Why Steve Jobs would have Loved Design Sprints

Steve Jobs, arguably the best technological innovator of the last 50 years, would have loved design sprints. He would have loved them not for their structure or process details but because they are a tool that allows teams to do what is most important when trying to innovate: Focus.

How do design sprints help you focus? By validating and invalidating product ideas quickly.

The Real Value of Sprints

You see, that’s the real value of design sprints. Contrary to popular belief, the goal of design sprints is not to create a v1 of a product…the deliverable is not necessarily the first prototype of the product the team should build. Instead, the most valuable deliverable of the week-long sprint is an answer to the question: “Is this product idea worth investing in?”

We’ve been running design sprints for three years here at Rocket, and have had lots of success with them. We’ve used them to test new product concepts, design new onboarding flows, and even test integrated hardware/software experiences. When we started using them we sold them as a great way to get the first prototype of a product…with which we could then build on if it was successful in usability testing. Sprints are also a great way to kick off a new product initiative. While that is still mostly true, it’s not how we talk about them now. We now talk about them as the best way to validate (and invalidate) product ideas.

Teams Have Too Many Ideas

Most product teams actually have too many ideas. Their problem is instead focusing on the right ideas. Specifically, how do teams take all the ideas they’ve been mulling over for years and figure out what exactly to build? They’ve got teams of smart people with dozens of creative ideas about what they could build. They hold brainstorming sessions and offsites to generate these ideas, and in general product people just naturally generate many more ideas than they will ever be able to build.

A client recently explained this problem in the following way: “I’ve got teams of brilliant people…but there is no alignment. Everyone has their pet idea that they want us to build but without a very clear product vision we simply spin our wheels…with everyone holding out hope that their idea will at some point be chosen as the one we’re going to pursue. The end result is that we have a pile of ideas and no agreement on which one to build.”

This is actually a great situation to run design sprints because with every sprint the team can say confidently “Yes” or “No” to one of these ideas. We have started to work with teams in this way. We take their list of product ideas, refine and remove duplicates and ask for as much detail as possible, and then we help prioritize which ones to test. It’s a much easier ask to have people prioritize which ones to test than it is to ask them which ones to kill.

Invalidating Ideas is Valuable

And the end result is that at the end of each sprint the team knows if a given idea is worth pursuing. On a recent client project I ran a design sprint that, frankly, wasn’t very exciting. We went through the week and ended up on Friday with a product prototype that nobody was really excited about. The people who used the prototype thought it was interesting but not compelling, and in our debrief we decided that the product idea wasn’t worth pursuing. We left that meeting a little deflated. I was worried that the morale of the team was down because I knew that two of the team members really, really wanted this idea to work. They were emotionally invested in it and so I thought that they might take it hard.

The next Monday I received a surprising call from the product lead. He was not only upbeat, he was excited. He said, “Listen, I thought the sprint was a failure when we left that meeting on Friday. But over the weekend I realized that it was actually freeing. We said NO to this idea we’ve been carrying around for not only months, but YEARS. And by killing that idea my bosses are happy and my team can now focus on next best idea. So I estimate that that sprint actually saved us several hundred thousand dollars in wasted effort and energy…future effort and energy we can now put toward something really valuable.”

So this was the lesson: Invalidating product ideas is just as valuable as validating them. Because when you invalidate an idea it allows you to clear it from your books and allows you to innovate faster by focusing on those ideas that are validated.

Jobs on What Innovation Really Is

And that brings us back to why Steve Jobs would have loved design sprints. When asked for advice on innovating, Jobs said,

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you've got to focus on. But that's not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I'm actually as proud of the things we haven't done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying "no" to 1,000 things.

So don’t be afraid of saying no to product ideas. The faster you can say no, the faster you can say yes to the right ones.

Learn everything about sprints in this workshop

On March 15, 2018 we're hosting Jake Knapp (creator of design sprints) here in Boston for a full-day, in-depth design sprints workshop. It's a perfect way to uplevel you and your team to ensure that your sprints are the most effective they can be.

Design Sprint Workshop with Jake Knapp