How and why do design sprint teams succeed?

This question occupies the minds of many practitioners of product development approaches such as design thinking, which employs five-day design sprints to create prototypes of minimum lovable products. At Sprint Conference 2017, Google’s conference for sprint leaders, attendees are examining these and many other issues as part of an open discussion to advance the state of the art in design sprint application.

My Moonshot colleague Mike Edmonds and I are onsite to learn and, in Mike’s case, to speak as well. And we’re learning a lot. For example, on Day One, Jake Knapp, who literally wrote the book on design sprints, discussed an important attribute of successful design sprints: the ability of a team to focus.

It’s so often the case that profound truths sound simple, which was certainly true with Jake’s opening keynote. Although Jake’s talk covered a lot of ground, one essential take-away was the value of a design sprint team building in “forced focus” time to concentrate on solving customer problems with product development.

He set the stage for the theme by having each of us in the audience high-five the person sitting next to us. Why? Because doing a proper high-five requires you to focus on the other person’s elbow. The action, when done well, is done in one fluid moment. But if you don’t get focused quickly, the high-five becomes a clumsy embarrassment for both people.

In addition, watching someone’s elbow is an unintuitive action. (How many of us focus on each other’s elbows when we’re talking with each other?) Only by forcing your focus on the elbow of the person next to you can you pull off the high-five gracefully.

Similarly, when you undertake a design sprint, “Remember to watch the elbow,” Jake said. It is counter intuitive, but if you do it you are focusing on a single point to achieve success. While the sprints are designed to fail faster to succeed, it requires focus so the end outcome is solving a problem and not just “talking about it.” Design sprints by nature are designed to move away from default behaviors (being reactive and just talking) to a systemic way of working using with checklists. And how do you do that? You create a “forced focus” environment built around a codified five-day sprint, with clear processes and outcomes literally identified with a checklist:

  • Day 1: Shifts the default of thinking everything at – to having the group focusing on one customer and one spot on the customer journey map.
  • Day 2: Shifts the default of doing a group brainstorm – to working alone together. Provide focus by carving out time to work quietly and let everyone have time to think through the user and the moment and then regroup collaboratively.
  • Day 3: Shifts the act of endless swirl – to being fast & decisive. The role of the “decider” facilitates momentum and drives the group forward.
  • Day 4: Shifts the need to build an MVP – to faking a product by dividing the work and build a facade of the product for the sake of validation or buy-in.
  • Day 5:Shift away the desire to wait for perfect data from production – to quick and dirty data right away with customers.

By its nature, a design sprint encourages risk by giving a team multiple chances to develop and test ideas. But the key to doing so (aside from identifying compelling customer problems to solve) is to keep the team focused on each day’s deliverables.

When you have only five days to build a product prototype, you cannot afford to lose focus. The key to maintaining focus is exercising proper time management – such as literally spending the first part of the day planning the entire day around the one objective (focal point) that will empower the team to create value.

Time management and checklists don’t sound terribly glamorous or complicated. But time spent to move away from our default modes of working and using tools such as checklists constitute some of the little details that make or break design sprints. A team needs to manage these little things to stay focused on big outcomes that lead to lovable products.

Amish Desai

Amish Desai

Head of Experiences