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Innovation can often be a series of stops and starts. Creating alignment around a core business problem can take months, or even years. Many ideas head to the prototype phase with flawed assumptions or issues unresolved. Some products simply can built merely because they can be, not because they provide consumer or business value.

Design sprints provide an efficient process to uncover worthy ideas and create a path forward to development and commercialization, yet it’s critical to understand the framework to make it work properly in your organization.

The design sprint is a creative and prescriptive framework that allows five days to work through time-based exercises that occur in a certain order, so prototypes are built rapidly and tested with real-world customers. Feedback from true end-users of a new product or service is critical during the early stages of innovation. Beyond guiding innovators to market-validated ideas, this early proof helps create buy-in from the top of an organization and provides air cover to innovators as they pursue a new venture.

During a design sprint, business stakeholders and innovators collaborate to agree on a problem, find a solution, and quickly develop a prototype for a small focus group of customers. Each day results in a new deliverable such as a map, sketch, and a prototype. Ultimately, if the product is worthwhile to the small set of users who tested the prototype, the product moves forward; if it’s not, the team can pivot or kill the idea, then move on to the next idea.

Preparation

Like any innovation team, a design sprint should gather a group of employees with diverse skills. Beyond the creative team needed to generate, design and test ideas, the sprint should include decision-makers and stakeholders from the core business unit, and a team to facilitate conversation and interview customers at the end of the sprint.

While this facilitation can be done in-house, many innovation teams find it helpful to leverage outside partners to push the team outside their normal routines and thinking patterns. External innovation partners often help uncover the most actionable ideas by helping innovators shift their perspective of the core business.

The sprint will also require that you round up some experts and customers. Experts are needed to provide insight. While they won’t have to participate in the entire sprint, they can participate for only a few hours on specific days. You’ll also need 3-5 customers willing to test the team’s output for an hour on the last day of the sprint.

Day One: Mapping the Customer’s Journey

On the first day, the team maps out a journey to achieve a long-term goal. The group’s initial task is to start with the end in mind by determining the long-term goal. This is best achieved by thinking of the perfect state where there are no limits to creativity. As this is decided, questions about possible challenges will likely arise; these should be recorded to establish the tone for the types of challenges that will be discovered during the sprint.

Next, the team will visualize the customer experience by listing between five and fifteen steps. Map out these steps and then bring in the experts to identify any areas that are missing. While sharing ideas is critical, the real wins come from asking open-ended questions aimed at solving customer or business pains. You’ll end the day with a robust customer-journey map, which will ultimately help identify the greatest problem that needs a solution.

The team members will also have homework. They will need to get inspiration by identifying competing products created within and outside the industry.

Day Two: Sketching Solutions

The second day consists of a series of exercises intended to encourage ideas from the team and create a solution as a group. This begins with each team member sharing the products they’ve found that can help inspire the project. Meanwhile, a team member captures these thoughts on a whiteboard.

After this quick exercise, the team will use sketches instead of words to create a draft of a prototype. Once the sketches are complete, each team member will post the image for everyone to see. The team will walk around the room and take notes. Afterward, each member will revise and refine their doodles.

The next exercise has been referred to as the “Crazy 8” step. It involves folding paper into 8 panels, so a solution for the greatest challenge is written into each box within one minute. All boxes are filled within an eight-minute time frame. This momentum is taken into the final activity for the day, the solution sketch. The sketch is self-explanatory and anonymous so each team member can focus more on the solution and less on how their sketch looks.

Via Google Ventures.


It’s often beneficial to do multiple rounds of this type of creative brainstorming, allowing people to get comfortable with their sketch abilities and increase the flow of creative thinking.

Day Three: Creating the Storyboard

On the third day, the solution sketches are posted and everyone will have the opportunity to walk around the room and capture notes and place stickers besides the sketches that resolve the problem or inspire a solution. The decider will have a large sticker. The team will pick a winner. In some cases, one solution sketch may be selected, multiple sketches will be selected, or parts of sketches will be merged together into one new solution sketch that becomes the winner. These sketches will create the storyboard for the prototype, which is similar to a comic book sketch. The group will have the rest of the day to refine and complete, so it can be used to create the prototype.

Day Four: Developing the Prototype

The goal for the fourth day is to develop a realistic prototype. Two steps need to occur in order to achieve success. First, the team members need to agree on the tools to develop the prototype. For instance, some team members may be familiar with software such as Keynote, PowerPoint, or Visio if the project entails creating a website. Second, each member is assigned a role in order for the prototype to be built. For example, if the prototype is a website, the task may include the site builder who creates the layout; a content collector who gathers audio, video and multimedia; and, a content writer who works with the site builder to develop the language.

A demonstration showing how the prototype functions will occur at least once before the end of the day. While the prototype can be functional, like a website, it can also be as lightweight as a survey or a mood board – as long as it can accurately gauge user reaction and interest, the team can be as flexible as it needs.

Day Five: Customer Demonstration

The fifth and final day puts the work accomplished out in the real world, to the customers identified on the first day. An interviewer or small team should present the prototype and explain the business goal the team hopes to achieve. While anyone may demonstrate the prototype – while the rest of the team watches and takes notes – it’s often helpful to have a leader or external partner with deep user experience knowledge to guide the process.

Moving Forward

It’s critical to remember the design sprint is merely a framework to deliver one thing: knowledge. Many innovators get hung up on the need to leave any workshop or exercise with a tangible product and overlook the value of knowing whether or not a product idea will resonate. While there are many ways to run a design sprint that meets the culture of your business, the objective remains the same.

If the prototype achieves the long-term objective established on the first day, then it can move forward to product development. If the results seem less than favorable, innovators can safely progress on other ideas without constantly wondering if another idea might have succeeded.

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Robert Berris is 352's SVP of Innovation. He's a writer, improv comedian and master of nunchucks. He has an unhealthy addiction to Converse shoes, and he's absolutely terrible at Excel.