Why is the “product design sprint” an innovation booster?

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Digital is synonymous with innovation, whether linked to technology, experience or marketing. The innovative approach of course existed before the digital revolution. If not we would still be hunter-gatherers living in caves. But innovation is at the very heart of the digital domain, especially as the explosion in technology continues to open a field of opportunity and almost unlimited uses. In this context, “design thinking” methods have revolutionised classic innovation, traditionally based on technical R&D, by putting human experience and usage at the heart of the value-creating process. 

Express innovation

Among the design thinking methods, the “design sprint” has draw attention since Google Venture, then the Google Design Studio, remixed and packaged it under the name of the “product design sprint”. It is a design thinking method condensed into five days, resulting in giving shape to an idea through a prototype and confronting it with target users. Partially promoted by Jake Knapp, Partner at Google Venture, the sprint has been used by major digital success stories such as Slack, Airbnb, Uber and Nest. But also on much more “mortar” projects such as Blue Bottle Coffee, a chain of US coffee shops which has totally reinvented the customer experience through the sprint.

The magic of the formula lies in the fact that it successfully combines two apparently conflicting goals: making innovation concrete reality and doing things (very) fast. This five-day lead time, sometimes condensed to two days, continues to bewilder a good number of experienced designers and digital experts. Is it really possible to find an innovative solution to a serious problem and thus create value? And sceptics see the sprint as an improved hackathon or intensive “brainstorming” week more designed for team building than inventing a new product or service. Yet the design sprint does deliver. 

Why does it work? The number of companies that have experimented with the design sprint is constantly growing, whether they are start-ups throughout the world, web giants or major corporations based in traditional activities. The Sprintstories.com website, moderated by Google Venture, brings together these varied and fascinating cases that help us understand the versatility of the method. The secret of the sprint lies in 4 key points: 

1. Time management focused on productivity

In a large company’s time frame, five days are very short. How can anything conclusive be produced so rapidly? It is precisely that urgency that is the driving force as it conveys a compelling goal. A realistic prototype needs to be proposed to users to validate a concept. For that, creative time is concentrated and there are no hypothesis validation meetings, management presentations and formalisation phases in order to go to the essence of the idea through a realistic prototype. This time management obviously depends on the rigour and talent of the moderator who needs to coordinate the team’s work, keeping a firm but subtle eye on the clock. 

2. The balance between individual and collective work

This is the biggest benefit of the sprint: On the 2nd day, participants are asked to individually sketch as many ideas as possible. They will be collated, voted on silently and shared. The concept with the most natural high potential will therefore emerge. This individual work generates lots of ideas without the interference of other people, as in the case during a traditional “focus group” where the natural leader overshadows other contributors. The pooling phase sometimes remixes concepts to offer something even more innovative.  

3. Creative pleasure accessible to all

Once the creative fibre within each participant has been unleashed, everyone feels the pleasure of inventing something concrete and this experience takes them out of their daily routine. Better: as co-designers, it is like their “baby” and they will become very active vehicles to move their project forward.

4. The decisive encounter with users

This is the heart of any user-centric method and the sprint’s moment of truth. It is probably the moment where the most time can be saved as user-testing has demonstrated that six users can detect 85% of improvements. For a decisive test, a realistic and interactive prototype needs to be built by the end of the 4th day using simple prototyping software like Marvel or Keynote. During the test, the consultant’s professionalism is key so as not to interfere in the meeting between product and users. They need to show their neutrality, empathy and perspicacity to understand and interpret users’ reactions. 

First step

And after? The sprint will often be the first step in a digital innovation project. If it is decisive after positive feedback from user tests, it may be followed by a more in-depth business, technical and organisational study. It may then lead to other sprints to obtain an experience and a perfectly finalised product concept. After this, the actual technical performance stage will be implemented. If user feedback is not conclusive, it means that usage and user issues need to be further examined to provide a good solution. In any case, the sprint will have avoided embarking on a project that would not have given satisfaction but would have generated a major workload. 

It is perhaps possible to apply Nelson Mandela’s famous maxim - “I never lose. I either win or learn” to the product design sprint.


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