Design Sprints 01: An Introduction

It’s becoming widely accepted that design has the power to make or break a business. Products are becoming easier to build, and consumer expectations of those products are increasing. As a result, design has become recognised as a strong competitive advantage.

Many companies have introduced design into their organisations, sprinkling designers across all their product teams, or creating an internal consultancy that rotates among project groups. Unfortunately, these efforts often fall short. At Velvet Onion, we are in the privileged position of being able to observe these attempts playing out across a range of organisations.

At one extreme, despite their best intentions, designers are often faced with a lack of support on an organisational level — the type of support necessary to truly realise the value design has to offer. On top of this, experimentation with software development methodologies like Lean and Agile creates new demands on designers who need to respond quicker, without totally compromising user research. In the worst case, this can lead to an organisational culture where design is seen as an impediment to progress.

At the other extreme, the dictatorial pursuit of a design-led culture can result in the isolation of other critical team members (particularly in an established organisation), all of whom are more than capable of making valuable contributions to a project.

How can organisations discover the true value design has to offer? How can the role of a designer shift to that of a design facilitator, bringing the entire team in contact with the user viewpoint?

Over the last 12 months at Velvet Onion, we’ve been looking at how we might address this challenge with our clients. One approach has emerged as a clear leader, and now forms the basis of our design process: design sprints.

A design sprint is a time-constrained process used when bringing a new product, service or a feature to the market. With roots at IDEO and the (Institute of Design at Stanford), as well as Lean and Agile development, the design sprint was most recently popularised by GV as a way of helping startups answer critical business questions in their book “Sprint”.

Design sprints offer a number of advantages, including:

  • Focus
    The time-constraints involved in a design sprint force the team to focus on the design challenge at hand. This means that the team can explore a variety of potential solutions before deciding on an approach.
  • Collaboration
    The schedule of a design sprint necessitates that the project team are involved throughout the sprint. This includes planning the sprint and exploring solutions, as well as involvement in validation.
  • Momentum
    The results of each sprint directly influence the next. Customer feedback at the end of each sprint helps the team move quickly from one problem to the next. This builds momentum throughout each sprint.
  • Efficiency
    Documentation is limited to that which directly contributes to product development. There is no need for a comprehensive usability testing report as the team were observing the session and know the results. Instead, efforts are focussed on discussing the next steps.

As opposed to more traditional design processes, design sprints embrace the unknown, preferring validated learning as a means of iterating towards the right solution rather than attempting to define the solution from the outset. While the number of sprints required differs per project, in our experience the time saved as a result of the above advantages more than compensates any initial uncertainty that may exist.

In the last 6 months, we’ve run over 30 design sprints with our clients. The response has been overwhelmingly positive (for example, the look of joy on one product owner’s face as she observed a customer interacting with a design concept in the first week of the project).

At the same time, there have also been challenges. A design process must be flexible enough to meet the needs of both a particular organisation and a particular project. What works for one organisation may not work for another. From introducing our clients to a new way of working, to finding efficient ways of validating our work with users each week, we’ve embraced the opportunity to iterate on our process and turn it into something we can be proud of.

“We teach. We learn.” is one of our core values at Velvet Onion. As we learn and grow our process we’ll be sharing the challenges we’ve faced, and how we’ve overcome them, in the hopes that we can help others improve life through design.

This article is the first in Velvet Onion’s design sprints series. Follow Velvet Onion Design for more.

Velvet Onion is a Sydney-based Service and Experience Design Agency that believes by co-designing seamless experiences with the people who use these services, we can improve life in a meaningful way.