What is a design sprint?
Learn what design sprints are, find out how to organize one, and explore how they can benefit your team by improving collaboration, reducing risk, and fostering innovation.
Have you been meaning to conduct design sprints in your organization?
Whether you're launching a new service or want to improve product adoption, a design sprint can help you and your team discover and execute ideas quickly.
Read on to learn about its benefits (and limitations), who to involve, and how to prepare for your first design sprint.
What is a design sprint?
A design sprint is a highly structured yet versatile process. It quickly brings an idea from conception to a prototype that you can test with real users in five days.
Developed by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, and Braden Kowitz while working at Google Ventures (GV), this method draws on a range of design thinking and agile development techniques.
As a collaborative effort that involves cross-functional teams working together, design sprints are ideal for teams who want to get user feedback early in the process with a realistic prototype.
According to its creators, design sprints allow design teams to "fast-forward into the future and see their finished product and customer reactions before making any expensive commitments."
Teams of all sizes around the world have adopted design sprints. Its popularity has led to the publication of a book, Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days by Jake Knapp.
How do teams benefit from a design sprint?
When done well, design sprints can help you with:
- Improved collaboration: A design sprint brings team members from different departments and disciplines together to work on a common goal. By working collaboratively, team members can learn from each other, build stronger relationships, and develop a shared sense of project ownership.
- Faster time-to-market: You can get to market faster by working through the design process in just a few days. This can be a significant advantage in a competitive environment.
- User-centered design: A key component of the design sprint is focusing on the user experience. By incorporating user feedback and testing throughout the process, you can create products that are more likely to meet the needs of your target audience.
- Reduced risk: By testing prototypes with users, you can identify and address potential issues early in the design process. This can help reduce the likelihood of costly mistakes later on.
- Creativity and innovation: Teams can generate new and innovative solutions to complex problems by exploring various ideas and testing prototypes.
What are the limitations of a design sprint?
While design sprints can be valuable for teams looking to iterate on and refine their ideas quickly, there are some limitations to keep in mind. These include:
- Limited scope: Design sprints tackle a specific problem or challenge quickly. This means they may not be suitable for complex, multi-faceted problems requiring a more in-depth approach.
- Time constraints: Sprints typically last five days, which can be a tight timeframe for some teams. There may be a risk of rushing through the process and not giving enough time to certain phases of the sprint, such as prototyping and testing for usability.
- Limited stakeholder involvement: A sprint will often involve a small team of designers and other key stakeholders, so not all relevant perspectives may be represented. This can lead to blind spots and potential problems down the line.
- Potential for bias: As design sprints are rapid and iterative, team members may introduce their biases and assumptions into the process without realizing it.
- It’s not suitable for all projects: Design sprints are best suited for projects that involve creating something new, such as a new product or service. They may be less effective for projects that involve incremental improvements or maintenance of existing products or services.
Who’s involved in a design sprint?
A design sprint team is typically small and highly collaborative, with individuals from different disciplines and perspectives working together to create a prototype.
Your design sprint should have the following members:
- Facilitator: This team member leads the design sprint and guiding the team through the process. They are typically experienced in running design sprints and are skilled in keeping the team focused and on track.
- Product owner: This person handles the overall vision and direction of the project. Product owners are advocates of the customer. They also make sure that the project aligns with the organization's goals and values.
- UX Designer: This team member creates the visual and interactive designs of the product, such as sketches, wireframes, and prototypes. UX designers also work closely with the product owner to ensure that the design aligns with the overall vision.
- Developer: The developer builds the product and works closely with the designer to ensure it’s developed according to the design specifications.
- Marketer: This person develops a marketing strategy for the product and ensures it’s positioned correctly in the market.
- Subject matter expert: This individual has specialized knowledge or expertise relevant to the project. You might bring them in to provide insights or expertise that can inform the design process.
The team might also include individuals from different departments or disciplines within your organization. Sometimes, external experts or stakeholders may also be involved.
5 stages of the design sprint process
The design sprint process typically follows a set of stages designed to move the team from problem definition to solution testing in a structured and time-bound manner.
Below is a rundown of the typical stages of a design sprint process.
Stage 1 (Monday): Understand the problem
On the first day, you’ll define the problem, identify your users, and map out the user journey. This video shows how Relab Studios, a design agency in Australia, maps their user journeys.
In the afternoon, you’ll talk to the people on your team who know the most about the topic. Next, you’ll choose a specific point in the customer journey that has the greatest risk or opportunity, and focus on that for the rest of the sprint.
Recommended resource: Day 1 checklist
Stage 2 (Tuesday): Sketch solutions to the problem
On the second day, your goal is to develop a wide range of potential solutions to the problem. You can use brainstorming, sketching, or other ideation techniques to generate and refine solutions.
For example, the four-step sketch method is an effective way to develop creative solutions and iterate on them.
Here's how it works:
- Step 1: Take 20 minutes to take notes on the goal, opportunities, and inspiration you've collected.
- Step 2: Spend another 20 minutes drawing out rough ideas to help gather your thoughts.
- Step 3: Take your most viable solution and sketch out eight variations of the solution in eight minutes. This is known as the “Crazy 8s” exercise.
- Step 4: Create a detailed end-to-end solution for the problem in the next 30 minutes or more. This is known as the solution sketch.
This method allows you and your team to be efficient with your time while also encouraging creativity and innovation.
Recommended resource: Day 2 checklist
Stage 3 (Wednesday): Decide on the best solution
During this stage, the team will review the potential solutions that have been ideated and narrow them down to the most promising ones.
The team will consider each solution's potential impact, feasibility, and desirability through the "Sticky Decision" method.
Here's how it works:
- Document the decision: Write down the decision that needs to be made on a sticky note.
- Brainstorm options: Each team member writes down their ideas for potential solutions to the decision on their sticky notes.
- Group similar ideas: The team then groups the sticky notes with similar ideas or solutions together.
- Discuss and vote: The team then discusses each solution and votes on their top choices, typically by placing a dot or checkmark on the sticky note. Meanwhile, the decider makes the final call with three dots.
- Decide and act: The team makes the final decision based on the results of the voting process.
Recommended resource: Day 3 checklist
Stage 4 (Thursday): Build a prototype
You’re almost there! The prototype stage is where the team creates a tangible representation of the chosen solution. This may involve making a physical or digital prototype of your product or service.
In design sprints, developing a prototype boils down to "faking it till you make it".
The goal is to have a prototype that’s good enough to be tested with users but not 100 percent perfect.
Recommended resource: Day 4 checklist
Stage 5 (Friday): Test with target users or customers
It's the last day of your design sprint! That means it's time to test your prototype with at least five users to gather feedback and insights.
You’ll observe how users interact with the prototype and gather feedback to inform future iterations of your product.
Recommended resource: Day 5 checklist
Preparing for your first design sprint
Preparing for a design sprint is an exciting and collaborative process for your team. It involves the following steps:
- Recruit your team members: Assemble a cross-functional team with the skills to tackle the problem. Consider including representatives from different departments or areas of expertise to ensure a diversity of perspectives.
- Gather information: Collect as much information as possible about the problem and your users, including market research, user feedback, and analytics.
- Set a goal: Establish a clear goal for the design sprint and communicate it with the team. This will help everyone stay focused and work toward a common objective.
- Choose a facilitator: Designate a facilitator who will lead the design sprint and make sure that everything (and everyone!) stays on track.
- Choose a location: Find a space conducive to creativity and collaboration. This area is often called a "war room" in design sprints. Ensure the area is free from distractions and has all the necessary supplies and equipment, like pens, markers, sticky notes, and a whiteboard.
- Set aside time: Schedule the design sprint for a specific timeframe and make sure everyone on the team is available for the entire duration.
- Recruit test participants in advance. Aim for at least 5 participants. Before the testing day, let them know what to expect and ensure they feel comfortable. Small gestures like providing snacks if they’re testing in-person or offering an incentive if they’re testing remotely can make a big difference in their experience.
Recommended resource: The official remote design sprint template
Key principles your team can learn from a design sprint
As you conduct design sprints regularly, you’ll learn several important design principles. These include:
- Focus on the user: A design sprint emphasizes understanding the needs of the user and developing solutions that address their problems. By focusing on the user, you’ll create solutions that are more likely to be successful.
- Collaboration: A design sprint brings together people from different disciplines and encourages them to work together to create solutions. By collaborating, you can benefit from diverse perspectives and expertise.
- Iterative approach: A design sprint involves creating prototypes and testing them with users. This iterative approach lets you and your team quickly refine your ideas based on user feedback.
- Rapid prototyping: A design sprint emphasizes creating quick, low-fidelity prototypes to test ideas. By prototyping early and often, you can quickly identify what works and what doesn't.
- Data-driven decisions: A design sprint involves testing prototypes with real users and gathering data to inform decision-making. By using data to decide, you can make more informed choices and create better solutions.
- Timeboxing: A design sprint is a time-bound process typically lasting five days. Timeboxing the process can create a sense of urgency and encourage your team to work quickly and efficiently.
Overall, a design sprint can help your team to work collaboratively, stay focused on the user, iterate quickly, and use data to inform decision-making. You can apply these principles to any design or problem-solving process.
Make design sprints work for you
The structured process of identifying a problem, prototyping, and testing with real users and asking them the right questions can help your team validate ideas and gather user feedback quickly.
However, it's also important to be aware of the limitations of design sprints, such as narrow scope, time constraints, and potential biases.
To make design sprints work for your team, make sure that you represent relevant perspectives and tailor the process to the specific needs and goals of your organization.
With the right approach and preparation, design sprints can be a valuable tool for innovation and problem-solving for your team.
UsabilityHub has all the tools you need to test prototypes and uncover potential issues early. Try it for free.
Frequently asked questions about design sprints
What is a design sprint?
A design sprint is a structured process that quickly takes an idea from conception to a prototype that can be tested with real users in just five days. It is a collaborative effort that involves cross-functional teams working together, making it ideal for teams who want to get user feedback early in the process with a realistic prototype. The design sprint was developed by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, and Braden Kowitz while working at Google Ventures and draws on design thinking and agile development techniques.
What is a design sprint good for?
A design sprint is a time-limited, structured process that helps teams identify and solve complex problems through rapid prototyping and user feedback. It’s good for quickly validating ideas, exploring multiple solutions, and getting stakeholder buy-in before investing significant time and resources into a project. Design sprints also foster collaboration and encourage cross-functional teams to work together toward a shared goal.
What is the design sprint process?
The design sprint process is a five-day framework for solving problems and testing new ideas. The process consists of several stages, including understanding the problem, ideation, prototyping, and testing. On the first day, the team focuses on understanding the problem and defining the challenges they face. On the second day, they brainstorm and generate ideas, and on the third day, they decide which idea to pursue and create a prototype. On the fourth day, they test the prototype and gather feedback, and on the fifth day, they make any necessary changes and prepare to present their solution. The design sprint process is an effective way to rapidly develop and test ideas and bring them to market quickly.
Kai has been creating content for healthcare, design, and SaaS brands for over a decade. She also manages content (like a digital librarian of sorts). Hiking in nature, lap swimming, books, tea, and cats are some of her favorite things. Check out her digital nook or connect with her on LinkedIn.