What is a design sprint?
Design sprints are a highly effective, structured way for companies to test and validate new ideas and uncover creative solutions to challenges with new or existing products. During a sprint, a company’s stakeholders collaborate to answer critical business questions through a series of design thinking exercises, prototyping, and user testing—before they invest millions of dollars in developing a product based on nothing but their own assumptions. While design sprints can certainly be beneficial, their outcomes are very dependent on design sprint planning and facilitation.
That’s where the role of the design sprint facilitator really comes into play—but what exactly makes someone good at the job? Here’s what we’ve discovered as a result of our own experience.
First, let’s clarify what a design sprint facilitator does. A design sprint facilitator’s role is to facilitate intensive workshops to develop, test, and validate ideas for new or existing products.
At Checkmate Digital, our design sprint facilitators start this process by leading a two-day workshop at the beginning of each design sprint. The workshop involves a series of exercises—most of which last no more than 10-15 minutes—which are intended to help clients come to a consensus on the challenges they need to overcome. The facilitator is not there to come up with their own solutions; their job is to extract things from the group, leading clients to develop their own ideas. Because the exercises are very structured and time-sensitive, a design sprint facilitator needs to be present to manage both the people and the process, and keep things on track.
A design sprint facilitator plays an integral part in the sprint process. They help guide the design sprint process as a whole to ensure the group reaches the solution they’re looking for. That’s why it’s so important that they’re good at what they do. That said, how do you know what makes someone a good design sprint facilitator? Successful facilitators usually have the following 5 things in common.
Prep work is crucial to the overall success of a sprint—which is why the best design sprint facilitators are thorough and detail-oriented. It’s always a good idea to kick off the design sprint planning process with a call. This conversation, which is usually with the “decider” (primary decision-maker) appointed for the group, is an opportunity for the facilitator to ask very specific questions to prepare for the first day of the design sprint workshop. For example, questions about the client’s product, users, challenges they’re facing, and where they gather inspiration from all help the design sprint facilitator better prepare to lead the group.
Day one of the design sprint focuses on aligning the group internally and making sure everyone is on the same page. In most cases, both the client and the facilitator already have an idea of the direction the sprint will go, mainly based on concerns or issues they’ve expressed about an existing product or a new product idea. That said, simply making it a point to align the team on the direction of the sprint from the very beginning can make all the difference in the end.
It’s most important that the group is aligned internally on the most pertinent problem they’re facing—and it’s the facilitator's job to help them figure out what that problem is. While there may be multiple issues or uncertainties at hand, a good design sprint facilitator will help the group hone in on one. Generally speaking, once the team solves for the main problem, it trickles downstream and resolves other issues.
At its core, facilitating design sprint workshops is really about managing people. Technical aspects aside—like knowing how to manage the timing and activities—an effective design sprint facilitator is skilled at understanding and empathizing with different personality types from multiple disciplines and backgrounds. He or she is tasked with helping everyone feel comfortable in what can be a very uncomfortable process. This is especially true for people who aren’t used to the format or who find conceptualizing abstract ideas on paper to be very overwhelming.
Because day one of a design sprint is particularly ambiguous—sketching out ideas and potential solutions doesn’t happen until day two—exercises may seem random or weird to clients. This is where the facilitator’s job is to explain, reassure, and help them trust the process, regardless of how unfamiliar the approach may seem. If a facilitator doesn’t establish trust from the beginning, it can derail the entire workshop and change the atmosphere quickly.
The best design sprint facilitators are naturally intuitive, with an ability to read the mood and pick up on how people in the room are feeling. They can recognize when people need a break or when they’re starting to feel frustrated, and know how to handle any skeptics that interfere with the workshop’s progress. Because the process is so intensive, part of managing the room is expressing and enforcing a strict “no device” policy. It’s important that everyone is respectful of the rule in order to minimize distractions and stay on track—and even more important that the facilitator ask someone to step outside if they do need to take a call or answer an email.
However, not everyone is well-equipped to enforce this policy; it requires a certain level of confidence to tell executives not to answer important phone calls. design sprint facilitators usually ask if anyone in the group has any critical calls they may need to take. Rather than interrupting an exercise for that call, the facilitator can plan a 5-10 minute coffee break for the entire group during that time.
After the design sprint ends, a facilitator can really go the extra mile by celebrating the client’s wins and reminding them how much they’ve accomplished in a five-day period. In just a week’s time, the client either validated or invalidated an idea—all based on real feedback from targeted users. Recognizing this and calling out what they’ve achieved is a great way to end the design sprint on a strong note.
Got ideas that you’d like to bring to fruition? A design sprint might be exactly what you need to validate your new product idea. At Checkmate Digital we believe that collaboration leads to better products, faster. If you’re mulling over a new product idea, we’d love to hear about it! Get in touch to chat about what you’re working on and how we can help you bring that vision to life.