How To Get The Best Out Of A Design Sprint

Nelson Rivera
By Nelson Rivera

Ready to know how to run a successful Design Sprint? Here are important tips you don't want to miss.

The Design Sprint is a five-day framework that aims to answer critical business questions through design, prototyping, and validating ideas. Developed by Jake Knapp and his fellows at Google Ventures.


Design Sprint process. Image by The Sprint Book

It has proven to be a great tool to refine some raw ideas and validate business strategies. Since we first adopted it a couple of years ago, the Design Sprint has become one of Applaudo’s favorites. It allows us to align business goals with user needs, reduce the risk to build irrelevant products, create clunky functionalities, or deliver inadequate experiences to our target audience.

In this post, I’m going to share with you a few tips and insights we’ve discovered while running several Design Sprints for clients in different industries. 

These tips will help you to get the best out of every day of a Design Sprint week and make sure we get real and useful results at the end of day 5.

Before setting the stage

This might seem obvious but the very first step to run a successful Design Sprint should be to understand the framework. And the best way to dip your toes is to read the Design Sprint book. There are several places where you can get a physical copy or the e-book version (Here are some options).

Done reading it? Excellent, now read it again. The book is packed with great insights and tips that you might have overlooked the first time, make sure to highlight all the sections that caught your attention for future references. Trust me, you’ll be going back to the book very often to revisit concepts, tips, and go through the checklist of activities.

What are good scenarios to run a Design Sprint?

The Design Sprint is not a silver bullet and there are scenarios where it’s more useful than others, The Design Sprint shines the most in the following cases:

Scenarios where a Design Sprint is not of great help is when you’re facing more classic problems or projects that don’t need to assemble a multi-disciplinary group of people for 5 days. For example, when a customer just wants an e-commerce website for the goods sold in his brick and mortar store. 

Always use the right tool for the right problem.

And don’t try to figure out a huge product with different user flows all in one Sprint. Instead, prioritize your challenges and pick a specific target you want to achieve. Focus on a specific challenge you want to solve during the Sprint.

Pre-Sprint Activities

Once you’ve identified a good candidate project to run a Design Sprint, you need to start planning it. Whether it is for an internal project or for one of your clients. 

These activities are not part of any phase in the Design Sprint book, but our experience has shown us that completing the following tasks makes the Design Sprint run smoother. It allows us to be more efficient leading the Sprint and effectively navigate through the pain points and improvements that pushed our clients to execute a Design Sprint in the first place.

#1 Make sure the participants of the Sprint understand the fundamentals of the framework and set realistic expectations of the outcome.
If all of them understand the power of the Design Sprint and all its benefits they will be more willing to give their very best in each of the activities. If possible give a copy of the book, if not to all the participants of the Sprint at least to the person designated as Decision Maker.

#2 Take the time to know your client history, understand the reasons behind the creation of this new product or functionality that triggered the Design Sprint.
At Applaudo we achieve this with a series of interviews with our clients to understand their product. Ask for any documentation they might have, most of the time they already have high-level requirements of what they want to build. 
And last but not least we give our customers a Prep Kit that includes a questionnaire that we call “Know your client”. This questionnaire is designed to focus on the following areas:

#3 Make small research of your client’s sprint participants.
A quick search in LinkedIn can give you some basic insights about your audience and as a moderator. This will be gold to keep everybody focused and interested in the process.

#4 Make sure your client’s main point of contact becomes an ally.
This is important because most likely you don’t interact on a daily basis with them, so you need an evangelist of the methodology on your client’s side. Someone that makes them get excited about the Design Sprint, that pushes them to prepare good insights and ideas to share.

This will reduce the risk of having attendants unwilling to participate in the activities, wondering why they are even there, and questioning the effectiveness of the Sprint overall. You might face old-fashion minded attendants that won’t see any value in the Sprint or think the activities are childish, you must mitigate these risks before they become a bigger issue during the Sprint, and these bad attitudes spread across the team.

#5 Recruit customers for Friday’s test.
At this point, you might not have a solid idea of the profiles you’re looking for Friday’s user testing, but you have hints of the target audience. So use this to start looking for people willing to help you test your prototype.

What will define the success or failure of the winning idea will be the user’s output. So make sure to find the right audience, offer incentives according to the importance of their role, to make the users more receptive and willing to give you great insights. Ask for help from the marketing expert on the team to define relevant attributes of the target audience. 5 test users should be enough to identify patterns, but have a couple of extra candidates in case one of them drops out.

Assembling the team

There’s no Sprint without a team. Make sure to assemble a multidisciplinary group of people representing the areas that directly impact the solution/product (Engineering, Design, Marketing, Product Management, Customer Service, etc.) you need input from different points of view to come up with a wholesome product. The standard Design Sprint Team looks something like this:

Remember you should keep the team ideally below 8 participants. If you need to involve more people you think can add value to the Sprint, make sure to invite them as experts for Monday.

Set the stage

Not much to add here than what’s already in the book. Get the necessary supplies for your crew. Two whiteboards might fall short, so make sure to get butcher paper rolls to tape on the walls as Plan B.

Once you have everything checked on your list, we’re ready to start our Sprint on Monday.

Monday: Map

You’ll be making important decisions the very first day of Sprint, decisions that will impact the direction and focus of the whole process.

At this point thanks to the previous research you’ve made you have a good problem framing and a good position to guide the team to pick a long term goal. Picture this goal as your end result and identify risks along the way. Then work backward to figure out the steps you’ll need to get there and all those risks you identify will become into sprint questions

As Facilitator, draw the map while the rest of the team suggests ideas. Take your time, this map will help you to pick the right target at the end of the day and you’ll work around that target during the rest of the Sprint.

Ask the experts 

You have a panel of talented people. Each of them with a field of expertise. Listen to their opinions, understand their current pains, briefly explore solutions, get all that input, and improve your map.

“How might we…?” (HMW) 

After listening to the expert’s opinion. Each team member should come up with problems, beginning with the words “How might we…” 

These problems will become opportunities for improvement and will determine the direction of the MVP.

After organizing and voting on HMW notes, add the winning notes to your map and discuss which customer and moment on the map will be your target for the rest of the Sprint. Keep in mind the Decider has the final say about the target, but the whole team can give their input.

During this day don’t forget to confirm the assistance of the people that will help you test your prototype on Friday. Make sure the people you picked match the profile of your most relevant user personas.

Tuesday: Sketch

Monday was all about understanding the problem, Tuesday is all about finding solutions.

An important tip I can share with you during this day is don’t reinvent the wheel. Most innovations are based on remixes of old ideas, so get inspiration from existing solutions and capture the best ideas of those lightning demos with a drawing on the whiteboard.

The four-step sketch

The four-step sketch allows you to create solutions in a fast-paced manner while iterating on each variation along the way.

  1. Notes. Twenty minutes. Silently walk around the room and gather notes. 
  2. Ideas. Twenty minutes. Privately jot down some rough ideas. Circle the most promising ones.
  3. Crazy 8s. Eight minutes. Fold a sheet of paper to create eight frames. Sketch a variation of one of your best ideas in each frame. Spend one minute per sketch. 
  4. Solution sketch. Thirty to ninety minutes. Create a three-panel storyboard by sketching in three sticky notes on a sheet of paper. Make it self-explanatory. Keep it anonymous. Ugly is okay. Words matter. Give it a catchy title. 

Key ideas of the four-step sketch:

Wednesday: Decide

After understanding the problem and sketch solutions, it’s time to filter them and pick the winning horse that will become into your storyboard and eventually your prototype.

The decision process has 5 steps:

  1. Art museum. Tape the solution sketches to the wall in one long row, the sketches should be anonymous.
  2. Heat map. Have each person review the sketches silently and put one to three small dot stickers beside every part he or she likes.
  3. Speed critique. Three minutes per sketch. As a group, discuss the highlights of each solution. Capture standout ideas and important objections. In the end, ask the sketcher if the group missed anything.
  4. Straw poll. Each person silently chooses a favorite idea. All at once, each person places one large dot sticker to register his or her (non-binding) vote. Think of the straw poll as a way to give your Decider some advice.
  5. Supervote. Give the Decider three large dot stickers and write her initials on the sticker. Explain that you’ll prototype and test the solutions the Decider chooses.

The winning ideas make it to the storyboard. The storyboard should be a step by step plan for your prototype. Take the winning sketches and stick them to the whiteboard. The storyboard should tell a complete story. Make sure you’re not missing any detail or any important user flow. Remember, this will become your prototype.

Thursday: Prototype

On this day you can parallelize two important tasks: Create the prototype and write the interview script.

Create the prototype

The UX/UI Designer leads to the creation of the prototype. However, the whole team should participate somehow in the building process, applying the Sprint book’s Divide and Conquer strategy.

The first time you run a Design Sprint, this task will seem like an impossible one. Creating a prototype in one day is unrealistic. It would normally take weeks to create a prototype using Figma, Protopie, or InVision. But remember, you’re not creating a product with all its blows and whistles. The prototype you create should be only a facade. Just real enough to test it, and get feedback from the users, focus more on the UX, and less in the UI.

About the tools to use to create the prototype, this should be entirely up to the Designer. The right tool is the tool he or she is most experienced with.

Write the interview script

We recommend the Marketing Expert takes this task. He or she should come up with a list of questions to ask the user tester while they interact with the prototype.

The goal of the interview is to get the sentiment of the user about the product. Ask open-ended questions and let the user do most of the talking.

At the end of the day make a mock interview with the team, to make sure everything is where it should be and that you’ll get the desired output from the users on Friday.

Remember to triple check assistance with your test users, since they are crucial for Friday’s testing.

Friday: Test!

Great! You’ve made it to the final day. The moment of truth. Today you’ll find out whether your product has any chances of success.

Make sure the stage for the interview is ready and don’t forget to apply the Five-Act interview:

  1. Friendly welcome. Welcome the customer and put him or her at ease. Explain that you’re looking for candid feedback.
  2. Context questions. Start with easy small talk, then transition to questions about the topic you’re trying to learn about. 
  3. Introduce the prototype. Remind the customer that some things might not work and that you’re not testing him or her. Ask the customer to think aloud. 
  4. Tasks and nudges. Watch the customer figure out the prototype on his or her own. Start with a simple nudge. Ask follow-up questions to help the customer think aloud. 
  5. Debrief. Ask questions that prompt the customer to summarize. Then thank the customer, give him or her a gift card, and show the customer out.

Take detailed notes of the user reaction to every section of the prototype and record the interaction.

Make sure to take note of the user’s answers to your questions. Use Google Sheets or any similar tool to have all the responses in one single place.

Review the responses and notes after every interview to make sure you’re not missing anything. After the third interview, you’ll start noticing patterns, make sure you take notes of them.

Identify answers as positive, neutral, or negative. With this insight, we’ll be able to define whether or not our prototype was a good solution to the identified problem.


Final thoughts

After analyzing the insights obtained during the user testing phase, you should have a clear idea of whether or not the product should be taken to the next level and start production. 

Don’t be afraid if the results aren’t that promising or if the test users didn’t respond as expected. That doesn’t mean the Design Sprint failed, on the contrary, you just saved a lot of money in a solution that wasn’t needed in the current market.  Better to identify that in 5 days and not after 3 months of development.

If you received mixed responses and have solid feedback from your test users go back to the whiteboard. Make a new iteration of your idea based on the feedback gathered during testing day. You can run a lite version on the Design Sprint in this scenario since you don’t need to go through the 5-day process again.

As a bonus, you will find below a Design Sprint checklist and notes. You can use it during the Design Sprints you run in the future, to make sure you’re on track with every task every day.


About the author

Nelson Rivera

Graduated from Computer Science Engineering from Universidad Don Bosco de El Salvador. Nelson has over 7 years of experience developing tech products and services for startups and leading companies in their industries in the United States and around the world. He’s currently a Solutions Architect at Applaudo Studios.