Sprint Better: 8 Ways to Find Creative Breakthroughs, Faster

4 minute read

I participated in my first design sprint two years ago. Performance was struggling on one of our mobile experiences – bounce rate was higher than engagement rate. My design director at the time made an impassioned pitch to our senior leader: let us try a design sprint to create a better solution. It took convincing but eventually we got approval. We ran a design sprint. Our solution beat the champion experience by more than 15%. Realizing the value, our company as a whole made a bigger investment in UX.

Fast forward to now: I’m exhausted from running four design sprints in one month. Exhausted, yet grateful to be working in a culture that encourages collaboration.

We’ve learned some lessons the hard way, though. So, if you’re thinking about trying a design sprint, or are looking for some ideas on how to hone your UX process – here are the most important lessons my colleagues and I have learned from design sprints thus far:

1. Google Ventures methodology is just a starting point – adapt the process to fit your culture.

The biggest challenge with selling the value of design sprints to business folks? Time. The traditional Google Ventures design sprint calls for five full days of uninterrupted sprint time. At my company (and likely yours), five days may as well be five years. My colleagues Jon Aron (VP of Design) and Heather Buchma (Director of UX) quickly identified time as a pain point and experimented with ways to trim down the duration.

Now, we’ve adapted a co-creation methodology that cuts five days down to a few half-day sessions. We’re usually working on a familiar experience or within the same industry, so in-depth discovery exercises can be exchanged for a quick baseline user test or competitive analysis. We place more emphasis on sketching and voting. Instead of a fully designed solution as our deliverable, we leave co-creation with just a wireframe. The execution phase post-sprint moves faster when the designer and content strategist have a detailed blueprint to follow.

The key to any modified co-creation session? Sticky notes.

2. Not every design project is sprint-worthy.

Beware of over sprinting your team.

Creatives are kind of like greyhounds: we get tired of running in the same circle over and over.

We’ve adapted the sprint process to shorter co-creation sessions, yes. But never underestimate the value of a good ole’ fashioned whiteboard session, either. Use my sprint necessity logic:

IF there is a brand new experience that needs to be architected from beginning to end, THEN sprint.

IF there is an isolated pain point on one step of the user flow that needs to be solved, THEN whiteboard.

IF there is a new feature on an existing asset that your team is familiar with that needs to be created, THEN modified co-create.

3. Nail down business strategy first. Sprint second.

Last year, my company acquired a new digital asset. We saw immediate opportunity to re-imagine the user experience. We quickly assembled a sprint to redesign, rewrite and re-engineer the whole thing.

One year later, I just wrapped a second sprint to redo the whole redoing. Why? We sprinted too soon. Last year, everyone in our design sprint was new to the team, new to the industry, and we didn’t have a long term vision for the asset just yet. Our first solution performed well — but shortly after, the business strategy pivoted. Before you sprint, ask your business team this metaphorical question, “Does this house need to be repainted, or is the foundation compromised?” Proceed from there.

4. Facilitation is a two-woman job.

The Google Ventures methodology calls for one facilitator. It also calls for strict time limits on each activity, which makes preparing for the next segment pretty impossible for a single facilitator. (Unless your facilitator has six arms to write on post-its simultaneously.) My colleague and I co-facilitated our last few sprints to improve flow. We’ve since decided facilitation is a team sport. She’s able to facilitate one exercise while I prep the next. Or, I set the timer while she annotates notes. #Girlpower.

You know what they say: two facilitators are better than one.

5. Bring in junior talent. Bring in brand new employees, too.

Sprints are designed to solve complex problems. For that reason, I can see why some groups limit participation to the most senior or most tenured talent. Here’s why I think that’s wrong: we’re all users. And if we’re all users, aren’t we all qualified to make a user’s experience better?

Don’t box someone out of user experience just because he or she may have less professional experience.

6. Keep the guest list small.

I just told you to be more inclusive, I know. But don’t get crazy. Be inclusive, but limited. We ran a sprint with 15 people once. The logistics were chaotic, at best. Keep your group small but be sure to include people from different disciplines, talent levels, and tenures.

7. Who forgot to invite a writer? Not me.

Never. Never. NEVER, leave a content strategist or UX writer (content designer) off the invite list. UX writers have a great sense of user empathy. They can identify which steps in the flow need more information, microcopy to instruct the user or happy path vs. sad path messaging. Plus, every time you pass a wireframe off to a writer to “fill in the FPO” an angel loses her wings (and a UX writer loses a little piece of job satisfaction).

8. Is a sprint without debate really a sprint?

Nope. The goal of a sprint is alignment. The journey to alignment should include spirited, respectful debate. In a sprint environment, all ideas are welcome. Create a setting where every design sprint participant feels comfortable sharing ideas — because innovation rarely comes from the first idea. Innovation comes when an idea is proposed, challenged, modified and tested.

Last but not least, remember that not every sprint or co-creation session will be successful. Sprints are designed to solve complex problems, create alignment and unify teams. BUT sometimes, none of that happens. That’s okay! Debrief on what worked and what flopped. Modify your process. And try again.


This post was originally published on Medium.

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About the Author:

Laine Plummer | VP, Creative & Content

Laine Plummer is VP of Creative & Content at Red Ventures and a personal assistant to two toddler boys at home.

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