Hacking the Design Sprint method to solve a complex problem

What we learned by adapting the 5-day Design Sprint approach to address a big challenge: flight delays

Design Sprints have become a great tool for product development for many — but can you actually apply the same methodology to solve a complex and multifaceted problem? Say, a problem like flight delays?

Creative and storytelling workspace

So the first questions are…how does one approach a problem like this? Do you try to analyze operational processes and see where the failures are, try to attack the root cause? Do you assume that most flight delays cannot be avoided, but are damaging to the airline’s brand and therefore you focus on how to minimize the negative impact on customers?

How can you create a process that enables the airline to analyze and solve their points of failure in 5 days?

Is a Design Sprint even the right methodology for a problem of this nature?
We know it is a good recipe for cross-functional teams in product development with many success stories. But we also know it has received a lot of hype and that not every design problem is a product design problem.

These are some of the questions I asked myself, when I happily accepted to lead this project. As a design researcher and facilitator, I realised that the Design Sprint methodology, well documented by Google, would need some serious hacking to make this work.

So these are our “hacks”:

  • Split the Sprint Team of eight into two Teams for all collaborative exercises
  • Share innovative ideas and inspiration from other industries
  • Plan two validation sessions with potential customers instead of one. This enables you to shorten the lead time to 2,5 days and run 2 cycles in 5 days
  • Do not do any usability testing or cognitive walkthroughs. Do concept tests to validate the value for customers instead, a different research method
  • Invest time to analyse the results of the 1st session in-depth with all the Sprint team
  • Focus the creative work on storytelling rather than the development of one single solution or prototype
  • Enable solution co-creation with the participating customers

And here is what we learned through the process.

First step: find the stakeholders representing the different problem facets
We put ourselves in the shoes of our client: who can help us understand the causes and effects of flight delays? E.g. professionals from operations, customer experience and even beyond the company— airport managers responsible for handling disruptions. We needed to understand the ‘whys’, but also what had already been trialed and failed. We needed to tap into insider knowledge of delay patterns.

If this was a research project spanning over a few months, which stakeholders would I interview?

Collaborative prototyping

You must break organisational silos to bring functions together.
We asked for a list of roles, not really knowing who will be on the team until the last minute. Getting senior managers to commit 5 days of their time is an unthinkable challenge in a big organisation, in which our client excelled.

We booked a nice apartment — far away from the office — and made big promises to make this happen. But it all paid off. Yes, people complained about the 5 days. And they had to take the occasional call or skip parts of user testing to attend a meeting. However, everyone engaged until the end. Why:

The knowledge exchange is tremendous: people discover so much about how things work in their own company. This changes their perspective forever.

Getting instant responses to “what if…” questions. Being able to compare tools and processes. To share best practice, as well as failures.

Once we established a common understanding of the problem and a common objective, we needed to shift from analysing a problem to creating solutions. For this, we showed them inspirational ideas and innovations from other industries. Sometimes, you just need to look somewhere else to exit a loop in your thinking process.

And here is another barrier: how do we facilitate non-designers to visualise their ideas on paper?

There is no need to worry about drawing skills — you can use props.
We did ask participants to sketch 8 ideas in 8 minutes (the Crazy 8s) and it worked really well to our surprise. Because this was not about drawing the perfect solution, but about lifting the spirits, being creative and having fun. The team was then ready to start storyboarding delay scenarios and brainstorm on solution ideas. We used the Scenes™toolkit for that — a great storyboarding tool developed by SAP. Rather than drawing stick people, you can write on existing props and just focus on your story.

When both teams had a story to tell, we focused on the value of their solutions for the end customer. We challenged them to think in an experimental way.

What are your ‘burning’ questions? What do you want to find out when you share your solution ideas with customers?

Concept testing session with storyboards

Concept testing is not a usability test. The fundamental difference is the focus on ‘value’. Does this solution alleviate pain during a flight delay? Does it help people feel more in control? Or, to put it simply, is it good enough?

Storytelling helps provide enough context to be able to have a meaningful conversation around value and customer benefits.

The reason we planned two user research sessions instead of one was to give us enough time to experiment and fail. When working with high level service concepts through storytelling, more time is needed to find the right direction. User interfaces can be drawn and fine-tuned after the Sprint, but what if the solution is useless?

The Sprint Teams found the first validation session with customers quite a revelation. Many assumptions were challenged, but also new opportunities opened up, as participants empathised with the characters in the stories and engaged with the creative process.

Do a research analysis and insights summary with the entire team. Not everyone was present in the user research, but the whole team learned from the detailed analysis session. Those who were assigned as notetakers shared their insights from each session and we were able to draw some conclusions on the proposed solutions. As expected, the teams needed to go back to the drawing board.

Do not give up in tough moments of truth. There is always a different story you can tell the next time .This was difficult, on Thursday afternoon trying to re-work ideas or come up with alternative ones after an already intense week. But it was probably the most important session in the Sprint. Some people realised that they had constrained their ideas because of known organisational barriers and had suggested small improvements, with low impact. Now they had to try again. Others realised that their concepts were still too high level, they needed to find more concrete examples to make them relevant and useful.

Stories with solution concepts being prepared for the ‘testing’ table

Make customers part of the creative process. The second validation run with customers was a success. Actionable, detailed feedback made it easy to prioritise solutions. Positive reactions and piggybacking on ideas. Participants not only suggested valuable improvements, but also imagined feasible alternatives for the same problem context.

“We really needed that second validation session with users, because the solutions were not concrete enough when we did the first one. We learned so much in such a short time ”

The final deliverable of this Design Sprint was a roadmap of solutions — a set of concepts for improving customer experience before and during flight delays. We organised and prioritised them, based on perceived value and feasibility, taking into account everything we learned during those intense 5 days. These concepts can now be further detailed and developed by dedicated teams.

“5 days was a really difficult commitment for us. But the benefits of this collaboration and being able to validate solution ideas made it worthwhile ”

I cannot thank enough the team that made this exciting journey possible, the people behind “We” in this article: Olivier Mache, Valentina Marun and Maria Sanmartin. A big thanks to Sofia Larocca, for helping us with all insane logistics and last minute requests. I am very grateful to Nacar Design, a vibrant innovation design studio in Barcelona, for offering me this fantastic challenge to work on this project.



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Yanna Vogiazou

Yanna Vogiazou

A hybrid: half designer, half researcher. Helping teams develop meaningful products and services: designfollowsinsight.com