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Design sprints are not about design

I love a good polarizing article on design just as much as any design blogger :) Yesterday, I came across this nice read by Jeff Davidson on how Design Sprints are absurd. It’s a great article and it points to a number of valid problems that the Design Sprint as a method has. Biggest point in case is that it’s mainly innovation theatre. I agree. The same goes for design thinking in general under which I put Design Sprints. Both are bandwagon hype terms. They both overpromise. They both create an image that design is easy and anyone can do it. They both try to make innovation look like a simple five step process.

Dennis Hambeukers
Feb 6 · 5 min read

The message that everyone can design is insulting to designers who have spent their lives honing their design skills. The speed of Design Sprints is insulting to design researchers who see their work reduced to half assed quick and dirty guesswork.

But the Design Sprint not about design as a craft. Design Sprints are about something else. Design sprints bring two wonderful things to the world.

  1. They enable design to step easier into a more strategic role.
  2. And they help revolutionize the way people work.

Both are landslide achievements.

Design becomes more strategic

Design sprints are populated by managers, decision makers, key stakeholders. Or at least they are initiated and evaluated by them. The role that design can play in corporate decision making is typically not something these people have been aware of before Design Sprints. Design for most of these people is at the end of the pipeline. When all the strategic decisions are made, designers can come in and make it pretty.

The whole idea of the Design Sprint conveys a very powerful message. Namely that design, designers, the way that designers think and work, can be very useful during the strategic part of the innovation process, the decision making process. It demonstrates that and how design can be used in a strategic way. That in today’s business context of uncertainty and complexity, the way designers work is more suited that the traditional ways of solving problems, identifying problems, researching problems. Design can be used in a strategic way. All the people involved in the Design Sprints get to experience that. Not that design is the only way to solve problems. But that design is also an effective way to solve problems. That including designers in strategic decision-making is valuable. That is what a Design Sprint accomplishes. It doesn’t solve the problem in 5 days. Maybe we put the bar too high. But it lets people experience the way that designers work and think and lets them see that that is a good way to deal with complexity and uncertainty.

Design helps to change the way people work

A Design Sprint is a workshop. And the underlying method of that workshop is design, design thinking. But it also borrows from Agile and Lean Startup thinking. There is a need for new ways of working and design is helping to create that. The old linear and siloed ways of working of Scientific Management don’t cope well with the challenges of complexity. We need a way to work across silos, to work iteratively and to unleash more of the creativity of people. Design can help with that. And in a Design Sprint, people can experience that. You can try to explain why the way designers work is suited for complex problems but it works better if you can let people experience it.

This is the magic of a Design Sprint. People come in with a vague idea about design and how it works. They haven’t sketched since they left kindergarten. They haven’t done any research because it takes too much time. They haven’t talked to users because the threshold is too high. They haven’t truly listened to people from other silos because they were too focussed on protecting their own interests.

These are all magical moment during a design sprint process. Sure the research is not deep enough. But a little research, opening up to the idea of research, is already a huge step forward for most people. And interviewing five users is way better than doing no user testing at all. Most people have never done user testing. In a design sprint they get to experience what valuable insights you can already get from taking to five users. It might not be perfect but it is a gigantic leap forward from only working from your own assumptions. And listening to one another. This is maybe the most shocking part of a design sprint. That a stakeholder gets to explain his point of view for 10 minutes without interruption and with questions from people who are interested in their point of view. And that this is so radical. People don’t listen to people from other silos. You see that when you do an ask-the-expert session. And people don’t think positively. You see that when you make them flip problems into questions on how-might-we-notes.

The Design Sprint method is not perfect, no method is. And it all depends on how you use it. But it contains so many powerful, mind-shifting concepts that might seem easy and silly at first glance but can have a powerful impact on how people work. If they take some of the principles of the design sprint with them, it can help pave the road to a more creative, collaborative, open, playful way of working. And create some stakeholder engagement for the chosen direction in the mean time.

The miracles that come from a design sprint

Design sprints are not about design. The output of a design sprint will not match the output of an excellent design team. But not all organizations have an excellent design team available or the conditions for that team to excel. The output of a design sprint can help to kickstart innovation. Or it can give it a boost when it’s in a slump. We should not expect miracles from a design sprint when it comes to revolutionary output. We should expect miracles when it comes to positioning design as strategic in the minds of decision makers and when it comes to exposing people to new ways of working that better fit complex problems.

When you look at a design sprint from the point of view of design, a design sprint is half assed innovation theatre. If you look at a design sprint from a strategic design and new way of working perspective, a design sprint is a miracle.

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Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you enjoyed it. If you did, don’t forget to hit the clap button so I know I connected with you. Let me know what you think in the comments. I will dive deeper into the topics of Design Leadership in upcoming articles. If you follow me here on Medium, you will see them pop up on your Medium homepage. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn to see new articles in your timeline or talk to my bot at dennishambeukers.com :)

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

Dennis Hambeukers

Written by

Strategic UX Design Consultant @ Zuiderlicht / Design Leadership Forum Member @InVision / Design Thinker / State Secretary of Integration @ Ministry of Design

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

Dennis Hambeukers

Written by

Strategic UX Design Consultant @ Zuiderlicht / Design Leadership Forum Member @InVision / Design Thinker / State Secretary of Integration @ Ministry of Design

Design Leadership Notebook

Notes on the imminent leading role of design.

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