Articles

Design Sprints as a Service

Design has long been a key part of Black Pixel's services, but the types of design work we do have evolved over time. While the majority of the client work our design team participates in is a part of large scale, soup-to-nuts projects, in which we design and develop an iOS, Android, or Web application, we're increasingly seeing interest from clients in shorter, design-only engagements.

These can take a number of different forms, but I want to focus today on a couple of formats: the Design Review Sprint and the Product Design Sprint. We'll use the sprint format here, as it's a familiar one to most product teams.

In the simplest form, we're talking about a short-term collaboration (typically one to two weeks), in which members of our design team embed with a client's team to focus on a specific set of goals (defined collaboratively at the start of the sprint) and work toward the handoff of a defined set of deliverables at the conclusion of the engagement.

So what are some of the advantages of partnering with an outside agency for a short-term design engagement? They're many of the same advantages of longer projects, but with less risk and a lower cost.

Advantages for Established Teams

For an established in-house product team, engaging with an outside design team brings fresh perspectives and the opportunity for more out-of-the-box thinking, particularly as the outside team has worked across a much wider range of industries and mediums. We've all been involved in scenarios where we're knee-deep in a project for months or even years on end. While that degree of familiarity affords a tremendous depth of knowledge, it's also easy to get locked into existing patterns and approaches to problem solving.

A consulting design team can come at those same challenges with fresh eyes and without the same legacy constraints as an in-house team. This kind of scenario gives a product manager the best of both worlds: collaborative problem solving that melds deep experience with fresh insight. That's a difficult combination to achieve internally (at least without committing to full-time new hires, which your team may not have budget for).

Advantages for Startups

There are numerous advantages of short-term consulting design engagements for startups and new product teams as well. In many cases, these organizations are bootstrapped and working to build an MVP with limited resources and budget. While their products could benefit from the insight and experience of seasoned senior designers, they simply aren't in a position to afford those types of full-time hires.

Here, a short partnership with an outside design team can bring that level of experience to the table, helping a young team tackle high-priority issues while laying the groundwork for successfully building upon that collaboration in-house, after the design sprint has concluded.

So what's the difference between a Design Review Sprint and a Product Design Sprint?

The Design Review Sprint

In a typical Design Review Sprint, members of our team partner with a client to provide a comprehensive audit of an existing product or service. We determine what's working, what not, where the user experience could be improved, where there's room for performance improvements (and cost reductions), and how the accessibility of the product could be improved.

Distilled down to its simplest form, a Design Review Sprint includes the following four broad areas of focus:

  1. Discover
  2. Review
  3. Report
  4. Recommend

A Design Review Sprint typically starts with an extended kickoff, either on-site or virtually, in which our team sits down with the client to explore the ins and outs of the product together as well as discuss broader organizational factors (e.g., What role does the product play in the company's bottom line? What are the key performance indicators that dictate whether the product is successful or not?). Stakeholders are interviewed and, to the degree possible, users are as well.

This initial discovery deep-dive gives us a sense of the current state of the product and allows us to shift to the next phase of the sprint: review. Here, our team members immerse themselves in using the app, exercising its full feature set, comparing the app side-by-side with competitors, and discovering pain points and UX concerns. Ideally, this period extends over a number of days and allows team members to use the app in a wide range of scenarios. In many ways, we're our own personas here, stepping into the shoes of users to understand the firsthand experience of using the app.

Once that immersive review phase is complete, our design team comes back together to discuss and collaboratively compile our findings and experiences into a report for the client. This feedback can take a number of forms, from a written document detailing experiences and high-level themes noted during testing to a presentation deck, or a combination of the two.

These findings and our team's invaluable recommendations are then shared with the client. Here, we're able to bring the collective and wide-ranging experience of the Black Pixel design team to the table, offering concrete recommendations and potential next steps for their product (e.g., exploring specific UX flows that need to be rethought, new features that can effectively complement existing ones). In some cases, a recommendations package may include wireframes or even initial visual design explorations for suggested changes.

At the end of a Design Review Sprint, a client is left with a clear set of feedback and recommendations about their existing product, and options to act on them. In some cases, that may involve partnering with Black Pixel on a longer design and development project, or simply using the findings as a roadmap for their own internal teams to plan the next steps. In either case, clients get the benefit of consulting with seasoned experts that will help inform them and allow for better product decisions going forward.

The Product Design Sprint

While the Design Review Sprint is focused on reviewing existing products, services, user flows, etc., the Product Design Sprint is all about new products, services, features, and ideas. Product definition and evaluation is at the heart of this engagement, and rapidly prototyping and testing new ideas is the key to success.

The week-long process followed by the Google Ventures team is a great playbook for these types of short-term engagements. From the 30,000-foot view, they focus on the following for each day of the sprint:

  1. Map
  2. Sketch
  3. Decide
  4. Prototype
  5. Test

The Product Design Sprint is both strategic and tactical. At the start of the week, the team focuses on identifying high-level goals (e.g., increase purchase completions by 20 percent). These strategic goals are arrived at through brainstorming discussions with key stakeholders and experts on the product and its vertical. Once a goal is identified, our team works with the group on distilling the expected user experience to a few core steps and mapping the relationships between them. This map serves as guidance for much of the work done later in the sprint.

Next, the focus shifts toward potential solutions; our team works with the client on beginning to sketch potential solutions to achieve the strategic goal. If the product in question is a mobile shopping app, this might include sketching out a half-dozen different approaches to the cart and checkout flow. This stage is highly collaborative and all about rapid ideation -- getting concepts captured for later evaluation.

The midpoint of the sprint (Wednesday, if it's a standard week-long engagement) is all about the decision. We present and discuss potential solutions generated during the previous day, and ultimately select a direction to be evaluated during the rest of the week.

Once the high-level strategic goals and mapping has been completed, and a specific solution selected, the focus shifts to a more tactical approach: prototyping and testing. The remainder of the sprint features our team side-by-side with the client's product team in the trenches, working through design iterations and building out basic prototypes that can then be user tested. Testing is the sole focus on the final leg of the sprint, where one or more prototypes are tested with real-world users, and the results of that testing are used to determine the potential efficacy of the design solution in question.

This type of intensive design sprint allows for much more rapid generation and testing of products and features than can typically be done by most teams. With that speed and efficiency comes cost savings; being able to generate and evaluate ideas within a condensed five-day sprint can save a client many thousands of dollars over a longer iterative cycle.

The Mutual Benefits

Ideally for us (being in the client services business), these types of short-term design engagements lead to more work and the opportunity to collaborate further with a client on the design and development of a new or revamped app. A client gets a chance to test-drive working with the Black Pixel team (just as we get a feel for working with that client) and better evaluate whether they want to engage in a longer partnership. In the best-case scenario, we establish a good rapport and lay the groundwork for a working relationship that carries over to additional work during the coming months or even years.

In other cases, the client chooses to tackle the next steps with their own internal product team. Here, we've been able to give their team a leg up by evaluating a product or strategy, providing feedback or testing, and helping clarify the roadmap from which that internal team will work.

Either way, clients come away from Black Pixel design engagements with a better understanding of their product, the challenges they face, and the solutions available to overcome those challenges.

If you're interested in learning more about working with the Black Pixel design team on a Design Review Sprint or Product Design Sprint, let's talk.

Tom Carmony

Tom Carmony

Tom is Design Director at Black Pixel. He tweets at @tomcarmony.