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How to Conduct an Effective Design Sprint

A design sprint is a methodology used to validate ideas through design, prototyping, user testing, and collaboration in only five days, offering a more structured, practical approach to creative thinking.

In other words, a design sprint helps you realize whether your idea is worth putting hard work into and if it will be able to survive in the market today. It is a 5-day process used to validate ideas.

Warming Up for the Sprint

Design sprints might be intense, but they’re also incredibly insightful as long as the process goes smoothly. To ensure that the sprint process is smooth, proper planning is required.

Recruiting the Team

While running a design sprint, your first objective is to clarify the problem that needs solving and recruit an aligned team to conduct the sprint.

To summarize:

  • A facilitator, ensuring that the team stays on track

  • A customer service representative for user insight

  • A designer for designing and UX

  • A developer, for their understanding of any technical limitations

  • A marketer who determines if the solution possesses a market value

  • A decider who has the final take on decisions

Remote Teams: Good Equipment and Surroundings

All team members should be in a inclusive environment. An internet connection and microphone are a pre-requisite.

If some team members are in-house while others are remote, consider purchasing a conference microphone (an omnidirectional microphone that sits on a table).

Once we check every item off this list, we’re all set to start our design sprint on Monday. It’s worth noting that due to the natural time constraints of design sprints, everyone on the team should understand the design sprint process beforehand.

Day 1: Map

The first day of the sprint is dedicated to reverse-engineering the problem. Reverse engineering is deconstructing the problem to understand its root cause (and, in turn, the solution).

Reverse-engineering the Problem

After agreeing on a long-term target (e.g., to increase signups), draw a customer journey map on the whiteboard that depicts the various ways that users might reach this target. Place the users on the left side and the target on the right, then write down all of the steps in between. To keep the whiteboard somewhat organized, the facilitator should draw the map while the rest of the team suggests ideas. This process will set the foundation for the rest of the design sprint, so we should take our time here.

A customer journey map made with Mural, a digital whiteboard.

Before moving on, the facilitator will discuss the customer journey map with each team member individually, tweaking it if necessary.

Creating “How Might We” Notes

The next step is to add How Might We notes (HMW for short) on the whiteboard. Where each step in the customer journey is likely to come with its own stumbling blocks, HMW notes are formulated as a “How might we…” question on a sticky note—for example, “How might we make the signup form easy to use?” These stumbling blocks are opportunities for improvement and will determine the direction of our MVP design.

The ideal HMW question isn’t too broad or too narrow.

Focusing on a Specific Customer Journey

We’ll need to organize the HMW notes by similarity and consolidate them, as we don’t want our whiteboard to become too cluttered. With a cleaner whiteboard, assign each team member two votes to decide which HMW notes should be a high priority.

If the team is using Mural, take advantage of their built-in voting tools. Strawpoll is also a decent alternative, or if the team is using Slack, Polly can be installed in seconds.

Polly allows teams to vote quickly on anything in Slack.

Once the voting is over, add the winning HMW notes to the customer journey map and discuss which journey to focus on for the rest of the sprint (other journeys can be explored in another sprint at another time). The decider ultimately has the final decision.

Planning Ahead: Finding User Testers for Friday

During the day, a nominated team member should begin looking for user testers because, on Friday, we’ll want to test the solution that we’ll build on Thursday. It’s recommended that these interviews be conducted face-to-face or using remote user testing tools such as Lookback and UserTesting (which conveniently integrate with prototyping tools Marvel and InVision, respectively).

6–10 interviews is a reasonable amount. Schedule the interviews for about 10-ish so that there is enough time to review them at the end of the day.

Day 2: Sketch

Tuesday is about finding a solution. Get ready to start sketching!

First things first, get inspired. Most innovations are made by remixing old ideas and exploring solutions to similar problems. While the team suggests solutions to look at, the facilitator will place viable solutions on the whiteboard.

After that, each team member will choose a section of the customer journey to sketch by themselves, using a method known as The Four-step Sketch.

The Four-step Sketch

The four-step sketch approach to prototyping is designed to systematically turn abstract ideas into concrete solutions via rapid iteration. They don’t need to be perfect.

A four-step sketch is a systematic approach to sketching.

  • Step 1: Notes—start with 20 minutes of note-taking

  • Step 2: Ideas—for another 20 minutes, sketch some rough ideas

  • Step 3: Crazy 8s—sketch eight variations of the best idea, one minute per variation

  • Step 4: Solution Sketch—create a three-step storyboard of the solution, spending 30–120 minutes adding more fidelity to the chosen variation

A three-step storyboard that illustrates the suggested solution in more detail.

After completing the exercise, wrap up the day by handing over the sketched solutions to the facilitator. (Remote teams: Upload them to an InVision Project or Mural Whiteboard.)

Day 3: Decide

Wednesday is about selecting the best solution and creating a final storyboard.

Once each team member has privately reviewed the sketches, discuss each solution as a group, spending no more than three minutes per sketch. Then take another vote, this time deciding on which solution will be storyboarded and prototyped for user testing.

Next, we’ll need to prepare the storyboard for prototyping by increasing the fidelity. It’s best if the designer recreates the chosen storyboard as a high-contrast wireframe, as we don’t want to overthink the design due to our time constraints. A simple or “ugly” UI will do fine as long as the user tester is able to visualize and understand it.

It’s up to the designer to use Axure, Balsamiq, or anything else to design the wireframe. Even a design tool like Sketch or Adobe XD would be suitable, as long as we focus on the UX and choose function over form.

Day 4: Prototype

Before anything, we’ll need to confirm the interview times with the user testers. As mentioned earlier, aim to start them at around 10–11 AM so that we have enough time to review the interviews (and the effectiveness of the overall design sprint) afterwards.

Assign at least one team member (preferably the marketer or customer support representative) to write a script for the customer interview. This person will create a list of questions in a Google Sheet to ask the user tester as they review our prototype.

Scripted interview questions are to be asked during user tests. Meanwhile, the prototyping designer will begin turning the wireframe into an interactive prototype with the rest of the team’s input and direction. It’s up to the designer which tool should be used, and also depends on the tool used to create the wireframe.

For example, if Axure was used to create the wireframe, then we could also use it for prototyping, especially since we can preview the prototype on mobile afterwards.

If the wireframes were sketched on paper, Marvel offers a dead simple way to import and recreate them before turning them into interactive prototypes and conducting user tests with their Lookback integration.

If the wireframes were created in Sketch or Photoshop, the way to go would be InVision as it’s easily the most widely-adopted and full-featured prototyping app available today. It also allows for live previewing and directly integrates with UserTesting.

If created in Adobe XD, then we can also use it to create and user-test our prototype without any additional tools.

Friday: Test

Friday—the final day of the design sprint. Our prototype is ready for user testing, and we’ll start the day by making sure that the team has the prototype and script at hand.

After that, we’ll begin the interviews using the Five-Act Interview method:

The Five-Act Interview

  1. Act 1: Friendly Welcome. Make the tester feel comfortable and welcome, then explain what user testing is and why we’re doing it.

  2. Act 2: Context Questions. Ask broad questions to learn more about the user and their background, then gradually steer the conversation toward the prototype.

  3. Act 3: Introducing the Prototype. Make sure that the tester understands why something might not work as expected and that there are no wrong answers when it comes to feedback. We want to encourage honest, candid feedback.

  4. Act 4: Tasks. Let the user figure out the prototype for themselves. Ask open-ended questions to encourage the tester to think aloud.

  5. Act 5: Debrief. Ask the tester to summarize their experience. Don’t forget to thank them for their time and request that we can follow up if needed.

A Five-Act Interview is a five-step approach to conducting user testing interviews.

During the customer interview, record the answers in a Google Sheet. Once all of the interviews are complete, try to identify common insights and label them as positive, negative, or neutral. From this, we’ll be able to decide whether or not our prototype was a good solution to the problem and, if so, identify areas of improvement.

Next Steps

While design sprints won’t result in a finished product, they help validate ideas quickly and affordably, providing a wealth of insights in a relatively short time. Before wrapping up the sprint, decide what to do with the prototype.

Will we improve the prototype and conduct a follow-up sprint?

Will we tackle a different customer journey in another sprint?

A huge benefit to learning how to conduct an effective design sprint is that we can reuse the technique to develop and experiment with ideas time and time again.

End Note

It is simply impossible for any amateur team to carry these phases out to produce a product without any loopholes.

Don’t worry!

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Design Sprints as a Service

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