UX and Agile: How to Run a Product Design Sprint

In order to remain competitive, product teams are being asked to decrease time to market and “think like a start up.” UX/CX teams are feeling increased pressure to simultaneously improve user experience and better integrate with Agile development processes. If this sounds familiar, a Product Design Sprint may be the solution to the challenges you’re facing.

In this first article of a series exploring how to apply UX principles in an Agile environment, I will walk you through a collaborative UX design process. This can be performed either as a stand-alone effort, or as part of a larger Agile development process once user stories and architectural frameworks have been defined.

What is a Product Design Sprint?

A product design sprint is a five-day series of interactive exercises (or workshops). They take a product, service or feature from initial design idea through prototyping and user testing. It’s a process that orients the entire team around a design and aims their efforts at hitting clearly defined goals.

This process is a useful starting point when kicking off entirely new products, features, workflows, and businesses. They are also ideal for solving problems with an existing product feature or service.

The good news is it’s not all work-there’s a lot of fun involved. The process involves drawing, collaborating, discussions, healthy debate, critiquing, voting, laughing and crying (sometimes experienced during user testing). Your team will experience a clear sense of accomplishment throughout the duration of the sprint and will come out of the process with actionable results.

Where did this originate?

The Design Sprint process, created by Google Ventures, is rooted in the Design Thinking mindset.

Basically, Design Thinking is a structured way for product teams break out of the mold of corporate processes. It’s about involving the perspectives of the user, business and technology, to provide a way to create the “next big thing”.

It challenges us to:

  • Agree on the problem we are trying to solve
  • have empathy for our target audience (and each other)
  • test our concepts
  • look for objective feedback
  • iterate

The Product Design Sprint evolution

A Product Design Sprint is made up of 5 phases: Understand, Diverge, Decide, Prototype, and Validate/Learn. These closely align to the phases of a typical Design Thinking process of Define, Research, Ideation, Prototype, and Choose.

The Product Design Sprint is even more attractive because it provides a practical, efficient approach without having to endure the rigor of overly ambitious Design Thinking processes. It allows large organizations to “think like a startup” without sacrificing the core “Design Thinking” principles of empathy, insights and iteration.

Getting Started:

Setting up a Product Design Sprint is straightforward. You will need to recruit four to eight key decision makers. These can be a mix of execs, product managers, technology/engineer, designers, UX folks, marketers, or anyone else with a vested interest.

Try to limit participation to the key players. The more participants, the longer each activity takes. This will result in a less dynamic, rapid, experience and outcome. Also, since key decision makers are involved from the start, the risk of the project being derailed by a descending viewpoint is greatly reduced.

You will also need the following:

  • A lot of 3×7 Post-it notes
  • Black felt markers or sharpies. (Nice, fairly thick markers are ideal so ideas stay quick and rough)
  • Whiteboards
  • Whiteboard markers
  • Dot stickers for voting (These can be found here)
  • A ream of 8.5 x 11 Paper
  • Interval timer – (A BitTimer App is ideal)
  • Removable adhesive putty for hanging sketches on a wall without damage. – (These can be found here)
00-supplies

Make sure you’re well-stocked with supplies for the design sprint.

Schedule the team and clear everyone’s calendar for the designated five consecutive days. Also, a dedicated room with lots of available whiteboards for the duration is a must.

As the facilitator, make sure to do some basic reconnaissance work. Dig into any existing product background info and competitive landscape. Review any existing user research. Also, familiarize yourself with team members and their roles so you know whom you’ll be spending the next 5 days with.

Day 1 – Understand

Goal:

Understand who the target audience is. Come to a common understanding of the goal and business opportunity for the sprint. Agree upon what success will look like and how it will be measured.

Why:

Aligning your team with the user’s needs from the beginning helps the team empathize with the user’s perspectives and challenges throughout the design process. Establishing a common understanding of the goals enables everyone the ability to put some skin into the game and contribute. It will empower everyone in attendance to be part of the decision making process.

Activities:

  • Define who the users are
  • Define the problem
  • Create a glossary of context-specific terms so everyone is clear on language.
  • Define the Value Proposition (why will people pay for or find useful?)
  • Review and discuss any existing related research
  • Discuss and review the competitive landscape
  • Review any related, aspirational design examples
  • Discuss the differentiator(s) required to make this product unique?
  • Capture any key notes as well as any assumptions/unknowns so they can be addressed and referred back to.
  • Create a Problem Statement.
  • Identify what success metrics to measure.
  • Identify and schedule potential candidates for user testing on the last day of the sprint.
product design sprint for challenge sprint

An example of a Problem Statement.

Day 2 – Diverge

Goal:

The purpose of these activities will be to generate insights and churn out many possible solutions to address the Problem Statement.

The team will explore as many ways of solving the problems as possible, regardless of how realistic, feasible, or viable they may or may not be.

Why:

This phase allows the team to get some hands on experience with ideation and envisioning through the magic of constraints. Through the use of timed mind mapping exercises, low fidelity sketching and storyboarding sessions, these tools will get everyone expressing their ideas in a rapid, visual way to explore and experiment. Setting time limits for each activity allows the team to rapidly diverge on potential solutions. It will result in throwing away bad ideas early, converging on the stronger ideas, avoiding unrelated tangents or wallowing on specific details.

Activities:

  • Individual and group Mind Mapping (10–15 minutes)
  • Rapid iterative individual sketching or “Crazy 8s” (5 minutes per round)
  • Storyboarding(10-20 minutes per round)
  • Silent Critique and vote (5-10 minutes)
  • Repeat
Crazy 8s-product design sprints

Individual sketching activities, also called “Crazy 8s” gets the entire team generating a lot of ideas really quickly.

Day 3 – Decide

Goal:

Define a minimal viable product and decide what to test and prototype.

Why:

Not every idea is actionable or feasible. Only some will fit the situation and problem context. Narrowing down the design to the most viable solution and understanding where the team still has questions defines what to validate.

Activities:

  • Gather a list of the most viable features based on the previous day’s critique and voting results
  • Identify conflicts
  • Eliminate solutions that can’t be pursued
  • Hone the list down to a minimal viable product
  • List out assumptions
  • Identify how each assumption will be tested
  • Create a prototype storyboard to define what needs to be prototyped
04-storyboard-and-dot-voting

An example of a storyboard

Day 4 – Prototype

Goal:

Build a prototype to test with existing or potential users.

Create a user testing script based on the tasks that needs to be tested and the questions that need to be answered.

Why:

Prototyping is a low cost and rapid way of gaining insights about what the product needs to be. It provides a way to work with the best ideas from the previous phases in a real and tangible way. The end results will help the team understand what is working and what is not. These insights inform the team so they can confidently invest time and effort on a more solid implementation.

Activities:

  • Prototype creation
  • Write user test script

Note: At TandemSeven we utilize Axure for many of our prototyping efforts. Depending on time constraints and learning goals, other tools such as paper (yes, plain old paper) Keynote, InVision, UXPin or simple HTML/CSS provide acceptable prototyping media.

07-assumptions-test

An assumptions and test table to help you decide how you will perform user testing

Day 5 – Validate and Learn

Goal:

Get the design in front of existing or potential users to identify what’s working as intended and what isn’t. Identify what requires deeper thought and attention.

Why:

Your target audience is ultimately who you want your product to be useful and valuable for. Their insights will provide the context to truly understand what is working or not. This will also identify what requires deeper thought and attention. By this point, the team should know if they are building the wrong product or one that your users will embrace.

Activities:

  • Observe and interview customers as they interact with your prototype.
  • Observe and interview customers as they interact with competitive products.
  • Debrief with the team of the day’s testing sessions.
Validate user testing efforts with your team

Bring in 4–6 potential users and observe them performing tasks with your prototype.

Wrap Up and Next Steps

Pat yourself on the back. You just completed a product design sprint!

In a very rapid time frame, you came to some quick conclusions about something that was just a mere thought a week ago.

So how did you do? There are several possible outcomes:

Everything went well:

Yay! Now you have some solid evidence and justification to petition for funding and/or move your design directly into a planning and production development phase

You still have some big questions:

The key here is iteration. The beauty of a design sprint is that it’s simple to jump back into the sprint as soon as you can get the team together again. The team doesn’t have to start all the way back at the beginning. Depending on the extent of the questions, feel free to jump back in at the Diverge, Decide or Prototype phase.

The idea needs massive rethinking or is just not worth pursuing:

Congratulate yourself again. If you’re going to fail, fail quickly and move on. Realize that rapidly coming to the conclusion that a design is too complex, not useful to the users, or is just plain bad, should be celebrated. The costs and effort wasted would’ve only been multiplied exponentially if this product went any further along in the development process.

Conclusion

Not every problem is a problem an organization can “design think” or “product sprint” their way out of. As UX professionals, we are often asked to cut critical parts of the UX research methodology due to budget concerns, time constraints or lack of understanding. A Product Design Sprint fills a gap that allows our clients to still work in a state of informed intuition and get actionable results.

Finally, if it’s not possible to schedule the entire sprint within a five consecutive day window, spread it across two or three weeks. Keep in mind though, by doing this, you risk losing momentum and focus from the team. If it must occur, attempt to at least schedule day one, two and three consecutively. This will allow flexibility when scheduling day four and five where it could be most needed.

Photo/Infographic credit: Photos taken by Mark Di Sciullo. Infographic Designed by Mark Di Sciullo, © 2015 TandemSeven.

In order to remain competitive, product teams are being asked to decrease time to market and “think like a start up.” UX/CX teams are feeling increased pressure to simultaneously improve user experience and better integrate with Agile development processes. If this sounds familiar, a Product Design Sprint may be the solution to the challenges you’re facing.

In this first article of a series exploring how to apply UX principles in an Agile environment, I will walk you through a collaborative UX design process. This can be performed either as a stand-alone effort, or as part of a larger Agile development process once user stories and architectural frameworks have been defined.

What is a Product Design Sprint?

A product design sprint is a five-day series of interactive exercises (or workshops). They take a product, service or feature from initial design idea through prototyping and user testing. It’s a process that orients the entire team around a design and aims their efforts at hitting clearly defined goals.

This process is a useful starting point when kicking off entirely new products, features, workflows, and businesses. They are also ideal for solving problems with an existing product feature or service.

The good news is it’s not all work-there’s a lot of fun involved. The process involves drawing, collaborating, discussions, healthy debate, critiquing, voting, laughing and crying (sometimes experienced during user testing). Your team will experience a clear sense of accomplishment throughout the duration of the sprint and will come out of the process with actionable results.

Where did this originate?

The Design Sprint process, created by Google Ventures, is rooted in the Design Thinking mindset.

Basically, Design Thinking is a structured way for product teams break out of the mold of corporate processes. It’s about involving the perspectives of the user, business and technology, to provide a way to create the “next big thing”.

It challenges us to:

  • Agree on the problem we are trying to solve
  • have empathy for our target audience (and each other)
  • test our concepts
  • look for objective feedback
  • iterate

The Product Design Sprint evolution

A Product Design Sprint is made up of 5 phases: Understand, Diverge, Decide, Prototype, and Validate/Learn. These closely align to the phases of a typical Design Thinking process of Define, Research, Ideation, Prototype, and Choose.

The Product Design Sprint is even more attractive because it provides a practical, efficient approach without having to endure the rigor of overly ambitious Design Thinking processes. It allows large organizations to “think like a startup” without sacrificing the core “Design Thinking” principles of empathy, insights and iteration.

Getting Started:

Setting up a Product Design Sprint is straightforward. You will need to recruit four to eight key decision makers. These can be a mix of execs, product managers, technology/engineer, designers, UX folks, marketers, or anyone else with a vested interest.

Try to limit participation to the key players. The more participants, the longer each activity takes. This will result in a less dynamic, rapid, experience and outcome. Also, since key decision makers are involved from the start, the risk of the project being derailed by a descending viewpoint is greatly reduced.

You will also need the following:

  • A lot of 3×7 Post-it notes
  • Black felt markers or sharpies. (Nice, fairly thick markers are ideal so ideas stay quick and rough)
  • Whiteboards
  • Whiteboard markers
  • Dot stickers for voting (These can be found here)
  • A ream of 8.5 x 11 Paper
  • Interval timer – (A BitTimer App is ideal)
  • Removable adhesive putty for hanging sketches on a wall without damage. – (These can be found here)
00-supplies

Make sure you’re well-stocked with supplies for the design sprint.

Schedule the team and clear everyone’s calendar for the designated five consecutive days. Also, a dedicated room with lots of available whiteboards for the duration is a must.

As the facilitator, make sure to do some basic reconnaissance work. Dig into any existing product background info and competitive landscape. Review any existing user research. Also, familiarize yourself with team members and their roles so you know whom you’ll be spending the next 5 days with.

Day 1 – Understand

Goal:

Understand who the target audience is. Come to a common understanding of the goal and business opportunity for the sprint. Agree upon what success will look like and how it will be measured.

Why:

Aligning your team with the user’s needs from the beginning helps the team empathize with the user’s perspectives and challenges throughout the design process. Establishing a common understanding of the goals enables everyone the ability to put some skin into the game and contribute. It will empower everyone in attendance to be part of the decision making process.

Activities:

  • Define who the users are
  • Define the problem
  • Create a glossary of context-specific terms so everyone is clear on language.
  • Define the Value Proposition (why will people pay for or find useful?)
  • Review and discuss any existing related research
  • Discuss and review the competitive landscape
  • Review any related, aspirational design examples
  • Discuss the differentiator(s) required to make this product unique?
  • Capture any key notes as well as any assumptions/unknowns so they can be addressed and referred back to.
  • Create a Problem Statement.
  • Identify what success metrics to measure.
  • Identify and schedule potential candidates for user testing on the last day of the sprint.
product design sprint for challenge sprint

An example of a Problem Statement.

Day 2 – Diverge

Goal:

The purpose of these activities will be to generate insights and churn out many possible solutions to address the Problem Statement.

The team will explore as many ways of solving the problems as possible, regardless of how realistic, feasible, or viable they may or may not be.

Why:

This phase allows the team to get some hands on experience with ideation and envisioning through the magic of constraints. Through the use of timed mind mapping exercises, low fidelity sketching and storyboarding sessions, these tools will get everyone expressing their ideas in a rapid, visual way to explore and experiment. Setting time limits for each activity allows the team to rapidly diverge on potential solutions. It will result in throwing away bad ideas early, converging on the stronger ideas, avoiding unrelated tangents or wallowing on specific details.

Activities:

  • Individual and group Mind Mapping (10–15 minutes)
  • Rapid iterative individual sketching or “Crazy 8s” (5 minutes per round)
  • Storyboarding(10-20 minutes per round)
  • Silent Critique and vote (5-10 minutes)
  • Repeat
Crazy 8s-product design sprints

Individual sketching activities, also called “Crazy 8s” gets the entire team generating a lot of ideas really quickly.

Day 3 – Decide

Goal:

Define a minimal viable product and decide what to test and prototype.

Why:

Not every idea is actionable or feasible. Only some will fit the situation and problem context. Narrowing down the design to the most viable solution and understanding where the team still has questions defines what to validate.

Activities:

  • Gather a list of the most viable features based on the previous day’s critique and voting results
  • Identify conflicts
  • Eliminate solutions that can’t be pursued
  • Hone the list down to a minimal viable product
  • List out assumptions
  • Identify how each assumption will be tested
  • Create a prototype storyboard to define what needs to be prototyped
04-storyboard-and-dot-voting

An example of a storyboard

Day 4 – Prototype

Goal:

Build a prototype to test with existing or potential users.

Create a user testing script based on the tasks that needs to be tested and the questions that need to be answered.

Why:

Prototyping is a low cost and rapid way of gaining insights about what the product needs to be. It provides a way to work with the best ideas from the previous phases in a real and tangible way. The end results will help the team understand what is working and what is not. These insights inform the team so they can confidently invest time and effort on a more solid implementation.

Activities:

  • Prototype creation
  • Write user test script

Note: At TandemSeven we utilize Axure for many of our prototyping efforts. Depending on time constraints and learning goals, other tools such as paper (yes, plain old paper) Keynote, InVision, UXPin or simple HTML/CSS provide acceptable prototyping media.

07-assumptions-test

An assumptions and test table to help you decide how you will perform user testing

Day 5 – Validate and Learn

Goal:

Get the design in front of existing or potential users to identify what’s working as intended and what isn’t. Identify what requires deeper thought and attention.

Why:

Your target audience is ultimately who you want your product to be useful and valuable for. Their insights will provide the context to truly understand what is working or not. This will also identify what requires deeper thought and attention. By this point, the team should know if they are building the wrong product or one that your users will embrace.

Activities:

  • Observe and interview customers as they interact with your prototype.
  • Observe and interview customers as they interact with competitive products.
  • Debrief with the team of the day’s testing sessions.
Validate user testing efforts with your team

Bring in 4–6 potential users and observe them performing tasks with your prototype.

Wrap Up and Next Steps

Pat yourself on the back. You just completed a product design sprint!

In a very rapid time frame, you came to some quick conclusions about something that was just a mere thought a week ago.

So how did you do? There are several possible outcomes:

Everything went well:

Yay! Now you have some solid evidence and justification to petition for funding and/or move your design directly into a planning and production development phase

You still have some big questions:

The key here is iteration. The beauty of a design sprint is that it’s simple to jump back into the sprint as soon as you can get the team together again. The team doesn’t have to start all the way back at the beginning. Depending on the extent of the questions, feel free to jump back in at the Diverge, Decide or Prototype phase.

The idea needs massive rethinking or is just not worth pursuing:

Congratulate yourself again. If you’re going to fail, fail quickly and move on. Realize that rapidly coming to the conclusion that a design is too complex, not useful to the users, or is just plain bad, should be celebrated. The costs and effort wasted would’ve only been multiplied exponentially if this product went any further along in the development process.

Conclusion

Not every problem is a problem an organization can “design think” or “product sprint” their way out of. As UX professionals, we are often asked to cut critical parts of the UX research methodology due to budget concerns, time constraints or lack of understanding. A Product Design Sprint fills a gap that allows our clients to still work in a state of informed intuition and get actionable results.

Finally, if it’s not possible to schedule the entire sprint within a five consecutive day window, spread it across two or three weeks. Keep in mind though, by doing this, you risk losing momentum and focus from the team. If it must occur, attempt to at least schedule day one, two and three consecutively. This will allow flexibility when scheduling day four and five where it could be most needed.

Photo/Infographic credit: Photos taken by Mark Di Sciullo. Infographic Designed by Mark Di Sciullo, © 2015 TandemSeven.

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2017-06-06T15:37:48+00:00