What is a Design Sprint?

A 5-day strategy to solving big problems.

October 31, 2023
Design Sprint Book

I recently shared some things I was learning about running remote design sprints, and a colleague asked, "Can you define what you mean by design sprints?"  Here is my off-the-cuff definition: 

"A design sprint uses a set of methods to lead a team over a short period of time (less than a week) to learn, ideate, design, prototype and test solutions to a specific problem space."

I still think this is a pretty good definition, but if you're looking for more, let's break it down.

Start living intentionally

A Set of Methods.

In a sprint, you’re balancing a triple constraint of time, focus and decision-making capacity. At the macro level, a key method to focus is theming each day's activities, giving a day to each step: learn, ideate, design, prototype and test.

Managing the time requires some specific methods for discussion, recording notes, giving feedback and making decisions. Here's a quick list of methods you'll see fleshed out more below.

  • Learn: Site Visits, Ask The Experts, Experience Mapping
  • Ideate: Design Charrettes, Crazy 8s, Lighting Demos
  • Design: Sketching, Story Boarding, Dot Voting
  • Prototype: Paper Prototype, Digital Prototype, Analog Prototypes
  • Test: User Testing

To Lead a Team.

A design sprint is a team activity. 

The team is often composed of people with varied skills and expertise related to the project.  Your cross-functional team might include an engineer or two, a manager, a project manager, a customer service expert, a designer, someone from finance, and the product owner. 

In addition to skills, it is best to build a team with members who take different approaches to problem-solving. 

  • Do members approach the problem from a people orientation or task orientation? 
  • Do they view the problem at a high level or down in the details? 
  • Do they follow a linear or circular line of thinking?

Working as a team doesn't mean everything is done out loud as a group. Some of the methods I unpack below help combine the benefits of people working independently and working collaboratively.

These diversities of skills, perspectives and experience will contribute to a better design. It can be hard to communicate and sort through all the views and ideas, but that's where the facilitation methods come in.

A Short Period of Time.

A design sprint is often five days.  

Sometimes it can be squeezed into four or even three days if the prototyping and testing are done at a different time.  All these count as short periods when you go from concept to tested prototype.

Each activity is also done over a shorter time than is typical in traditional meetings or projects. For example, during an activity called "lightning demos," team members will pitch a solution in just 3 minutes.  It’s critical to manage both time and attention; therefore, almost all activities are timed.

It’s easy to feel stuck or have an obstacle and not be sure how to begin to overcome it. I can lead your team through workshops for discovery, ideation, problem-solving, and solution testing.

Learn, Ideate, Design, Prototype and Test

A design sprint follows a consistent progression, and the steps in this progression typically define each day of the sprint.


Learning is crucial to design, and it's where we start the sprint.  After defining the goals and questions for the sprint, we begin listing to others. Three common and effective methods for learning include site visits, asking the experts and experience mapping.

  • Site Visits.
  • Ask The Experts.
  • Experience Mapping.

Site Visits.

Site visits involve going to where your users are and observing them trying to complete the task you're designing for. Look for pain points or coping mechanisms. Ask them to talk out loud and narrate what they are doing. Ask clarifying questions. Learn what they do, how they do it, and why. Take lots of notes.

Ask The Experts.

Ask The Experts is an activity where you bring in experts about the problem space you're working in. Similarly, you want to spend your time listening, not talking. Ask clarifying questions to uncover more. As you take notes, you'll use the "How Might We..." template abbreviated as "HMW\." This structure forces you to frame all your notes with a question of curiosity, leading you later to discover creative solutions.

Experience Mapping

Experience Mapping begins by synthesizing what you have learned so far. If you didn't take your notes on sticky notes already, first convert them with one observation on each note. Get all stickies on the board and order them left to right by time. Divide or combine groups as needed. Create a name for the group of tasks the observations describe, then group sets of tasks into activities. Identify pain points and set goals for how your product could overcome some of these pain points.


To find the best solutions, we need to surface great ideas. These ideation methods are both art and science, adding more structure than the typical brainstorming method.

You can use three facilitation activities to help your team ideate effectively. 

  • Design Charrettes.
  • Crazy 8s.
  • Lighting Demos.

Design Charrettes.

Design Charrettes involve the whole team working individually, in pairs, and as a whole to develop and critique new ideas. 

First, review what's been learned to ensure alignment with the problem being solved. Everyone sketches solution ideas individually for 10-15 minutes. Share and critique ideas as a group, identifying the concepts you want to be sure to take to the next round. 

Synthesize in pairs, combining the good concepts to develop better ones. It can be a partially implemented design. A team could be focused on how the interface behaves, how customers and users interact or how the interface assists the users. 

Present new solutions and critique as a group. Decide which solutions to carry through to prototyping.

Crazy 8s

Crazy 8s is a fun and fast process for creativity. 

Fold a piece of paper three times to make eight sections. Choose your favorite idea so far. Ask yourself, "What would be another good way to do this?" 

Sketch that new way in 60 seconds. 

Repeat this immediately in the next square, asking the same question and sketching a solution in one minute. After iterating eight times in just eight minutes, you will push yourself to look at the problem in new ways.

Lighting Demos.

Lighting Demos help stretch the scope of the solutions by bringing in inspiration. 

Ask team members to list products and solutions to review for inspiring solutions.  Think outside your industry and inside your company. Have them narrow their list to the top one or two. 

One at a time, show the whole team what's so cool about your inspirations. Set a timer for three minutes. Make a quick drawing of that inspiring component. Write a headline about it and other notes below it. 


Designing now involves synthesizing the ideas into the best testable solutions to answer the critical questions of the sprint.

Try these three activities to structure your design process.

  • Sketching.
  • Story Boarding.
  • Dot Voting.


Sketching may sound scary, but don't worry. It's not an art contest. 

Customer and user interaction is one of the most critical parts of design and is often the focus of a design sprint. Sketching is better a communicating these interactions than words alone.

Story Boarding.

Story Boarding is a standard method used by movie producers to plan out a movie or scene before shooting it. We're using it to plan our solution's customer interaction before building the prototype. 

Draw about fifteen frames in rows across a large whiteboard. The top left is the opening scene of the user's experience. Try starting two steps upstream of the actual solution you want to test. Work through one frame at a time. If there are gaps, fill them in only if it's critical to understanding the flow.

Dot Voting.

Dot Voting, also called Note and Vote, allows decisions to be made quickly and analytically. Analysis paralysis is a real danger because of the quantity of information and options being processed. 

In dot voting, everyone receives dots to vote on ideas (or elements of ideas) they like. Combined with sketches, this creates a visual heat map of good ideas. This method is critical in speeding up the decision process and stewards the team’s attention and decision-making capacity.


Prototypes allow you to get initial feedback on solutions before building them. They can help validate new products or concepts, test usability, and communicate the design to others.

Here are three types of prototypes you can use.

  • Paper Prototypes.
  • Digital Prototypes.
  • Analog Prototypes.

Paper Prototypes.

Paper Prototypes are useful in testing interfaces. You can change them on the fly during the testing session based on the user's feedback. 

The low fidelity of paper allows users to give more honest feedback because they understand the product is early in the design process.

Digital Prototypes.

Digital Prototypes are helpful when you're testing a digital interface or need to do your user testing remotely. The downside is they usually take longer to make, and users may be less willing to give honest feedback if the product looks too finished. Using the Keynote app can reduce the time to create a digital prototype. 

Analog Prototypes.

Analog Prototypes are a category I made up for testing non-digital products like an event, a system or a process. Not all interactions happen on a screen, and you need a way to prototype and test interactions like conversations, written communication, meetings, etc. 

These prototypes can include scripts, templates, agendas, storyboards, role-playing or brochures describing the product.


Testing early in the process facilitates changes before implementation and serves as a guide for later development. UserTesting.com is a service that nails this step, but it isn't cheap, so I'll outline how you can pull this off on your own too.

There are two primary steps in your testing process.

  • Recruiting users.
  • User testing.

Recruiting users.

Recruiting users is critical because you need feedback from those who represent your customers.

You can find these users by placing an ad on Craigslist or Facebook with the offer of a gift card if they're chosen. Your ad should link to a survey where they will answer questions you set to determine if they represent your target audience. 

Be sure to ask for their contact info so you can follow up to let them know if they are a match.

User Testing.

User testing lets you finally see a customer interact with your product. The experience will likely include emotions ranging from frustration to delight. 

First, set specific, realistic tasks for the user to perform with the product. Encourage them to talk out loud, describing what they are thinking a feeling. Ask follow-up questions to help them continue to give feedback. 

If done right, you are not only learning what does and doesn't work but why or why not.

Solutions to a Specific Problem Space

Design Sprints are fun, but they're not just for fun. They are to solve a specific problem. 

The sprint begins by defining the problem.

At the beginning of the first day, you identify the long-term goal of the product or project in focus. Immediately after that, you identify a few key questions that must be answered for that goal to be realized. During the first day, you learn, synthesize and refine to pick a target for the sprint. 

This target is what you will spend the rest of the sprint solving for.

Action Plan

We covered a lot here. If you 're ready to take the next step learning design sprints, here are some options.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is Design Thinking?

What is design thinking?

Design thinking is a problem-solving approach that involves a deep understanding of user needs and experiences to create innovative solutions. It is a human-centered methodology that seeks to empathize with users, define their problems, ideate potential solutions, prototype and test those solutions, and iterate based on feedback.

Design thinking emphasizes creativity, collaboration, and experimentation, and it can be applied to a wide range of challenges, from product design and development to service design and organizational change. It involves creating a culture of continuous learning and improvement, where failure is seen as an opportunity to learn and grow.

Some key principles of design thinking include:

  1. Empathy: Design thinking starts with empathy for the user, seeking to understand their needs, motivations, and pain points through observation, interviews, and other research methods.
  2. Iteration: Design thinking is an iterative process, involving the creation and testing of prototypes to refine and improve solutions.
  3. Collaboration: Design thinking is a collaborative approach that involves bringing together diverse perspectives and skills to ideate and create solutions.
  4. Visualization: Design thinking often involves visualizing ideas and concepts through sketches, diagrams, and other visual representations.
  5. User-Centeredness: Design thinking prioritizes the needs and experiences of users, creating solutions that are tailored to their specific needs and preferences.

Overall, design thinking is a powerful approach to problem-solving that emphasizes creativity, collaboration, and user-centeredness. It can help organizations develop innovative solutions to complex challenges while creating a culture of continuous improvement.

Learn more about design thinking.

What are the five steps of design thinking?

Design thinking typically involves the following five iterative steps:

  1. Empathize: This stage involves understanding the user's needs, desires, and challenges. Designers use empathy to put themselves in the user's shoes to gain a deep understanding of their experiences.
  2. Define: In this stage, designers synthesize their research findings and define the problem statement, which serves as a guiding principle throughout the rest of the process to ensure that solutions are focused on addressing the problem.
  3. Ideate: During the ideation phase, designers generate a wide range of ideas and potential solutions to the problem statement. Brainstorming, sketching, and other creative techniques are commonly used to help facilitate the generation of novel ideas.
  4. Prototype: In this phase, designers create a prototype of the best solution or solutions that emerged from the ideation stage. Prototypes can take many different forms, but they are typically visual representations that allow users to interact with the potential solution and provide feedback.
  5. Test: Finally, the designer tests the prototype with users, gathers feedback, and observes how the user interacts with the prototype. This feedback is then used to refine the prototype further, leading to an improved solution or even new ideas and further iterations of the design thinking process.

Overall, design thinking provides a structured approach to problem-solving that emphasizes creativity, collaboration, and user-centeredness. It enables designers to develop innovative solutions that meet the needs of the users while also providing value to the organization.

Learn more about design thinking.

What are some of the best design thinking exercises?

There are many design thinking exercises that teams can use to generate creativity and innovation. Here are some examples:

  1. Empathy mapping: In this exercise, team members map out the user's experience and emotions to better understand their needs and pain points.
  2. Idea generation: One classic idea generation exercise is brainstorming, which involves generating as many ideas as possible without judgment or critique. Another popular exercise is "Crazy 8s," in which team members sketch eight ideas in eight minutes.
  3. Prototyping: Prototyping exercises include creating low-fidelity prototypes using materials like paper, cardboard, or clay to help teams visualize and test their ideas.
  4. Role-playing: Role-playing exercises help teams empathize with users by acting out different scenarios and personas.
  5. Collaborative sketching: This exercise involves having team members collaborate on a single sketch or drawing, each taking turns adding to the design.
  6. Mind-mapping: Mind-mapping exercises help to organize thoughts and ideas by visually representing the relationships between them.
  7. SCAMPER: This acronym stands for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, and Reverse. This exercise is helpful in generating new ideas by encouraging teams to brainstorm ways to modify or adapt existing products or processes.

Overall, these exercises help teams to generate and test ideas, refine solutions, and work collaboratively towards creating innovative solutions that meet the needs of users.

Learn more about design thinking.

How to use Design Thinking

No items found.

Ready to level up your company? Get in touch today!