Anatomy of a Sprint

Dissecting the IDEO CoLab prototyping process

CoLab’s collaborative innovation model helps us rapidly explore and understand the implications of emerging tech. We’ve written in the past about the business benefits of this model, and about our approach to building prototypes, but what’s it really like to experience one of CoLab’s sprints? Our own Shuya Gong takes you on a first-hand tour inside a CoLab R&D sprint from a fellow’s perspective. Interested in joining one? Fellowship makeathon applications are now open here.

So, you’re wondering exactly what goes on inside of IDEO CoLab during a sprint.

Maybe you’ve walked by the office and peeked into the madness of Post-its thrown on every flat surface, maybe you’ve seen the magic of floating heads and interesting prototypes. Or maybe you heard about this mysterious process from school, or a friend, or a professor, or perhaps you read about the makeathon and want to know more.

Fair warning, an IDEO CoLab R&D sprint is more of a journey without a destination, a wormhole leap into a fuzzy vision of the not-too-distant future. I’ve gone through maybe 10 or so sprints spanning the past three years, first as a CoLab fellow and now as a full-time designer. The process is always pretty surprising, so it’s hard to generalize what a typical sprint looks like, but here follows an attempt at a breakdown of the mental and emotional rollercoaster a CoLab sprint can offer.

The aforementioned floating head — a hologram from a prototype called Mesa. Winter 2018

Day 1: Hello. Now Get Started.

Unbox Your Briefs

At IDEO CoLab, sprints are centered around a brief — a one-page document that’s a starting point for teams to dig into our research questions. Briefs are written at a high level, with a little context, inspiration, and direction. The idea is to give you enough berth to freely ideate and prototype, but enough constraint to get you started fast. Briefs usually have a core technology (like blockchain or artificial intelligence) and an industry or specific use case, plus one or two suggested prototypes to build — all for the purpose of testing out an idea and surfacing some good questions.

Other than that, your brief is what you and your team make of it. Vague? Intentionally so. The collection of briefs changes every single sprint, and are different for every single team, because the CoLab team is constantly inspired by technology shifts in the world, and by prototypes made by your predecessors in sprints past.

You’ll basically spend the rest of day one digging into this brief, brainstorming, and starting to build prototypes with your team. Did we mention you get a team?

A few of CoLab’s amazing fellows.

Trust Your Team

You’re not meant to go on a sprint alone! It’s always been a team expedition. Generally, each team is made up of academic fellows (students from literally all over the world) and corporate fellows (amazing innovators with industry expertise from CoLab’s member companies). Each team includes the disciplines of technologist, brand/visual designer, storyteller, and business designer — although not all of these roles are necessarily covered by different people. There may be some overlaps, or even wildcards like an artist or crazy polymath. Each team is paired with a guide from the CoLab who’s been through this process before and can help keep your team on the right track.

Part of the magic is trusting your team to help make something awesome by the sprint’s end, but also learning from them while you try something new. During our short sprints, we’ve seen our fellows learn (with no prior experience) how to code smart contracts, put together a circuit and microcontroller that detects a car crash, or program a new augmented reality interface.

An early iteration of an augmented reality prototype. Summer 2017.

Day 2: Existentialism and the Real World

Get Outside Your Bubble: User Research

Gooooooooood morning! By now you’ve sat with your brief and your team long enough that you might have talked yourself into a rabbit hole. You might think your team is about to play out an episode of Black Mirror. You’re maybe still a little confused about what a blockchain is really good for (me too). Worst case scenario, you’re wondering if technology is even a good thing for the world in the first place.

It’s okay. We’ve all been there. It’s time to go out into the real world and be inspired and informed by real people! Hopefully your team has turned some of those questions from the brief into very rough little prototypes: it’s time to use them for feedback.

The CoLab team can help you find users to interview, reaching out into our member networks to find the right subjects. Sometimes, for quick feedback, teams will do user intercepts in a public space, trading baked goods or tea for a few minutes’ worth of thoughts.

Hot tea for talk: a creative means to capture feedback. Fellows Joanne Cheung, Humphrey Obuobi, and Katie Wilhoit. Winter 2017.

Though it can take time to carefully prepare for user feedback, talking to real people helps you get stories that hone in on why a particular piece of technology is useful (or not), and can greatly define the way you journey forth with your prototype! (Also, you’ll probably find some wonderfully bizarre people to interview and that’s always a great time. Thank you, Boston/SF, for keeping it weird.) For more considerations on design research, check out IDEO’s Little Book of Design Research.

Once you’ve done at least one round of user interviews, it’s time to start building in earnest. This part of the process is totally different depending on your role within your team. For me, it usually means that I’m headed into the shop and getting elbow-deep into some spray paint and foamcore. For other people, it might be setting up Excel spreadsheets or getting npm installs going. This isn’t to say that you’ll be working alone at this point; you’re still jamming alongside each other to make pieces that work together in a single prototype.

Day 3: Werk Werk Werk Werk Werk Werk and Test

Iteration and Refinement

Welcome back! It’s time to keep building. Another full day of prototyping is a luxury not every sprint gets (some sprints are just three days long instead of the four described here), so use this extra day well! It’s now time to refine your prototype, and you probably need a plan.

Since prototyping is an inherently iterative process, it’s a good idea for someone to set up a few more user interviews to test what you’ve built. This is also a good time for a design review — often, we’ll call in an IDEO designer to give our work some critique and extra sparkle. Sometimes the feedback from user interviews or design reviews totally changes our course, sometimes it confirms what we’re doing. Either way, prototyping can’t live in a bubble, and we have to keep going.

Once you’ve gotten some feedback and aligned your team on a course, Talk Less, Do More. It’s full-out build time, because it’s the last full day of the sprint and tomorrow is demo day. (To be totally honest, sometimes I’ve pulled an all nighter or two because I wanted to make a super extra awesome prototype.)

This is when your team’s concept starts to really get some meat on its bones. Brand work starts to happen, a full fledged business plan is realized (at least as much as one can be realized within three days), the websites go up, and mental/emotional responses go from “that’s a cool prototype” to “shut up and take my money I want that now.” The energy in the room is pretty overpowering. And sometimes the smell of humans in the room is overpowering, too.

Build, test, and repeat. It’s a hands-on process (or hands-free, depending on the technology). Summer 2017.

Day 4: Science Fair!

Sharing for Fun and Feedback

Last morning! Prep your stations! Sometimes we walk in on Day 4 and it seems like the idea has completely changed since we left the night before, but hey, the design process is about iteration and learning from failure. Regardless, things are pretty awesome. It’s super incredible that in the course of 3.5 days you’ve birthed a prototype that’s been vetted for tech, for users, for a business plan, and it looks like a damn real thing. I’m shocked every time.

Finally it’s Science Fair time (and also happy hour). We pop open some beers and snacks and go around and see all the cool stuff that’s been created in the past three days — but it’s not at all superficial. We prefer the Science Fair format to a more traditional “pitch” competition because science fairs let you experience all the prototypes first-hand, allowing visitors to consider for themselves how that future use case might feel — no vaporware required.

Science Fair stations up and ready to portal you in the future. Winter 2016.

This is a time to discuss together the nitty-gritty of the business model, geek out on the tech tools used to make the prototype, and reflect together on broader implications. It’s also some good time to leave some documentation for posterity.

It’s a fun week, all in all. If you’re wondering what happens to the fifth day in a week, sometimes the process starts all over again for a second consecutive sprint. Sometimes we spend the fifth day doing more synthesis and storytelling to polish things up for sharing with our member network at our next meeting. Or sometimes the the fifth day ends on a boat on an island in an arcade. (See below for evidence. My mother and I are still in shock that somehow this is a real job that I do.)

We’re on a boat!

What Happens after a Sprint?

Your Prototype Lives On

Your hard work doesn’t just disappear. The CoLab team takes a good, comprehensive look at all the prototypes that have been built, polishes up some prototypes, and steps back to synthesize the patterns and themes we’re seeing across all of them. Prototypes are starting points and provocations, not final solutions. So no matter where a prototype lands, it usually has an interesting insight or two to offer.

We then reach out to some pretty cool companies and friends in our network to share what we’ve learned. What happens after is pretty varied, but prototypes might make it into the real world as a real venture, get pulled into our member companies as an internal project, or we’ll do another iteration on them in another sprint. No matter what, your prototype has become an important part of IDEO CoLab’s body of work, and is fundamental to our long-game approach to humanizing technology. As for you, you’re forever a part of the CoLab family, and we keep in touch with past fellows through our alumni network. We may reach out to you for freelance gigs, referrals to job postings in our network, or for your continued expertise. Don’t be a stranger!


How do I get involved?

You may still be skeptical about a sprint ending in a successful prototype, and I don’t blame you. Standing at day 1 and trying to figure out how to dive deep so you emerge on day 4–5 with the full formed prototypes seen above seems pretty daunting. But that’s a normal feeling. While I can’t give you a 100% guarantee, I can tell you that this process has worked fabulously at least 178 documented times. 24 of those happened in 2018, and it’s only February.

Interested? Wondering how you fit in? Apply to be a part of our next sprint here and learn more about the process.