Mia Nygrén

By Mia Nygrén


It was to be business as usual, just another kick off for a software project. The day started early as we commuted to a regional city to meet our client for the first time. It was obvious from the very beginning of the meeting that things were… well, off their normal trajectories. Often we get to meet ICT Managers with specified shopping lists and readily defined solutions that do not address real problems. This time was different. We were greeted by a diverse cast representing the whole company: the management including Managing Director and Sales Director shared the same table with the ICT department and representatives from supporting functions, customer support and sales. It was obvious the client clearly understood the prerequisites of a successful project. And even more: we weren’t confronted by ready-made-ideas, but were rather provided with problems. This was definitely an ideal candidate for a Design Sprint!

Design Sprint is a Google Ventures framework for rapid prototyping. It is five days of intense work and requires commitment from every participating individual. If you aren’t yet familiar with the framework, please get acquainted. The following explains the things we have intentionally done differently, how we have possibly failed, and why we still believe the Sprint is a useful tool for building trust and strengthening dedication. It may also teach the client a thing or two about service design in the process.

0. Planning makes perfect

The great thing about the Design Sprint framework is that it provides the Facilitator with actual step-by-step instructions how to guide the team through a Sprint week. But it’s not as easy as it might seem – remember to prepare yourself. Sprint days can get truly hectic filled with fast-paced exercises and you can’t facilitate plausibly with a guidebook in your hand. We noticed that mental rehearsals help a lot. Go through a whole day’s schedule in your mind beforehand and try to identify the tricky parts where plan B’s might become useful. It’s also important to keep the schedule, the big picture and the Sprint goal in your mind all the time. On the other hand, one shouldn’t take too much stress but instead feel free to enjoy the ride. Even hard work feels much nicer if the team gets along well – so make sure that everyone else is having a good time too.

1. Prepare for the worst and make it up as you go

As said, one should always prepare for the unexpected. However, we faced the Murphy’s Law at its grimmest. On Monday morning we were told one of the participants couldn’t find anyone to temp her, so our team size was decreased to 5. And furthermore, our Decider exited during lunch break due to a family emergency. How did we cope? We had prepared for one absence and asked the substitute to step in. The role of Decider was also easily recast. And as there were two of us responsible for running the Sprint we decided the other one could join the Sprint team as a representative for the customer POV. This proved to be a sound decision as it worked well in interfering the social balance of the team.

Monday’s decisions travel far. The goal for the Sprint is decided and clarified on Monday. It will guide the team through the week. Write it on the wall! It will be your guiding beacon when the discussion steers off the path. If you end up substituting team members, make sure everyone understands their new role and responsibilities.

2. Working alone but together

The second Sprint day is for sketching. Depending on the participants’ background, the day can also be quite challenging for the Facilitator. We all can draw, but for some reason constructing our ideas on paper is not easy for most of us. This is where the Facilitator’s role in guiding, inspiring and encouraging is vital. Strong, extrovert people tend to take the stage and make it up as they explain. Now they have to concentrate on a little bit of paper. As if the drawing part itself is not tricky enough, your team should now be able to forget all the old conventions and “we have always done it this way here” stuff and think outside of the box. This is where different kind of brain twister exercises like “Crazy 8’s” become useful.

3. Remember the Goal

Wednesday is for big decisions. It was also about heated discussions and raising voices. We had finally touched on something! The results of previous days’ work is hung on the walls and the Decider has to make an informed decision: What will the prototype contain? As the day drew to the end, relief was apparent on most faces. We had managed to draw a solid storyboard for the prototyping.

4. Realistic or convincing?

The framework allows one day for delivering a convincing prototype for Friday’s interviews. Often people participating in Sprints are not familiar with professional design and prototyping software. This is why we originally brought in two designers. The other one could still do facilitating as the other prototypes with full speed. Also, we worked during previous evenings building a template document for the design. On Thursday morning we had the building blocks for a prototype ready. The fidelity of the prototype is something that should be discussed early on. If you aim for a realistic prototype - something your test group on Friday aren’t capable of telling from the real thing - you’ve got to prepare beforehand. Maybe even bring in extra people to do the visual design and prototyping.

5. Take testing seriously

We felt the need for an unbiased point of view and introduced an external user researcher to the project. This was necessary as we were all very involved in the decisions leading to the prototype. The Sprint team pre-wrote the manuscript for the interviews during Thursday and the researcher finalized it by editing it to the correct format.

There’s only room for five people in the Friday’s test group so choose carefully. To get valuable feedback the testees should be people who could actually use the service in the real life.

You’ll feel enormous relief as the Friday afternoon draws in. The week has brutally consumed all your mental powers. This seems to apply not only to the Facilitator but to all team members. Before ending the Sprint, do a quick recap and prepare for a more thorough debrief after a good night’s sleep.

What you have gained is something special. You might have validated your concept and should be ready to take next steps with it. Alternatively, you have managed to save loads of money by dismissing unworthy ideas early on. You’ve had the chance to observe and learn how your team plays together, which is very valuable for the future. Everyone in your team has taken a crash course into the problem at hand. The client now knows a bit more about design and the designers have gathered exceptional insight on client’s business.

Regardless of all the blood, sweat and tears that go into the sprint, it is a very efficient way to solidify a designer-client relationship and establish common ground on which to build on in the future.

Your Passionate Designers, Laura Toimela & Mia Nygrén


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