Minimize risk and increase collaboration with design sprints, Part 1

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Minimize risk and increase collaboration with design sprints, Part 1

/ March 7, 2019

As a product manager, you want to enable your team to create successful digital products. To help your team achieve that you need to reduce the risk of failure for your projects.

Design sprints help answer critical business questions through design, prototyping and testing ideas with people who will use your product. Participating in a design sprint orients your team and stakeholders. Design sprints also help teams establish and reach clearly defined goals. They serve as useful starting points when kicking off a new feature, workflow, product, business or solving problems with an existing product.

In part 1 of this two-part series, we’ll be looking at what a design sprint is and the benefits you realize when you integrate them into the product development process.

What is design thinking?

“Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” – Tim Brown, IDEO

Before we look at design sprints, let’s first talk about design thinking. Design thinking is shorthand for a collection of cognitive, strategic, and practical processes combined to form an approach that’s iterative and human-centered. It utilizes empathy and experimentation to break down complex problems and arrive at innovative solutions.

The goal of using design thinking is to make decisions based on what people want or need and reduce making risky bets based on instinct instead of evidence. Like Agile, it’s a collaborative and iterative process, but design thinking helps you make sure you’re solving the right problem. Agile alone is no guarantee that your teams will consistently deliver truly engaging, impactful solutions. Design thinking brings a strong user focus — ensuring user needs are kept front and center throughout the entire design and development process —  while Agile is an excellent way to incrementally deliver solutions.

What is a design sprint?

If you have been looking for a way to incorporate design thinking into your process, design sprints are a valuable way to do so. They provide a structure to design thinking practices to produce actionable results. Design sprints have their strength in sharing insights, ideation, prototyping, and testing concepts in a short timeframe. Because of that short timeframe, design sprints help focus on a part of the solution. Despite that, they are an excellent way to quickly learn if you are on the right track and allow you to easily pivot.

Design sprints are a tool that the Expert Services team at Mendix has started using for internal projects and client engagements.

Design sprints draw on the strengths of design thinking and Agile to minimize risk and increase collaboration by bringing team members, stakeholders, and your audience together. Like Mendix, design sprints encourage collaboration through making. Think of a design sprint as a way to learn without actually launching a product. During a design sprint, teams prototype, test and validate ideas with people who are actually using them, before the solutions are built or launched. The team learns from user testing feedback and then iterates in a short time frame.

Design Sprint Cycle: 1 Idea, 2 Build, 3 Launch, 4 Learn
The sprint gives teams a shortcut to learning without building and launching. IMG Credit: The Design Sprint, Google Venture

 

Design sprints are a process made popular by Jake Knapp and the Google Ventures team in their book Sprint. As described by Knapp and the team at AJ&Smart, a design sprint can be a four- to five-day process used to solve big problems and test ideas. A dedicated team discusses a challenge, designs potential solutions, and tests with real people. You start with something vague and finish with real feedback and something tangible.

Understand, Define, Diverge, Decide, Prototype, Validate
The six phases of a design sprint, from Understand to Validate. IMG Credit: The Design Sprint, Google Venture

 

Over the course of a design sprint you go through six phases:

  1. Understand
  2. Define
  3. Diverge
  4. Decide
  5. Prototype
  6. Validate

The four- to five-day timeframe is not rigid and you can adapt it to the specific needs of the problem. Some phases may need more than a full day and others may need less; although it is still important to go through all of them. The phases mirror the idea of diverging and converging from design thinking.

By taking a pause to explore a problem, you save time and resources in the long run, helping you avoid pursuing solutions that don’t work or focusing on the wrong part of a problem.

What are the benefits of a design sprint?

The most common estimate is that it’s 100 times cheaper to make a change before any code has been written than it is to wait until after the implementation is complete.” – Jakob Nielsen, Nielsen Norman Group

One challenge with organizing a design sprint is getting the right people in the room. Following design thinking practices, a big part of organizing a design sprint is having a diverse group of people, skills, and perspectives. Another major part is at the end of the sprint, you’re testing your solutions with actual people. By including the people who will use your product to get feedback, you can quickly learn how they respond to ideas. It also allows your users to be an important component of your development process.

Design Sprint in Action - 3 People in an Office Putting Ideas to Paper
Team members sketching ideas during a design sprint. IMG Credit: Mendix, Inc.

 

Teams should include members of your design and development teams, stakeholders, and product managers. By including them, design sprints can give team members a sense of ownership once you do get to a solution. Involving stakeholders in creating the solution makes them less likely to reject it later, and more likely to defend it. That sense of ownership improves the chances of the solution getting built. Design sprints break the mystery of design, helping stakeholders and developers understand the process. This, in turn, helps build trust and focus the attention of everyone involved.

In short, design sprints help you:

  • Get an immediate result
  • Incorporate stakeholders and get buy-in
  • Test the potential of your concept without investing in code
  • Limit the risk level and be able to pivot your project if needed
  • Boost your creativity and keep the good ideas
  • Maximize your return on investment

Is it time for a design sprint?

Not all problems should be approached by using a design sprint. If you have a well-defined problem to solve and access to the right stakeholders, a design sprint can prove invaluable. They are best for solving product challenges of medium- to high-impact, not routine work. Design sprints can be helpful for getting everyone on the same page and working toward the same goal.

When is it good to run a Design Sprint?

  • At the start of a new project to define your product or create a shared vision
  • When time is critical to inject speed into your development or decision-making process image placeholder
  • At an impasse, roadblock or fork when your product or team needs to get unstuck
  • After uncovering new insights to leverage new findings, data or research 

When shouldn’t you run a Design Sprint? 

  • If you don’t have user research or a strong understanding of
    your customer base
  • If you have clear product direction and just need dedicated
    design time
  • If you don’t have leadership buy-in

In the Mendix agile process, we’ve started to use design sprints as a way to structure spikes — tasks aimed at answering a question or gathering information — when we come across a problem or a topic on which we don’t have a clear path forward. You’ll learn more about how we use design sprints in part 2 of this series. Stay tuned!

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