Three Unexpected Lessons from Design Sprint Creator Jake Knapp

A Short List of Helpful Reminders for Design Sprint Facilitators

Xander Pollock is a design sprint facilitator and product design consultant.

Jake Knapp giving a talk at Bloomberg Design Week in San Francisco about Google Venture’s work with Savioke

I met Jake Knapp almost five years ago while we were both working at Google.

My company had just been acquired, and I was looking for some help navigating Google and understanding my new job as a designer at a big company. My gifts and interests didn’t line up with the other designers I was meeting. Making mock-ups was fun, but I was really interested in how design can help businesses grow — that’s why I started a company.

We found a lot in common over lunch and bonded over a geeky obsession on how to spend our time well. He invited me to participate in one of the first ever design sprints at Google Ventures — back when nobody had heard of “design sprints”. That week I saw the magic sparks of using design to solve serious business challenges. It was collaborative, fun, business-oriented design, and involved a lot more than mock-ups. That magic was bottled up and shared by Jake, JZ and Braden in a life-changing book, Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days.

Fast-forward five years, and Jake has become a close friend and mentor. Earlier this week, he invited me to facilitate a design sprint with him and a startup in Mountain View.

Although I’ve facilitated dozens of sprints myself, I noticed three surprising things:

1. The Markers Really Do Matter

Jake, John, and Braden are super picky about the markers, pens, sticky notes, and other supplies used in a sprint. When I first read the book, I thought it was kind of ridiculous. But again and again, I’m reminded that the details matter. Every single thing in Sprint is there for a reason. After facilitating sprints for almost two years, I’ve noticed that it’s the little details that make it all work together.

For example, after sketching solutions, the team in Mountain View and I discussed each sketch. I was Notetaker and jotted down the notable points from the discussion. As notetaker in previous sprints, I would use a fine tip pen and take multiple notes on multiple stickies. Jake noticed, and in order to force me to keep things simple, Jake asked me to use a big fat Expo markers to take notes. The thick marker only leaves room for a few words to summarize a discussion. It forced us to simplify our critique and move on. I realized that if I’m writing an essay on a post-it about each solution, then I won’t remember any of it, and neither will the team. It’s becomes too much for our brains to hold onto and weigh to make a decision. Writing with a thick marker is a simple way to encourage the team to be concise and capture just the critical feedback. When we voted on which idea to prototype, the two and three word summary made it quicker and easier to remember the big concepts in each individual solution.

Notice the two and three word summaries above each sketch. These notes are referenced when we’re planning out the prototype to make sure we used the good ideas from each solution.

As an outside facilitator I’ve noticed that many teams want to combine sprint days, skips steps, and gloss over details. A sprint helps reset and refocus on the basics. It reminds everyone what’s important and how to focus on just the crucial stuff. Even the marker thicknesses are an important part of that.

2. To Get Good at Sprinting, Learn by Doing

Jake has facilitated over 150 sprints. During our sprint, he had a swiss army knife of insights to address almost any situation or question. This isn’t something that can be learned overnight or after reading the book once. He forged those stories over months and years of work, and has experience that backs up what he teaches. To do the same, Jake encourages design sprint fans and new facilitators to just do a sprint, and that there’s no special knowledge or training required. Doing it the best way to learn, even more than studying a book or website.

Personally, I find myself eager to be called an expert even though I have a fraction of his insight. I want to be known, liked, and trusted. Although he never directly told me this, Jake, through his actions and humility, encouraged me to be patient. As facilitators, we’re building a swiss army knife of insights, and that’s something that just can’t be sped up. Jake told me there are no secrets in running sprints, just more experience.

3. Unlike Meetings, Sprints are More Making, Less Talking

Here’s something very practical. If you’ve read Sprint, you know that “Always be Capturing” is a Facilitator tip for the first day. After working with Jake, I realized just how important this idea is not just for day one, but for the entire sprint.

Jake spent about 5x more time capturing than he did talking.

As team members talked and discussed how to best draw the storyboard, he was drawing on the whiteboard, checking in every so often to make sure he reflected the shared consensus of the team.

As a facilitator, if I’m talking more than drawing and writing in a sprint, I’m probably doing it wrong. Our job is not to have the right answer, it’s to guide the team to their right answer.

Jake was synthesizing rather than explaining… drawing rather than judging… doing rather than discussing…

… and that’s what a design sprint is all about.

In summary…
1. The Markers Really Do Matter
2. To Get Good at Sprinting, Learn by Doing
3. Unlike Meetings, Sprints are More Making, Less Talking

Get going and good luck to my fellow facilitators ✌️

Xander Pollock is a product design consultant specializing in Google Ventures style Design Sprint facilitation. Before consulting, Xander worked at Google for four years on the Google Maps and the Gmail team doing user experience and user interface design. As a startup founder, his previous company, Punchd, was acquired by Google in 2011.