One of the most recommended readings from friends in the UI/UX world, Sprint (Amazon) leads you through a 5-day design challenge to quickly prototype and validate a product hypothesis. Developed and refined over years at Google and various startups, the book covers the process for running your own sprint with plenty of real-world examples and anecdotes from companies across various industries including software, hospitality, and retail.

One of my favorite things about the book is the insights learned by the author through running countless iterations and how it shaped the final form of what became the iconic sprint challenge. This book has been helpful in formalizing my own general approach to creative brainstorming — I use a faster, streamlined version I cheekily call Bolt! for developing independent side projects that have become everything from short stories to 3D visuals and interactive prototypes.

TL;DR

Monday: Decide what problem you're trying to solve and map out the entire experience which will serve as a guide for the rest of the week.

Tuesday: Research existing solutions to use as inspirational fuel and sketch out your own complete idea.

Wednesday: Decide on the best solution and create a plan of action for building the prototype.

Thursday: Rapidly build a prototype that's "good enough".

Friday: Conduct real-world user interviews to validate your solution.


What's a sprint?

A sprint is a 5-day design challenge that guides you through picking and mapping out an important problem, sketching out solutions, deciding on and planning a testable hypothesis, rapid minimally-viable prototyping and testing in real world scenarios.

What and who is it for?

It's a process for tackling really big, long-term and important problems. The kind that will affect a company 6-months to 5 years from now: the big picture, steering the ship kind. It's also for when you need to make fast decisions or are just plain stuck and don't know how to start / what to do next.

Sprints are best for a small group (7 or so) of individuals with expertise in different areas of the company along with a key decision maker or two (like a CEO).

How do I kick one off?

It's important to block off an entire week—5 days—for a distraction-free (no phones, no competing internal/external obligations) environment. With a super team assembled, you're ready to tackle the first challenge on Monday: what's the important problem you're going to solve?


Monday

The goal for the first day is to create a dependable guide that will help with deciding what important question you will solve this week.

Map

Start by mapping the user journey in its most simplified form. Who are they and how do they get their need fulfilled with your product? Highlight all key people and milestones involved. You're visualizing a simple story with actors, the obstacles they encounter in their journey and a happy ending.

Ask The Experts

Knowledge is distributed across a team, so in order to really surface the complications of real-world processes and issues it's important to hear from everyone. In a short series of 30 minute interviews, ask each participant to talk about any part of the user journey that's been mapped out. They can clarify, correct or just comment from their perspective.

How Might We

Developed by Procter & Gamble in the 1970s, and championed by creative powerhouse IDEO, HMW is an approach for taking and prioritizing team notes. With this method, everyone takes individual notes during the Ask The Experts discussions, in the form of a "How might we…" question, and at the end of the day they're merged together. The most interesting, or standout, notes help map out the target for Tuesday's work of sketching out solutions.

What makes a good HMW note?

Good HMW's come from actively listening to the other expert's in the room as they discuss and share their knowledge. Individual perspective's on the subject are a goldmine of HMW's: whether it is a curiosity or a realization about a painpoint that's sparked by someone else.

Target

Who is the most important user and what is the most critical moment in their journey/experience?

By the end of the day, the most important outcome will be on deciding what the target of the sprint will be. The map, the expert interviews and HMW questions should all serve as a guide to identifying what is the most important risk and opportunity to solve this week.


Tuesday

For the second day of the sprint, the goal is to generate well thought out, detailed sketches that illustrate possible solutions in their most complete form. That is, they walk through and provide answers for every stage and turn of the proposed user experience.

Remix & Improve

First, you'll find and share examples of existing solutions - from outside of your industry as well as internal. Each solution is presented in a 3-minute "lightning demo" where you can highlight specific elements of interest.

Sketch

This is an individual effort to take what you know, what you've learned and what you've been inspired by to propose a solution. Use the following guide to help kickstart the process:

  • Review your notes: Take time to refresh yourself on Monday's work (the questions, the interviews and the goal) as well as the inspiration from this morning's lightning demo's.
  • Rough Idea: Start to jot down or sketch a rough thumbnail of a solution. Capture the whole process / journey but don't worry about the specifics.
  • Crazy 8s: Take that rough idea and explore 8 variations of it.

Now, you're ready to tackle a refined sketch solution (read: detailed, complete not a judgement of artistic quality). Focus on a single idea, whether it's your original or a variation, and start to detail out the steps. Think about every question and every milestone that a user will encounter from the start to the end of their journey. It's important to avoid using filler text (lorem ipsum) as much as possible because that has a tendency to hide user interaction/flow obstacles.

Once you're confident that you have a solution sketched out that answers, in full, the problem laid out on Monday: it's time to put it away and get ready to revisit with fresh eyes the next day.


Wednesday

By midweek you're ready to make informed decisions on the competing solutions your super team has laid out. You'll pick the best option that solves your big problem and block out the necessary steps to build out a prototype.

Decide

Traditionally, group critiques and decision-making can quickly become unproductive, drawn-out conversations. New ideas are surfaced before old ones have have been appropriately discussed, concepts can get torn down or exalted based on the author, and so on. A more formulaic, efficient approach is to lay out all competing sketches and:

  • Heatmap: Individually mark, with a pencil or dot sticker, any and all interesting parts of each solution. No questions, explanations or any talking: the sketches should speak for themselves.
  • Speed Critique: Quickly walk through all solutions. Limit time to 3 minutes each (the creator of the sketch should not be involved in discussion until the end) as someone narrates the sketch, the team reviews and offers feedback, the creator explains anything that was missed and then a final summary is provided.
  • Straw Poll: Privately cast a vote for a single solution. After all votes are revealed, everyone gets to provide a quick explanation for their choice.
  • Super Vote: Have the Decider(s) make the final, honest choice.

Rumble

If there's more than one "winning" sketch, you can decide on whether it's feasible to prototype and test them both (a "rumble") or if you can combine the winning elements into one super-prototype.

Storyboard

You'll need to develop a plan of action to streamline the prototyping process. In about fifteen sketch frames, you'll have a story experience that walks through the complete user journey for your winning solution.

  • Opening Scene: Like a traditional storyboard, start with an opening scene: where does the user experience begin? In the app store? A web search? Social media feed?
  • Block It Out: Reference the standout ideas and notes as you block out the rest of the sequence. Don't worry about dead ends or "gaps" that may have been unaccounted for: not all buttons need to lead somewhere nor does the copy need to be precise just yet. At this point, it's not worth the time to start reinventing new ideas or solutions.
  • Decisions, Decisions: Let the Decider decide and opt for big risks versus easy wins. If a choice is straightforward and obvious to everyone on the team, is it worth confirming vs trying something new and different?
  • Are we done yet? Aim for the experience to unfold within 15 minutes. It ensures you're focused on the most important elements and they're likely to go over during real-world testing anyway.

Thursday

Today you'll exercise your team's creativity and resourcefulness to build a working façade of your solution. Like a Hollywood film set, it might only work from one or two camera angles but it will be convincing enough to sell the shot.

Fake It

In order to get a working prototype done by end of day, you'll need to shift yourself into the right mindset. This is a temporary, disposable asset - don't shy away from using ready-made, existing resources and simple tools to create your trompe l'oeil.

Goldilocks

Like the famed children's story, you're after honest reactions (too hot, too cold) from Goldilocks not feedback (I'm sorry you don't like Seafood Bisque Chowder, Goldie). This means making your prototype "just right": if the fidelity is too low, it won't be realistic enough; too high and it will be a waste of your time.

Prototype

Your prototype isn't a real product, it just needs to appear real. For a physical product, consider prototyping marketing material that will sell the device instead (like a website, video, or brochure).

Chances are high that your existing, professional tools are too good (that's right) and too slow (also right) for this. Use the following approach for creating your Goldilocks prototype:

  • Pick The Right Tools: Use slide presentation software (KeyNote, Powerpoint) or rapid prototyping software (Figma) to mock up believable, interactive websites, apps or software. For physical products, consider modifying existing objects or prototyping the marketing materials instead.
  • Divide & Conquer: Split your team into Makers (designing assets), a Stitcher (piecing the prototype together), a Writer (now is the time to be precise with the right wording), an Asset Collector (combing through resources to speed up the work of the Makers), and an Interviewer (who will write a basic interview script and lead the user testing).
  • Stitch It Together: Time for a quality check. Ensure consistency across design and content (names, dates, etc) in your prototype to keep it from feeling like a fake product.
  • Trial Run: Give yourself room to walk through the prototype and fix any mistakes before end of day. Revisit your storyboard and sprint questions.

Friday

The last day of a very productive week is an exciting look into honest user reactions that you'll use in confidently answering and solving the team's big picture problem. You'll interview 5 individuals (why only five?) in 1-hour sessions and learn from the patterns discovered during testing.

Interview

Follow the 5-Act Interview guide to lead a successful usability test:

  • Offer a warm, friendly welcome to put the user's mind at ease. Remind them that you're testing your product, not them. Finding errors or running into complications is actually helpful.
  • Start by asking context questions that gently transition from small talk and building rapport to the specifics of your problem and prototype. It provides an insightful look into how your product fits within the user's life.
  • Introduce the prototype and ask for the user's help in testing it. Reinforce the idea that you're looking for honest feedback by saying that you didn't design it (so that they're not worried about hurting your feelings). Ask them to walk through their thinking out loud as they interact with the prototype.
  • Offer open-ended tasks and nudges instead of direct commands. It's an effective and important method of evaluating natural decision making and rationale.
  • End the interview sessions by asking debriefing questions that will help the user articulate their reactions, successes and failures.

Learn

To make the most of your findings, have everyone in the group participate by watching the live interview sessions and take group notes calling out anything that they find interesting. Mark them as positive, neutral or negative.

At the end of each session, have everyone review the notes and look for any patterns that start to emerge among 3 or more users. Looking back to your questions from Monday — what can you definitively answer from today's results? What's still unclear?

You're likely to have a flawed success or an efficient failure at the end of the day, but every time, running a sprint is a win— in only 5 days, you've gained an invaluable insight into your target user and the future of your product.


LiftOff

Congratulations, you made it! You've got an ending to your story, and more importantly, the confidence to move forward knowing you're heading in the right direction.


If you're looking for more product design resources, I'm compiling a list in this blog post that you might find interesting.