An all-in-one guide to test a big idea in just one week. Map out the problem, sketch out solutions, pick an idea, build a prototype and finally, test it with real live humans.
Sprint — a “greatest hits” of business strategy, innovation, behavioural science, design, and more—packaged into a step-by-step process that any team can use.
Here are three challenging situations where sprints can help: high stakes, not enough time, just plain stuck.
Recruit a team of seven (or fewer): decider, finance expert, marketing expert, customer expert, tech/logistics expert, design expert, bring the troublemaker.
There are only six working hours in the typical sprint day. Longer hours don’t equal better results.
Map out the problem and pick an important place to focus.
Start at the End
A look ahead—to the end of the sprint week and beyond.
Set a long-term goal — “Why are we doing this project? Where do we want to be six months, a year, or even five years from now?”
Imagine you’ve gone forward in time one year, and your project was a disaster. What caused it to fail? How did your goal go wrong?
An important part of this exercise is rephrasing assumptions and obstacles into questions.
- Q: To reach new customers, what has to be true? A: They have to trust our expertise. Q: How can we phrase that as a question? A: Will customers trust our expertise?
A simple diagram representing lots of complexity.
The common elements? Each map is customer-centric, with a list of key actors on the left. Each map is a story, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.
- List the actors (on the left)
- Write the ending (on the right)
- Keep it simple — 5-15 steps
Ask the Experts
For the rest of the day, you’ll interview the experts on your team to gather more information about the problem space.
Nobody knows everything, the information is distributed asymmetrically across the team and across the company. It’s useful to have at least one expert who can talk about each of these topics: strategy, voice of the customer, how things work and previous efforts.
When you hear something interesting, convert it into a question (quietly) (see How Might We, Creative Confidence).
Then, vote on How Might We notes (using sticky dots).
Who is the most important customer, and what’s the critical moment of that customer’s experience?
Once you’ve clustered your team’s How Might We notes, the decision about where to focus your sprint will likely be easy. It’s the place on your map where you have the biggest opportunity to do something great (and also, perhaps, the greatest risk of failure).
Sketch competing solutions on paper.
Remix and Improve
Your team will take turns giving three-minute tours of their favourite solutions: from other products, from different domains, and from within your own company.
Ask everyone on your team to come up with a list of products or services to review for inspiring solutions.
If you’ve picked a super-focused target, it might be fine to skip assignments and have the whole team swarm the same part of your problem. If there are several key pieces to cover, you should divide up.
Sketching is the fastest and easiest way to transform abstract ideas into concrete solutions.
Individuals working alone generate better solutions than groups brainstorming out loud.
The four step sketch
- Notes — Walk around the room and look at whiteboards
- Ideas — Jot down rough ideas, sample headlines, diagrams, stick figures—anything that gives form to his or her thoughts.
- Crazy 8s — Each person takes his or her strongest ideas and rapidly sketches eight variations in eight minutes. The exercise works best when you sketch several variations of the same idea.
- Solution sketch — Each person’s best idea, put down on paper in detail. A three-panel storyboard drawn on sticky notes, showing what your customers see as they interact with your product or service.
Make difficult decisions and turn your ideas into a testable hypothesis.
Five step process for sprint decision making:
- Art museum: Put the solution sketches on the wall with masking tape.
- Heat map: Look at all the solutions in silence, and use dot stickers to mark interesting parts.
- Speed critique: Quickly discuss the highlights of each solution, and use sticky notes to capture big ideas.
- Straw poll: Each person chooses one solution, and votes for it with a dot sticker.
- Supervote: The Decider makes the final decision, with more stickers.
When you have two good, conflicting ideas, you don’t have to choose between them at all. Instead, you can prototype both, and in Friday’s test, you’ll be able to see how each one fares with your customers.
If you start prototyping without a plan, you’ll get bogged down by small, unanswered questions. Pieces won’t fit together, and your prototype could fall apart.
What’s the best opening scene for your prototype? If you get it right, the opening scene will boost the quality of your test.
- e.g. If you’re prototyping an app, start in the App Store.
- The trick is to take one or two steps upstream from the beginning of the actual solution you want to test.
Keep the story fifteen minutes or less. Make sure the whole prototype can be tested in about fifteen minutes. That might seem short, especially since your customer interviews will be sixty minutes long.
A rule of thumb: Each storyboard frame equals about one minute in your test.
Hammer out a realistic prototype.
The prototype mindset — to prototype your solution, you’ll need a temporary change of philosophy: from perfect to just enough, from long-term quality to temporary simulation.
Once the illusion is broken, customers switch into feedback mode. They’ll try to be helpful and think up suggestions. In Friday’s test, customer reactions are solid gold, but their feedback is worth pennies on the dollar.
This distinction between feedback and reaction is crucial. You want to create a prototype that evokes honest reactions from your customers.
- Pick the right tools
- Divide and conquer — makers (2 or more), stitcher (1), writer (1), asset collector (1 or more), interviewer (1)
- Stitch it together — make sure dates, times, names, and other fake content are consistent throughout the prototype
- Do a trial run
Test prototype(s) with real live humans.
One person from your team acts as Interviewer. He’ll interview five of your target customers, one at a time. He’ll let each of them try to complete a task with the prototype and ask a few questions to understand what they’re thinking as they interact with it.
Five is the magic number (Jacob Nielsen). They deliver meaningful results in a single day.
The five act interview:
- A friendly welcome to start the interview
- A series of general, open-ended context questions about the customer
- Introduction to the prototype(s)
- Detailed tasks to get the customer reacting to the prototype.
- Good task instructions are like clues for a treasure hunt—it’s no fun (and not useful) if you’re told where to go and what to do. Open-ended tasks lead to interesting interviews.
- A quick debrief to capture the customer’s overarching thoughts and impressions
- e.g. “How does this product compare to what you do now?”
- e.g. “If you had three magic wishes to improve this product, what would they be?”
- Don't ask open-ended questions.
- Being in a curiosity mindset means being fascinated by your customers and their reactions.
The rest of the team is sat in a room close by, watching each interview via video conference.
When you hear or see something interesting, write it down on a sticky note. You can write down quotes, observations, or your interpretation of what happened.
Look for patterns — list every pattern and label each one as positive, negative, or neutral.
At the end of the sprint review your long-term goal and sprint questions from Monday. You probably won’t answer every question, but you’ll make progress.
Every interview draws you and your team closer to the people you’re trying to help with your product or service.
- Instead of jumping right into solutions, take your time to map out the problem and agree on an initial target. Start slow so you can go fast.
- Instead of shouting out ideas, work independently to make detailed sketches of possible solutions. Group brainstorming is broken, but there is a better way.
- Q: Can I run a sprint by myself? A: Sort of. (e.g. For example, set a timer and force yourself to come up with multiple solutions to a problem. Prototype your ideas to answer specific questions before diving into implementation).
Image credits: Sprint by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky and Brad Kowitz