Here at IDEO, it’s not uncommon to see dog-eared copies of Jake Knapp’s Sprint, a book that outlines the five-day process that Google Ventures uses to solve tough design problems. The books are stacked on desks, passed from designer to designer, and referenced in research planning discussions. Why? Because the Sprint process pushes you to think outside of the box, even at a creative place like IDEO. It helps you shift away from following your gut instinct and opinions; instead, it encourages you to let users guide your decision making. And it pushes you to move fast.
When our team set out to build the first version of the social impact investment product Swell Investing, we decided to hack the Sprint process, IDEO style.
The Sprint method allowed the team to start prototyping quickly, collect immediate user feedback, and make small mistakes early. We conducted multiple design sprints in quick loops—folding the learning from week one into the structure of week two, and so on. We learned a lot in the process. Here are a few quick tips we picked up for running successful and energizing design sprints.
1. Anchor your sprint in a big question
Identify critical hypotheses to test. First, decide on the big question you want to answer. (Hint: This is the one that, when answered, will allow you to make the most progress.) For instance, during the Swell project, we asked: When it comes to social impact investing, are users more interested in returns or social impact?
Once you’ve got your big question, brainstorm and sketch different solutions, and then select two or three good ideas to prototype. Prototypes are something people can touch, test, or play around with. Putting different approaches in front of users in a single sitting is a great way to gauge interest in different product directions.
Tip: Limit the number of variables in your prototype, so you receive specific feedback on your big question. Designing a digital product? Start by designing landing pages that express each product offering, rather than the entire user flow. Testing two feature sets? Keep the branding the same and test different product features against one another.
2. Bridge the say-do gap
Use tricks that force users to make real—not hypothetical—decisions. The goal of any new product is to create something that people find valuable and are willing to pay for over other options in the market. But as designers, we know that often what consumers say they like is different from what they actually buy in the wild. One way we bridged this gap was by testing demand with potential Swell consumers: We gave them fake cash they could “invest” in one product or another. It was a great way to gauge whether the service had real value in the market.
Tip: Use the same currency exercise for all of your sprint prototypes, so that you can see how attitudes evolve with your design tweaks. For example, give each user $500 Monopoly dollars and see where they would invest their money. Designing a new shoe brand? Ask them which ones they’d buy, or if they’d prefer to spend the money on their tried-and-true Nikes. This exercise is about the conversation it provokes more than the payments themselves, so get curious!
3. Focus your features
Design for a light-touch, full-product experience. Ask yourself: What’s the smallest set of features you can design that will still solve users’ problems? Start with the simplest version of your product, get user feedback, and then add features. As your sprint loops continue, you can move from simple prototypes to robust product directions. With Swell, we focused on creating a hero page for each key interaction (landing page, sign up, and invest). This meant we were testing the functionality of the full product experience, just in a light-touch way.
Tip: Prioritize high-impact pages that people visit a lot, like the home page or sign-up flow. This way you’re getting the most detailed feedback on sticking points, without spending a ton of money building them.
4. Be scrappy: Build just enough to learn
Choose the format that best expresses the idea. It’s impressive to build a digital prototype in a week, but remember: You can learn a lot from paper prototypes! Make a conscious decision about the areas that you design in high fidelity (like screens) and places where a paper prototype will do the trick. Being scrappy will pay off in the end. We created a combination of digital and paper prototypes for Swell. Digital prototypes were reserved for value proposition and user flow testing, whereas paper prototypes were a great way to test new and emergent thinking.
Tip: Imagine that you’re designing a mobile-first experience. Designing for a phone instead of a computer will force the team to simplify messaging and features to their most minimal expression. This is something you can develop by putting a post-it sketch on top of your smartphone.
5. Keep the team energized
Use the Tabata training method of product design. Tabata training is a workout method that focuses on 20 seconds of intense work followed by 10 seconds of rest. This is a great metaphor for sprint prototyping: It’s intense, and that means that rest is just as important as the creative bursts. Make a point of managing team energy by having intentional down days. With Swell, we made sure to keep our energy up by working in cafes, getting breather spaces when we needed to focus, and even hitting up museums or exercise classes to stay healthy and inspired.
Tip: When you need a boost, take the project on the road. Try a day of cafe hopping where the team commits to sketching one feature at each stop. Sketching in new contexts and in focused bursts means you’ll have fun and be productive.
Anna is a Communications Design Lead with a background in writing, and a passion for combining storytelling and strategy. She has worked across private, social and public sectors to create more relevant, relatable and impact-driven designs.
Erika Díaz Gómez
Visual and Experience Designer, OpenIDEO
Erika is a Colombian visual designer who works at the intersection of strategy, storytelling and visual communication. She is passionate about design disobedience and firmly believes that reality is more inspiring than science fiction.