You’ve been doing design sprints since middle school

4 min read
Will Fanguy
  •  Oct 19, 2018
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Design sprints (and the more recent Design Sprint 2.0) use the design thinking process to clearly define goals, validate assumptions, and decide on a product roadmap before starting development. If this sounds like buzzword soup to you, I have good news.

You already know how to do a design sprint. In fact, you’ve been doing design sprints for years.

Design sprints are nothing new. We wouldn’t have design sprints without the design thinking method and the Stanford dSchool’s approach to problem solving. And honestly, we wouldn’t have design thinking without the mental model of discovery and understanding that’s been taught to generations of middle school students: the scientific method.

Bear with me as we explore the connections between the scientific method and design sprints, along with ways to approach integrating sprints into your product design processes.

The scientific method design sprint process

Depending on who you ask, the scientific method has between 5 and 7 steps. I like the six-step model because it includes a step for making observations and gathering initial data that will help a great deal with understanding, the first step of the design sprint process. All seven steps together are:

  • Observe & question
  • Research
  • Hypothesis
  • Design
  • Experiment
  • Gather & analyze data

These methods aren’t an exact match. There’s some crossover between steps, but the general goal is the same: find a problem, think of a way to solve it, create that solution, and test your creation. If we use the steps of the design sprint as a guide, here’s what that process looks like:

Step 1: Understand

As Richard Banfield puts it in Chapter 5 of Enterprise Design Sprints, “The first [step] of the design sprint is about reducing the noise of assumptions and establishing a clear signal for why we should be addressing this particular problem.”

This is the time to address what you know, what you think you know, and what you don’t know. This is the equivalent of making an observation and then asking a question in the scientific method. Both processes include a step for evaluating existing information and then establishing where to go next.

Step 2: Diverge

The second step is where we begin to generate ideas and big “What If” questions. The scientific method equivalent is formulating a hypothesis. We’re beginning to create a pathway towards a solution by imagining what that solution might look like. One great way to work through this process is to use an excerise called “How Might We?”.

To execute this exercise, ask participants to write answers to the question [or results of the hypothesis] as it relates to each of their solutions. … Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, says the How Might We technique works best with ideas that are ambitious, yet also achievable. Brown says it doesn’t work as well with problems that are too broad.

Step 3: Converge

Step 3 means hard(er) work and possibly some difficult decisions. Your team will be responsible for choosing some ideas over others, so be prepared to let go of some favorites. Converging means taking a look at all of the possible solutions (or hypotheses) you proposed in Step 2 and beginning to construct your experiment/idea. This is the part where everything begins to look a bit more concrete.

If you’re feeling particularly design-minded, this step could end with a storyboard that maps a user journey through the product you’ll be building in Step 4.

Step 4: Build

Now the real fun begins: the Build step is all about constructing multiple prototypes or deliverables that can be tested in the next step.

If you don’t have developers on your team, that’s ok. You can create paper prototypes. The advantage of paper prototypes is they can be created quickly and on the cheap. Changes are often as simple as redrawing a screen—obviously, we like InVision for prototyping. Using the available templates, teams can put together a clickable mockup quickly that is more than suitable to use for testing.

Step 5: Test

Time to experiment and collect data! Step 5 of the design sprint process combines the last two steps of the scientific method (experiment and data analysis) into one phase that will “test the original assumptions, validate or invalidate the problem statement, and extract knowledge about customer’s preferences. The output will be the insights collected from customer or prospective-customer interviews.”

For some, user research can be intimidating; others find it exciting to be able to put ideas and prototypes in front of real people. Either way, once users start interacting with your prototypes, you’ll get the answers you were seeking. Just make sure the users with whom you engage match the users you had in mind during Step 1.

Change your mindset

The design sprint process gives you the opportunity to assume different roles throughout the process. You can think like a scientist, a detective, an artist, and an architect. Give your mind permission to jump around and try new things. Don’t be scared or intimidated by a new process. After all, you’ve been doing this for a while, right?

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