When to Use a Design Sprint

If solution sketches were this big, the facilitator’s not time boxing correctly. (c/o Undraw)

The design sprint process is not a silver bullet.

There are plenty of other methods (service design, service blueprinting, design studios, good ole’ fashioned research and ethnography) that can accomplish what you’re looking to explore. However, there are situations where design sprints are likely your best option, given the alternatives.

Here are a few examples where a design sprint approach might be the most effective path to take:

  1. Setting direction on a new effort
    New (and often important) projects require a lot of alignment. Sometimes this need for alignment comes in the form of extensive documentation, long presentations, informational meetings and follow-up conversations. Sometimes they don’t come with any document, which can be nerve racking.

    With the design sprint process, everyone vital to the success of the project is on the same page from the start. They can learn together as a team, or leverage pre-sprint research and techniques (such as problem framing) to set direction on gain understanding of a new project initiative… without a lot of time and effort.
  2. Establishing an initial process
    Several activities and techniques with the design sprint process lend themselves to mapping and exploring process. Mapping, storyboarding, user flows and other activities can help visualize how different types of process (hiring, finding requirements for projects, conducting user research, etc.) can be worked out.

    If you’re familiar with practical service design, you can really turn the volume up on process exploration. I’ve personally done a few of these with amazing results, including one where representatives from 7 major airlines who were working together on a new process for stocking planes with supplies.
  3. Aligning a diverse project team
    When you work on complex products and applications, you naturally attract a diverse set of individuals and professionals to work on them. There’s a natural inclination for designers to work and collaborate with fellow designers, developers with other developers, etc. You reach out to other disciplines when the situation warrants.

    Design sprints require a diverse set of professionals to work on a big challenge, idea or problem. When working in this condensed, collaborative environment, there’s a greater chance for understanding and alignment.

    In the best of scenarios, there’s a natural appreciation of perspective, criticism of ideas and active dialog about the problem space. Subject matter experts (SME’s) in particular become vital to establishing perspective for the entire team to align on.
  4. Gaining speed, efficiency and focus.
    Most sales and marketing professionals will emphasize speed and time to market over getting everything right. Product owners and managers will want a certain level of quality to go out the door before they feel comfortable releasing something to their customers. Those in design and research emphasize product quality, with a keen focus on understanding the customer and what they react to.

    Design sprints address all three of these approaches in just five days.

    Sales and marketing can have their hands on a realistic prototype they can shop around by the end of the week. Product owners and managers can feel confident that the highest value features are represented in the sprint teams’ prototype. Design and research can focus on the UX in their designs, with validation (or invalidation) of their approach through 1 on 1 user interviews.

    All of this, in five days (or less).
  5. Reducing the risk of failure
    No one wants to risk losing their job over a failed project or initiative. In most companies, it’s must easier to shift the blame of an expensive, time consuming initiative to a person, group or entire department. In short, no one ever wants to admit they made a huge mistake. There’s no upside to corporate courage and professing failure.

    With design sprints, you can short circuit or eliminate this scenario from even happening. By reserving a full week of time to explore a high risk / high reward endeavor, you essentially give everyone concerned “decision insurance” to stop bad ideas in their tracks.

    Moreover, you empower those who make critical business decisions with informed perspective. That’s mission critical for gaining trust and acceptance for those you work for.

If you find yourself in any of the above situations, you certainly want to consider your options. There are plenty of design thinking approaches and processes that might align better with you, your team or your organization.

However, I usually recommend design sprints for one specific reason… growing, organic adoption of the process by major Fortune 500 companies (Lego, Home Depot) and premiere marketing agencies (ClearLeft, AJ&Smart, Parallel Labs, New Haircut).

In fact, more and more organizations are adopting, refining and modifying the design sprint process for their own purposes. Whether it’s research, marketing, growth design, branding, strategy or any other disciplines related to building product or exploring market impact, the design sprint process is slowly being accepted as a viable, efficient and cost saving option.

So, if you’re keen to try a design sprint and identify with those situations mentioned above, start having some meaningful conversations and see where it takes you.

Good luck!



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Robert Skrobe

Robert Skrobe

I run Dallas Design Sprints, The Design Sprint Referral Network and Talent Sprints.