Frequently asked questions about design sprints

4 min read
Jay Melone
  •  Jul 5, 2016
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At New Haircut, we’ve had the opportunity to lead design sprints for companies big and small. We’ve run sprints that managed to unite a dismantled team, that rescued a v1 product launch that nearly put a company out of business, and that saved a company from spending another 12 months building the wrong thing.

In this article we’re going to share some sprint fundamentals that have made our engagements successful. The goal is to impart you with as much knowledge as we can, so that you can avoid some of the pitfalls we’ve had to climb out of. Onward.

Image: New Haircut.

Do design sprints need to be 5 full days?

The very nature and name of a sprint implies that speed is what’s most important. In reality, structure is the breadwinner. Structure in the sprint process is what enables speed.Twitter Logo However, in our early days, there were plenty of instances where we tried to cut corners. We’ve also felt the pressure to squeeze more in. But just about every time we deviated, the company that hired us suffered.

“Structure in the sprint process is what enables speed.”

Twitter Logo

For example, there have been times we’ve run a second or third sprint with a company because the first sprint showed us we were (for example) attacking the wrong challenge. In scenarios like these, we’ve been able to skip day one. But what’s not advisable is trying to run your first sprint in less than 5 full days.

Related: There’s often a temptation for some of the team to duck out early. We recommend you stick to your guns here and force the entire team to hang around for the entire duration. Why?

Scenario #1

Say one team member arrives several hours late for one of the days. Two things tend to happen from here:

  1. The team loses about an hour reviewing what they’ve accomplished for the day — big momentum killer
  2. Because that missing person wasn’t part of the discussion, they wind up challenging topics with arguments the team already has clarity on

Scenario #2

One common request we field is during day 5 — people turn to us and say, “You guys have got this. We’re gonna go catch up on work and then we can sync later. Cool?”

Not cool.

There are 3 big downfalls:

  1. If and when your customers push back on your prototypes, those who skip out on the interviews tend to resist and/or over-challenge the negative feedback
  2. Instead of being able to wrap up the final interview and move straight into feedback and decisions, one or more of the team will need to summarize everything in a report or presentation and schedule time the following week to review everything with the entire sprint team
  3. Because that review will happen after the weekend, not only will the focus of the sprint become interrupted, but the team will likely need to rehash topics that were fresh last week

“Don’t try to run your first sprint in less than 5 full days.”

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Is one sprint enough?

One of the most popular questions we hear is, “What happens if our prototype doesn’t get the reactions we were hoping for?” This is actually very normal and, at times, the outcome you’re looking for. Let me explain.

Sometimes you get together on day one and everyone in the room agrees that this is the challenge to attack. But then you build your prototype and put it in front of customers and they point you in a different direction.

The good news here is that you were able to spot this mis-step within 5 days. What would have happened if you realized it after 5 weeks? After 5 months?

You don’t know what you don’t know.Twitter Logo But that’s the spirit of keeping the sprint process contained within 5 days. Regardless, you‘re going to walk away from each sprint knowing oodles more about your customers and market than you did before—even if you test the wrong thing.

Remember the famous Thomas Edison quote about his failures while inventing the light bulb…

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Image: New Haircut.

And so the question that tends to immediately follow is, “Well, now what do we do?”

You run another sprint.

Again, chances are you’ll be able to to move faster this time around since you can cut out day one. You may only need a few hours on day 2 if the challenge you picked was right but the solution was a shade off. The logistics of your next sprint will firm up once you complete the analysis of your customer interviews.

Do we really need to completely clear our calendars?

If someone on your team doesn’t freak out about clearing their calendar for 5 days and/or not being allowed to bring their phones and laptops into the sprint room, it will be a first. Everyone is busy. Everyone experiences some degree of terror by not being able to check their email every 4 minutes.

If you run a true design sprint, you won’t have a minute for anything else.Twitter Logo And consider this fact : It takes the average human 20 minutes to regain their full attention after even the slightest interruption.

Image: New Haircut.

Remember, it’s recommended that everyone be allowed to catch up on all administrative tasks from 8-9am every day. But from 9 to 5, those are sprint lockdown hours.

So, block out your calendar for 5 days. You will live. And your inbox will be there waiting for you next week.

Should you speak with customers prior to the sprint?

In short, yes.

The sprint is 5 days, but there’s also a day zero. This is the time leading up to the sprint. During this time, there’s no cap on the amount of customers you can meet with. There’s also no shortage of data you can capture and share with the sprint team. The more prepared you are, and the more armed with data you are, the more poised you’ll be on day one.

Do we need 7 people to run a sprint?

Not necessarily. We’ve talked about core roles we recommend in this article. What’s more important is that you clearly define each role.

One often overlooked role is the person in charge of organizing the sprint and keeping the wheels in motion: the facilitator. We’ve tried and failed to facilitate by committee. Likewise, we stumbled when designating one person as the facilitator who had another function on the team, too. Facilitating, like the other roles, is a full-time thing.Twitter Logo

Image: New Haircut.

And so the question that naturally follows is, “Should we bring in outsiders to fill in the gaps in our team?” Yes and no.

You need those core roles. So if you’re lacking any, you’ll want to source that missing talent. Just try to avoid employing individual designers, product managers, and engineers. Why? Team chemistry is a big deal during sprints. That means your best bet is retaining a small team or firm—even better if they come stacked with design sprint experience.

Since this is just a prototype, do we need a designer?

I’m going answer this by quoting Braden Kowitz of Google Ventures:

Sometimes companies don’t have designers on their team, so we can step in to help out during a sprint. The only potential downside to augmenting a sprint team is that sometimes the core team won’t have the skills to continue the project after the sprint.
Companies are often hesitant to hire designers early. They ask: Do we need a designer at this stage? What would that designer do? Can we just hire a freelancer for a day to mock up some of our sketches?

But after working with designers during a sprint, companies often have a much better understanding of how design can impact their company.

What if we’re having trouble finding customers to interview?

There was this project we bid on once where the target demographic were middle-aged, married women in Dubai. Local laws prohibited men in our company from contacting them without their husbands’ consent. So we recruited the help of local, unmarried women to contact these women and get their husbands’ consent ahead of time.

“If you run a true design sprint, you won’t have a minute for anything else.”

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I’m guessing your customers are more accessible. And if they aren’t, there are ways to get them to come in—or minimally get them to agree to a Hangout or Skype session.

Remember, you only need (at least) 5 customers. And when desperate measures call, offer them a $50 gift card for their time.

What if my team isn’t willing to commit to a sprint?

We previously covered the topic of getting your team committed and ready-to-go.

However, a popular and related set of quotes we hear from companies is “We already did that.” Or “We paid a company to write an RFP. We’re not gonna start over.”

Or “We’ve been doing this for 10 years. We know how our customers think.”

These are often companies operating from a place of fear. Fear of uncertainty. Fear of losing time. Fear of doing something differently.

If you’re that person in the company fighting against the current, you only need to plant one seed with those opposed to it. When you hear them say we already did that, you say, “Great, so then spending 5 days on this isn’t important because we’re perfectly happy with our product as-is.”

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