How to Jumpstart Innovation via Design Sprints

By Ivan Nunez

February 7, 2017

Have you ever participated in a committee of committees tasked with developing the next viable product or service for a business?

If so, you’ve likely suffered through the scheduling of never-ending rounds of meetings across weeks and months. You’ve probably been frustrated by ridiculously long email threads and perhaps questioned whether you’re all wasting time heading down a dead-end street.

You’ve probably wondered if there’s a better approach to innovation. Well, there is.

A design sprint is an innovation process that compresses long ideation, design, and development cycles into just five days.

Businesses today operate in highly competitive environments. As a result, new products and services must be relevant and timely. The traditional (and slow) approach to business innovation is not only a drag, it’s also a liability.

Nimble businesses use design sprints to answer critical business and user-experience questions quickly. Each iteration, or sprint, explores solutions through ideation, rapid prototyping and testing. The goal is to test a creative solution early, discover its strengths and flaws, and begin refining it. This reduces the cost (and frustration) of long design and development cycles and allows for challenges and mistakes to be uncovered much earlier in the process.

Here’s How a Design Sprint Works

A five-day design sprint consists of brainstorming ideas, selecting the best idea, creating a prototype, and testing with users. But before we look at each phase, there are a few preconditions to consider.

To be successful, a design sprint has to be well-defined, and it needs to be preloaded with a certain amount of research.

For example, Azul Seven recently worked with a financial institution that already had determined it wanted a web-based solution to educate consumers on home financing and give them a collection of mortgage tools. (They could have used an earlier design sprint to help arrive at that conclusion, as well. But the point is, the challenge for our sprint was well defined.)

Before beginning the design sprint, we conducted in-depth interviews with homebuyers to develop empathy around the challenges they face in understanding and applying for mortgages. From the interviews we developed a set of well-defined user profiles (personas) and business requirements to guide the design sprint.

In addition to gathering solid user research, assembling the right team is also important for a sprint. A design sprint team needs to be interdisciplinary and it should include (at least) the following:

  • a decider
  • a user advocate
  • a technology specialist
  • an advocate for marketing and business goals

At Azul Seven, our creative lead is the decider. Our user-experience designer is the user advocate. Our developers are the technologists. And our account managers look after marketing and business goals.

Ready, Set, Sprint!

The first day of a design sprint is dedicated to mapping the user experience.

On the financial institution project, we used the researched personas to create journeys illustrating how people experience researching and applying for a home loan. These illustrations helped us see areas of difficulty and key points of interaction.

Then we use post-it notes to highlight the key points in the journey and to capture “how-might-we” questions to elicit ideas. For example, one such question was, “How might we educate users on basic mortgage terms while they’re interacting with the application form?”

Capturing questions like this creates a good set of starting places for innovation. Prioritizing the starting places is done as a group exercise as the final task of day one.

Sketching, Negotiating, and Deciding

The second day is the most fun. It’s dedicated to sketching ideas.

We use a number of methods to facilitate rapid and creative sketching. Quick sketching, for example, is when team members are challenged to draw eight ideas in just five minutes, or to draw the ideal experience from start to finish as a storyboard. The goal is to quickly and intuitively pair our prioritized starting points with visual ideas and tangible concepts that can be prototyped. Each person in our sprint team is responsible for creating at least one solution sketch.

By the third day, the team has a stack of sketch solutions. At this point, sketch authors explain their solutions to the team. Through discussion and negotiation, the team selects top solutions, and the decider ultimately picks the one approach that will move forward into prototyping. The rest of the third day is dedicated to working out a list of key elements the prototype should include to be tested.

Rapid Prototyping

The fourth day is dedicated to prototyping. This step takes a variety of forms, depending on the level of detail needed for effective user understanding and testing. For example, a prototype may be a quick set of hand-drawn wireframes, storyboards, role playing, or a detailed diagram created in a graphics program. Whatever form it takes, the purpose of the prototype is to create something that can be tested with users.

For the financial institution project, we created a prototype set of page schematics that included key functionality. We made the schematics clickable using an online web-prototyping tool that allowed us to gauge users’ understanding of the mortgage platform and observe their interactions with it.

Share the Prototype and Get Feedback

User testing takes place on the final day of the design sprint. By testing with actual users, we uncover hidden requirements and find dead ends and potential pitfalls before investing in development. Ultimately, the goal is to learn where a prototype fails and where it succeeds. We do this by watching users interact with the prototype and recording their impressions. Then, the sprint team synthesizes the feedback and organizes it in themes or patterns that will drive refinements to the prototype or answer strategic business questions.

Completing the design sprint typically moves the innovation process forward by leaps and bounds and provides a foundation of proven user understanding (rather than best guesses) from which a team or business can continue building with confidence. Because the process is swift and active, it’s also great for morale by eliminating weeks or months of frustrating discussions.

To learn more about how design sprints could benefit your organization, contact Azul Seven.

Want to learn more about design for innovation or biomimicry?

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