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Making 5-day designs sprints more user-centred

If you could choose one super power, what would it be? The power of flight so that you could ditch the commute? The power to control people’s minds so that you could get your boss to give you that long overdue pay rise? The power of X-ray vision so that… er, moving on. Personally, I’d go for precognition — the ability to see into the future. Imagine, not only could you make a killing at the bookies, not to mention the stock exchange, but you’d always know which products and ideas are going to take off long before they do. You could build a Facebook before Facebook, a Twitter before Twitter. You could wow your friends by telling them that you’d been creating flat designs, long before flat designs were a thing. You would always know which designs are going to work, and which ideas will win out. You wouldn’t be any old designer, you’d be a super-designer.

Alas, precognition will always remain science fiction, rather than science fact. However, there is one fantastic tool that can help you look into the future. Well, sort of. That tool, is called the design sprint. It won’t be any help when it comes to choosing who to back at the Super Bowl, but it will help you to answer critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with users.

Design sprints are nothing new. Sure, they’ve become cool and trendy of late, but designers have been carrying out rapid design sprints for decades. Don’t believe me? Checkout this charming video from 1998 featuring IDEO undertaking a design sprint (although they call it a ‘deep dive’).

There is no set recipe for carrying out a design sprint, but ever since Jake Knapp and Braden Kowitz of Google Ventures shared their 5-day design sprint method (outlined in detail in their excellent book called Sprint) this has become the design sprint de-facto standard. Jake and Braden describe their design sprint as, “a ‘greatest hits’ of business strategy, innovation, behaviour science, design thinking and more — packaged into a battle-tested process that any team can use”. I’m a big fan of a lot of their process, and would certainly recommend getting hold of a copy of their book. However, at the back of my mind there has always been a niggle. Call it the curse of the UX designer, but I’ve always felt that their 5-day design sprint process is not as user-centred as it could be. Let me explain.

The usual 5-day design sprint

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The usual 5-day design sprint process as popularised by Google Ventures

Day 1 (Monday)

Day 2 (Tuesday)

Day 3 (Wednesday)

Day 4 (Thursday)

Day 5 (Friday)

What’s wrong with that?

Good design is built on the solid foundations of insights, and those insights are best served piping hot directly from users. Having direct insights can make it much clearer which part of a problem to focus on, along with which possible solutions are most likely to work best. Equipping the team with first hand insights can also greatly aid the ideation process, not to mention build collective empathy with users.

To give them credit, Google Ventures do recommend interviewing users before design sprints, but this is work outside of a design sprint, which is always much harder to factor in. Not only are the entire sprint team unlikely to be involved, but because the target of the sprint has not yet been chosen it can be hard to determine the insights required and the best approach to do so.

A more user-centred 5-day design sprint process

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A more user-centred 5-day design sprint process

Day 1 (Monday)

Having agreed the problem and domain to tackle, the afternoon should be spent rapidly collecting insights. This means getting out of the office and interviewing and observing users, and generally finding out as much as you can in a very short period of time. It can be useful to pre-arrange activities, such as user interviews, and it’s a good idea to split the team up to cover more ground, pairs usually work well. Focus on the biggest unknowns and the most important user tasks. These insights will help inform the next 4 days of the design sprint.

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Rapidly collect user insights to help inform the next 4 days of a design sprint

Day 2 (Tuesday)

In the afternoon, you’ll choose the target of the design sprint, review some existing solutions out there and start to come up with ideas of your own. You’ll typically want to focus on a key part of the user journey, or a promising opportunity, such as an unmet user need. Dot voting can be a good way to help chose the target. For example, everyone might be given 3 little sticky dots to stick on the area(s) they feel should be the focus of the design sprint.

Having agreed the target of the design sprint (and collected lots of insights for said target) the team should spend a little time reviewing and discussing existing solutions. These should include solutions from within the domain, but also outside. For example, interesting ideas from other industries and domains that could be applied here.

Armed with lots of insights, and examples from existing solutions, the last job for the day is to rapidly come up with some ideas of your own. Framing the problem as a ‘How might we..’ question can help. For example, how might we improve the checkout experience for supermarket shoppers? Design games such as Sketch Storming and World’s Worst can be a great way to come up with lots of ideas, the more the better.

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Design games such as sketch storming can be a great way to come up with lots of ideas

Day 3 (Wednesday)

Having chosen the most promising idea the next task is to create a storyboard to start to bring it to life. A storyboard (see below) is a short comic-book style story outlining how a user might utilise the idea. Check out these example storyboards to see what I mean.

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An example sketch storyboard by Alexandra Mevissen

Creating a storyboard is a great way to consider how the idea would work in the real world and to start to think about what will need to be prototyped in order to evaluate the idea with users. I’d recommend limiting yourself to no more than 9 panels, keeping sketches basic, and the narrative short and sweet. Take a look at Nick Babich’s The Role Of Storyboarding In UX Design article for a good introduction to storyboards.

Having created a storyboard for your chosen idea, the afternoon should be spent sketching ideas for the UI. Focus on the screens and interactions that you’ll need to prototype in order to evaluate the idea with users. A good approach is to carry out multiple rounds of sketching, and to ask people to sketch on their own before sharing with the rest of the team. For example, ask everyone to come up with up to 6 different UI ideas for a page or interaction and then to share the best 1 or 2 with the rest of the group. As a group choose the ideas that work best and iterate.

Day 4 (Thursday)

Having created the storyboard and UI sketches the day before, the team should be in a good place to prototype just enough of the design to evaluate the idea with users. Just enough means just enough fidelity, just enough functionality and just enough screens and interactions. A good approach is to consider what you’ll want to run through in tomorrow’s sessions with users and therefore what you’ll need to prototype.

Creating a prototype in just one day is a big ask. I’ve found that a good strategy is to divide the work up within the team and to allow everyone to use their design and prototyping tool of choice (I tend to use Axure or Sketch myself). You should aim for medium fidelity designs. Don’t worry about creating pixel perfect mockups, but equally I don’t think that showing users some simple sketches is anywhere near as insightful as getting them to interact with something more realistic.

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Use your favourite tools of choice to rapidly create a prototype

Day 5 (Friday)

Running a full day of user testing-like sessions can be hard work, so it’s a good idea to share the workload, or even to consider splitting out into sub teams in order to run more sessions. Where possible pre-arrange sessions beforehand and make sure that you’ve invited a good cross section of your users. Agree the structure of the sessions within the team and try to ensure that scenarios are as realistic as possible. Rather than passively presenting the design to users you should be getting them to actively experience the design first-hand. Take a look at my Usability testing hints, tips and guidelines article for more advice about running user sessions.

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Evaluating designs with real users will tell you which designs are working, and which are not

Tips for sprinting in style

1. Don’t’ try to compress a 5-day sprint into 1,2 or 3 days

2. Start at 10:00 and finish at 5:00 pm (17:00)

3. Keep the design sprint team as small as possible

4. No laptops or mobiles in the room

Conclusion

See also

Image credits

Originally published at www.uxforthemasses.com on March 6, 2018.

Written by

Former techy turned UX Jedi. Checkout out my blog (UX for the Masses) for more about me.

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