Design Sprint — A Gentle Introduction

A short intro to the innovation framework invented by Jake Knapp at Google Ventures

Photo by Gautam Lakum on Unsplash

Have you heard of the Design Sprint but you have no clue what it is? Worry not, by reading this short article I have written for you, you will be more than ready to at least set the stage for one.

Introduction: Design Sprint is an innovation framework invented by Jake Knapp at Google Ventures (GV). Jake was a process geek and after a lot of trial and error running a ton of brainstorming sessions, he came up with a recipe for innovation called the Design Sprint. He’s also the author of Sprint.

Photo by Braden Collum on Unsplash

Let us start with the definition of Sprint: run at full speed over a short distance.

In the engineering and tech world, a sprint is a time-boxed period, usually 2–3 weeks, when a team works to deliver a working product. This could be a software product or anything else. Sprints are the core and heart of agile methodologies.

Now, what is the definition of Design? a plan or drawing produced to show the look and function or workings of a building, garment, or other object before it is built or made. So design means surface, and sprint means time-boxed period.

Put the two together and you have a great recipe for innovation. A time-boxed period for a team to deliver a plan and a drawing to show the look and function of a product or service before it is built.

Design Sprint is a time-boxed period to define the surface of a product, service, or strategy.

The main two ingredients of Jake’s recipe are:

  1. Time to develop ideas independently but with a deadline that promotes focus
  2. A diverse small group of people where each person brings a special skill to complete the innovation puzzle under question

You might be thinking how working independently in a group can deliver any results? Well, let me tell you that this is the killer combo of the Design Sprint. By using voting and other structured methods, a group of people can make decisions quickly and quietly eliminating weeks, if not months, of endless meetings and emails. It is known that the idea is the easy part and the execution is the hard side of the equation. Design Sprint is a great framework rooted in design thinking to get you and your team started with the execution of big ideas.

Today Design Sprints are used to help startups, fortune companies, medium and small companies across industries to answer open ended questions related to product, marketing, strategy, or even naming companies.

Jake: “The sprint is GV’s unique five-day process for answering crucial questions through prototyping and testing ideas with customers. It’s “greatest hits” of business strategy, innovation, behavioral science, design, and more — packaged into a step-by-step process that any team can use.”

Monday to Friday Design Sprint — Photo by George Zeinieh

The five days process: On Monday, you define the problem statement. On Tuesday, you think possible solutions. On Wednesday, you make decisions. On Thursday, you prototype. And on Friday, you test it. Simple huh? Yes, but it’s very effective and efficient process. Instead of wasting time and money building a product (even a minimal product is costly), you can get answers in a week or less. The best part is even a failure is a success here because your team will learn something valuable in a short time and at an extremely low cost.

What do you need to do to Set The Stage for this fun innovative sprint? Simply, you need to have:

  • The right Challenge
  • The right Team
  • The right Time and Space
Photo by Karla Hernandez on Unsplash

The Challenge: The bigger the challenge, the better the sprint. So what defines a big challenge?

  • High Stakes: problem/solution requires a lot of time and money or impacting the direction of the company. In this case, Design Sprint will be your compass.
  • Not Enough Time: a hard deadline is coming and you need a good solution fast. Design Sprint is built for speed.
  • Stuck: you do not know where to start or you’re loosing momentum. Design Sprint is a brainstorming session done right or like I call it “a brainstorming session on steroids”.

Advice from Jake: “Don’t go for small win, or the nice to have project, because people won’t bring their best efforts”

Okay, so focus on big problems. How big are we talking? Well, do you remember the definition of the Design Sprint at the beginning of this article? Design Sprint is a time-boxed period to define the surface of a product, service, or strategy. The surface is the key here, by focusing on the surface you can simulate the customer experience and get valuable feedback in a very short time regardless of the size of the problem. Technical details and other integrations can be figured out later once the big question is answered, and you are confident enough that you’re up to something your customers will actually love.

Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

The Team: in a nutshell, you need a leader and a group of diverse skills. The magic number of people to be invited is seven or less. More than seven will make the sprint slower. You need the experts who will build the product or run the service, but you also want to mix it up with other specialized skills. Here is Jake’s cheat sheet for the perfect team:

  • The Decider (aka the leader): someone with authority to make decisions. E.g, CEO, Product Manager, head of _
  • Finance Expert: someone who can explain where the money comes from. E.g., CFO, Business Development Manager
  • Marketing Expert: the voice of your company. E.g., CMO, Marketer, Product Marketing Manager
  • Customer Expert: someone who is in touch with your customers. E.g., Sales, Customer Success Manager, Customer Support
  • Tech/Logistics Expert: someone who knows what your company can and can’t do
  • Design Expert: someone who design your products. E.g., Designer, Product Manager
  • The Troublemaker: someone who can bring different perspective and challenge ideas. Do not be afraid to invite a troublemaker to a sprint. According to Jake, “the sprint process turns competing ideas into assets”
  • The Facilitator: unbiased person who will be running and leading the sprint and keeping everyone on track. This could be you…

You can still bring visitors on Monday for a short interview and to take their perspective on the challenge.

Design Sprint Calendar — Photo by George Zeinieh

Time and Space: even though it’s a compressed week to solve a big problem, it does not mean it needs to be 24/7 of nonstop work. The day starts at 10 AM (9 AM on Friday) and ends at 5 PM with an hour lunch, and two short breaks. It is important to maintain high energy level during the week. No Laptops, phones, or iPads allowed. No Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram allowed. Everyone should be focusing on the sprint and the sprint only.

You will need TWO BIG WHITEBOARDS. I capitalized this because the last thing you want to happen is to run out of space while you are bringing your idea to life. Worst case, you might use poster size Post-it or rolling whiteboards. Also, you will need basic office supplies like sticky notes, markers, pens, and Time Timers. Finally, get some healthy snacks!

Congratulations! Now you know what Design Sprint is and how to set the stage for a successful one.

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George Zeinieh

George Zeinieh

A consultant by day, entrepreneur by night, engineer by education, designer at heart, innovator since childhood. I write on innovation, cars, and well being