6 lessons I learned about Design Sprints in Emerging Markets

How designers and entrepreneurs are using and adapting Design Sprints to promote collaborative creativity in India and Brazil

First of all, if you’re not familiar with Design Sprints you should start by taking a look at the Design Sprint Kit website. In short: “A design sprint is a five-phase framework that helps answer critical business questions through rapid prototyping and user testing.” If you’re looking to make a big decision for your product and/or project like a new feature, or a revamped concept, a Design Sprint is a great way to help your team reach fast consensual progress.

Design Sprints in Brazil and India

Last year, I went to India for the first time and I ran a Design Sprint Workshop with the design community in Hyderabad. The same thing happened last month when I went to Brazil for two workshops. On both trips I was able to talk with several professionals across small startups and big companies, all of which shared their struggle to show the value of design as a process. I’ll try to cover some of these struggles, common questions, and also some strategies that designers in Brazil and India are using to adapt Design Sprints to their reality. Even if you’re not working in the southern hemisphere, you’ll probably find these learnings useful.

Design Sprint workshop in Hyderabad, India

How can I pitch a Design Sprint to my team and my CEO?

A lot of people I met in India and Brazil who want to run Design Sprints are in teams that never participated in one before and might not even be familiar with the concept. If that’s your case, patience is of the essence; educating your teammates on how a Design Sprint can be valuable can be a hard and long task, but also a rewarding one! Here are some tips:

  • Set the right mental model when you join a team. Schedule a 1:1 with key stakeholders, explain your design process, and highlight positive impact with some successful example where you either ran Design Sprints or took advantage of a more structured ideation process. This step can take weeks.
  • Share content with your teammates about Design Thinking, Design Sprints, and structured design processes. Sharing articles and case studies from the Design Sprint site, videos from the Google Ventures channel on YouTube and this Google I/O 2016 talk from Kai Haley, a Google Design Advocate, are a good way to start. You can also share notes from relevant books you just read, or go a step further and provide your stakeholders with a copy of top rated industry books like this one by Jake Knapp. This step can take months.
  • Invite experts to talk about their own experiences with Design Sprints. Maybe you haven’t run a Design Sprint yet, or maybe you just want to have a guest to speak about his/her experience to reinforce your message. Book a 30-minute talk with 10 minutes at the end for questions. Although it can be challenging to run these during work hours, I don’t recommend doing it in the evenings or weekends as many people won’t be able to join.
  • Be recognized as a design advocate. If you can’t influence people inside your company, try to give talks elsewhere and make sure your co-workers learn about it. This will help to build your reputation as an expert in the subject matter and increase your credibility with stakeholders at work.
  • Talk with stakeholders to make sure they understand the value of a Design Sprint. Find 10 minutes to present a deck or share the main reasons why a Design Sprint would be valuable in your current product or project stage. Ask stakeholders to help you create the scope of the Design Sprint.
Design Sprints will save you time and money by bringing to light solutions that would take months

Setting the right expectations

“Startups usually get only one good shot at a successful product before they run out of money. Sprints could give these companies a way to find out if they were on the right track before they committed to the risky business of building and launching their products”
Jake Knapp, author of Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days

Once your team is convinced that a Design Sprint is the right choice, it’s more than crucial to set the right expectations before the Sprint.

Design Sprints won’t guarantee that your product will succeed in the market. But Design Sprints will for sure save you time and money by bringing to light solutions that would take months or even years to happen in the form of a prototype. And even if you find that the overall direction was wrong during the Sprint, you’ll be saving time and money by shifting direction in a matter of days.


How can I make people block 3–5 days in their calendar?

Now it’s time to make people really dedicate a full 3–5 days to a Design Sprint. As a Brazilian who worked in Brazil for a while, I know how some people might be skeptical of applying formal methodologies in a lean team, specially when the examples are coming from huge companies. I compiled a few strategies that may be handy on these situations.

  • Schedule 1:1s with those who are still hesitant. People are usually hesitant because they have questions, or they don’t feel included. 10 minutes should be enough to make sure you address their concerns and solve any pending questions. Make sure to also explain why it’s important to have a full-time commitment on a Design Sprint. I usually say: “if you miss 1 hour of the Sprint, you’re missing 2 days of meetings and work in a regular product or service development cycle.”
  • Block time on everyone’s calendars directly. Make sure participants have their Calendars blocked off during the Sprint days so they don’t get overbooked during that time.
  • Highlight that Design Sprints are a way to save, not waste, time. You’ll be super focused with everyone in the same room for 3–5 days, which means that you’ll be able to move much faster on decisions and will unblock the team to create a prototype and validate during the Sprint.
  • Make the day shorter. A great tip from Jake Knapp is to limit your Sprint to only 5 or 6 hours per day (i.e.: from 10AM — 5PM), vs. the usual 8 hours of work. Keep the meals light and the breaks constant, but make them short (10 mins and 1 hour for lunch).
  • If some people are resistant to be in a full week Sprint, ask them to come to the first day at least. As they participate, there’s a high chance that they get more excited and try to join the following days.
  • Do not forget to have a diverse group of contributors: varying roles, genders, backgrounds, hierarchical levels and pretty much anything you find important to diversify the Sprint. As Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, stated: “Whether you’re building a company or leading a country, a diverse mix of voices and backgrounds and experiences leads to better discussions, better decisions, and better outcomes for everyone.”

How can Design Sprints work in a highly hierarchical company?

For cultural reasons, Brazil and India tend to have slightly more hierarchical organizations in comparison to companies in Silicon Valley. My friend Matina Moreira has done a great job adapting the Design Sprint framework to this scenario.

It’s a long run to evangelize the framework, and don’t expect to do it during your first Design Sprint. But fortunately, there are ways to make sure your stakeholders are happy and also take advantage of a more vertical organization.

  • Make sure your stakeholders (CEO, VP, Director) are on board with your idea to run a Design Sprint. Schedule one or several 1:1s before announcing the Sprint to the whole team.
  • Ask your decider(s) to join the Design Sprint. If they can’t join for the full time, ask them to run a 10-minute kickoff lighting talk and/or come for the retrospective at the end of the Sprint.
  • If your deciders are very opinionated, make sure they can join for the prototype dot voting at the end of the day. You can also give them what Jake Knapp calls a “super vote”: a dot sticker identified by their initials that counts more than the rest or that selects one of the prototypes to be tested. Worst case scenario, you can allow your deciders to skip the votes on the dot voting, and choose the two prototypes they feel more comfortable with.
  • Overtime when your deciders are more comfortable with Sprints you can fall back to regular dot voting (no super votes).
  • If your organization is even more vertical, you can create a group of sponsors, the people who manage the people you want to invite. First, you might want to sell the Sprint to them and ask for permission to use their people resources during 3–5 days. They can join for the dot voting, the retrospective or even give a lightning talk. Those actions will make the manager more comfortable and included in the process.
Mobile whiteboards is a versatile tool for all office sizes

Where should I host my Sprint?

When I go to India and Brazil people always ask me “how can I find space and resources to run my Sprint?” Startups sometimes work out of small rooms, garages and studios, with not enough space even for the day’s activities. So finding space for a whiteboard, sticky notes, and markers can be tricky. Do not let those barriers stop you from putting people together, here are some workarounds:

  • If you have a budget you can rent a co-working space or even a commercial room to do the Sprint. Having the team in a different environment will make the Design Sprint even more special and focused.
  • Buy mobile whiteboards or large foam boards. Have them for each team, so if they need to move to another room or space you can just ask the teams to take these with them.
Interactive prototypes are great for usability test, but paper ones are best fit for quick studies

How can I do research in one day?

In Brazil, I was educated to run classical Lab Usability Studies in a clean white lab equipped with magical software that captures face reactions, screens, audio, and sometimes even tracks users’ eyes. The recruitment was always a painful point: you have to select the right group of people, make sure they can commit a full hour to come to the lab, have a special gift, and book the time for everyone involved.

This fine-tuned usability testing was very helpful. But when it comes to business questions and prototypes in a Sprint, you’ll need something faster and broader. Some authors call it guerrilla research, quick and dirty research, or intercepts. Some advantages of this method:

  • Intercepts are real people in real life situations, not in a controlled environment. So you might actually get more precise answers if you’re asking broader questions.
  • Because people won’t come to your office they won’t know what company you work for, so they might be less biased to give positive answers.
  • On the street, people might be also more open to give feedback since you’re not showing a prototype in a formal lab.

My research partner at Google, Aysha Siddique, helped me to come up with a list of good practices for intercepts:

  • Go to places where and when people are on a break (or at least not in a rush!), like city squares, parks, patios, bars, during school breaks, etc. For example, in Brazil, people tend to hang out in city squares, especially during lunch; in India you can get lots of participants in train stations while they wait for trains.
  • Speak their language. Politely get close to people, introduce yourself, and explain you’re running a quick research study. Then ask for the interviewee’s name and 10 minutes of their time (that might get a little longer, but keep it only to the necessary time). Bonus points if you speak their native language.
  • Be on the same level. If they’re sitting, sit. If they’re on the floor, do the same.
  • Break the ice first. Start with small talk or anything that feels less formal. Smile.
  • Offer incentives only after the interview. It might be ok to offer it up front if the person is a little hesitant, but if he/she is too hesitant, just say thank you and try the next person. Otherwise you may end up with a heavily biased result.
  • If you’re doing research in emerging markets, focus on intercepting middle- and low-income individuals, but have some representation of high-income folks, too.
  • Use paper prototypes. People will be more open to give feedback on those rather than interactive ones. Populate the prototype with close to real content, avoid “lorem ipsum” or stock images. Unless you’re testing usability, paper prototypes are the way to go.
  • Focus groups are OK for this kind of research but be aware of dominant voices.
  • Record if they allow you, or take notes on the fly (announce that your interview would be slower because of that).

Do I need all five phases?

Design Sprints are great to solve bigger problems, align teammates, and pivot products and services. But if you just need to figure out a small detail like, should I use a slider or a button?, some quick research would be better suited. If you have a regular Engineer Sprint or do regular research, you might want to adapt the Design Sprint, break it down, or even just do some phases which might end up in a non-Sprint. That’s OK!

I’ve experienced a Sprint in three phases (sketching, defining, and prototyping) during a Monday and Tuesday. The prototype was made and validated in parallel every week afterwards by an engineer and a researcher, respectively. The lessons were incorporated each week, as we followed the research closely. That was a team of 5 people and was a fun way to adapt Design Sprints.


If everything goes well…

People will get very excited with Design Sprints once they’ve experienced one, or when they see one happening close to them. So be prepared to create ways to select people for your next Sprints. Also consider helping other teams, friends, and companies to run their own Sprints as an opportunity to share your learnings with a wider group. For example, internally at Google, we teach other designers how to run Sprints for their own teams.

In my personal experience, once you run your first Design Sprint, your team will start to view design from a different perspective and you’ll also save a lot of time by exposing stakeholders to the design process, rather than coming up with solutions directly.

Happy Sprinting!

Design Sprint workshop squad @ Google Belo Horizonte, Brazil
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