Taking a “People First” approach to design sprints

by Sam Stevens - Principal UX Consultant at cxpartners
| minutes read

The concept of the design sprint has been around for some time now, in a recent Q+A with Morgan and Sam they discuss how organisations can use this way of thinking to their advantage. We have consciously designed new ways of thinking at pace, helping to leverage everyone working remotely, including asynchronous working and ensuring everyone has a voice.

1. Morgan Korchia: We’ve run numerous Design Sprints within the Sopra Steria Innovation Practice, what is it that makes a cxpartners design sprint different?

Sam Stevens: We like to call our approach “People First Design Sprints”, which means doing exactly that. Not only do we place the end-users at the heart of the problem that we are trying to solve, but we also ensure that we take a “team centred” approach by making sure that the needs of the sprint team are considered throughout. 

This has been extremely important through the last 3 months as everyone has been juggling the balance of work and home life, whilst also recognising other elements of a team dynamic. For example; we recognise that some people are early risers and prefer working in the morning, some are night owls who prefer to burn the midnight oil and some are simply having to juggle the challenges of homeschooling! We like to think of this approach as “asynchronous working”.

Our approach to design sprints enables exactly that. It provides opportunities for check-ins and collaboration with the team, allowing the whole team to get their heads down to explore and create ideas.

One of our other differentiators in our approach is that we will start our design sprints on Fridays! I am going to assume you’re thinking it sounds crazy, but it really works!  From our experience, kicking off a design sprint on a Friday consciously designs more thinking and reflection time into the process. It allows the team to immerse themselves into the problem and then creates time and space for ideas to permeate over the weekend. 

The second big difference is that we don't constrain our approach to a set amount of time, like the conventional Google Ventures Design Sprint created by Jake Knapp back in 2010. Although Knapp’s process offers a very structured approach, we’ve learnt that constraining a design sprint to 5 days doesn’t always work for our clients. It can be difficult for key stakeholders to block out their diaries for 5 days, and more often than not 5 days doesn’t quite give you enough time to ensure the sprint team is clear on what the key takeaways and learnings from the process are.  

With all of this in mind, our approach thinks about design sprints as a set of tools and techniques, rather than a set amount of time. What this allows us to do is to create a bespoke approach recognising that the problems we are trying to solve are all slightly different and require a different way of thinking.

2. Oh, that’s interesting! I always thought of a Design Sprint as a well-defined approach firmly set in stone. Do you think that a more flexible approach is more suited to the current context? 

Absolutely! We just have to think about how we approach a design sprint in a slightly different way as we are all now working remotely. I believe that covid19 has given us all a nudge to think about how and where we work, and to attempt to iron out some of the issues we may have experienced in the past. 

What the current situation has prompted us to do is to focus on the aspects which we can approach in a different way. For example; we are now able to bring “local experts or other inclusion representatives” into the process completely remotely. This adds a new dimension to the sprint, whether this is about diversity and inclusivity during the concept testing phase, or subject matter expertise which brings a unique perspective on the market or sector we are working in. Better still, this can be from somebody anywhere in the world.


3. The current context is full of challenges and opportunities, ideas are bubbling everywhere. When would be a good time in an idea lifecycle to think of running a design sprint?

Right now couldn’t be a more relevant time to use design and research as a tool to help de-risk decision making and provide evidence for change. Whether you have an idea on a post-it,  a known problem which causes friction within a user’s journey, or you want to totally rethink the essence of your product or service offering, a design sprint could be used to help your organisation explore a clear route forward. 

At a time of such uncertainty, we are seeing organisations re-invent themselves quicker than ever before. It has accelerated the dependence on digital technology and new methods for interacting with consumers which may not have even been considered in the past. 

As a consultancy, our work can typically be categorised into three broad phases; exploring problems, piloting ideas, and building ready to launch solutions. A design sprint will most naturally fit into the first two phases as these are more focused on discovering opportunity areas and shaping ideas, which creates the perfect environment to nurture ideas.  They help to bridge the gap between insight (useful, but still only insight) and action. We know how difficult it can be to make decisions about what to actually do off of the back of insight, and a design sprint will use design and experimentation to explore the answer.


4. To be honest, a week-long Zoom meeting sounds like hell to me. How do you manage to run engaging and productive Design Sprints with everyone working remotely right now?

I couldn’t agree more! I'm sure our collective use of Zoom has increased dramatically over the last 3 months and there are a lot of us that are now actively trying to avoid creating Zoom meeting fatigue! 

There are some really great tools out there, like “Miro”. This enables us to create a virtual workspace where we can all collaborate throughout the project, accessible anywhere at any time. Individuals who make up the sprint team  can work when they feel most productive and keep an eye on how things are progressing throughout the process. I referred to this earlier as “asynchronous working”. This is about enabling the project to benefit from the “hive mind” when the team comes together to discuss ideas, whilst also recognising the gains from individual working and allowing people to noodle away on ideas in the background. 

In order to achieve this way of working, we design in a series of check-ins where the team all has time to discuss things, and also consciously design in thinking and reflection time, providing the space to go elsewhere and work on ideas before checking back in with the team.

One of the other observations from remote work is that it provides everybody with the opportunity to have a “voice” in meetings and group discussions. We have developed our approach to accommodate both introvert and extrovert ways of working and maximise the benefit of everyone working remotely.  Everyone working from home is a real “leveller” for teams, and a big step towards reducing the HiPPO (highest paid person's opinion) effect, helping to ensure that the whole team is able to make decisions based upon evidence from research, not just opinion.

5. Sounds great. So if I am correct, you’re offering to get the idea I wrote on a post-it this morning ready to market in a week then? Where do I sign?

Not quite I’m afraid, as a design sprint forms just one part of the design process. However, what it will do is help validate the idea that you captured on a post-it note, explore further potential solutions and test how well  they resonate with your users, whilst generating excitement about how the outcome of the design sprint could form part of your broader product roadmap - now, next and in the future.

As part of our practice at cxpartners, a design sprint is just one of the tools that we use to drive creativity within the organisations that we work with, helping to de-risk and provide evidence for change. We recently worked with ATG Tickets to explore how they could encourage their audience to share their personal details, and they started to see the impact of the process immediately. Not only did it enable the product team to investigate a number of different ideas at pace, but it also raised the profile of design thinking and problem solving around the organisation. 

Do feel free to get in touch to find out more or take a look at “People First Design Sprints” here.