Five reasons why design sprints are the best way to kick off a new product initiative

Rocket Insights has been in business less than a year and we have done design sprints with over half our new clients on new product initiatives. We noticed that the projects in which we’ve done design sprints have gone smoother than those in which we haven’t done them. Naturally, we wondered why. 

So we dug in to find out. Our conclusion is that design sprints offer amazing benefits for product teams in an extremely short period of time (one week). They accelerate product development better than any other method we know of while also aligning the team to the same vision. Because of their extreme value we are convinced design sprints are the ideal way to kick off new product initiatives (and client relationships if you're an agency). Below we explain why.

Sprints at a glance

First off, if you’re not familiar with the design sprints methodology, here’s a quick overview: five days of design exercises with a clear goal and outcome each day. 

  • Research (Mon). Discussion, interviews, and presentations. 
  • Divergent Design (Tue). Sketching, mind mapping, small storyboarding.
  • Convergent Design (Wed). Voting, storyboarding of the new product flow. 
  • Prototyping (Thu). Building a testable, interactive prototype. 
  • Usability Testing (Fri). Testing the prototype. 

Design sprints were formulated by Jake Knapp and the design team at Google Ventures and grew out of their work on Google design teams and from existing design exercises from IDEO and other places. I learned the methodology from Jake, John, and Braden when I was at HubSpot (a GV portfolio company). The GV design team recently wrote the Sprint book. It’s excellent and will teach you everything you need to know to run them.

The Reasons

Here are several reasons design sprints are the best way to kick off a new client engagement. 

  1. Gets everyone involved at the start. Getting to know everyone involved on a project is extremely important, especially for an agency like ours who wants to provide high value services. This includes understanding who is the decision maker, who has product vision, who the designers and developers are, and even who to include in meetings. Some teams don’t include everyone at the start of a project but we’ve consistently found that it’s the right thing to do. Until we actually meet people and understand everyone’s skill set and how they fit into the team we can’t be the valuable partner we want to be…providing just the right skills or guidance when necessary. Sprints allow the agency and client to really get to know each other. 

  2. A flexible deliverable. The basic sprint framework calls for five days of design exercises, prototyping, and testing. But each project is slightly different and each product team is in a different place. We’ve been able to successfully alter the sprint from three days to two weeks, deferred usability testing in some cases, and changed the fidelity of the prototype we’re building based on the urgent needs of the client. We’ve found the basic sprint framework a great catalyst for the initial engagement but is also flexible enough to change for a project’s specific needs and goals. This avoids having an overly-prescriptive process while still allowing us to customize a process that focuses on our client’s unique needs. 

  3. Answers the big, important questions. Most teams struggle with focus and the design sprint is as focused as it gets. It’s a week of intense, deep problem solving. What should the product even do? Which features should be in v1? Who is the product for? Who do we not build for? What screens should we build right now and exactly what should be in them? What is the overall goal? What does success look like? Some teams go months without answering the big questions. They loom on the horizon…without any actual decision making. Sprints get rid of this problem immediately. They emphasize and reward forward progress while giving ways to shelve less important topics for later. On most of our sprints our clients have said “I’m shocked at how far we got in just one week”. It is amazing what you can do by just focusing on the important questions.  

  4. Fully aligns the team to a shared vision. This might be the best benefit of all. Design sprints align a product team in a way that few other exercises can. The developers are on board. The product managers are on board. The executive team is on board. And they’re not just in agreement, they’re all sharing the same clear vision for the future. And most disagreements have come and gone within the sprint itself so at the very least everyone knows where they stand on the important issues. Teams tend to be extremely optimistic about products as they emerge from the grueling sprint week and anxious to keep the momentum they’ve built. 

  5. High impact but low commitment. Design sprints are remarkably intense. They are a week of 6-7 hour days. That doesn’t sound like a lot until you get into them. You are constantly working, evaluating, sketching, discussing, voting, testing. You do a tremendous amount of work in a single week. As a facilitator I am exhausted at the end of a sprint. But it’s worth it. Looking at our outputs I can confidently say that design sprints are the most productive weeks we have with any client. But after you do all this work you’re done. You’ve finished and have some serious product direction. The commitment is over…and both sides can now evaluate each other. The design sprint is an excellent way to evaluate the long term prospects of working together. It’s not just good for the client to get to know us, we can evaluate the client as well and understand just how we can help them over time. And the client can ask is this an agency that we learn from and want to work with for months or years? Are they able to dig in and be a real partner for us? And, simply put, can we do good work together? We have found that the sprint is a great way to start answering these important questions. 

Sprints as an accelerator

Before we ran design sprints, we used design exercises to kick off projects and they worked pretty well. But with the sprint structure and flexibility we’ve been able to provide even more value in a very short amount of time. We’ve also been able to get to know our client really well. This has not only allowed us to produce better work, but just as importantly given us a stronger, healthier relationships as a result. While it’s a challenge to put together a kickoff process of any kind, design sprints are a great place to start and have acted as an accelerator for us and our clients.