9 Reasons Why We Start Projects with Design Sprints
The less-obvious ways design sprints help our clients and our design business
It’s shocking to realize that I’ve been involved with Product and UX Design for the better part of 15 years. It started with one of the leading tech sites in Israel — where I had been a senior editor before joining the design efforts, then continued at Gust.com (then called Angelsoft), one of the very first crowdfunding platforms for entrepreneurs, and from there I joined former Angelsoft COO Ryan Janssen in building SetJam, a smart TV startup which we later sold to Motorola in 2012. After that — I’ve led product design and product strategy projects in New York, California, Europe, and Israel. I’ve worked with dozens of entrepreneurs on designing their MVPs (Minimal Viable Products), raising a total of ~$100M by my last rough calculation.
My approach to new product design was fairly classic: interview users and experts, collect user stories in a massive Google Sheet, lead a ranking exercise (either with the entrepreneur and their team of experts or ideally with actual users), cut as much as possible out, and then quickly wireframe and prototype a solution which can then be validated with users.
Over the past few months, however, me and my partners at Blue Label Labs have shifted into recommending a Google Ventures-Style 5-Day Design Sprint at the start of most projects. We did this for some nontrivial facts about Design Sprints:
1. They Foster a Discovery Mindset
Design Sprints have built-in exercises for talking to experts, identifying challenges, mapping out the problem, and testing your ideas with users. This fairly rigid format has a wonderful side-benefit of fostering curiosity and a discovery mindset even in the most confident or locked-in client.
This can do wonders for our ability to identify shortcomings in the initial approach, adapt to new information, and ultimately build the right product for the right users.
2. They Break the Fear Barrier
Betting your own time, money, and self-esteem on a new venture can be scary. So scary, that anyone working with first-time entrepreneurs (or who is an entrepreneur themselves) is familiar with a strange kind of procrastination: Someone can seem to have relentless drive and be a source of endless activity, all the while subconsciously avoiding any tasks and projects that may produce bad news. (I’ve written about this before in Entrepreneur.com: Can You Face the 6 Hard Truths of Entrepreneurship?)
Of course, this tendency in all of us is 100% antithetical to every good startup methodology. We encourage entrepreneurs to be lean and agile, to do user research and seek a product-market fit because it is essential that they get the bad news early and often, and that they can take it to heart and adapt.
Design Sprints, by bringing the team in contact with the reality of other people’s opinions, competitive solutions, user feedback, and the complex nature of the problem, seems to break that initial fear in the same way that exposure therapy helps break or lessen other phobias.
Once the initial fear is broken, entrepreneurs can see directly the enormous benefit of seeking feedback, even at the price of enduring some emotional discomfort.
3. They Build Trust
Sometimes we joke that going through a design sprint is like going into battle. The intense, distraction free, full-day experience of working together towards a shared goal creates bonds of trust and camaraderie that no regular-paced engagement can foster.
This trust has cascading benefits throughout the life of the project, improving communication, helping us through inevitable challenges in development, and fostering real, two-way conversations about roadmap, path, and strategy that will doubtlessly improve decision making and collaboration, and the longterm viability of the project.
For many first-time entrepreneurs, working with an agency like ours is a primary source of education about the product design process, software development methodologies, growth strategy, and entrepreneurship. Trust is essential for this learning process to take place.
4. They’re Surprisingly Easy to Sell
This was a little bit of a concern at first. While we all loved Design Sprints and thought they were a great way to start, they are fairly time and resource intensive. (We use 2–3 senior designers, and in many cases have to also book a suitable Sprint space, purchase sprint supplies, order coffee and snacks — not to mention the commitment required from the client).
It’s not uncommon for a design sprint to cost a multiple of a normal week of design and discovery. We found, however, that the deliverables of a single 5-day design sprint can often rival 6 weeks of traditional discovery. So even while we’re burning resources faster, we’re producing almost twice as much value for the cost.
Clients seem to intuitively grasp this, and sense that the intensity of the face-to-face collaboration can easily make up for the faster burn.
5. They’re Transparent, Time-wise
In the consulting / design agency industry, the allocation of time is in constant negotiation with the client. With agencies trying to improve per-employee productivity by having them work on as many projects as possible, and each client vying for more time, attention, and emotional investment.
We get rather good at this game, adeptly juggling weekly or bi-weekly meetings with multiple clients, while giving each client only as much time as is absolutely needed to keep them happy. This dynamic makes it hard to have visibility into people’s actual load, and risks lowering the quality of the work, or slowing down the project unnecessarily.
Design Sprints introduce transparency in booking, managing, staffing and otherwise managing time. They reduce friction around scheduling by making the conflicts or overload transparent to the client and to everyone on the team. (A person cannot be booked to run more than 4 sprints a month.) Once the sprint is over, we have spent nearly 100 hours on it — and have made a significant amount of progress, and can often get started on some form of development soon after.
6. They Avoid the Cost of Context-Switching
Design Sprints demand your total focus. By banning electronic devices (except those needed for prototyping on Thursday), we can utilize every team member’s full attention. It’s uncommon these days to be able to focus like this for a whole week on just one task, with a clear calendar and a mind free of distractions. There’s some magic that happens when creative people are concentrated — ideas that may not otherwise arise make their way into the design. We are also able to build off of each-other’s ideas in a more substantial way which elevates the design further.
Working for a creative agency, we are often required to hop from one project to the next, and might pay a hefty fine for context-switching along the way. Design Sprints allow us to utilize close to 100% of our Sprint time productively engaged in a single creative effort.
7. They Unleash the Entrepreneur
ֿFrom our experience so-far, Design Sprints seem to unleash the entrepreneur in a way that does not have an equivalent in the classical process, comparable perhaps only to having the full product built.
With a realistic prototype in hand, and a lot of initial feedback — the entrepreneur can start pursuing marketing, business partnerships, vendor relationships, early team members, and even investors — all while we continue to define and build the product. The energy and momentum of this kind of start can carry the whole project forward, providing access to needed APIs, marketing relationships, and alpha testers earlier than ever before.
8. They’re Infinitely Modular
ֿDesign Sprints are famously modular. With Google and Google Ventures each promoting their own versions of the Sprint, and companies like AJ&Smart, New Haircut, and others promoting a Design Sprint 2.0, Design Sprint 3.0, and other variants which include a 4-Day, 3-Day, and 2-Day versions of the Sprint. (I’ve even heard of a 1-Day Version!)
While this is going on, many creative designers have adapted the Design Sprint model to various other tasks, with some trying Branding Sprints, Marketing Sprints, and Growth Hacking Sprints.
I’ve been experimenting with designing different types of Sprints myself. (More on that in future posts). For the most part, though, we currently run a traditional 5-Day Sprint, with a few of AJ&Smart’s adaptations merged in.
9. They’re SUPER Fun!
Design Sprints are a riot. With anxiety and hesitation held in check by the rigidity of the process, and endless debates replaced with fun group voting exercises and Decider votes — people are free to play, be themselves, and be creative.
The prototyping challenge on Thursday is often unique and interesting. On a recent Sprint, the team scrambled out of the Sprint room to hunt for some LEGO sets which could be used to create a fun promotional video for college kids. On another, we got kicked out of the Sprint room at 6pm and had to finish the prototype at a nearby Italian restaurant in SoHo, chowing down Spaghetti-bolognese during a snowstorm.
Sprints don’t just make great products — they make great memories. They make us feel alive, because they interrupt the routine with an all-absorbing, almost epic adventure, at the end of which — something new is created.
There are many reasons for a creative agency to embrace Design Sprints, and many reasons to avoid them. In the end, however, it’s simply a faster and more human way to start a long-term endeavor, which will bind a team together for months or even years. It de-risks the project, utilizes everyone’s best ideas, puts the team members on the same page, and keeps them connected to reality.
I’ll be writing more about Design Sprints, and indeed Sprints of different kinds, as I continue explore this fertile ground.