What is a design sprint? How to run one in 5 days

Do you remember how long it took to develop the last product idea you had? 

All those hours you spent brainstorming. The endless iterations. Each round, filled with the anticipation that this one, yes, this one, would be the golden ticket.

GIF Source: Giphy

But what if there was a simpler way to navigate the stormy seas of innovation?

That’s where the design sprint comes in — a method that can fast-track your product development process to safe waters. 

In this article, you’ll explore this concept and learn how to apply it to shake up your innovation strategy.

What are you waiting for? Dive in!

Table of contents

What is a design sprint?

When you picture product development, what pops in your head? 

Chances are, you’re thinking of brainstorming sessions, teamwork, user research, and yes, the inevitable waiting game for the green light from stakeholders. 

We all have brilliant product ideas from time to time, but picking the right one to go after can be a real challenge. 

That’s where the magic of design sprints steps in.

A design sprint is a five-day process where cross-functional teams come together to brainstorm potential solutions, validate ideas through design, rapid prototyping, and testing with real users. 

You can think of a design sprint as a mini innovation lab. Here, a blend of unique minds meet to tackle big challenges head-on. 🦾

So, who’s the mastermind behind the design sprint concept? 

That would be Jake Knapp from Google Ventures (GV). Here’s how he describes it: “It’s the greatest hits of business strategy where innovation, design thinking, behavior science, and more collide into a proven step-by-step process any team can use.

With a design sprint, you can bid farewell to endless debates and pack months of work into just five days. 

Take Google’s sprint for their Files Go product app as an example.

Google’s Next Billion User team had a lightbulb moment: create a storage management app that could automatically backup files for Android users. They decided to sprint their idea into reality, spending three days brainstorming.

The result?

They launched Files Go, which racked up over 10 million downloads. Many of the app’s current features were born from that sprint. 🤯

The beauty of a sprint is that it saves you from the suspenseful wait until product launch to know if an idea is a winner. Instead, you get valuable insights from a prototype whipped up in just a few days.

So, what’s in it for you with a design sprint? Well, it does two major things: 

  • Gives you and your team a clear daily goal. You only move forward once that’s ticked off. 
  • Turbocharges your approach to product development, boosting your success rate at lightning speed.

The bottom line? It’s incredibly versatile. Beyond just shaping new product designs, a sprint can also help you 

  • Break into new markets
  • Develop fresh features for users
  • Develop marketing strategies.

And so much more!

Curious about the ways running a design sprint is a game-changer? We gotchu.

Perks of running a design sprint

An ideation workshop or design sprint lets you make smart decisions in a snap. 

But that’s not all. Here are some other benefits of running a sprint:

  • Wave goodbye to never-ending, committee-style decision-making.
  • Get a clear view of daily and final deliverables.
  • Cuts down the cost of failure during user testing.
  • Encourages focused, rapid-response collaboration.
  • Deepens your understanding of key customers.
  • Helps create more user-centric products.
  • Reduces confusion and promotes clarity within teams by offering a structured framework.
  • Helps you seize new opportunities quickly so you’re one step ahead of the competition. 😉
  • Enables data-driven decisions by gathering early user feedback.
  • Finds and reduces risks before pouring time and resources into product development.
  • Enhances team communication.
  • Prevents scope creep, allowing your team to zero in on a specific problem.
  • Helps your team grow their skills in an environment that fosters innovation. 

Now, you’re probably wondering, “Okay, how do I kickstart a design sprint?” 

Before diving into that, it’s key to familiarize yourself with what you’ll need to launch a design sprint without a hitch. 

Let’s unpack that in the next section.

Organizing a design sprint – what you need

You can only reap the benefits of a sprint if you’ve set ambitious, long-term goals to tackle within a week. You’ll also need to have the right crew ready for the 5-day sprint.

So who makes up this dream team?

  • A decision-maker, or ‘captain,’ to steer the ship. This could be the director, product manager, CEO, or a senior exec. Their decisions will shape the goal or the final product.
  • A timekeeper or facilitator. This ‘navigator’ will keep an eye on progress and make sure everyone sticks to the tight time frame.
  • A marketing maestro to fine-tune the brand’s message to customers.
  • Customer service pros to manage communication with real users.
  • Design wizards like UI/UX designers to craft the product and bring the sprint’s vision to life.
  • Finance gurus to keep track of the sprint’s budget and plan accordingly.
  • Tech whizzes to build systems customers can use and enjoy.

With this all-star team (and anyone else you feel is necessary), you’re ready to map out your design sprint. 🚀

Here’s your sprint prep checklist:

  • Set a date and give everyone involved a heads up in advance.
  • Choose a distraction-free zone.
  • Implement a ‘no-gadgets’ rule during sprint hours to keep everyone laser-focused.
  • Don’t forget to pencil in lunch and bathroom breaks. No one wants a growling stomach interrupting a brainstorming session. 😉
  • Have a whiteboard and markers on hand for a tangible mood board to brainstorm on.
  • Stock up on sticky notes.
  • Set a start and finish time for each day. 

With this prep out of the way, you’re ready for action! 

Ready to sprint? 

And no, we’re not talking about a race, but you catch our drift. 

How to run a design sprint

The design sprint process unfolds over five days, with each day dedicated to tackling a different step in the problem-solving process. 

Here’s the breakdown:

  • Monday is all about understanding the problem.
  • Tuesday is when you ideate solutions.
  • Wednesday is decision day.
  • Thursday, you roll up your sleeves and start prototyping.
  • Finally, Friday is the day you validate.

Now, let’s dissect each day in detail.

1. Understand the problem

Day one of the design sprint is all about gathering insights and setting the week’s long-term goals. You want to get to the heart of the challenges your customers are facing.

So, how do you do that? Sketch out an empathy map that highlights customer issues and choose a specific one you want to tackle.

But that’s not all you’ll be doing on Monday. You should also:

  1. Start with the end in mind. Visualize your ideal finished product and jot it down.

While you’re at it, take note of critical business questions that could potentially derail your envisioned future.

  1. Make a map showing the customer journey as they interact with your product or service.
  2. Play the expert card. Interview folks who have a deep understanding of the customer’s problem to pinpoint the best solutions.

The goal here is to refine the map and identify ways to boost user experience.

  1. The “How might we…?” (HMW) technique comes into play here. It helps the team structure their notes in a consistent way. Once the interview wraps up…
  2. Organize the HMWs on a whiteboard and let your team pick one that would be most useful in building a prototype.
  3. At long last, it’s target time. Let the decision-maker review the map and notes and choose a target customer, a spot on the map, or questions to be addressed during the sprint.

2. Ideate a solution

Welcome to Tuesday, also known as Sketch Day. Today’s mission is to take those abstract ideas floating around and shape them into tangible solutions you can work with.

But first, it’s time for some recon. 

You’ll need to check out what your competitors are up to in a process known as ‘lightning demos’. Have your team review comparable products on the market, or even revisit old ideas that never quite made it.

Once that’s done, your team can start sketching a solution using this four-step strategy:

  • Note-taking: jot down the goal, identified gaps, and sparks of inspiration from the lightning demos.
  • Idea generation: let those solution ideas flow and get them down on paper.
  • Crazy 8s: select the top idea and brainstorm eight unique spins on it.
  • Solution sketching: draw out a solution to the problem that best represents your idea.

3. Make a decision

By now, you’ve got a bunch of potential solutions spinning around. The next step is to zero in on the best one to form a hypothesis or prototype. 

Easier said than done, right?

So, here are a couple of methods to help you out:

  • The Sticky Method: Have each team member review yesterday’s sketches and jot down what they like and what doesn’t quite hit the mark. Then, everyone gets to weigh in on what should (or shouldn’t) make the cut for the prototype. Finally, the decision-maker has the final say on the top ideas to run with.
  • Rumble Time: And no, we’re not talking about a wrestling match. This is where you pit the top ideas against each other. You’ll end up with either a single idea for a prototype or two split ideas. If you end up with two, you’ll need to plan out a prototype for each.

You can map out this plan using a storyboard. Make sure to draw no more than fifteen frames on the board to illustrate how users would interact with the product.

4. Prototyping

Now comes the exciting part – crafting a realistic prototype to test with customers. 

The key to pulling this off? Believing that you can prototype any idea you’ve cooked up. All you need to do is create a mock-up of the idea for users to test.

So, what’s in your prototyping toolkit? 

You’ll need the right tools to bring your idea to life. Think Figma, Photoshop, Sketch, InVision, Keynote, and the like.

Next, break down the prototyping process into bite-sized pieces and hand them off to your team members. 

You’ll also want to assign specific roles within the sprint team, such as:

  • A wordsmith (better known as a writer) to craft understandable content for users.
  • An asset hunter to gather the necessary items like photos and icons.
  • A creator to whip up different components of the prototype.
  • A puzzle master, or ‘stitcher,’ to piece together the different components of the prototype.

Once the puzzle master has finished their magic, have the whole team review the pieced-together prototype. This way, they can catch any errors and ensure it’s all set for Friday.

5. Validate

Congratulations, you’ve made it to Friday! Now it’s time to put your prototype to the test with customers.

But how do you go about that? Arrange interviews with about five customers who match your target audience and let them take the prototype for a spin. Observe their reactions as they interact with the product.

Here, you can divide your team into two. Team A can oversee the interview while Team B takes notes on what’s hitting the mark and what’s missing it.

At the end of the day, gather all the notes and look for trends. Highlight the parts that were a hit and the ones that missed the mark.

Also, revisit Monday’s questions to see if they’ve been answered.

So, you’ve wrapped up the sprint. What’s next? Or rather, what should be your big takeaway from this week-long exercise?

Let’s dig into that in the next section.

The finish line: What to expect

Once your team crosses the sprint finish line, you’ll either have a prototype ready for development or some valuable insights into how to solve big problems.

More specifically, you can look forward to:

  • A near miss: You’ve pinpointed what’s working and what’s not, along with the reasons why. This sets you up to tweak and try again.
  • A successful failure: The insights gleaned from your prototype can steer you away from sinking more time and money into the wrong product.
  • A slam dunk: Your prototype hits the mark, resolving customer pain points and giving you a clearer roadmap for product creation.

No matter the outcome, your team will walk away with more knowledge from tested solutions and customer interaction than they would from mere guesswork. 🤷

And with that, we’ve reached the end of this guide.

Your turn

You’re now geared up to run a design sprint and validate ideas in a flash.

Remember when we mentioned you have to use the right tools during the prototyping phase? 

Well, you’ll need software that can streamline your workflow and save precious time through seamless collaboration.

Enter MarkUp.io, a collaboration tool designed to get everyone singing from the same hymn sheet. 

All you need to do is upload documents, share them, and invite your team to review.

Why not take MarkUp.io for a test drive? Sign up for a free trial and experience the ease of team collaboration first-hand.