer’s responsibility to ensure all participants are informed. However, too much research can easily overwhelm a design sprint team. If you create a research brief to distribute before a sprint begins, keep it to no more than two pages (one piece of paper front and back) with relevant data points for research review.
When it comes to pre-sprint research, quality is more important than quantity. For example, when we embarked on a design sprint for Netapp, a Fortune 500 cloud-storage enterprise, we discovered the persona research they were referencing was four years old. The research predated several of their products and clearly needed updating. This made us aware that research hadn’t been a priority for a while and that we’d need to dig a little deeper to get the useful information we wanted. A bit of secondary research can also be helpful to set the stage for participants without overloading them with too much primary data.
Preparatory background research also includes some basic competitive analysis. Are there already solutions out there? Who has already succeeded or failed with this problem? My favorite research trick is to call competitors pretending to be a potential customer to hear how they pitch and price their solutions. How a company positions their value is a window into how well they understand their customers.
Nuts, bolts, and logistics
Image searches for the word “collaborate” invariably return stock photos of fashionably dressed hipsters standing at a Post-it note-covered whiteboard. The hipsters usually look fake, but the Post-it notes and whiteboard are totally legit. They’re part of the nuts and bolts that allow ideas to get out of our heads and into the collaboration space.
Working closely with a group of people you may have just met can be a big cognitive strain. Having the right environment, tools, and mood can be the difference between healthy collaboration and frustrating interaction. The little things go a long way toward making a group feel comfortable. “I had one participant who asked for salsa music on day two,” remembers Jill Starett. “She danced in place while she sketched.”
Everybody loves an agenda
It doesn’t have to be detailed to the minute, but participants like to have an agenda that gives them some sense of what they’ll be up to each day.
I prefer to start early when people are fresh and caffeinated, and then knock off a little early. Ending early gives me time as the facilitator to answer the individual’s questions and prepare for the next day. Whether you start earlier or later, try to keep each day to no more than six hours of actual work. Focused, creative work can be exhausting, so it needs to be paced. Depending on the group size you may want to add a few breaks for coffee and lunch. This gives participants time to catch up on emails, make calls, or check in with their teams.
I’ve noticed cultural preferences play a big part in how the day is scheduled. In the US, it’s acceptable to have a working lunch where participants grab a sandwich and continue to push through the exercises. In Europe, a longer break for lunch is expected. I personally prefer a longer break, as it allows participants to disconnect for a while and recharge. The key is to balance focused participation with time to rest, reflect a bit, and communicate with the outside world.
As the facilitator or organizer, it’s your job to make participants feel comfortable about the work ahead. Before the sprint, send emails to the team with subject lines like, What to expect next week, or Stay tuned: We’ll be sharing an agenda template soon.
Once underway, communicate the plans for each day upfront and at various intervals throughout the day. Add reminders of the schedule to the facilitator’s slide deck and hand out copies of the agenda to everyone on arrival for Phase 1. This will allow participants to plan phone calls, email or check-ins, and to handle any family obligations with less stress.
Check the Appendix for templates to use in these helpful communications.
Supplies you’ll need to be effective
The tasks of sketching, creating shared-lists, crafting prototypes, and note-taking will require supplies. Below is a recommended list:
- Post-it notes (a selection of colors and sizes is helpful)
- Blank sheets of printer paper or heavy-stock printer paper to prevent Sharpie leakage
- Whiteboard and whiteboard markers (the more colors the better)
- Circle vote stickers (also called dot stickers)
- Easel pads or large pads of paper
- Craft paper or card (for prototypes)
- Adhesive tape
- Smartphone (for taking photos) or camera if you prefer
For groups considering larger interactive prototypes, add cardboard boxes and packing tape. Of course, you’re not limited to these suggestions. Feel free to use whatever you find in your workspace. I’ve seen some pretty cool airport security gate mockups made from old moving boxes, tablecloths, and conference room chairs.
We’ve made it easy for you and created an Amazon shopping list for the supplies you’ll need. Feel free to customize your choices.
Recruiting customers for interviews
The sooner you start the process of finding customers to interview, the more successful the day-five interviews will be. For B2B enterprise customers, recruiting can take several days, so don’t wait until the last minute. If you already have access to customers then contacting them and communicating your requests for interviews will be as easy as sending out emails or making phone calls.
If you’re testing a new product, you’ll need to recruit prospective customers and this can be a little more complicated. There are several ways to do this. I recommend reading the guidelines provided by Steve Krug and by GV’s research team.
Setting up, getting comfortable, and feeling safe
I like to say that a design sprint is really just a good excuse to get people talking and bonding in a safe environment. Everything you do leading up to, and during the sessions, will have an influence on how participants think and behave. The room, the preparation, the tone of communications and even the dress code sends strong signals about what is expected of the team.
As Daniel Coyle writes in his book The Culture Code, “Seen through this lens, culture is not about soft stuff, it’s about signaling. In other words, culture is not a set of traits, it’s a signaling contest. Improve your signals, improve your culture.”
I encourage organizers of sprints to create strong signals of creativity and psychological safety. Tell your team early and often that this is a safe place to be creative without judgment.
Be hard on ideas, and soft on people.
C. Todd Lombardo
Be hard on ideas, and soft on people.
C. Todd Lombardo, Chief Product Officer of Vempathy, makes non-judgment a core part of design sprints by creating “Rules of our Design Sprint” at the start of day one. On a large sheet of paper, he writes the rules that will keep people feeling open to sharing while scrutinizing the facts. His #1 rule is inevitably: “Be hard on ideas, and soft on people.”
Physical space influences how we behave and interact. A big room with plenty of whiteboards and natural light is the ideal physical space for a design sprint. Cramped, windowless environments will stifle creativity and can send the message that the design sprint is low-priority. The room also needs a place to pin or tape up sketches. If possible, try to secure a location off-site and away from daily distractions.
Don’t overlook the environmental impact of too much formality. Invite the team to wear casual clothes for the design sprint and ask them to bring their favorite snacks. “How many times have I heard participants say they should have worn different shoes, because man, the design sprint keeps you on your feet,” says Starett about the time spent at the whiteboard sketching and debating.
For design sprints that fall on a holiday, ask participants to take it a step further. “Our design sprint kicked off on Halloween,” says eClinicalWorks project lead Raj Indupri. “Half of the participants were in costume. Including one who dressed up as a witch.”
Take pictures of the team working together and share them with the group at the end of each day. Let participants take their work home with them once it has been captured. I’ve seen prototypes carefully packed away or carried out of a design sprint by their proud creators. Bonding is inevitable when people work closely together and participants often ask for something to remember those collaborative moments.
“At the end of a design sprint the participants absolutely couldn’t leave without having us all take a group picture as a way to say, ‘Yes, we did it!,’” says Tim Lupo, senior product manager at Fresh Tilled Soil. “That picture felt like the moment when you leave summer camp after having made tons of new friends who challenged you to do things you wouldn’t normally do outside of camp.”
You also can get participants in the groove by incorporating music into your exercises. Music keeps the energy up, gets the creative juices flowing, and is a good mechanism for crowd control. I use music at the start of the day to set the mood, during heads-down design sessions, and to combat the inevitable post-lunch drowsiness. It’s certainly not necessary to have music playing all the time. Here are a few of my favorite Spotify playlists: electronic beats, soundtracks, and salsa.
Remote design sprints
Increasingly, design sprints are run with teams in several locations, but I highly recommend in-person sessions whenever possible. In fact, it’s often better to postpone a design sprint until you can find a convenient time for everyone to be together. However, if you can’t avoid it, there are some creative options for remote sprints.
Remote sprints don’t mean you have to do every day remotely. You can create a combination of on-site and off-site days that suit the team’s schedules and location. If it’s possible to do at least the first two days on-site, do that. It’s generally better to do the early phase in person to maximize the opportunity for chemistry and sharing ideas.
If you have to run a design sprint remotely, it’s best that all participants be remote. Having half the team in one location and the rest working remotely can create an us-versus-them mindset. You can level the playing field and keep everyone engaged by making the entire team remote.
If you go for a remote sprint, invest in a good multi-person conference system that can support several people continuously. You want to be certain everyone can talk, share, draw, and prototype in ways that keep them engaged. Screen-sharing and high-quality audio features are essential. Research suggests audio quality is often considered more important than video quality. Nevertheless, a good webcam is always appreciated.
The activities of a design sprint form a natural rhythm of (1) set clarity for activity goal and steps, (2) ideate individually, (3) share and diverge at a group, (4) converge as a group. Remote sprints can take advantage of this rhythm by allowing people to disconnect for stage 2 in the cycle. They may not need to do this for every activity, like crazy eights, but for some of the longer activities, like storyboarding, it’s a necessary and useful reprieve to disconnect. Even if participants just mute and turn off cameras, it helps relieve the fatigue associated with a day-long conference call.
Capture everything from a remote sprint in whatever form makes the most sense for your team. For example, you can take photos of whiteboard sessions and sketches, use Google docs for notes, and video for interviews. My team has used a combination of Zoom (video conferencing), dedicated landlines (audio), Slack (messaging), and Google slides and docs (notes and visual asset capture) to run remote design sprints. We also use Rev.com for audio transcriptions when necessary.