7 Tips for Running a Successful Google Venture Design Sprint

After a number of Google Venture Design Sprints at The Telegraph, across multiple products and numerous follow up mini-sprints we have very rapidly seen the value of compressing what could be months worth of work into a streamlined 5 day approach. If you’re new to a GV Sprint, it’s something you should definitely experiment with.

With hindsight being in a design sprint is a bit like doing the 550 mile drive from London to Aberdeen (a trip I’ve done many times), you know it will be worth it when you get there (trust me, it really is…), however you’ve got to get your head in the zone for the journey, especially as you have to keep the kids entertained along the way. It’s fair to say, a design sprint is full throttle, this shows up in a few different ways:

  • The energy is high
  • Interaction is intensive
  • There is a whole heap of challenge
  • You get to make decisions rapidly (yeh!)
“It’s joyous to see cross-functional teams working so harmoniously unfettered from the constraints of systemic inertia and external stakeholder management.”
Dan Silver, Head of Digital Publishing

In Jake Knapp’s book — Sprint from Google Ventures, you’ll dive deep into the inner-workings of this structured approach to solving big risky problems using a highly collaborative method that produces valuable learnings, gets everyone on the same page and creates a whole heap of momentum for your product.

Here’s the map to help you on this journey:

  • Get clarity on Monday - understand the problem space and your goals. You may think that everyone is clear on the goals and the problems you are trying to solve, you might be surprised at how much clarity day one brings to these areas
  • Create some red hot ideas on Tuesday - it’s sketching time! Everyone ends up running through a variety of sketching activities (on their own) and producing their own ideal solution
  • Make the Big Decisions on Wednesday - a day of two halves, the morning focusing on choosing the best solutions and in the afternoon storyboarding the whole thing together so you can get on and prototype
  • Just build the thing… quickly - it’s all hands on deck, Thursday will get your adrenaline pumping. On Friday you have to show this to some real customers, a realistic working prototype, with real copy — ditch the lorem ipsum
  • Test and learn - share your prototype with 5 customers and get answers to the sprint questions you decided were the most important on Monday.

For the first set of design sprints, rather than starting with just one, we ran three simultaneously focusing on the Telegraph Mobile Web, the Newspaper Edition App and Gojimo from The Telegraph (the UK’s no.1 Revision App). This gave us multiple inputs into what worked well and what we might want to update going forward.

Here are my top Design Sprint tips

1. Start your Design Sprint by the book

Do your first sprint strictly by the book before you start adapting. No doubt there will be a lot of experience with the type of activities you’ll work through in the Sprint, sketching, crazy 8s, dot voting etc. If you work in UX/Design or Product you will be well familiar with these ideas.

Resist the temptation to improvise the sprint methodology without first having run enough of them to truly understand what works well and where you can make future tweaks and improvements.

Let the process do its thing, approach it with an open and enthusiastic mind. Afterwards you can do a wash-up or retrospective on what went well and where you can ramp things up.

“The immersive process means the group agrees on and shapes the design — moving away from the old delivery & review process that can be painful for all.”
Rebecca Sheasby, Senior UX Designer

2. Get your experts in for the long run!

Within the sprint process everyone has a part to play, you want to make sure you are bringing in experts from right across the business (Product, Editorial, Marketing, Development, UX/Design, Commerce etc.).

If you’re working in a big company then one of your hefty challenges will happen before the sprint — getting everyone in the same room for 5 whole days! No mean feat, you may find that initially there is valid resistance to talking this amount of time out of the day to day workload.

The truth is, if your experience is anything like ours then you will observe a significant amount of value being delivered in a very short space of time. This could be the equivalent of 2–3 months of one off meetings, UX/Design reviews, prototyping and rounds of user testing. With the Sprint, you become utterly focused on a single goal with rapid validation.

“Bringing together people from around the business meant it was truly a collaborative effort, everyone had their say and could bring their expertise to the experience.”
Becca Allard, Marketing Manager

3. No devices means… er… no devices, thank you :)

Everyone is going to be swamped with ‘other work’ right? It sounds obvious but make sure you ask everyone if they are happy to go along with the no devices rule. There will be situations where someone has a ‘must go to’ meeting or call, so you can accommodate this as long as they take it out of the design sprint space.

The thing you really want to avoid is the “I’m just going to check this quickly” moments. This one simple idea will help to create a positive environment and ramp up productivity.

4. Is the problem fit for purpose?

Mapping out your goal, sprint questions and the problem space

Make sure you are focusing on the toughest, riskiest problem that will offer genuine value to your customers and the business. For Gojimo it was about trying to engage more of our existing students throughout the year, rather than primarily around exam season. This is a chunky enough problem to warrant a 5 Day Design Sprint.

If the problem isn’t big enough and the opportunity isn’t clear then perhaps a Design Sprint isn’t the right approach for where you are. We’re currently using Design Sprints to re-invigorate products, give insight into solutions where there are known customer problems and kick-off new ideas.

5. Lightning demos — get ready for Ah, Ha! Moments

If you’re facilitating, now’s the time to get the team in a great state! Karuna Subramaniam and her team from Southwestern found that if someone is in a great mood then they are more likely to have — Ah, ha! Moments. The Lightning demos on Tuesday morning will help with this goal, so make sure the team are sharing things that genuinely excite them!

Here’s the Mind Map summarising that experiment

Mind Map of Karuna Subramaniam’s Research showing improvements in Creativity Tasks when in a Happy Mood

From what I’ve observed, the quality of your ideas at the end of Tuesday is heavily influenced by the lightning demo stimulus. These can be competitors, new startups, internal ideas etc. that are trying to solve similar problems. Definitely demo any internal prototypes to bring everyone up-to-speed with current thinking. Look outside of your industry, across a range of platforms. A state of expectation and great demos will feed the creative juices when it comes to sketching up ideas.

6. Avoid the paralysis by analysis trap

Storyboarding your Prototype

On Wednesday afternoon you’ll be ready to storyboard the prototype. During the course of the last 5 design sprints this has been one of the most challenging parts of the process. Using the winning solution sketches from the morning session to create a rough storyboard draft of your prototype.

The biggest roadblock here is getting diverted into circular conversations, going down dead-ends and driving too deep into the detail. The decision maker and facilitator are key to making sure the team overcome any paralysis by analysis. A few suggestions:

  • Let the decider talk through the customer journey from start to finish as she sees it, before putting pen to whiteboard
  • Do a ‘speed draft’ of the storyboard, 5–10 minutes roughly sketching the journey, leaving gaps wherever there is debate
  • Spend the chunk of the time refining to a point where it’s clear what needs to get built. Don’t worry about finessing the detail, you can leave that for the makers (usually UX/Design or Development) on prototyping day.
“The structure and focus this process provided was key. It can take days to get to the same level of agreement that we were able to meet in minutes.”
Ian Curtis, Product Manager

7. Celebrate!

It’s not in the book, however, I would highly recommend arranging a demo to the wider business on Thursday after prototyping (don’t forget the Pizza!). This serves a number of needs.

  • Firstly, you’ll get wider input from across the business, from our experience this has been extremely positive (especially considering what you will accomplish in 4 days)
  • Secondly, it raises the stakes even higher, focusing the team to get it done.
  • Thirdly, it allows the Sprint team a celebration of the hard work that’s been accomplished. Don’t underestimate the power of this celebration. It sets everyone up to come together for the demos on Testing day!

The Big Take-away

One of the positive side-effects of running these Design Sprints is the energy it creates around the business. I’ve personally had a number of people who haven’t been involved in the design sprint process ask if they can implement similar processes and ideas in their area.

Of course, it can be tempting to think of a design sprint as a silver bullet, especially if you see positive results. In reality it’s just a great framework to get some valuable learning in a very short amount of time.

Overall the benefits have been clear — extensive cross team collaboration, quick decision making, and rapid learning about your best bet solution.