It’s Thursday morning. Seven Zoom call participants are desperately trying to reach a hairdresser, florist, or local shopkeeper to invite them for a conversation. The COVID-19 lockdown is still preventing lots of these small entrepreneurs from doing business, so there is a slight chance to arrange a spontaneous chat after one of our interview partners has cancelled a meeting.
We do have a special request. We, a small interdisciplinary team at Kleine Zeitung, want these business owners test a new digital product — one that didn’t exist in this form three days earlier. It’s a tool designed to enable hundreds of regional businesses to be featured on the Kleine Zeitung home page, selling their shops and products.
After finally securing this last-minute, one-hour user test — one of five in total — and conducting it in the afternoon, the seven of us have the feeling we were on to something. We had developed an idea, sketched and prototyped a product, and already field-tested it on the market after only four days. Now we feel ready to incorporate the feedback and already develop a much better product.
All of this during a worldwide pandemic without being in the same room for just a moment. “To date, I have never had the feeling that I have gained so many concrete ideas and insights in under one week while having such an interdisciplinary team involved in the process,” said Jakob Logar, head of the digital sales department at Kleine Zeitung and the decider of the first design sprint.
We did this using a framework called the “design sprint,” and we advise you to give it a try as well.
What is a design sprint?
The design sprint is a creative framework by Jake Knapp, product designer and bestselling author of “Sprint.” When he started working at Google in 2007, Knapp strived to fundamentally improve the way he and his colleagues worked. He tried to involve people from various fields of expertise in brainstorming sessions at the start of a project.
Eventually, he had the same problem with unstructured brainstorming that most companies have: During the sessions he conducted, a large number of seemingly great ideas were generated by shouting out spontaneous thoughts leading to great spirits among the participants. However, the resulting ideas rarely found their way from the whiteboard into implementation, and the best working ideas in the field still came from somewhere else.
As McKinsey, one of the world’s most influential management consultancies, put it in its sales pitch for concept sprints: “Companies don’t have an ‘idea’ problem; most companies have plenty of good ideas. But they do have a ‘get the idea to market’ problem.”
Knapp went on to explore the reasons his sessions didn’t work out the way he wanted and eventually found some adjusting screws he could tweak. The result of his years of experience is the design sprint. This is a framework that leads teams from a gut feeling or hunch of how things might work to an already user-tested prototype in only five days.
The main idea behind the design sprint is to take a shortcut after coming up with an idea by skipping expensive building and exhausting discussion only to launch a minimal product in order to gain some sort of market feedback. Within the sprint, the team creates a shared hypothesis and develops a simplistic prototype to verify it at the end of the week with real user feedback. Each day is scripted and meticulously planned to get the most focused results possible.
I encourage you to watch this 90-second video in which Knapp himself roughly outlines the whole process. Though originally sketching out a five-day process, there is already a design sprint 2.0 that allows the same results in only four days of focused work.
At Kleine Zeitung, we also used this narrowed-down version designed by Berlin-based design agency AJ&Smart in co-creation with its original inventor.
Why we did a sprint
The way we interact with digital products has changed dramatically in recent years, both in B2B and B2C. Thus, the way we ideate and develop products has changed as well. Product development has become a discipline on its own, and publishers slowly but steadily become tech companies with big design and development teams in-house and more people thinking about the perception of the container rather than the content.
An interdisciplinary view is vital for bringing all the people working on a product into the discussion from the earliest point possible. To involve as many viewpoints as possible for a new product for the Kleine Zeitung advertising market, we decided to take a different approach this time.
“If we want to compete with Google, Facebook, Spotify, and company, we have to embrace new approaches to solve our product challenges,” said Sanda Loncar, head of product development and a member of our first sprint team.
So, we decided to give the design sprint a try. But we still faced a major problem: We were in the middle of a pandemic, and frameworks that rely on up to seven people sharing thoughts in a room with sticky notes for several days do not play well with this fact.
How we did a remote design sprint
It’s the beginning of 2021, and nobody is supposed to work together in a small room. They certainly shouldn’t be in crowds around whiteboards where sticky notes are examined and swapped.
But guess what? These are core features of the design sprint. Though every one of us is used to working from home now, doing the whole sprint process while sparkling enthusiasm and motivation through the group was quite a new challenge.
We had to think about other ways to pull this off aside from already well-known collaboration software like Zoom or Teams. Fortunately, there are already terrific products (perhaps they were also invented in a design sprint?) available on the market for running digital workshops. And there are already great explaner videos on how to transform the sprint into a remote experience.
After researching some of the solutions available, we picked Miro as the main tool of choice to make the sprint work from everyone’s home.
Miro is basically a digital whiteboard space that can take up any size you want. It is equipped with features like group voting (and there are many of them in the design sprint) and timing. There is a free trial available but it comes with some limitations and I encourage companies to unlock the paid features of it when doing a real sprint.
Strict facilitation is one of the major success factors in sprints. The timer function and the ability to make everybody follow your movements on the board as a facilitator is a pretty big deal when navigating through a complex environment like the one you are going to need for the sprint.
There are other useful collaboration tools out there, like Mural, for example, but what we especially liked about Miro was the great selection of already-created templates that you can use for your next creative project.
Preparation is key. If you are the facilitator of the next design sprint in your company (and you probably will be, if you have been reading for so long): don’t just focus on the preparation of the sprint process itself. You must also adapt to think and act quickly when it comes to questions on the subject matter. Plan at least an hour-long interview with the decider of your sprint beforehand to get an in-depth feeling for the subject and the problem itself.
If you really make yourself comfortable with the topic itself, try to phrase your own sprint question beforehand and even try to draw the user story map yourself once. This prepares you for all eventualities that may come up during the discussion. It also helps guide the group in one direction during the decision-making process.
Another tip: As a participant in a design sprint, the key is to fully block out the time for the sprint in your calendar. The mental challenge is huge and you don’t want to be answering e-mails or phone calls on the side.
In the end, the most important learning for all of the team members was that the process just works — even when you do it with a remote team. And not a single person in the room had ever participated in a design sprint. “What impressed me most is the quality of the insights gained from the process and the direct feedback from one specific target audience,” Logar said.
There is no reason why you shouldn’t try the technique yourself. And if you are scared to sacrifice four days for a process that you have never gone through yourself, look at the lightning decision jam first. This is a powerful technique using a lot of the principles from the design sprint to get your team from a collectively identified problem to a prioritised list of solutions in just an hour.
Check out AJ&Smart’s explanation above on how to do the remote lightning decision jam if you want to try the method yourself.