How to Use Design Sprints to Solve Business Problems in 4 Days, from Create&'s Gabe Arteaga

You’ve probably heard the term “design sprint” before, but you may not be aware of exactly what it means, what the process involves, and how it can be implemented at your startup. Labs mentor and Create&’s cofounder and CEO Gabe Arteaga hosted a session about design sprints—when to use them, how they actually work, and common mistakes he sees startups make during them.

What is a design sprint and when are they used?

“A design sprint is a framework for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and then validating it with your end users,” Arteaga says. “You actually put the low-fidelity prototype of whatever you're designing with your team in those four days in front of your users so you can get feedback.”

There are a few situations where design sprints are particularly useful, Arteaga says, especially “when the stakes are high, when you’re short on time, you’re running lean, or you’re just plain stuck. The beauty of this framework is that rather than taking months to try to figure out the best way to resolve your problems, you’re doing it in four days. It's very time-boxed and quick and dirty, and you actually get to the doing part.”

What are the benefits of doing a design sprint?

There are many pros to design sprints, but some of the key drivers are “wanting to save money, time, and resources,” Arteaga says. “You want to reduce uncertainty, and you do that in a design sprint because you’re getting buy-in from your customers. So when you launch your new product or service, the probability of success is greater—you’re reducing the risk of putting it out into the market because people feel like someone designed this product or service for them, which makes them more engaged.”

Another beneficial aspect of design sprints is that it’s okay to dive into them not knowing where you should start with your new product or service. “Just trust the process and you’ll by the end of the sprint, you’ll know where to start,” Arteaga says. “A lot of entrepreneurs have a really big challenge they’re facing and they don’t know where to begin. But you can tackle that in the understanding phase of design sprints when you’re doing interviews and finding out where your users come from and how they interact with your product.”

How does a design sprint work?

It’s a four-day framework, and each day is focused on a different step in the product or service design process. “The first day, you’re trying to understand the problem that you’re solving,” Arteaga says. “Then you take that information and you start sketching or jotting down ideas of different hypotheses you can test. On the second day, you actually start to decide as a group which set of problems you want to work on, and then what you’re going to prototype, or what you’re going to build,” Arteaga says. “On the third day, you’re building and on the fourth day, you’re validating and testing what you’ve built with your end users.”

“You would start by interviewing say, five individuals who are either currently using a product that’s similar to what you want to build or have been customers of yours in the past, and ask them a series of questions,” Arteaga says. “From the answers you get, you’re going to map out their ideal experience. You’re trying to find the opportunity where you can make the most impact, because you want to create customer buy-in. The design sprint actually allows you to get that buy-in because you're designing a new product or service based on what you've heard and understood from your users.”

That mapping process is key. “People don’t often do that part, where they map out the customer journey from beginning to end,” Arteaga says, but it allows you to understand the pain points and goals of everyone involved. During the session, Arteaga and his team used the example of a nonprofit trying to create a better customer service experience for voters at their polling places. If you were trying to map that journey, you’d includer the voters, but also “the precinct organizer, the director of the polling location, the volunteers, etc.,” Arteaga says. You have to think about the roles, goals, and constraints of everyone involved.

Can I use design sprints to solve any type of problem I have with my product?

It’s important to understand the scope of problems that can be solved with a design sprint. “You’re not going to be able to tackle the biggest problem that you’re having in launching your product or service,” Arteaga says. “You don’t want to start a design sprint by saying ‘I want to design a product that’s going to make me a billion dollars in the healthcare industry.’

Instead, you’re validating an assumption that you already have. “Let's say, for example, you're a small business owner and you believe that your coaching abilities are very unique, and you have a particular niche, but you are going to roll out a new product,” Arteaga says. “Maybe you're doing one-on-one sessions, but you want to start an online course, or maybe you have an idea for a book. You want to validate those assumptions that you have, so you would use a design sprint to test them.”

What are the types of exercises you do during the sprint?

There are a couple of specific exercises that Arteaga recommends to both get your teams’ creative juices flowing and get everyone in the right headspace to design a product or service that meets the needs of all parties involved.

The first exercise is designed to get your team to empathize with users on all sides of your product. Going back to the example of creating a better customer service experience at polling places, “you’d start by asking everyone on the team to describe an instance when they received terrible customer service,” Arteaga says. “Have them write it on a piece of paper, crumple it up, throw it into the middle of the table, then everyone on the team grabs a piece of paper from the table and reads it out loud. You ask the group how they think the person receiving that poor service might have felt, then ask them how they think the person providing the poor service might have felt.” They now have a better understanding of the emotions on both sides of the experience.

Now that the team is primed to design with empathy, do the Crazy Eights exercise. Have everyone on the team fold a piece of paper into eight sections, “and give them a minute per box to draw potential solutions to the problem you’re solving,” Arteaga says. “By drawing, you see a lot more avenues that you can go down compared to just describing something.” After everyone is done drawing and showing their drawings, “the group votes on which idea they like best. You should do this silently to avoid groupthink,” Arteaga says. “It minimizes the opportunity for one person to hijack the process.”

Is there anything I need to do before I start the design sprint?

As Arteaga says, it’s okay to go into a design sprint not knowing what type of solution you want to create, “but you should know your users upfront to effectively inform the solution at the end,” he says. “When people don’t really know who they clients are, that gets tricky because you don’t know who you’re designing for. So you have to spend time discovering that,” and that’s usually part of the design brief that’s created before the sprint begins. The design brief is also where you’re taking the critical step of deciding which problem you’re working through during the sprint itself.

What are the common mistakes I need to avoid?

One of the biggest mistakes that Arteaga and his team see startups make with design sprints “is not remembering the challenge they’re supposed to be focusing on,” he says. “When they’re thinking about their different ideas, they often forget what they’re designing for, and that’s a given whether you’re running a design sprint or not.” You need to stay focused on the problem at hand to make sure you come up with a solution that actually solves it. “You need to constantly remind yourself and your team of what you’re trying to accomplish,” Arteaga says.

The other issue to be aware of is groupthink, or making decisions as a group in a way that reduces individual opinions and responsibility and as a result, leads to less creativity. “It’s not helpful, because when it happens, it’s usually just the loudest person who’s idea moves along,” Arteaga says. Whether it’s asking the group for anonymous feedback on ideas or voting silently on their favorites, doing what you can to minimize groupthink will help ensure that the best ideas win.

This post is based on content from a WeWork Labs programming session.

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