What kinds of problems can you solve with a Design Sprint?

I recently covered what to expect when you’re planning a Design Sprint, but let’s rewind and cover the types of challenges you can solve with a Design Sprint.

The most common goal of a Design Sprint is to assess an opportunity and reduce the risk of failure. That sounds great in the abstract, but what does this really mean in practice?

Design Sprints get the most traction in the digital products space but they are a flexible framework and can be tailored to fit a plethora of different problems and organizations. At Fresh Tilled Soil, we’ve conducted Design Sprints for products, services, hybrids of the two, for digital and physical solutions, and for customer facing and internal facing opportunities. We run Design Sprints for organizations ranging from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies, and for industries ranging from education to high finance.

We recommend a Design Sprint when a client needs answers to a big question.

Since answers are the primary output for a Design Sprint (not a functioning prototype), we like to use Design Sprints to unpack and test the assumptions and ideas that fall into the categories of being higher on the risk spectrum and lower on the confidence spectrum. This means ideas tested through Design Sprints tend to have a big impact potential but a lot of unknowns.

Answers tend to be qualitative in nature and are best for assessing desirability or early concept validation. Design Sprints are all about building a case around what your user wants and why. It is important to note that research alone won’t always give decision makers the insights they need. Design Sprints ensure you are getting buy-in from the right stakeholders early in the process.

Design Sprints are also great for unpacking complexity. This can be applied to the nature of the idea or to relationships with stakeholders. The more stakeholders a solution is trying to solve for, or the more elaborate stakeholder needs are, the more suited an idea is for the rigor of a Design Sprint.

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to Design Sprints. I’ve learned there are times when another strategic approach is best for our clients.

I’ve also seen how Design Sprints can help teams make critical strategic decisions with confidence, very quickly.

To give you a better idea of some of the different types of scenarios to which a Design Sprint can be applied, I’ve asked some of my colleagues to share stories about their favorite Design Sprint:

Industry: Research
Problem: How can we define and prioritize features to build and release?
What made this Design Sprint interesting: This Design Sprint solved for a set of problems that was large, multi-layered, complicated, and nuanced. It included herculean tasks of having to figure out how to integrate multiple, newly-acquired products amongst competing product teams, all for a user base of tens of millions that needed a phased rollout.

Industry: Pharma
Problem: Can we standardize on one data model across our global organization?
What made this Design Sprint interesting: We used the Design Sprint approach to get answers for something that wasn’t a digital product, and also saved this client a year or more of effort.

Industry: Education
Problem: Can we develop a national scholarship program that will also increase awareness of our brand?
What made this Design Sprint interesting: This particular sprint addressed real problems but also acted as a workshop to educate the client on how to facilitate Design Sprints. It was very challenging, but also equally rewarding. We had 8 groups of 5+ team members each. All teams successfully completed the full sprint and came away with great solutions to test and iterate. We also were able to mold a few newbie facilitators in the process!

Industry: Software development solutions
Problem: How do we take a highly functional, difficult-to-use solution and make it easier for customers to use in a way that makes them more successful?
What made this Design Sprint interesting: The participant team initially thought they had to design for a very sophisticated and meticulous user. During day one of the Design Sprint, we further segmented users from job title level into multiple personas for each job title, using known characteristics from real world examples. These personas mapped directly to different levels of sophistication and helped the team realize that there was opportunity for fundamental changes to be made to the product that would serve less sophisticated customers and prospects without sacrificing functionality for the more sophisticated user base.

Industry: Social media marketing
Problem: Will independent retailers want and use more customization options for the social media content national brands provide to them?
What made this Design Sprint interesting: Through the validation process, we learned a lot about what kinds of users found customization attractive. As a result, the messaging and release plan could be targeted accordingly.

Industry: Bio-Pharmaceutical
Problem: How can we modernize the UX and UI of an application?
What made this Design Sprint interesting: The biggest surprise was that we completely shifted the focus of the Design Sprint away from the original target of UX / UI updates. It turned out that the challenge we landed on — creating a new user flow that would support one of their most common and critical employee tasks — was far more important and valuable to the company than what they had originally asked us to solve, but they didn’t think we could actually tackle it in a week so they never mentioned it to us. By the end of the sprint we had developed a solid foundation for a tool that could be built into their current application that would fill one of their most glaring functional gaps and save every employee in that role literally hours per week.

Industry: Education
Problem: Can the Design Sprint framework be used to help to solve for more than one problem per focus area? (Yes, you read that correctly. We tested our Design Sprint process with a Design Sprint.)
What made this Design Sprint interesting: We discovered that, yes, multiple problems could be addressed using an updated version of the Design Sprint framework, further showing the flexibility of the Design Sprint process. This validation allowed our client to triple the number of developed concepts they run through their innovation pipeline per cycle.

Industry: AdTech
Problem: How can we update the website UI to more successfully convert leads into paying customers?
What made this Design Sprint interesting: During the Design Sprint, we discovered that the initial problem, needing a new UI, was actually not a major obstacle for new customers. Their real problem was that the value prop wasn’t clear, and was being clouded by too many solutions. The Design Sprint honed in on a potential solution that was then tested and found to increase conversion rates. This solution was a focused value proposition delivered using a combination of better sales scripts and landing page offers. I love this Design Sprint because it illustrates that not every DS needs to be about design.


If you want to hear more about the types of problems Design Sprints can help solve, tune into this episode of The Dirt where C.Todd Lombardo and I chat about this at greater length. If you’re curious if a Design Sprint might be something that would help your team, drop a quick note and I’ll be happy to chat with you about it.