Preparing For A Design Sprint

As we have written previously, the design sprint is a five-phase process to effectively answer business problems “through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers”. You can read the introductory post to the design sprint process here.


Now that we have covered the basics of this powerful process, it is time to dive deeper into each phase. After all, there are many variations of the design sprint.


Design Sprints: Like a Hammer


The design sprint is a specific tool. For the sake of analogy, let’s compare it to a hammer. Hammers all have the same basic form and usually serve a similar function. However, there are thousands of dissimilar hammers: some are heavier, some have longer handles, there are different handle grips, etc.



Ultimately, the type of hammer that is used will change based on the characteristics of a particular task. For instance, if you are doing extensive electrical work, you will likely use an electrician’s hammer, which is thinner than a traditional claw hammer with an extended head to reach into electrical boxes.


This is similar to how design sprints work. Just as all hammer variants have the same basic elements, all design sprints include the same basic phases. Nevertheless, phases may look different based on the specifics of the challenge.


For this reason, learning more about each phase and understanding a number of best practices can help one more effectively take advantage of the design sprint.


Design Sprint Preparation


“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” – Benjamin Franklin


The design sprint process is broken down into five phases that take place over five subsequent days. For some, this may be a big commitment. To ensure that the design sprint is an effective use of everyone’s time, proper preparation is required.


Finding the Challenge


Before anything else, you must identify a “challenge” to dive into. According to the creator of the design sprint, Jake Knapp, the process is an effective way to problem solve no matter what the challenge.


With vast experience perfecting the process, Jake has found that it is particularly effective under three circumstances:


  1. When the challenge is high stakes, a make-or-break situation.
  2. The challenge faces a tight deadline.
  3. Whenever the team has lost momentum and is stuck.

Although you may find some internet resources claiming that design sprints are not applicable to large company decisions or industry-specific challenges, this is not necessarily true. Design sprints are extremely versatile and, with experience, can be modified to be an effective tool in countless circumstances.


Some examples of challenges that can be solved with a design sprint: determining how to increase user retention on an online store, designing a new industrial pump for crop irrigation systems that requires less repair and maintenance, creating a management practice to deal with decreasing employee motivation. And the list goes on and on.


Not sure if your challenge could be solved using a design sprint? Leave a comment explaining the situation and we’ll offer our feedback. Chances are, our response will be yes. It might just take some creativity on your part to see the process through.


Choosing the Team


The success of a design sprint relies on the ability of the team to work well together. Jake Knapp, in his book Sprint, likes to use Ocean’s Eleven as an analogy of how the perfect design sprint team should work. The team must perform cohesively, yet each team member has an important, distinctive role to play.



Having a clear understanding of these different positions is important. So, what are these roles? Let’s start with the necessities. Without having these roles filled, the design sprint will likely fail.


  • The Decider: This is the individual who has the authority within the organization to make decisions for the team. Having at least one (and up to two) of these individuals is required to prevent miscommunication between levels of management and further warrant the results of the sprint.
    • Examples of people within an organization with this authority may include the CEO, a product manager, or the marketing director.
  • The Facilitator: The Facilitator is in charge of the design sprint, being the one responsible for managing the entire process. This person should be a natural leader who is capable of running a meeting. It is important for this person to be separate from the Decider to limit biases. Jake Knapp suggests bringing in an outsider who rarely works with the of rest team.
    • The Facilitator must get the team together and plan the logistics of the entire week. He is also commonly charged with the task of scheduling five stakeholder interviews to take place on Day 5. These stakeholders should be from the same demographic that the Day 3 prototype was designed for.
  • The Experts: These should be a mix of individuals who have a certain expertise. Some common experts to have join the design sprint team include the finance expert (e.g. CFO), marketing expert (e.g. CMO, PR), customer expert (e.g. head of customer support), technology expert (e.g. engineer), and design expert (e.g. product manager).
    • For some challenges, it may be a good idea to have more than one individual with similar expertise while limiting the number of individuals with other expertise. For example, a challenge focused on developing a marketing solution may require no design experts and two marketing and customer experts.


The team should be no larger than seven people. Often times, a team of five can be more effective due to its ability to be more agile. If the Facilitator believes that more than seven people should be included in the design sprint process, she can invite individuals to make brief appearances on Day 1 to offer their perspectives.  


And what if the organization doesn’t have five employees? Fortunately, design sprints can be completed by smaller teams; in fact, even though there are some complications, many have found ways to complete the design sprint individually.


The key is to have a team of people who, collectively, know all areas of the business that pertain to the design sprint challenge. If the two founders of a startup without employees understand the business well, then they can likely run a design sprint. However, these two founders must be aware that the system of checks and balances that form in teams of 5+ will no longer be present.


The Space


As Google Ventures does it, a design sprint occurs Monday through Friday, each day starting at 10:00 a.m. and ending around 5:00 p.m. Everyday there is an hour long lunch break as well as a short calming morning and afternoon break. On Friday, the team will gather an hour earlier than usual at 9:00 a.m.



The space where the design sprint team gathers should be a “creative space” with a lot of natural light. The room must have multiple large-sized whiteboards (don’t forget plenty of markers!) that will be used consistently by the team.


The space should also be stocked with hundreds of sticky notes, many pens and markers, and at least one large timer (Time Timers are great) to create a visual that will keep things moving forward.


Other Notes


  • Phones should be put away and laptops closed during the design sprint process. However, team members can leave the room briefly to take phone calls or send someone a quick email or text.
  • Design Sprints can fail if the problem being explored isn’t well understood. Day 1 will be all about better understanding the problem using team members’ perspectives, but this is only effective if team members have a good grasp on the problem to begin with. For some complex challenges, team members will have to gather data and do a fair amount of analysis before the design sprint begins. For example, the customer expert may have to look into years’ worth of support tickets and feedback surveys.
  • Even though the process is versatile, some challenges are not perfect candidates for a design sprint. If you are having a difficult time recruiting members to join the design sprint (i.e. the Decider), then it is likely that another, more pressing problem should be placed at the center of attention.



Preparation for a design sprint can take weeks. Often times, it is a good idea to begin planning a month or two before the actual weeklong sprint occurs, especially in larger organizations. Don’t be mistaken, preparation can truly make-or-break the entire week that lies ahead.


Once a challenge is identified and the preparation is complete, it’s time to start the actual design sprint process. Day 1, a full day devoted to goal-setting and challenge knowledge, is right around the corner.


Other Resources


As always, if you’d like to know more about design sprints, we recommend you checkout Jake Knapp’s book, Sprint. Also, check in with us as we continue to add posts on the design sprint process.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *