Ways I've experimented with Design Sprints to make them more sustainable.

Kyle Fiedler

Design Sprints, a five-phase process pioneered by Jake Knapp and Google Ventures, are a great way to get a team working together with a shared understanding of a problem, coming up with potential solutions, and quickly testing those ideas. We’ve found the process great for products or features that haven’t been validated.

Because of the amount of new knowledge and thinking that goes into the sprint, they are draining for the entire team. As an introvert, I find these days working in the same room as 3–6 other people especially draining. Yet, I’ve found them to be the best tool for getting a base level of knowledge for the team, getting the client to think about problems and not solutions, getting a diverse set of minds ideating on one problem, and testing risks in a business. Since my first few sprints, I’ve been working to make them more sustainable for my team and me.

We should never be following any process blindly, and every sprint should be different. We should be adapting the process to fit the needs of our team, our clients, and the problem that we’re trying to solve. That even means during the sprint. If we’re halfway through the sprint and we think that we don’t need to do more, we shouldn’t.

How that’s taken shape for me

Here’s a short list of things I’ve done to make sure the sprint is sustainable for me while I facilitate and for everyone participating in the sprint:

Cut the day short

Sprints should be 7 hours max. Since I’m more of a morning person, I like starting around 9 and ending between 3 – 4 pm. This includes the prototype and test days. I’ll let the client know before the sprint that these are intense days and that they’ll be tired as well. I set their expectations that while we’re not working a typical 8-hour day, they’re getting higher quality because of it.

Be aware of scope creep

One of the ways I would dig myself into a hole was planning on prototyping something more than I can handle in those 7 hours. But the scope creep has a broader impact than that. It means we’re talking about more possible ideas during the sprint and we’re learning and trying to understand more. A prototype shouldn’t have to be more than a handful of screens. I use the problem statement to curate the conversation so that we never grow the solution to more than I can prototype in a day.

Understand what the participants want to get out of the sprint

If they are looking for a prototype to take to get funding, I’ll skip bringing in people to run interviews on the last day and spend two days prototyping. If they’re fuzzy on what they’re trying to solve for, I’ll conduct more interviews and focus more on testing our collective assumptions. The best way to figure this out is to ask. I start each sprint by asking what success looks like to everyone in the room.

User interviews before the sprint

These usually take the form of Jobs-to-be-done switch style interviews. These give me some time to learn about the problem space, the context people are in, and helps me understand the desired outcome before we head into the sprint. I’ll have the entire team join me in these to start to build a collective knowledge base. Similar to the interviews at the end of the sprint, seeing them firsthand has a bigger impact than reading summary or watching a recording.

Delegate other responsibilities

The seemingly small task of note-taking turns into a much larger task while facilitating the sprint. I’ll ask someone in the sprint to document our process for me while I’m facilitating. This person not only records notes and photos during the sprint but also is in charge of adding them to our Trello board after our days are done.

Focus on facilitation

My participation isn’t nearly as meaningful as making sure I’m facilitating as well as I can. If the design sprint doesn’t have the strong opinions of a designer, I’m ok with that. I’m seen sprints fail because the facilitator wasn’t focused on leading the team through the sprint. Conversations get drawn out, exercises aren’t fully explained, people are confused about next steps, and the goals of the sprint were’t clearly defined.

Frequent breaks

I try to have a 30 minute break in the morning, hour break for lunch and 30 minute walk in the afternoon. Breaks should be a quiet time for people to catch up on other work or go off and reenergize. Breaks are not meant for more talking about the sprint.

Expedite my preparation

I’ve prepped enough times to cut down on the time I need to get ready. But I do admit that this has come with running more than a handful of sprints. After your first sprint, try to see what you could do better up front to set expectations and prepare yourself. Instead of reading through all of Sprint again, just use the schedule they have in the back of the book or our guide to refresh your memory. Use tools like our Trello board during the sprint and don’t be afraid if you need to take a minute to re-read instructions during the sprint to get the exercise right.

Hydrate and exercise

No matter how tired I am, I force myself to exercise at the end of the day, this could be something as simple as a long walk with my dog. After sitting in a room all day you need the exercise. I find that this minor thing helps me recharge mentally for the next day. During the sprint, I try to drink a lot of water. It’s easy to focus so much on the sprint that I forget to drink. I keep a pitcher of water in the middle of the table with a few extra cups to make sure everyone else is doing the same.

The caveat with experimenting with the sprint process is that they depend on all the variables that go into the sprint. What is the problem, who is the team, what time do you have together. Some of these experiments, like hydrating, are really low risk but others could have a bigger impact on the results of the sprint. Be intentional about how you experiment with the format and how you implement the changes and be aware of any negative impact that experiments might have on the success of the sprint.

Have you experimented with different ways to make sprints more sustainable for you? Let us know on Twitter what you’ve found successful!

Want to learn more about the way we run design sprints at thoughtbot? We’re running a workshop in Raleigh-Durham in conjunction with American Underground on November 9th. Join us!