How to use design sprints to push your company roadmap

4 tips for making your design sprints really matter

Will Tsui
Will Tsui
May 3, 2018 · 7 min read

When I talk to other designers, I find one of the most common questions is: how can design have a greater influence on my company’s future? At Gusto we’ve found that design sprints are an important way for us to contribute to our company strategy. We’ve used sprints to discover new products to launch, help our customers build better workplaces, and reimagine the payday experience.

But just because you do a design sprint doesn’t mean it’ll have an impact on your company. There are many examples of designers spending a week doing a sprint, only for the team to go back to their routines with the company no better off. What’s the difference between a design sprint that goes nowhere and a design sprint that shapes company strategy? In this post, I’ll share our secrets.

1. Propose a design sprint when there’s a big new opportunity your company is considering

When building roadmaps, company leaders have to identify the biggest opportunities. A typical way of going about this is through customer and market research.

  • Customer research helps you answer: Who is our customer? What problems can we solve for them?
  • Market research helps you answer: What is the opportunity for us to solve those problems?

So then how do you put a new opportunity on a roadmap? You need to find a solution to the customer problem. And not just any solution — you need the best solution.

Your customers won’t be able to tell you what the best solutions are. Nor will market research. This is where design sprints are invaluable.

“Simple customer interviews aren’t enough since you can only ask customers about their current expectations and not their future expectations. Instead, prototype realistic solutions and show them to customers to observe their reactions. Look for the ‘wow’ moments, and when you find them, don’t let go.”

— Tomer London, Gusto co-founder

If you know of a new opportunity your leadership is considering that’s searching for an innovative solution, that’s exactly the moment to propose a design sprint.

Here’s your pitch.

All it takes a week and here’s what you’ll get:

  1. Potentially breakthrough ideas that come from exploring a range of solutions — not just going with the obvious solution, which your competitors may do
  2. Direct feedback from customers on your ideas. You might even get one or two complete hits.
  3. An engaged team all aligned around the opportunity

Once design sprints prove themselves to be a valuable learning tool for your company, your company leaders may start to ask for them when considering new opportunities for the roadmap. That’s a great sign that design is becoming more leveraged at your company.

Last year, through customer and market research, Gusto saw a new opportunity to help small businesses hire without the headache of paperwork. We ran a couple of design sprints and came up with a “wow” product idea that doesn’t exist in the market today. We recently launched our first version of it, HR Basics, a free product that makes hiring and managing time off a breeze for small businesses.

HR Basics, from design sprint sketches to product launch

2. Know your customer before you do a sprint

If you don’t know your customer, you’ll find yourself designing solutions in the dark without understanding the core problem you need to solve. You might come up with interesting concepts but they aren’t grounded in reality. They’ll quickly end up in the idea graveyard.

To prevent this, here are some ways you can prepare before a sprint:

  • Have conversations with customers to understand their experiences related to your problem area. Consider talking to potential customers who use a competitor’s product or have an alternative solution to your problem.
  • Survey customers to understand their pain points and how they currently address them
  • Review customer support tickets, including feature requests
  • Look at analytics on how customers use your product
  • Check out what customers are saying about your product in online reviews and social media

Our product dashboard, one of the most highly trafficked areas in the Gusto product, hadn’t adapted to new use cases we introduced over the years and some customers were reporting difficulties with it. Our design team saw a big opportunity for the dashboard to provide better guidance and be easier for our customers to use.

Before we ran a design sprint, we wanted to learn as much as possible about customer experiences with the current dashboard. We reviewed product usage analytics and set up calls with 12 customers, representing a diversity of customer types, to understand how the dashboard fit into their workflows.

We often use spreadsheets to keep track of notes from our customer calls. There’s one row per customer and we transcribe key quotes word for word to reference later. After the calls, the spreadsheets make it easier to find common themes across customers.

We used this customer knowledge as an input to the design sprint, which kept our team focused on improving the customer experience.

3. Create a slide deck to tell a visual story about the sprint

The most valuable product of the design sprint is not the ideas your team came up with or the beautiful (or not so beautiful) prototypes you made. It’s what you learned from customers about your ideas.

Because of this, be sure to package and deliver your learnings so it’s easy for others to understand.

Create a summary deck to share with company leaders. Here are some things to include:

  • Background: Your target customer or user, the problem you are solving for them, and the opportunity for your company.
  • Some sprint details: Who was on the sprint team, your team’s sprint goal, how many and what types of customers you interviewed during the sprint.
Share a few photos from the sprint to show others what was involved.
  • Your team’s prototypes and the feedback from customers: For each prototype, a brief description of the concept behind it, the prototype itself (or screenshots from it), and the themes your team identified in the customer feedback.
As much as possible, report the number of people who shared the same feedback to communicate its importance. For example, “4 out of 5 customers said they would sign up”.
Have plenty of real customer quotes to back up your learnings. These are like gold.
  • Recommendations on what the company should do based on what you learned and any specific next steps you suggest.

Schedule time to walk through the deck you created with company leaders and answer their questions. If they trust your process and what you learned, and they care about the opportunity, your recommendation will carry a lot of weight.

Of course, sprint ideas may not work when you test them with customers. These are still valuable learnings and should be celebrated. Knowing where not to go is important, and it only took a few days to figure out.

To help the wider company understand the impact of sprints and design, host a workshop or brown bag lunch to share what you learned in your sprint and show others how sprints work. Ask others if they have opportunities that might be good for a design sprint.

4. Don’t forget that people are the most important part of a sprint

“To me, [sprints are] the absolute best of work: a challenging problem, focused time, a team of people working together and bringing their best, disagreeing constructively, and making progress. In your life, there will only be a certain number of moments like this — savor it.”

— Jake Knapp, co-author of Sprint

In a sprint it’s easy to get lost in solving a challenging problem at a speedy pace with all the tasks at hand. Don’t forget about your fellow sprinters though, and be thoughtful about the collaborative environment you’re helping to create.

Why? It’ll be more fun for everyone, you’ll come up with more creative ideas, and you’ll build relationships that may be essential for bringing the ideas to life after the sprint.

A few tips:

Make sure all voices are heard by inviting each person to share their perspective

Don’t take things too seriously

Bring snacks. And whatever they tell you, not all the snacks have to be healthy.

Want to be part of our next sprint? Join us on the Gusto Design team. We’re hiring!

Have questions about how we use design sprints at Gusto or tips of your own to share? Feel free to drop me a message.

Kudos to Jess Chan and Hila Shemer for leading design and product on HR Basics, and also to Google Ventures for their generous design sprint support and mentorship through the years.

Thanks to Val Klump, Will Newton, and Jake Knapp.

Gusto Design

One intuitive place to manage payroll, benefits, and HR for…

Will Tsui

Written by

Will Tsui

Product Design @ Gusto

Gusto Design

One intuitive place to manage payroll, benefits, and HR for your business. Goodbye, tedious work. Hello, meaningful work. We're hiring designers!

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