Design thinking, in addition to being a referenced discipline, often becomes the umbrella term for a series of variations on the theme that, starting from common foundations, have been developed over the years to solve specific needs: this is the case of the design sprint, a methodology that stands out for its ability to lead to the realisation of a prototype in a relatively short time, a characteristic that makes it particularly attractive, especially in the field of application development. Let us see what it is and what are the key points that distinguish it from the more generic definition of design thinking.

What is Design Sprint

According to the definition offered by Google:

Design sprints are a proven methodology for solving problems by designing, prototyping and testing ideas with users. Design sprints allow teams to align through the shared vision of well-defined goals and outcomes. […] it is a tool for developing hypotheses, prototyping ideas and testing them quickly with as little investment as possible, in as realistic a scenario as possible“.”Design sprints are a proven methodology for solving problems by designing, prototyping and testing ideas with users. Design sprints allow teams to align through the shared vision of well-defined goals and outcomes. […] it is a tool for developing hypotheses, prototyping ideas and testing them quickly with as little investment as possible, in as realistic a scenario as possible”.

Design sprint is a methodology developed by Google to facilitate the diffusion of a user experience (UX)-oriented culture and design practice within organisations. The basic idea soon found support outside of Mountain View’s laboratories, involving, among others, IDEO, a pioneer and constant innovator in the field of UX, and the Stanford dSchool, an academic reality that coined the very definition of design thinking, as well as having directly helped hundreds of realities to concretely solve their problems through concrete tools and solutions.

Underpinning the design sprint, in addition to the experience derived directly from design thinking, is the multidisciplinary contribution of subjects typical of business organisation and the humanities, such as psychology. The result of the research and experimentation work with various teams carried out by the above-mentioned actors has enabled the creation of a framework supported by concrete and flexible tools, to enable individual teams to adapt them according to the specific case, satisfying different needs in economic and socio-cultural contexts that are also profoundly different.

The work cited above all refers to the work carried out over the years by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky at the Google Ventures unit, which led to the drafting of the Sprint Book, a framework explaining how to realise a complete sprint design experience in five days, thanks to a model optimised especially for start-ups. The Sprint Book is a relatively simple tool to use, as it has been broken down into a series of checklists that allow for constant monitoring of the progress of work.

By far, probably the most interesting resource for those wishing to approach and perfect the practice of design sprint today corresponds to the Design Sprint Kit, initially created to support Google’s internal teams and later made publicly available to stimulate development by the community.

The Design Sprint Kit proposes five different phases, with the necessary premise of constituting a framework that each actor must necessarily adopt in a flexible manner, in order for this methodology to be functional to the specific case:

The important thing,” explain the Google experts, “is to select the methods that work best in relation to the set objective and plan the days for the design sprint. Learn, explore, create and discover what works best for the type of problems you are usually called upon to solve‘.

The five stages of Design Sprint

The design sprint, in its original conception, is a methodology that consists of five different work phases, although each team is free to implement it in the most appropriate way to achieve its own objectives, even at the cost of overriding or synthesising to the minimum the execution of certain tasks.

The usefulness and practical sense offered by the five phases of the design sprint lies, in fact, in allowing heterogeneous teams, composed of very different skills, to be constantly aligned in the evolution of the work, without losing sight of the main objective.

STEP 1 – Understand (&Define)

The understanding phase aims to form a shared knowledge base between all project stakeholders. Using the Lighting Talk method, all involved approach the issue at hand from various points of view, with a specific focus on the business, the target audience, the work of competitors and the technological aspects involved.

After having at least broadly understood all the relevant aspects to be addressed in solving the problem, it is a matter of defining the focus and directing the efforts of the participatory design phases accordingly. The design sprint also addresses this phase by precisely defining the reference context and the objectives to be achieved through the solutions to be sought. The definition phase is also useful to establish metrics to monitor the progress of the work and, in the final stages, validate the results obtained.

STEP 2 – Sketch

After defining objectives, it is a matter of successfully achieving them, starting to formulate ideas, especially on an individual level. The sketch phase is therefore the conceptual proposal phase, in which solutions are put forward in alternative contexts. The proposals formulated are brought to a level of detail that allows them to be easily understood in subsequent work at the group level, so that all stakeholders are provided with adequate tools for successful evaluations.

STEP 3 – Decide

On the basis of the various proposed solutions, it is possible to proceed with the decision phase, where the ideas to be prototyped are chosen and refined. The ideas are usually shared at a concerted working table, where a common consensus is sought by trying to refine certain details thanks to the multidisciplinary contributions that are involved. This phase is carried out through proven decision-making methods.

STEP 4 – Prototype

As the name suggests, prototyping consists of the actual development of ideas matured in the previous design phases. Using the design sprint methodology, the team proceeds to give shape to previously approved ideas. The prototypes realised allow decision making to proceed thanks to the practical and tangible perception of the solutions developed, also in terms of understanding their validity on the user side.

STEP 5 – Validate

The validation phase of the results obtained through prototyping allows the design sprint team to arrive at the crucial moment of the work, when user feedback is collected and the final approval of the solutions to be adopted successfully solving the set problems is made. In fact, validation also covers the technical feasibility of projects, with specific reviews on this. In the event that a solution is deemed interesting but cannot be validated due to certain shortcomings, it is possible to refine it and examine it again at a later point in time, as well as use it as a basis for alternative proposals, in effect developing new knowledge from which to start again with the design sprint cycle.

Design Sprint vs Design Thinking

Design sprint constitutes to all intents and purposes a special case of the design thinking methodology, due to a specific level of attention to certain details. If design thinking, in its general definition, primarily aims at formulating possible scenarios within which to orientate certain strategies, often also “contaminating” itself with futures thinking, design sprint specifically addresses more directed challenges, which coincide to a large extent with the solution of well-known problems. While design thinking starts with research in a broad sense in relation to a given topic, design sprint is more oriented towards the user-oriented proposition, as evidenced by the extensive use of techniques such as AB testing.

Whereas design thinking may involve very long and articulated brainstorming periods, favouring at least initially divergent phases, design sprint is oriented towards a convergent type of approach and aimed at obtaining certain decisions within the initially established timeframe. The need to arrive at validating a result means that the design sprint makes extensive use of decision making by majority consensus.

In other words, the design sprint summarises in five days the work phases that in design thinking can take up to several weeks, arriving at a rapid definition of the pros and cons of a given design solution. For these reasons, the design sprint is widely used in application development, thanks to its innate ability to arrive at a validated prototype within a short timeframe, while taking into account all the problems that a given scenario entails.

It should also be remembered that in sprint design, the prototype should be understood differently from the traditional understanding of product development, as it does not necessarily involve meeting all the technological requirements that arise, but rather concentrates on the validation of an idea conceived to satisfy an end user’s need.

The focus therefore remains on experience, only later entering into aspects of a purely technical nature. Alignment to standard product development methodologies occurs in most cases when one has an already validated idea, of which one is reasonably certain in terms of meeting business objectives.

How Design Sprint helps companies

Design sprint is a design thinking methodology conceived explicitly to meet the practical needs of companies, offering the possibility of achieving results within short periods, usually estimated in the order of five working days.

Companies are continually engaged in a real battle against time, especially in the digital age, which demands an extraordinary ability to adapt to changing market demand.

This is in some ways a novel challenge, which can only be met by adopting production methodologies that are both flexible from a technological point of view and consistent with the ability to make quick decisions proven by reliable prototypes.

Design sprint offers companies the visionary approach of design thinking, facilitating the contextualisation of future scenarios especially when responding to known problems. This distinguishing factor makes it possible to speed up the work phases and arrive at the validation of prototypes in a short time, thus accelerating the time-to-market of identified solutions.

Written by:

Nicoletta Boldrini

Futures & Foresight Director | Direttrice Responsabile Tech4Future Read articles Look at the Linkedin profile