What do Facebook, Apple, Google, and Coca-Cola all have in common? Besides being some of the world’s most innovative and successful companies, they’ve also put some terrible, terrible products to market. (And this is coming from me, a former Googler. I still got love for Google though.)
I’m talking about the Facebook phone (which was discounted to $0.99 just to get rid of them). The Apple Newton (an iPad, only 15+ years too early). Google Jaiku (a terrible Twitter competitor). And, of course, who can forget New Coke?
Can you imagine the time, effort, and money that went into those products, only to have them flop? Sure, a company like Apple can afford a bad seed once in a while (their quarter-trillion dollar emergency fund protects them from such bad ideas).
But what about you?
If, like most of us, your livelihood depends on making good decisions about what to spend your limited resources on, you can’t waste time and money on the wrong ideas.
That’s why design sprints are so amazing.
Design sprints allow you to prototype and validate potential products, services, and processes in under a week. This means you have real, concrete evidence you’re going down the right path before spending millions of dollars and thousands of working hours.
In fact, today, pretty much every major company from LinkedIn to Lufthansa airlines use design sprints to make sure they’re building the right products.
In this post, we’re going to run you through the basics of running a design sprint, look at some potential use cases, and then dive into the stories of 10 companies that used design sprints to prototype and test multi-million dollar products.
What is a design sprint?
A design sprint is a 5-day (or less) process that allows you to quickly design, prototype, and test business ideas. They can be used to make digital and physical products, new service offerings, or simply update your company processes.
Developed by Jake Knapp and the team at GV (the venture capital investment arm of Google), a properly led design sprint combines business strategy, behavioral science, design thinking, and rapid prototyping into a powerful shortcut for answering your biggest question: What should we make?
At the end of your 5-day sprint, you’ll decide on a blueprint for your project, create and test a prototype, and get feedback from real users. Think of it like product development on steroids. By doing a design sprint, you’re essentially compressing months of designing, building, launching, and iterating into a few short days.
And if this sounds a bit extreme, just remember this: Researchers have found that we’re more likely to be creative, innovative, and productive when our resources are limited.
Who runs a design sprint?
A design sprint isn’t a solo activity. You need a team of at least 4 (ideally 6 and no more than 8) people from across disciplines. This last part is essential. The goal of a design sprint is to test ideas and having people from across departments makes sure you’re not falling into any unconscious biases.
To facilitate the design sprint, you also need two people to play very specific roles:
- The Design Sprint Facilitator: A sprint facilitator is someone who has experience running design sprints (like the team at Sprintwell). The facilitator is in charge of keeping the sprint on track and making sure everyone is doing the right exercises. They focus on making sure your team works efficiently together and is aligned towards a common goal. The facilitator makes or breaks your design sprint, which is why it’s always a better idea to bring in an experienced one rather than have someone combine roles.
- The Decider: This is the person who ultimately has final say when the team is stuck. When you’re moving quickly, decision deadlock can kill your design sprint. Having a dedicated decider makes sure this won’t happen. You should pick this person on the first day of the design sprint.
Along with the right people in the room, you also need the right supplies. That means lots of whiteboard space, yellow 3×5 sticky notes, markers (black, green, and red), paper and pens for sketching, small and large dot stickers (in different colors), and timers to keep you on track.
What happens on each day of a Design Sprint?
Each day of the design sprint is dedicated to an important piece of the process that needs to be completed in order to keep things moving. It’s a tight timeframe, so you should probably ban devices in the room to prevent unwanted distractions.
While your facilitator might adapt the exact structure depending on your business needs (e.g. we run 2-day, 3-day, and 4-day sprints for teams), here’s a quick rundown of the original design sprint process developed by the GV team:
Monday: Understand the challenge and map the current state
As its name implies, there are no slow days during your design sprint. And Monday is no exception. In my experience, your first day together is the most critical day of your sprint as it sets the tone for the rest of the week and answers some critical questions:
- Why the heck are we in this room together? (i.e. what’s the challenge we’re tackling?)
- What is our long-term goal with this sprint?
- What could go wrong (or right)?
- What does the current state of the user journey look like?
- What are competitors doing?
You’ll also bring in 3-5 experts to give additional insight, identify blind spots, hone your perspective, and help you focus on the most important aspect of your challenge. All these discussions are highly structured so at the end of the day you’ll have a clear map of what you’re working toward, why it’s important, and who it’s for.
As a quick side note, don’t underestimate the value of talking to experts. When we ran a design sprint with Indigo Agriculture, an interview with an expert agronomist on Day 1 revealed a critical insight that helped the team avoid building the wrong set of features into their existing platform – saving them tons of wasted time and money in the long-run.
(By the way, Indigo’s mission is to sustainably feed the planet. How awesome is that?!)
It’s a lot to get through in one day, so staying on track is key. Here’s how to split up your first day:
Morning: What are we trying to solve?
- Start at the end. Design sprints are no time to be shy. Start by planning a long-term goal. Where do you see this product/process in six months? A year? Five years? Now it’s time to get pessimistic. What are all the ways this could fail? Reframe these fears as questions you could answer this week. Write everything on the whiteboard.
- Map out the challenge. How will you get from where you are now to your listed end goals? List customers and key players on the left and your goal on the right. Now, create a simple flowchart (5–15 steps) between the two:
Afternoon: What direction are we going in?
- Ask the experts. Here’s where having a diverse team becomes so important. Interview people on your team and outside experts about the problem, your solutions, and how things work. Act as a reporter and dig deep at every stage of your map.
- Reframe problems as opportunities with the “How might we…?” technique. While you listen to your experts, come up with questions beginning with the words “How might we…” This is a great way to reframe problems as opportunities. Write down each one on a sticky note. When you’re finished, put all the notes up on the wall, grouping similar ones together. Label themes as they come up. This should be a quick process: 10 minutes max.
- Pick a target. It’s time to pick a goal for the sprint. Each team member gets two votes for which opportunity they think is the best goal (use the small dot stickers to show votes). Each team member can vote for their own idea or use both votes on one. Move all the winners onto your map. Now, circle your most important customer and one target moment on the map. The team can discuss what makes sense, but the Decider makes the final call.
Best practices and tips for keeping momentum on Day One:
There’s a lot to get through on the first day of your sprint. And as you’re setting the goals (and the tone) for the rest of the week, it’s important to keep momentum and energy high.
Ask obvious questions or simply “why?” to keep the conversation moving. Capture everything on the whiteboard so you can see the progress you’re making. Take enough breaks (design sprint creator Jake Knapp suggests every 60–90 minutes). And make sure that the Decider comes in to move things along when the group gets too deep into a debate.
Finally, to know if your sprint was successful, your team needs to be on the same page. Spend some time at the end of the day understanding what success would look like. What about failure? How will you measure success? What is your Key Performance Indicator? (i.e. the metric that shows you’re moving towards a business goal)
Tuesday: Sketch out options
After spending the entire first day understanding the problem and choosing a target, Tuesday is all about coming up with solutions.
Again, it’s best to split the day in half. First, review existing ideas and solutions to look for opportunities to remix or build on. Then, spend the afternoon individually sketching out solutions and flows.
Tuesday is also the day when you’ll start recruiting customers for your test on Friday. Look for people in your own network or put a generic ad on Craigslist that offers a gift certificate for participation and links to a screener survey.
Morning: What’s already available?
- Lightning demos: The best ideas are often remixes or updates to what’s currently available. Take a bit of time to go through solutions from a range of companies (even your own). Each person should spend no more than 3 minutes per demo. Make sure someone is capturing good ideas with a quick drawing on the whiteboard.
Afternoon: Sketching out solutions
- Use the Four-Step Sketch process: Now that you have some ideas, it’s time to start drawing how you see them coming to life. Sketches don’t have to be pretty. In fact, some of the best solutions are just shapes and words. To promote critical thinking over artistry and make everyone feel like they can sketch, use the four-step process:
- Step 1: Take Notes. Have everyone talk around the room silently for 20 minutes and collect notes.
- Step 2: Jot Down Ideas. Next, everyone should take another 20 minutes to jot down rough ideas based on their notes and circle the most promising ones.
- Step 3: Crazy 8s. When it’s time to actually sketch, fold a piece of paper into eight grids and sketch a variation of one of your best ideas in each frame. This should only take one minute per frame, or eight minutes per page. For example, if you’re designing a new marketing page, you’ll have eight versions of that same page sketched out on your piece of paper.
- Step 4: Sketch your Solution. Pick your favorite sketch and then take 30–90 minutes to create a short storyboard. Try to show the flow of your solution, using three sticky notes to represent different stages of the user’s journey. These sketches should be self-explanatory, so use arrows and words to explain how users will interact with the screens.
Best practices for sketching your solutions on Day Two:
If you’re not artistically inclined, the idea of spending a whole day sketching can be pretty terrifying. But the goal here is to create quick, visual ideas that show off your solution. Not finished designs. Have everyone sketch individually to let them express their ideas in their own way (and without fear of judgement).
The only requirement is that the sketch shows a concrete solution. So make sure they’re self explanatory by using real text and drawing buttons and iteractive elements where they would actually go.
Wednesday: Decide which path to take
At the end of your second design sprint day, you’ll have a ton of ideas and sketches. Day three is when you’ll decide which one (or ones) you want to actually prototype and then plan how you’re going to do it.
Making decisions as a group is plagued with opportunities to get stuck. While you want to go deep into what everyone believes is the best option, the Decider will play a key role in moving things forward. Remember that you have an ambitious, long-term goal and that your sprint is a great opportunity to take risks and test ideas.
By the end of the day, you’ll know which solution you’re creating and have a step-by-step plan of everything that needs to get done.
Morning: Critique and vote on your best solution(s)
- The Sticky Decision: Instead of a free-form discussion about each sketched-out solution, you should use a structured voting process to keep the sprint moving. Start by taping all the solutions up on the wall. Give your team time to silently review them and use small dot stickers to note which ones they like the most. Then, spend three minutes per sketch going over what you like or don’t like as a group. Finally, each person chooses their favorite idea and simultaneously places a large dot sticker on their choice. The Decider makes the final choice.
- One or Multiple Prototypes? Sometimes all the features your team likes fit neatly into a single prototype. But it’s also just as likely that you’ll have a few promising ideas that are in direct competition with each other. In this case, group ideas into separate prototypes that you’ll build and test against each other.
Afternoon: Storyboard your solutions
- Storyboarding: A storyboard is a frame-by-frame plan of how you’ll build your prototype. Take the winning idea (or ideas) and either stick the sketches to the whiteboard or redraw them. Draw a grid of about 15 squares. Start with the end result and an “opening scene” depicting how your customers encounter your product or service. Is it a web search? Blog post? Advertisement?
- Fill in the missing pieces: As you fill in the grid, look for any missing pieces (you usually know something’s missing if anyone asks “What happens next?”) Fill these in either with sketches from before or drawings and words. The finished storyboard should be 5–15 steps.
Best practices for making good decisions quickly
Every decision you make drains your willpower. It’s especially important to take breaks and be mindful of your energy levels on day three. When you get stuck, defer to the Decider.
Also, be aware of shiny object syndrome. The best ideas usually come at the last minute. But it’s important to avoid the temptation of introducing new ideas to your storyboard. Stick with the concrete ideas you’ve come up with and trust in the work you’ve already put in.
Thursday: Build your prototype
Today’s the day you bring all your ideas together and create a realistic prototype you can test with your customers. You might think that it should take weeks or months to create a proper prototype, but the goal of the design sprint is to answer questions quickly. Don’t get caught up in perfection. Instead, look to create a realistic “facade” that you can put in front of customers to evoke honest responses.
Here are a few tips to make sure your prototype is ready for testing on the final day:
- Divide your storyboard up into different pieces: Just like any other project, you want to make sure you’re spreading the workload across your resources. The GV team calls this “Divide and Conquer”—everyone should be responsible for building part of the prototype.
- Assign jobs: Along with specific roles, there are a couple special jobs needed for rapid prototyping like this: Writer, Maker, Asset Collector (who will find stock imagery, icons, and anything else you need), and a Stitcher (who will bring all the individual pieces together into a finished prototype).
- Do a trial run: At the end of the day, do a run through the prototype with the entire team. Look for mistakes and anywhere that doesn’t feel right. Clean up any last-minute fixes and then spend some time writing the interview script for tomorrow’s testing.
How to pick the right tool to build your prototype
To get through building a prototype in a day, you need to use tools that help you move quickly.
It isn’t always obvious how you can prototype what you’re making. Here’s a few suggestions:
- If your product is on a screen: Use tools like Keynote, PowerPoint, Google Slides, InVision, or Marvel.
- If your product is on paper: Design it with Keynote, PowerPoint, Word, or Google Docs.
- If you’re designing a service: Use your sprint team as actors to act it out.
- If you’re designing a physical space: Modify an existing space.
- If you’re creating an object, or physical product: Modify an existing object, 3D print a prototype, or create the marketing materials for it.
Friday: Test your solutions with real customers
In four days (or less) you’ve gone from ambitious goal to concrete solutions and a realistic prototype. But to see if what you’ve created is on the right track, you need to put it in front of real customers.
On the last day of your design sprint, you’ll interview five real customers as they experience and use your prototype. Five is the magic number when it comes to interviews as this is the minimum you’ll need to start seeing patterns emerge. Do all the interviews in one day.
At the end of the day, you might have a winner, or you might realize you made some major flaws along the way. Either way, you have the answers you were looking for.
How to run an efficient design sprint interview
- Have the right setup: Keep the interviewer and subject separate from the rest of the team. Set up a webcam to capture the customer’s reactions and have the rest of the team watch, listen, and take notes from the other room.
- Keep the interview moving: Be friendly and welcome the subject. Give them context before introducing the prototype and explain that some parts might not work. Ask them to think aloud and use simple nudges and open-ended questions (Who/what/where/when/how?) to help them articulate.
- Debrief at the end of day: After all the interviews are done, take time to go over the notes you’ve taken and look for patterns. Make a list of these and compare them to your long-term goals.
At the end of the week, you should make a decision about what to do next. Do you want to try another prototype based on the user interviews? Fix what you’ve made and try again? Start from scratch? Put the prototype into production?
Whatever you choose, you’ll have a map of how to get there and real-world research to back up your decisions.
Want help getting the most out of your design sprint? Well, that’s exactly what I do here at Sprintwell.
We have years of experience facilitating design sprints at companies like LinkedIn, Medallia, SoundHound, Springs Global, and Resolve, which is led by Dr. Tom Frieden – former Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We also teach and mentor at the Stanford d.school, General Assembly, and 500 Startups.
10 design sprints that launched million-dollar companies and products
If that sounds like a lot to get through in a week, that’s because it is. But due to the structured nature of design sprints, you can get more out of a week than most teams get in months. In fact, at GV alone, they’ve used design sprints across their entire portfolio of companies, including Nest, Medium, and Flatiron Health.
To give you an idea of how design sprints can be used across industries and for every kind of “product” imaginable, here are the stories behind 10 companies that used design sprints to build million-dollar products, services, and processes.
1. Slack: Finding ways to court larger customers
Everyone’s favorite team communication tool wasn’t always a team communication tool. In fact, Slack started as an internal tool for a gaming company building a video game called Glitch. However, while Slack’s initial growth was unprecedented (more than 60,000 teams had signed up in their first year), explaining the value of Slack to organizations other than tech startups wasn’t easy.
To figure out the best way to communicate what Slack was, product manager Merci Grace ran a design sprint including herself, two designers, an engineer, a marketer, and a few investors from GV as facilitators. By day 3, they’d identified their problem, sketched ideas, and had a dozen great potential solutions, including case studies, onboarding flows, and animated guides.
Using the “Sticky Decision” process, they narrowed down their prototypes, tested their ideas and today, count large organizations like IBM, Autodesk, and Shopify as customers.
2. United Nations: Boosting usage of their top-rated app
The UN World Food Programme wanted to lower the friction of donating to its ShareTheMeal app that feeds children around the world for just $0.50/day. But, while the app (which was also designed and developed using a design sprint) was wildly successful from the start, users weren’t engaging in it as much as the team would have liked.
With their sprint, the team decided to tackle the problem of getting people to donate more frequently and for higher amounts. To do this, they focused solely on the donation screen of the app, giving them a clear space to try and find better solution.
They ended up with two prototypes, and after testing with 6 customers, they had a clear winner. Within a month of the launch, they’d implemented the new screens and increased their per-user donation amount. Today, ShareTheMeal has provided over 24 million meals to people in need.
3. KLM Airlines: Redesigning the airport experience
KLM Royal Dutch Airlines is the oldest commercial airline in the world. And while air travel might be the last industry you’d expect to embrace the fast experimentation of design sprints, they’ve done so in a powerful way.
Situated in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, KLM’s X-Gates is a dedicated space used for experimenting with and quickly testing new user experiences. Using a modified design sprint method, KLM’s X-Gates allows internal and external teams to test proof-of-concepts in a real environment.
Since bringing in design sprints to their X-Gates location, KLM has tested and implemented everything from on-board wi-fi to better ways to track and handle passenger luggage.
4. Headspace: Developing a child-focused product in 3 days
By now, we’re all pretty familiar with the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. But how do you explain those benefits to children?
Working with Google, a team of 8 UX designers and product managers from Headspace set out to create a version of their app geared towards kids. Starting with a full day of going over the current research and opportunities, they came up with the two challenges they were going to try to answer during the sprint:
- How do we design an experience for children that captures the value we provide adult users?
- Is that goal viable?
With those goals in mind, they set out to sketch their ideas using what they called the “diverging, converging, and diverging again” method. This is where people would go off and sketch out ideas, come together to share and discuss, and then go off again to build on the work of others.
At the end of the sprint, they’d created an MVP of an Android app, tested it with a group of kids, and quickly dove into another design sprint to finesse their ideas and launch the product within their main app.
5. Google: A 3-day sprint to redesign their hiring process
When you’re a company the size of Google, hiring is especially important. You need to know that every person you’re bringing in is properly vetted, understands and wants to be a part of the company culture, and will bring the kind of value you expect. (Side note: To this day I’m still grateful and honored to have been a part of the Google journey in its early days. What a long way it has come!) To do this, Google uses a suite of SaaS applications called GHire to follow the candidate journey from application to offer.
But as the company grew and roles changed, they realized that the vision of GHire was starting to get fuzzy. Using a 3-day design sprint, the team of 30 stakeholders from across departments decided to answer one question: “What does Google care about when making hiring decisions?”
While most traditional sprints are meant to end with product prototypes or design decisions, Google’s sprint goal was to create consensus around the hiring experience and process.
Knowing they only had a few days together, the team spent a long time preparing beforehand—gathering user stories, doing pre-sprint interviews, and conducting UX research.
When they finally got together, they presented their findings using lightning talks on day one and then broke out into smaller groups on day two to tackle specific pain points. By day three, they came back together to build a roadmap for how GHire should work and finalized their core hiring values. Today, Google’s hiring process is streamlined and they’ve built new tools in GHire to help them test candidates abilities quickly and efficiently.
6. Flatiron Health: 10+ design sprints. 3 shipped features. New processes. And an entirely new product line.
Healthcare is one of the world’s slowest moving industries. Regulations, bureaucracies, and mostly risk-averse companies, means that products, solutions, and processes usually change at a snail’s pace. But Flatiron Health was created to help the healthcare industry work together more quickly and efficiently.
To do this, they used design sprints to build new products, change the way they operate, and launch entirely new product lines. Over the past 3 years, they’ve come up with some specific rules to how they run their design sprints:
- Get buy-in and commitment to change: A good design sprint should give you data and information you didn’t know beforehand. To get the most out of it, be ready to act on what you learn and get buy-in from senior management.
- Write a sprint brief before you start: Create a shareable doc for everyone involved (including outside stakeholders) that outlines your goals for the sprint, the intended output, and what you already know about the topic. This also means investing in pre-research so you’re not spending too much time on day one getting caught up.
- Take your findings on an internal roadshow: Take your sprint findings to the rest of your company. This could be through a company all-hands or an internal announcement and follow-up emails.
7. LEGO: Bringing design sprints to scale across an 85-year-old company
When LEGO’s internal agency needed to change the way they did business, they didn’t look for small tweaks. Instead, they stopped all work for 2 months and went into a series of design sprints.
While the sprints themselves followed the process we outlined above, what was incredible was how they scaled the process across the entire company. To do this, they created what agency lead Eik Brandsgård called “the control tower”—a group of five creative directors who helped identify the problems that needed solving, wrote short sprint briefs, and dropped in to help facilitate individual sprints.
Since the initial 2-month experiment, LEGO has gone on to complete 150+ design sprints, prototype and launch dozens of products. They now have a meeting-free week each month where they schedule sprints.
8. Pocket: 58% more engagement from new users from 1 design sprint
It doesn’t matter how quickly you’re acquiring new users if you can’t turn them into active ones. This was the issue Pocket was facing when they decided to test solutions with design sprints. Pocket is an app that lets users save articles from the web for reading later. But they were seeing that a lot of new users weren’t using the service, or were dropping off quickly.
To find a solution, the Pocket team ran 3 design sprints where they prototyped new onboarding flows for their iOS and Android Apps. Using the “How Might We…” method, they came up with ideas around how to get users to save more articles or install Pocket on a second device.
When it came time to sketch, they focused on 3-panel storyboards to mimic the flow they thought would work best to reach their goals. In the end, they had two competing versions that they prototyped in Keynote and tested with users. Once implemented, the winning flow brought a 58% increase to the amount of new users who saved items to Pocket.
9. Blue Bottle Coffee: A redesigned website that doubled their online sales
If you’ve been to a Blue Bottle cafe, you can understand why they’re so popular. The locations are beautiful. The staff is well-trained. And the coffee is delicious. But translating all those sensuous qualities to a website is a challenge. And Blue Bottle was struggling, with only 10% of their revenue coming from online sales. That’s when they decided to do a design sprint to redesign their entire online experience.
Starting with their pre-sprint research, they created what they called the “coffee buyer’s funnel”—information pulled from interviews with real customers about what they look for in their coffee. Using that info as their basis, the Blue Bottle team used a classic 5-day sprint to identify the biggest questions and opportunities and then sketch online flows based on their user stories.
By the end of day 3, they had a huge storyboard of user experiences that they used to create 3 separate high-fidelity prototypes in Keynote. Each approach showed a different visual style and approach for shopping. After user interviews, they’d found the features people liked more and used those to design and develop a new site that both doubled sales and time on site.
10. Gimlet Media: Using a design sprint to decide on their business model
Do we need to make an app? This was the big question the team at Gimlet Media was struggling with when they decided to do a design sprint. As a new media company, they didn’t know if simply creating great content would be enough. Plus, they knew that they’d always be at the mercy of the companies who distribute their content, namely iTunes.
They started the sprint week coming up with a list of 32 things they could build as a company, drawing ideas from employees, listeners, and mentors. In the end, they decided to focus on building an app for existing users, spending the rest of the week sketching solutions, prototyping an iPhone app, and even recording samples of the members-only content that would appear in it.
In the end, their listeners didn’t like the app. But they loved the content. Giving Gimlet a path towards a future that didn’t involve a massive investment in building their own technology.
Bringing it all home
Airlines, healthcare, apps, hiring processes, and LEGO.
These are only a few examples, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where a design sprint can’t help your company get the answers you need faster, easier, and cheaper.
Done in the right way, with the right team, facilitator, approach, and resources, a design sprint takes you from a world of unknowns to a clear, proven answer. All in 5 days or less.
So the next time you’re faced with asking “what do we do next?” Don’t just jump into the solutions. Use a design sprint to give you the insights you need without putting your company and your livelihood at risk.