Teaching design thinking through design sprints

How we used design sprints to show the power of design thinking

Will Hepworth
Jul 30, 2019 · 5 min read

Alongside some great colleagues, I recently delivered a design thinking workshop for 35 people who were either user experience designers or those looking to learn more about user experience design. The event was for anyone who was interested in finding out more about how digital products and services are designed and delivered.

The day was a big success, and we’re now taking it nationwide, with Birmingham first up. Get more details about our next Digital Design in a Day event here.

So why do we run the day? At Hippo, we’re advocates of building the right thing; and building it right. We believe it’s important to identify the right problem at the start to ensure that what we build and deliver will help to solve issues that the users have encountered. This day walks participants through a user-centred design process and shows that people are at the heart of good digital design. As my colleague Mark Branigan puts it, we never design something just to validate the CORGI (chief officers really good idea).

What a design sprint is

We chose to take our participants through the design sprint process. Described as a method to “solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days”, the design sprint is a not-so-new method initially brought to the fore by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky and Braden Kowitz whilst at Google Ventures (GV). The traditional GV design sprint would usually take 5 days; Monday to Friday. But the Hippo design sprint takes a problem from an initial idea, producing a testable prototype, and then user research in a single day.

To understand what a design sprint is, let’s look at the goal for the day: to educate our attendees about design thinking and its power. Design thinking is a five-stage process for design innovation, popularised by David Kelley in the ’90s. Kelley believed that design thinking was a mindset and a problem-solving approach which could be used to solve organisational problems.

This approach emphasised the importance of design and starkly contradicted the belief in the ’80s and ’90s that design was just an afterthought, focussed on making things look pretty.

Find out more about design thinking through this great article.

Understanding design thinking

Kelley wasn’t wrong. A large part of why design thinking has had staying power as a methodology is how accessible it is to anyone, not just designers. Does that mean everyone who follows the design thinking process is guaranteed innovation? Not quite. Like the challenge my team and I faced when thinking about how we can best deliver the principles of design thinking in a day, what can often be lacking is the vehicle in which design thinking is delivered.

The design thinking process

Design thinking, when applied without guidance can be an ambiguous concept, using words like ‘prototype’ and ‘ideation’ reduces its accessibility to the general public. As a result, it’s easy to become bogged down in confusing terminology and concepts. Not to mention, it can be a difficult thing to teach to an audience who may not know much or anything at all about design.

To illustrate how we used design sprints to apply the principles of design thinking, I thought to explain it through an analogy about building a house (stick with me on this).

Photo credit: Unsplash

Innovative product/design — I want you to think of this house as a very innovative product. But it’s a final product. How do we arrive here? To do so, we need to learn how to build it.

Design thinking — This is building school. This is the theory. This is where you learn to build a house. This is where you’re a design thinker, but not quite a design do-er (yet). You’re bursting at the seams with thoughts, ideas — but without much direction about how to apply this yet.

Design sprint — This is where you apply it, think of it as an IKEA flat pack furniture guide for building a house. It tells you precisely which tradesmen will need to work on each part and what materials you’ll need to use. It’ll tell you when to involve the architect, the electrician and who needs to stay on the project throughout.

Using design sprints to solve problems

At the start of the ‘Digital Design in a Day’ event, we split up the participants into teams of 5 or 6. Firstly, we ran through the problem, ‘how can we encourage more people to be proactive with their health?’ We then prompted the teams to come up with their assumptions and hypotheses in relation to this problem.

From here we whisked them through a series of tasks, giving a brief explanation and example first, then letting them loose on user mapping, storyboarding, paper prototyping and user research.

The day finished with some show and tells, taking some time to show off the great work that the teams achieved throughout the day.

As you can see from the above itinerary, design sprints make for a great, methodical, way for delivering the principles of design thinking: quick proof of concept, iterative cycles and a user focus. The exercises that a sprint comprises of make for a high-energy day filled with collaboration and problem-solving.

Design sprints embody the paradox (and big cliche) that to speed up, you must slow down first. They bring focus to the ‘why’ not the ‘how’. In the era predicated by moving fast and breaking things, it’s more important than ever to understand what the problem is, and if it’s the right problem to solve.

The value of design sprints

Take the above example, if you built a house too quickly, without drawing on the right expertise (for example, architects and specialist tradespeople), by the time you get to put the roof on, you realise all the walls are wonky because you’ve not taken the time to build it properly. The end product is a pile of rubble and financial loss.

This is only worsened by the multiplier of scale —if you’re breaking the wrong thing, moving fast and breaking things at a larger scale means bigger piles of rubble in more places. Instead, first, focus in on what the problem is you’re trying to solve, then learn and validate your idea quickly, adjust, and continue. Speed tailored with focus in the early stages of a project can be a catalyst for success. Setting the course of direction early on can prevent future (and significantly more painful) changes from occurring.

We have some great ideas and refinement for version 2.0 of our Digital Design in a Day event — check it out and come along!

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