In addition to facilitating Design Sprints for larger enterprises, I mentor and coach smaller companies, including non-technical founders just getting started. These early-stage entrepreneurs often come to me hoping that I can help them determine which vendor to select to build their MVP. This is the point where I begin telling them about Design Sprints and rapid prototyping.
While a full blown 5-day Design Sprint is not always appropriate for an early stage venture, rapid prototyping and testing with real users is essential to controlling costs. Most startups these days are aware of lean startup techniques and are focused on customer discovery techniques. Once they have confidence they genuinely understand the problem space and have validated their hypothesis on the customer pain, I see them quickly jumping to build their MVP before they’ve done any solution validation. Rapid prototyping is a quick and reliable way to perform this critical solution validation.
When considering Design Sprint for an early stage company, think about the number of potential participants and the amount of upfront research that you have completed. If there are only two employees, advisors, or other stakeholders working on the project, a full 5-Day Design Sprint isn’t necessary. Likewise, If there are enough potential attendees but there has been lots of upfront research, and a possible solution is already in the sites, a shortened process may be more appropriate.
If a full Design Sprint is not appropriate or someone is only ready to test the waters, I advise beginning with a simple three-step process. Spend as much time on each step as you feel comfortable and feel free to take breaks between steps as needed.:
Step 1 — Decide & Storyboard
Review your solution in detail and build a storyboard.
Step 2 — Prototype
Build your prototype
Step 3 — Test
Test with five users
In late August I got a call from a local Austin entrepreneur who was the co-founder of a successful Austin startup and is currently in stealth mode with his original co-founder. He was calling to ask me for advice on hiring engineers. They had just finished a deep dive into customer discovery and were excited to put their learnings to the test as an MVP. Rather than helping them recruit engineers, I quickly jumped into explaining the Design Sprint process to them. He hung up the phone and bought the book. When he and his co-founder came to the Austin Design Sprint Meetup 10 days later, they had already gone through a rapid-fire version of a Sprint to understand the process better.
After having tested the waters a bit, it was clear to them that they needed some guidance. My presentation shed some light on some areas where they could improve. They saw the value in having me facilitate and were on a budget, so they asked if I would be willing to coach them each morning and check-in at the end of the day. I’ve known them for awhile, and I love their dedication and passion. I was curious to learn more about applying Design Sprints in this context, so I agreed.
At this point, StealthCo was only four people. They came to me curious about the minimum number of people for a Design Sprint and worried that their CEO wouldn’t have time to participate. After chatting through it with them, we decided to add three external experts and that it was critical for the CEO to attend. In fact, he initially planned to join part-time, and after day one decided to attend the full Sprint. Luckily, one of their external experts is a UX researcher, so they had a skilled interviewer to conduct the interviews on Friday.
“We are always looking for ways to save time and get into the heads of our customers. When Douglas told me about Design Sprints, I immediately dove in. Our first Sprint opened our eyes to a new audience’s needs and allowed us to save resources by trashing a project early. Design Sprints have become an important methodology in our product development process.” — Co-Founder, StealthCo
I met with the two co-founders and their facilitator each morning for 30 minutes before the other attendees arrived to discuss expectation and process for the day. I stayed for another 30 minutes to make sure things were off to a good start. At the end of each day, they called me to debrief me and ask me questions about how they might course correct. While a little bumpy, they made it through the process with actionable insights. Now, they are running this process all on their own to drive their solution validation process.
Servable is software that helps businesses flexibly manage and pay teams of independent contractors. I met co-founders Shelby and Zach after an introduction from Justin Halloran, a local angel investor. We meet weekly, and I advise them on everything from big-picture issues like product strategy down to technical recruiting, their tech stack, and even nitty gritty problems that are stumping their engineers.
About a month ago we were chatting about Jobs-To-Be-Done and other product management techniques, and of course, Design Sprints came up. Having gotten them excited about Design Sprints, I encouraged them to attend a Design Sprint essentials workshop I was hosting during Startup Week. They attended the workshop, and were ready to run a Design Sprint.
They decided to focus on their event vendors using the rapid prototyping tools from day 4 and day 5 of the Sprint process. They already had an idea of how they wanted to solve the problem and were hoping to learn more about how customers and prospects responded to this potential solution. I referred them to Eli Wood, the founder of Reagent Design, an Austin based Design firm. Eli worked with them over a weekend to adopt some Design Sprint exercises to produce a prototype and quickly put it to the test.
“Using this augmented Design Sprint process and getting user feedback in 3 days was a game changer for us. Observing users in this way feels like a jump to the future and has fundamentally changed the way we prioritize our roadmap.” — Zach Fragapane, Head of Product, Servable
On the first day, Eli and his partner Jeff came over to the Servable offices, and they built a user journey map with a focus on a small business owner who manages teams of independent contractors. From there, they hand sketched wireframes starting with the first customer touch all the way through activation for a total of 25 frames. In the afternoon, they selected the three most critical frames and created solution sketches for them. Overnight, Eli and Jeff created high fidelity mockups. On the second day, they reviewed mocks, made improvements, and then stitched them into a prototype.
If you are an early stage startup and looking to more quickly validate your solutions and generate new ideas rapidly, consider adopting some or all of the Design Sprint exercises. While a 5-day Design Sprint is ideal in many cases, you may find value in using the prototyping exercises in a more ad-hoc manner until you graduate to needing the more extended process.