Over the past years we’ve been doing tons of Google Design Sprints. Although we generally stuck to Jake Knapp’s initial outline, we experimented quite a bit along the way. We jotted down 7 learnings to help you get the best out of your Design sprint.

Side note: in this article we assume that you are familiar with the basic principles and the outline of the GV Design Sprint methodology.

Learning 1

Start with a kick-off

We’ve never worked with a sprint team that worked together in the exact same composition before (and you probably haven’t either). Expecting a brand new team to achieve world-class performance right off the bat, is a bit naïve. Aligning a group of people with diverse skills, different ways of thinking, and different levels of experience, can get pretty challenging if you do it during the sprint itself. It will suck up valuable time that you don’t have.

The magical solution? A kick-off meeting before the design sprint. This does not have to take long — a one hour kick-off will do. Give people space to get to know each other, get everyone on the same page, share previous experiences, introduce the sprint topic and manage expectations. Also, you should leave some room for questions and informal conversation — this is a good way to warm people up. After the kick-off you’re ready to get off to a flying start on the first day of the sprint.

Learning 2

Monday: expand your facilitation toolbox to keep the energy up

Deciding on the long term goal, formulating sprint questions, and mapping out the challenge can be a rocky start of the Monday. Over and over again, we saw the team’s energy and motivation drop. We were looking for ways to fix this and found ourselves inspired by the videos of AJ&Smart on working together alone’.

Working together alone’ means individually writing ideas on post-its in silence, explain it to the group right after, dot vote to choose the best ideas, and eventually do some final touches. It works like a charm for setting the long term goal, sprint questions, and making a map of the challenge. So, work together alone if you want to save time, energy, and nail your Monday morning.

Learning 3

Monday: involve customers from the jump — not just on the last day

An important part of the first sprint day are expert sessions. Input of experts is much needed, but at the end of the day, you’re not designing for them. That’s why we suggest to already involve customers on the first day of the sprint.

Going through the highlights of previous research is a great way to get in touch with your target audience again. Not having any previous research at your disposal is no excuse — we have even invited customers to our war room’ for a semi-structured interview around the sprint topic. Empathising with the people you’re designing for on the first day is crucial. It doesn’t just help you come up with fitting solutions, it’s also a great motivator for the team.

Learning 4

Tuesday: sketch fever’ is preventable

Even though the sketches do not have to be perfect at all, we generally find many team members to be hesitant or insecure about sketching their ideas on Tuesday afternoon. Sometimes, this grows into an extreme form of nonchalance or a complete block. Along the way, we tried out different techniques to deal with this sketch fever’.

One of the techniques is sketching solutions in couples. This is not our favourite strategy since it reintroduces social dynamics in the ideation process. But as necessity knows no law, ideation in this manner is more fruitful than no ideation at all.

Our preferred workaround is to use the facilitator as an independent sparring partner. How? Put the facilitator in another room where conversations can be held without disturbing the rest of the team. Team members can drop by to brainstorm when they’re stuck or simply want to have a check on whether their sketch makes sense. Using the facilitator as a safe haven really takes the edge off and gets even the most reluctant team members to happily pick up their pencil.

Learning 5

Wednesday: the magical question to make storyboarding a success

It’s hard to stay away from discussion when the team is gathered around a whiteboard to decide on the best solutions for the prototype. The outline of the product becomes more concrete, and that’s a scary thing for many teams — they might feel like they are building a final product. In this phase, it is super important to stress that the goal is to find answers to the most burning questions and assumptions and not to make a pixel perfect prototype. The prototype is a means to an end, and not an end in itself. You can say it again and again, but that is not enough — you have to show it.

How? By asking the right question. When deciding on the best solutions, constantly ask what do you want to learn here?’. This allows you to link a research question to every design element that the team picks. Put a sticky note with the research questions right next to the winning solutions on the whiteboard. This way, everybody knows exactly why you chose to add certain elements to the prototype. And all of a sudden, it becomes a lot less scary. You visibly built something to learn, by explicitly capturing doubts and unknowns. Also, the by-catch is worthwhile: by collecting research questions and linking them to the storyboard, you basically wrote your test script for the test day on Friday already.

Learning 6

Great concepts do not arise overnight

After the sprint you are not there yet. We repeat, not yet. In the best case you’ll need another iteration before the concept is clear. In most cases you’ll need several. When we do design sprints, our main goal is to learn. We work toward a prototype that’ll answer our research questions, not a prototype that portrays a pixel perfect and technologically sound design.

So whenever you notice or have the feeling that the go-live date is planned shortly after the sprint, don’t hesitate to tell the harsh truth. A good starting point for the planning is assuming that the concept will be a complete failure and that you’ll need at least a few more sprints.

Learning 7

A design sprint is a great team building exercise

Although locking a group of people up for five days may not always benefit the regular’ work and sounds pretty intense, it definitely creates great team spirit. Working together closely towards an — at first sight — impossible goal guarantees that team members get to know each other, both personally and professionally. For this reason a design sprint is a great way to kick-off a new project team.

We have done plenty of design sprints and know that every design sprint is different. In other words: not all of these learnings will directly apply to your situation. Either way, hopefully it will help you to run better design sprints in the future.

Do you have questions or do you want to share your experiences? Feel free to get in touch. If you want to keep on reading, we probably have more interesting stuff for you.

  • Anne van der Veen
  • Caressa Fooij
  • Lia Bardoel