Incorporating Design Thinking into a Design Sprint Focused Organization

John Berry
Handsome Perspectives
7 min readApr 18, 2018


One of the most powerful outputs of design thinking is the ability to cultivate a sense of empathy for your product’s users, as well as a rich understanding of their day-to-day lives. At Handsome, we leverage those key insights to fuel the rapid ideation, prototyping, and testing that occurs within our design sprints to ensure we’re creating products and services people truly want to use. Our mash-up approach to design thinking and design sprints made us the ideal partner to the Austin-based SaaS ecommerce platform provider, Volusion, who was looking for a team to help them incorporate design thinking into their already successful design sprint driven approach.

So, what exactly are the differences between design thinking and design sprints? Taking the words right from the preacher’s mouths…

Design thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.” Tim Brown, CEO of Ideo

The [design] sprint is a five-day process for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing with ideas with customers.” Jake Knapp, Author of SPRINT and one of the inventors of the Design Sprint

Breaking it down, design thinking is a framework or philosophy that helps us design for the end user’s wants, needs, and motivations while surfacing unmet needs and problems along the way. The design sprint is a tool or system that helps facilitate the quick creation, testing, and feedback of ideas. Without design thinking, you can easily get caught in a design sprint loop of making and testing without realizing what, where, and who your solutions should be focused on.

At Handsome, we focus on a human-centered design (HCD) approach to problem solving that incorporates design thinking to influence our design sprints. We believe the success of any object, product, solution, or service is driven by the people that it impacts. Design thinking has various formats, but Handsome thinks of design thinking in four main phases:

  1. Context Building (Research and Empathy)
  2. Problem Definition
  3. Ideation (Brainstorming)
  4. Prototyping and Testing

It is in steps 3 and 4 where Handsome believes design sprints can be optimally utilized.

Volusion works in accelerators, or small teams that focus on one portion of the user journey, and currently have a very successful design sprint structure in place. They were looking for a partner to grow and improve their V2 product, as well as build out their internal approach and practice to incorporating design thinking into their design sprints with rich contextual data derived from research. In terms of accelerators, Handsome’s primary focus was to support two of Volusion’s product-focused accelerators, whose objectives are to create a seamless store setup and launch experience, and to help small to medium business founders achieve their first sale post-launch.

Before we could begin designing solutions for either accelerator, we needed to step back and start at the first step of design thinking, which is context building. We needed to understand the company and stakeholder goals, their product and it’s history (what has and hasn’t worked in the past), and their users (previous, current, and potential users). We spent 8 weeks deep in research conducting hour-long interviews with a wide variety of users, stakeholders, and Volusion employees. These interviews not only helped reinforce the obvious problems, but also uncovered the unmet needs of users that existed beyond the surface.

Volusion had existing knowledge and data and analytics on how users were or were not using the platform, where they were dropping off, getting stuck, and more. However they wanted help in deepening their understanding of their users and help broadening their sense of empathy. They also wanted to grow and expand their understanding of the connective tissue between their qualitative and quantitative data in order to see the complete picture. Qualitative data is different than quantitative data (numbers and statistics), because it provides us with a deep understanding of the users interacting with the product. Qualitative data will generate new insights, reinforce existing challenges, and surface new challenges that would not have surfaced themselves through numbers and data alone.

Handsome team synthesizing utterances from research in order to turn them into insights

From the synthesis of research we generated insights which guided us to identifying different problem and opportunity areas. There were two insights that particularly stood out. The first focused on creating one holistic experience that fit different types of users:

Users feel the experience of the product as one experience from on-boarding, to launch to first sale and growth. Instead of designing solutions for different parts of the customer journey, design solutions for different user types through the holistic journey.

The second focused on translating the overwhelming positive experiences that users have when interacting with Volusion employees:

The digital experience of the product is the first Volusion representative that a user interacts with and should resemble the emotional experiences that are felt when interacting with a Volusion employee.

In addition to helping identify the problem and opportunity areas, these insights also began to drive the creation of artifacts from research. These artifacts were created as a set of tools that could be referenced and utilized in the next stage or the design thinking process. They are also a good set of tools to use when getting stuck in the design sprint loop. Some of the artifacts generated from research were:

  • A set of design values that act as overarching guide posts when designing across each accelerator.
  • Personas based on ethnographic research that would help accelerators have a united understanding and broader sense of empathy of the different types of users. The personas also reinforced the idea of designing for multiple user types in one holistic journey.
Consolidated Personas — The real personas were much to large to include
  • A hierarchy of Needs that placed these personas in the mental stage of the user journey.
Hierarchy of Needs
  • Problem and opportunity statements that were generated from the initial insights developed during research.
  • An opportunity roadmap that provides a high level view of the problem and opportunity areas, along with the steps leading to the ideal solution.

After context-building (empathy and research) and defining the problem and opportunities, we used the new artifacts and findings from design thinking research to influence the more design sprint focused activities of ideation, prototyping, and testing.

Volusion team members brainstorming on site at Handsome

Through collaborative brainstorming sessions and workshops with Volusion, we ideated around the areas of opportunities in order to identify short-term tactical wins (low hanging fruit) as well as the long-term vision for Volusion. While brainstorming and workshopping we always tried to view these solutions through the lenses of our newly generated personas while continually referencing their goals, motivations and frustrations. These short-term tactical wins were then organized, prioritized and paired with the long-term ideal opportunities, building out the granular vision and path of the opportunity roadmap.

As we move through 2018, we have now come fill circle and these short-term tactical wins are being deployed through a series of design sprints. These design sprints will no longer be solely based off of testing and retesting the assumptions of Volusion’s customers. Instead, the sprints are now based off of a rich contextual understanding of their users. This, paired with the insights gleaned from research, will allow Volusion to better solve for their customers and the true challenges at hand.

About Volusion: Volusion is a local Austin ecommerce company. Since 1999, Volusion has been dedicated to providing SaaS commerce solutions to businesses of a wide variety of types and sizes. Volusion has helped over 30,000 businesses grow and build their online businesses, and has now launched a new version of their product, aptly named “V2” — a mobile optimized experience targeted to small to medium size businesses.

About Handsome: Handsome is a design and innovation company.

We create beautiful experiences that drive businesses to succeed in a rapidly changing world.

We’re entrepreneurs, collaborators, inventors, thinkers, and makers. We focus on creating brands, services, and products that impact users across a holistic, technology-empowered journey.

We’re independently owned and headquartered in Austin, Texas with a team comprised of strategists, designers, and technologists.

Our client partnerships include FedEx, Keller Williams, Facebook, Home Depot, and Nickelodeon.

Our team is growing. Want to create things that make an impact?



John Berry
Handsome Perspectives

Sometimes writing, sometimes designing, but always growing exploring and discovering. Product Designer @Facebook