Design sprints – Google Ventures Style

Let’s dive sprint straight into this entry.

Last week I had the pleasure of experiencing a five day design sprint for the first time. If you haven’t heard of design sprints before, this quote sums up the process quite well:

“The sprint is a five-day process for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers”

That’s all well and good, but in reality, I wasn’t entirely sure what these sessions actually involved. I’m hoping this blog entry will help clarify how I found the sprint experience. I’ll hopefully communicate whether I thought they can work for anyone, someone or no-one. After all, we’re not all from multi billion dollar organisations such as Google.

Some background

This sprint formed part of project that FreeAgent are working on currently. Unfortunately, I can’t go into much any of the finer details of what we were actually discussing. However, I can say that if it all comes together, there is the possibility that FreeAgent could be implementing something incredibly powerful into their product. As a consequence, we’re hoping for an increase on our already high levels of satisfied customers.

It’s also important to mention that we were working alongside experienced “sprinters” Create Future in their offices in Leith. They were an impartial voice in the process and helped us to keep heading in the right direction.

Day 1

The first day of a sprint is aimed at defining a goal for the work you’re doing. We began by figuring out what the end of the customer journey would be. This may appear counterintuitive, but it’s a good way of setting out key milestones preceding this end point. You know where your North Star is and aim for it.

From this end point, we work back and forth along the aforementioned timeline. This allows us to identify key touch points that we’ll have with the customer. This is fairly simple in practice. We stick post it notes along a timeline. That’s it. These post-its are created by the people in the room who (hopefully) have knowledge of what we’ll be building.

From here, we’ll be able to identify which parts of the journey will be most reliant on the FreeAgent product reassuring, communicating, explaining or handholding the user.

Once these post its were up, the team in the room had a clearer, more aligned vision of what we were trying to build.

Following on from this, we used a sprint technique called “ask the experts”. Essentially, someone who knows all (or most) of the finer, more intricate details about what we’re trying to achieve. These calls formed the best part of 3 hours. Again, they provided some much needed insight that we may have overlooked at the start of the project.

Based on the morning session and expert opinions, the group started to create a series of “How Might We” (HMW) items. The aim of these are to dream big. Again, I can’t divulge any actual information. As an example though, young FreeAgent might well have had a How Might We of:

“How might we show users how much tax they owe and when?”

Ultimately this ended up as the much loved Tax Timeline feature in the product.

The group in the room – in this case 8 of us – all wrote down their own HMW’s and these were collected on a wall. This collaborative approach allows us all to see each of the ideas from around the room. From here, we voted on the strongest ideas with little red dots. Limited to 3 dots each, you had to choose wisely. Once the votes were in, the HMWs with the most dots were transferred to key points on the timeline from earlier in the day.

These items then form the focus of the work to take place in day 2. This is where we’d start to build out on key parts of the customer journey.

Day 2

Important to remember
As the sprint goes on, the fidelity of the outputs get higher. This goes from words on a post-it on day one through to a high fidelity prototype on day five. As this is a “top secret FreeAgent mission” it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to share the final version of what we were working on. However, I can certainly explain what we did, even if there aren’t loads of pictures to accompany it.

Day two started with coffee. Once that hurdle was overcome, the group spent 30 minutes or so looking at other products and websites. The purpose of this exercise was to indicate aspects that they individually appreciated or liked.

These sources didn’t have to be relevant to the project. It was more around touches in the UI or UX that particularly tickled a fancy. Following this, each person held a quick two minute summary of their findings.

There’s huge scope for what this product could ultimately become. However, when looking at the core functionality and how it should make the user feel, the group were thinking along the same lines. I’m told that this isn’t always the case, so it felt good that we were heading in this direction.

Lightning demos - Google Sprints

Following a failed lunch order from Wagamama’s, the afternoon session began with pens and pencils in hand once more. Taking one or two parts of the journey created in day one, each person worked alone. During this time, we sketched out how we envisioned the functionality working. This exercise took about 90 minutes.

It’s important to remember the range of drawing abilities that were present in the sprint. The core part of day two is to get your ideas down on paper, regardless of how well you can or can’t doodle. Nathan (the facilitator from Create Future) was brilliant at emphasising this point to the less confident members of the group. As a result, the ideas that were coming out the end of the 90 minutes were what people were focussing on the underlying ideas and not the prettiness of the pictures.

Each person was then asked to collate their ideas and put them onto a sheet of paper. These sketches also had annotations and explanations if needed. The sheets were placed on a wall and voting took place by the group. Each person gets a few dots to vote for their favourite interpretation of the problems.

Once we’d all voted on what we liked, clusters began to appear. We went through the most clustered items to highlight key points. After which, we handed the casting votes over to the decision makers. These are the team members who have most insight into what it is we’re trying to build or achieve. They get a special (larger) dot and essentially get to decide what areas we’ll focus on in day 3.

At the end of day two, the votes had been cast. We had an idea of what we were likely to be focussing on in day three and we were becoming more aligned. So far, so good.

Day 3

This is where the prototype delivered at the end of the sprint began to take shape. Based on what the group sketched out in day two, a storyboard was constructed. There’s no picture that I’m able to post that wouldn’t give away what we’re working on. For the sake of using an example, I’ve used one from Zapier as an example and stuck it below.

Image taken from

Essentially, we construct a flow from, let’s say logging in to showing a notification based on an action. There are several touch points that might happen in the gaps in between. Getting an email, amending preferences, updating membership, changing profile picture and such like could be examples.

And that was the majority of the day really. Not a lot to write about unfortunately. We have (very) rough sketches of how the UI might be laid out on a whiteboard, and tomorrow is when we dive into Sketch to create a high fidelity prototype to test with users on day five. No pressure ๐Ÿ˜‰

Day 4

In the interests of honesty, I’ll admit, day four was full on. As the designer on the project, it was now time to create a high fidelity prototype in Sketch. I took 14 screens that had been sketched out on day three and worked on creating a high fidelity prototype. Having this ready by the end of the day was tougher than I’d expected.

The time constraint of about six hours is the total opposite of how we usually work. Sometimes creating a workflow can take months to refine. However, the purpose of these particular designs was to test the idea, and not the finer details.

Whilst there was an element of solo design working on this day, the wider team provided valuable feedback on what I was doing. It was great working collaboratively with everyone. As a result, the designs we were presenting ended up being far more believable.

Unfortunately, much like day three, I can’t really add much information about what it is we were working on. I also can’t show you the output of what we created. Instead, I can put another generic picture from the day below ๐Ÿ™‚

Day 5

Testing arrived on day five. This is the moment where various participants from across the land get to use what we’ve created and pick it to pieces. Their feedback either validates or negates the work that we’ve been doing this week

There were five test sessions, each about 45 minutes in length. Create Future facilitated the sessions as an impartial voice. The logic behind doing this was that the participants would be more open and honest without the fear of offending a FreeAgent opinion.

Testing participants at the Google Sprint

The sessions were loose in structure, allowing conversations to flow. There were also basic questions that we were keen to get answers to. Examples included:

  • “How do you feel about the language? Is it too formal/informal?”
  • “What would you do now?”
  • “Do you know how much you currently pay?”
  • “How do you set up your projects at the moment?”

Having a variety of participants available to use was really beneficial. There are varying levels of abilities who use the FreeAgent software. Some are happy with change and technology. Others – not so much.

The feedback that we got from these people will allow us to see where on the line of “crazy advanced” and “super basic” we sit. It’s then up to us to build something that appeases these views.

What’s next?

While the sprint might have finished, the work certainly hasn’t.

The outcomes from the five days this week will inform the next steps that we take in the project. The Create Future team will put together a report summarising what we found. This report will then inform what we look for in another sprint taking place in a couple of weeks. Should be fun!

How did I find sprinting?

If I was asked to sum up the overall experience, I’d give it a solid 10/10. The amount of work covered this week, whilst intense, has been amazing. Every person involved in the sprint has been really invested in the process.

It genuinely feels that the group are now far more aligned as to what we’re trying to achieve. At the start of the week, that wasn’t the case. Thats pretty good in my opinion!

Thanks for reading ๐Ÿ™‚