Katja Forbes: Design Sprint – Why It Will Change Your Design Outlook

You may have heard the term “design sprint” but wondered what it has to do with you and how your business would benefit by taking part in one.


So, what is a design sprint and why are businesses running them?


To answer this question, lets look at the typical method of design. You or your designated designers would receive a brief about what is required. Very often this brief is put together by someone who has no idea about what is possible or even the role of design altogether. So, they will present something to you that they can imagine through their non-design eyes and its up to you to create something out of this that’s not only feasible, but brilliant!


You and your team will throw some ideas around and agree on something you think may do the trick. After a lot of mock-ups from your team and a great many hours and weeks spent on pulling it together, the stakeholders disagree then with your idea completely and you are back to square one. Except now you are two months down the track with nothing really to show for it. If you are an agency, this is not good news at all since your team has effectively spent precious hours on something you cannot invoice for.


The purpose of a design sprint is to try and eliminate this window of lost time and mucking around. When done correctly, they will expose concepts that are not only desirable to your customer, but also technically feasible, and viable for the business.  Importantly, they help you kill non-valuable ideas early to reduce wastage and poor investment decisions. In other words, a design sprint will reduce the time taken to qualify opportunities and find answers to tough problems. Everyone’s time is limited and this method will make the most of everyone’s limited time in a smart, focused way. It will get the right project team together, focus effort collectively the same way and also get rid of ideas that won’t work early on.


A design sprint is a condensed five-day design process for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, testing and iterating with customers and business stakeholders. This completely facilitated activity will usually contain:


  • Short, focused problem exploration and solution definition exercise
  • Five (5) days of effort
  • Rapid ideation to solve identified problem spaces
  • Create and test lean prototypes with customers and partners in early stages
  • Applies business strategy, innovation, behavioural science, design thinking, and more.


When are we best taking this approach?

Design sprints are best utilised when you aren’t sure on the solution. If you already have an idea on what to create after you get your brief, there is no need for a design sprint because you are better off just going directly to what you think or know will work.  If you have no idea, this is when plenty of billing hours will be lost trying to come to terms with what is expected of you.  Design sprints offer a way to quickly assemble the diverse talent at your disposal and organise your knowledge to tackle complicated business challenges.


Often, your brief may be a complex challenge with lots of variables and influencing factors, or the solution may require diverse input and thinking.  Make sure you are committed to implementing new and creative concepts after the sprint and if the challenge is multi-faceted, multiple sprints can be stitched together focussing on one focused question per sprint.

Design sprints bring together cross-business teams to arrive at tangible results much faster than what we do today. In fact, months of work can be condensed into just one week and work in a more cost-effective way.   New products are de-risked by gathering clear data from a realistic prototype and you can assemble all relevant experts and decision makers to ensure alignment across business.


What a design sprint is not

Design sprints ARE NOT a lazy person’s approach to creating something innovative, or a way of “doing design quicker.”  They are a very specific methodology to unpack a problem space and come up with as many divergent concepts as possible, testing them with your customer to know what to focus on.

Do not use a Design Sprint if you know what you need to do next and are just looking to speed things up or if you are uncertain of what your design challenge is, or if you have multiple challenges.  That is not the purpose of a design sprint.

Also, if you lack the resources or capability to act on the outputs of the sprint for one reason or another, or have a simple brief with many possibilities, a design sprint isn’t the answer.  You may have already started designing something and in these cases, design sprints won’t offer what you are searching for.

There are several keys to success with Design Sprints:

  • You must have executive sponsorship and access to those who gave you the brief (your customer, decisions makers or stakeholders) at various points during the sprint to make time-critical decisions and provide timely feedback.
  • You have to get the focus right — not all problems can be solved in the one sprint so make sure you prioritise well and commit to what matters. You’ll need a committed core team, that can dedicate 100% their time and energy to the sprint.
  • You also need representation from business areas and domain knowledge is important. A diversity of thought is important too — ‘Friendly Challengers’ can help a team maintain momentum. Make sure you have a dedicated sprint environment, materials, tools, equipment.

Above all, don’t be afraid to fail or pivot

Design sprints have moments of doubt and the team and their management need to be okay with this. If you’re well prepared you will absolutely gain the most value out of a sprint and ensure everything can run smoothly.


By International Director on the Interaction Design Association Board and founder of syfte, Australian pioneer in the experience design industry, Katja Forbes.

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