Ready. Fire. Aim.

5 Insights From My First Design Sprint

by Ben Ronning


I jumped on the lean UX train while it was still running.

Or maybe like a wide-eyed doe, entranced by the headlights, I jumped in front of it. I’m still trying to sort it out. But the heart of the matter is I survived my first 2-week design sprint. I’m a bit banged and bruised, but I survived — and in the process I developed a fun new feature for Wunderlist.

The experience was incredibly insightful, and since lean UX seems like a movement that won’t go away any time soon (nor should it), I wanted to share my insights with other ambitious, lean UX neophytes.

Background

The Design Sprint

With the uprise of startups and the adoption of agile methodologies, design sprints have become increasingly popular. Design ballers like Daniel Burka and Jake Knapp at Google Ventures have been awesome about evangelizing the process. At the WWDC, a crew from Apple gave a nice presentation on how they use elements of it. And for those that want a more in depth view, Laura Klein’s UX for Lean Startups is well worth a read.

My Challenge

I was challenged to propose and design a feature to implement into any product that interested me. My only constraint was a two week time limit. Being cut loose like that was difficult. As a young designer, cultivating a process that includes a sense of conviction is hard (see: Julie Zhuo’s post). It’s a refined skill that the designers I respect most in the industry have developed over many years. With the lack of constraints I started grasping at straws, and ultimately fumbled the ball in the first half. What follows is how I recovered.


Insights

1. Understand the Product & Its People

I burned the first 7 days of my design sprint moving from one project idea to the next. Rather than digging into a product and understanding what its users were missing, I jumped directly into product design. The ideas I had would have radically changed the intent of the product and alienated users. That’s an obvious no-no.

Eventually I turned to my task manager, Wunderlist, for structure. As I leaned on it, I came to admire its aesthetic and minimalist, yet playful design. I learned a month before I began my sprint, their team pushed a feature that allowed people to publish their to-do lists and share them via unique URLs (ex: Must-Read Books For Designers). I loved the idea, but was disappointed there wasn’t a better way to discover relevant published lists. That’s when I got to work.

User interviews informed initial UI thumbnail sketches

I came to realize inspiration follows an understanding of existing user needs. That means talking to real people about how they currently solve a problem. Once I took the time to thoroughly research the product and what people were trying to accomplish with it, the rest of my process fell right into place.

2. Create Constraints

Scope creep is an evil demon that lurks in every drop shadow. With all the amazing tools we have at our disposal now (see insight 4), it’s easy to rev out a prototype and convince ourselves that we’ve navigated around every significant issue. But pushing pixels around the screen as a designer is not the same as doing it as a developer or engineer.

I developed task flows to clarify the steps a Wunderlist user would take to accomplish their goal of finding interesting things to do locally. This helped me cut through the din of ideas that pop up when I create, and helped me focus on what mattered most.

Task flows used to focus the Wunderlist pin and discover features

The pin feature and discover feature I designed for Wunderlist would be a big project for any engineering team. I acknowledge that my design is ambitious in that regard, and I would have to back up my proposal with a significant amount of data to validate its worth.

3. Trust the Process

There are a bajillion articles that come out everyday about new techniques, design hacks, and software that will change your life. I know because I subscribe to all the newsletters and blogs (Product Hunt, Designer News, Sidebar, etc). You’re all awesome. I slurp your knowledge and information ravenously, but it’s overwhelming at times. It can be hard to sort the good advice from the bad.

However, the more I build, the more I understand the overall framework of the process rarely shifts: Know thy product, know thy user, uncover opportunities, build, test, learn. Repeat.

4. Skip Steps

Prototyping software has gotten incredibly powerful. I gave proto.io a shot on this project and was astonished by my ability to build interactions on the fly within minutes of signup. I didn’t even have to wireframe (sacrilege?). There are a lot of smart designers speaking up about the leap from paper to prototype, and they’re far more articulate about it than I am.

Ultimately, our primary objective as designers is to convey an idea. Interactive prototypes are not always going to be the correct deliverable, but in this case it helped me untangle and simplify a complicated flow. In the process, I saved a lot of time and was able to meet the project deadline.

When I was satisfied with my prototype flow, I transferred my key mockups into Invision and created the final video walkthrough.

https://vimeo.com/109352412

5. Repeat Steps 1–4

Like many startup fanboys, I tuned in when Paul Graham guest lectured on Sam Altman’s startup class. My big takeaway was to build stuff. Side projects, things that excite me, things that scare me. Whatever. So that’s what I’m doing.

If you want to be a good cook you’ve got to keep your knives sharp and make a lot of meals. I won’t stop until I slice with the precision of Hattori steel.


I’m a UX designer upping my game at Tradecraft in San Francisco. Say hello on Twitter (@BenRonning) or visit my rapidly growing home on the web.

Schönen dank to Wunderlist and the talented crew at 6Wunderkinder for the inspiration and platform to grow. Let me know when I can get you a round at Prater Garten.