Design Dash
How big businesses are using design sprints for fast innovation

Hand holding an illuminated lightbulb on a blue background

Adobestock/alesmunt

Adobestock/alesmunt

The pandemic and societal change have accelerated the need for businesses to become more agile and innovative in a short amount of time.

While the proportion of businesses expecting to meet financial commitments over the next three months has doubled since August 2020, one in five businesses reported decreased revenue in March 2021 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2021). Impacts to the retail, tourism and hospitality industries continue to be felt, influencing the need to pivot, adapt and retrain – fast!

An essential technique used by big businesses through to new ventures to develop rapid problem-focused innovation is design sprints. Well-executed design sprints can be used to test and validate new ideas, improve processes, increase efficiency and profitability and solve complex challenges rapidly without significant investment.

What is a design sprint?

Dr Ivano Bongiovanni is a keen researcher and consultant in Design Thinking and Design-Led methods at The University of Queensland (UQ) Business School. He defines design sprints as a “self-contained, stage-gated process wherein a limited amount of time you go from unpacking an organisational problem to building a prototype for a solution to that problem”.

“Design sprints can last anywhere from two hours to six weeks and draw on Design Thinking, an approach to problem-solving used by designers in a business environment.”

Ivano says the three pillars of Design Thinking are:

1. Your end users are king, so meeting users’ needs is essential.

2. Solutions should meet business requirements, whether that be sustainability or financial gain).

3. Use of technology, activities and tools to facilitate innovation and creativity.

Dr Ivano Bongiovanni holding up a pink post it note, explaining the Design Sprint process

When to use design sprints

Design sprints are a practical way to develop innovative solutions to real problems in any organisation or any function, from finance, HR and the public sector. The focus of design sprints shouldn’t be on finding the perfect solution but finding a potential solution quickly that can be tested with end-users and then refined.

Businesses can use design sprints to facilitate the successful creation and launch of new products or services and the reinvention of underperforming products that need to be reviewed.

UQ MBA alumna Patrice Dodd has used design sprints to tackle organisational problems at Canstar and RACQ. She says,

“Design Sprints enable you to tap into the minds of many while also creating alignment across business functions.”

Professional headshot of Patrice Dodd

Patrice Dodd

Patrice Dodd

Discover: Training to run your own design sprints


“At RACQ, one use for design sprints was the reinvention of a product that wasn’t performing as expected and needed to be reviewed. User testing was the most valuable part of that design sprint to see if we were creating real value. We could then use that insight to discover what users liked and didn’t like to create a roadmap.”

Hand on a laptop keyboard with visual representations of unhappy, neutral and happy user experiences

Adobestock/Urupong

Adobestock/Urupong

The benefits of using design sprints

While the main benefit of design sprints is being able to build solutions and tested outcomes to critical business challenges quickly, there are also many more longer-term benefits.

Some longer-term benefits of using design sprints, according to Patrice and Ivano, are:

  • The opportunity to build organisational learning through multi-disciplinary team-building exercises
  • Developing a better understanding of the end-user and whether what you have created has value to the market through user testing, which helps define your roadmap moving forward
  • Creating a tangible piece of evidence to prove innovation is possible.

Image supplied by Patrice Dodd 

Post it notes with writing, stuck on a whiteboard to show a part of the design sprint process

Image supplied by Patrice Dodd

Image supplied by Patrice Dodd 

Group of business professionals pointing at coloured post it notes, working together to problem solve

Adobestock/Flamingo Images

Adobestock/Flamingo Images

Group of business professionals sitting at a group table and working

Image supplied by Patrice Dodd

Image supplied by Patrice Dodd

How to run design sprints

Ivano says design sprints are a method that can be easily learned by anyone in an organisation who is willing to solve problems. These are Ivano and Patrice’s tips to help you get started.

1. The team involved is critical. You need the right people in the room, including a dedicated facilitator and decider, whose roles are to move you through the sprint. You also need to get the numbers on the team right; 6–7 is the perfect number. Try to avoid including people who are resistant to change because they will hold the process back.

2. Go offline for the exercise duration, so your whole focus is on the design sprint. This can mean going offsite and asking people not to use their mobile devices.

Image supplied by Patrice Dodd

3. Be prepared. If you are facilitating a design sprint, develop a facilitator's guide for yourself and get very familiar with it. It’s also a good idea to have participated in other design sprints, so you have some experience of how they work.

4. Be clear on who is responsible for making decisions when the sprint team is divided.

5. Don’t be afraid of change, of ambiguity, or of failing. There’s a lot of back and forth during design sprints, and you might find that after three days working in one direction, that direction isn’t feasible, and you have to start again. That can be scary, but it’s also the beauty of the process.

6. Have plenty of snacks and take breaks when needed. Design sprints are exciting but also mentally draining, so it’s essential to look after your wellbeing. Once the design sprint is over, celebrate with the team!

Read more: Eight tips for innovation leadership

The design sprint process

While innovation can feel chaotic, design sprints bring structure to the process.

At the beginning of the process, it’s important to establish a shared agreement of the problem. During this stage, you’d spend time researching the problem and use Design Thinking activities like personas, user journey mapping and interviews to understand the end user’s needs better.

The next stage in the process is structured ideation when you put your creative hat on and try to come up with solutions to the problem.

Then, translate your ideas into something tangible by prototyping your solution. In practice, this could look like a storyboard or any minimal viable product that users can give feedback on in the next stage of the process.

The final stage of the process is to test the solution by asking for the end user’s feedback. Then, if there’s time, you can incorporate this feedback into your solution to complete the process.

But as Patrice says,

“I think benefits really do come post-sprint, as much as the outcome of the sprint itself. This is because when the team disbands and goes back to their departments, they can influence up. It is hard to ignore multiple people singing the same tune, which can mean spend and resourcing is allocated more easily.”

Adobestock/rangizzz

Top down shot of multiple hand stacked on top of each other

The best way to learn how to run a design sprint is by doing one. Get hands-on experience running your own design sprint for business innovation, led by Dr Ivano Bongiovanni in a one-and-a-half-day course.