How to quickly check startup ideas with sprint

There’s a reason why many great products were created by very busy people. When we are committed to completing one important task within a tight deadline our mind stays super focused and we work more productively. But how exactly do you plan short project sprints for checking hypothesis and building MVPs or prototypes with your team? Jake Knapp from Google Ventures and his co-authors shed some light on principles used by Google and such successful startups as Slack and FitStar in their 2016 book “Sprint”.

Slack is using sprint method

Plan

  1. What is sprint
  2. How startups can benefit from sprints
  3. Monday: sprint starts
  4. Tuesday: let the sketching begin
  5. Wednesday: hard choice and storyboarding
  6. Thursday: rapid prototyping tricks
  7. Friday: interviewing users
  8. Google sprint summary

What is sprint

How to define sprint? Sprint is a 5-day period, from Monday to Friday, when you assemble a team of 7 or less people who will be working on checking a crucial hypothesis by building a prototype and conducting interviews with customers. The team is working from 10 a. m. to 5 p. m. with an hour reserved for lunch. So sprints are essentially a framework for quickly building MVPs. A team for Google design sprint consists of:

  1. Decider who is the leader of the team with strong values, vision and understanding of the problem.
  2. Finance, marketing and customer experts who have knowledge in the respective fields.
  3. Technical and logistic experts who understand what the company can and can’t produce.
  4. Design expert who is your design and UX guru.
  5. Facilitator who is responsible for managing time and communication during the sprint. Authors recommend to appoint as facilitator somebody who doesn’t normally work with the team and thus can stay unbiased.
  6. Extra experts for Monday who won’t be actually working on the prototype but have a strong knowledge in the fields important for your startup project.

Sprint team participants

The team can be adjusted depending on your needs (such as having two Deciders) plus one of the people above should also perform the duties of Interviewer on Friday. Team participants should clear their calendars and postpone all other duties for the week they are working on the sprint. No cell phones and laptops are allowed in the sprint room (except for when it is specifically allowed by the sprint framework).

How startups can benefit from sprints

“Startups usually get only one good shot at a successful product before they run out of money”, write authors of “Sprint” book. So sprint is essentially an opportunity to:

  1. Save money.
  2. Stop guessing what solutions would be good.
  3. Choose strongest solutions and test them.
  4. Get answers on questions critical for your startup hypothesis in only 5 days.

Modern tech companies and startups tend to live in the atmosphere of democracy but it has its drawbacks, such as endless-debate cycles not leading to results. Tight deadlines of spring and Decider role who has a casting vote in all discussions allow to get things done and receive answers on Friday evening.

When to apply sprint methodology? Jake Knapp and co-authors recommend to use sprint when:

  1. The stakes are high and you’re risking to loose money and time by acting on a wrong hunch.
  2. Deadline is due soon and you need speed.
  3. When your team is stuck. Ambitious projects can be difficult to start and sprint is great opportunity to start working.

Typical working day looks like this:

Typical working day in most companies

With sprint your team will be working like this:

Working day of the sprint team

Here’s how to conduct sprint:

Monday: sprint starts

Identifying the long-term goal and sprint questions

The first day of sprint starts with identifying the long-term goal by answering these questions:

  • Why we are doing this project?
  • Where do we want to be with it in 6 months, a year and beyond that?

Once the goal is identified, you should write it on the top of the whiteboard so that everyone can see it through the sprint week. Then you list sprint questions (from 1-2 to many) which are questions that will be answered in this sprint. Think about what should be done to meet that long-term goal and what can prevent you from achieving it. Basically, you will be rephrasing assumptions and obstacles into questions, moving away from uncertainty. Like this:

  • What if users find our UI too complicated? →How can we make interface easier for the end-users?
  • What if our product won’t be able to compete with alternatives? → How can we delight clients with our solution?

Sprint for a Death Star

Creating a map and talking to experts

Next thing you do is draw a map showing how your customers move through your product:

  • On the left you list the actors (different types of customers, sometimes your own employees).
  • On the right you write the ending, such as purchasing subscription or buying the product.
  • Arrows between the left and the right part explain what happens along the way.

Sprint map example

Then you are talking to experts in the form of one-at-a-time interviews during which each member of the team take notes individually. It goes like this:

  1. Presenting the the long-term goal, sprint questions and map.
  2. Expert tells what he or she knows about the problem.
  3. You ask questions and update goal, questions and map accordingly.

While listening to experts team members write down ideas they got while listening in the form of How Might We..? (HMW) questions on sticky notes, one idea per a note. Identical format helps to compare the ideas easily.

HMW sticker examples

Voting and choosing the sprint target

After the interviews all notes are put on the wall and the team votes using dot voting. Each team member receives 2 dot stickers and Decider receives 4. After the voting notes with multiple votes are placed on the map. Most notes will correspond to a particular part of the user journey. Everybody is reminded about the long-term goal and sprint questions. Decider chooses one target customer and one target event from the map the sprint will be focusing on.

Tuesday: let the sketching begin

Remixing and improving

The day starts with looking for existing ideas (the blue ocean theory says that it would be cool to utilize ideas from the other industries) that can be used to inform the solution with an exercise called Lightning Demos:

  1. Every member of the team makes a list of products or services to review for inspiring solutions and chooses 1-2 which are the best.
  2. The best solutions are written on the whiteboard and each team member gets 3 minutes to present their solution. On this step laptops, smartphones and other devices can be used.
  3. When a person is giving a tour, ask “What is the big idea that might be useful for us?”. By the end of the presentations the whiteboard should contain about 10-20 ideas. No discussions here, simply capture what seems to be useful.

To avoid noisy and rarely fruitful brainstorming, each team member will work individually and sketch the solution. Four steps of sketching for sprint are:

  1. Taking notes (20 minutes). Team members look once more at the whiteboards and take notes to refresh their memory and prepare to generating ideas.
  2. Rough sketching (20 minutes). Everybody doodles and sketches ideas that come to their mind.
  3. Crazy 8s (8 minutes). Each team member chooses his or her strongest ideas and rapidly sketches 8 variations in 8 minutes.
  4. Solution sketch, one per person (30 minutes), a three panel storyboard showing what customers see when interacting with your product. This sketch should be self-explanatory and anonymous since it would be evaluated by other members of the team. Ugly is okay but you’ve got to be neat. Also give it a title.

After the solutions sketches are ready, put them in a pile, you will review them the next day.

Tuesday is also a day when you start recruiting customers for user testing on Friday. “Sprint” authors recommend to use Craiglist plus existing channels. Pay for participation with an Amazon gift card. To screen candidates use a test with well-thought questions so that candidates won’t be able to guess the right answer. Say, you are looking for users to test a dating app:

How to ask the right questions to users

On Wednesday afternoon you can start getting in touch with suitable candidates to schedule interviews for Friday.

Wednesday: hard choice and storyboarding

Choosing the idea

All the solutions are put on the wall and team participants vote with stickers for ideas or their parts they think are interesting. Then the dotted ideas are discussed briefly (3 minutes per sketch) with the creator of the sketch revealing himself or herself in the end and answering questions.

When all the solutions are reviewed, the Facilitator reminds everyone about the long-term goal and sprint questions. Each team member gets one sticker and writes on it the name of the solution or its part that he or she founds to be the best. When everyone is finished, the votes are put on the sketches and each team member explains his or her vote (1 minute).

Deciders should be listening to this explanations very attentively since they will make the final decision. Each Decider gets 3 stickers with their initials on them and vote. Each decision that has at least one super-vote sticker on it will be prototyped and tested. If it turns out that two conflicting ideas got super-votes, they can be both implemented in two separate prototypes.

Storyboard

Before working on the prototype you’ve got to string your winning sketches into a storyboard (10-15 panels). You first scene would be an opening scene — seeing app icon in Google Play or AppStore, visiting your landing page for the first time etc. Assign a storyboard artist who will be filling in the storyboard as you discuss each step with the team.

Storyboard for sprint

To quickly finish the storyboard:

  1. Don’t invent new ideas (leave them for the next sprint!), work with what you already have.
  2. Don’t worry about including each and every detail. Put in what’s really crucial.
  3. In case of an argument, turn to Decider for the final decision.
  4. Make sure it won’t take more than 15 minutes to test.
  5. When in doubt, take risks.

The last advice would have sound crazy in a usual environment where we’re all worried about making well-informed and balanced decisions but when doing the sprint risky ideas are actually the best — you won’t waste too much time and will get a quick answer whether to pursue any of them.

Thursday: rapid prototyping tricks

Today you will turn your storyboard into a prototype. Product design process is a very time-consuming one. So instead of spending an enormous amount of time on an actual product, you will fake it. It is important since the more time you spend on building something the less you become acceptive to critique and feedback. The tools authors of “Sprint” recommend to use are:

  • Marvel
  • InVision
  • Keynote
  • Keynotopia

Keynote presentation tool

Their favorite tool for prototyping apps and websites is Keynote (can be replaced by PowerPoint for Windows users) since it can be run in full-screen imitating an actual website or app with buttons, forms and other similar elements.

When working on the prototype team is divided into:

  1. Makers (2 or more).
  2. Stitcher who puts the prototype together and makes sure it works smoothly.
  3. Writer who is responsible for text quality.
  4. Asset Collector (1 or more) who is looking for photos, icons, fonts and other assets the team could use.
  5. Interviewer (1) who is writing an interview script for Friday.

Around 3 p. m. you will have a test run so that any mistakes in the prototype can be fixed before the interview day. Stitcher will walk the team through the prototype narrating his or her way. Interviewer should make sure he or she fully understands the prototype.

To learn more about prototyping see our case study on building a mobile app for finding a doctor.

Friday: interviewing users

Friday is a big day for the Interviewer. He or she will interview 5 people, showing them the prototype, asking them to narrate their interaction with it and asking questions to better understand their reactions. Interviews will be videostreamed to other participants who will sit in another room and take notes.

Before the interviews draw a grid on the whiteboard with columns for participants and rows for parts of the prototype or sprint questions. Here’s an example:

Grid for sprint interview

Each team participant gets sticky notes and when they hear or see something interesting, write it on a sticky note and mark as negative (-), positive (+) or neutral (no mark). At the end of each interview Facilitator collects notes and stick them to the whiteboard. After each interview have a 30 minute break. After the last interview gather around the whiteboard and allow everybody to silently make notes in their notepads about patterns they see.

Then ask team members to share what they’ve learned. On another whiteboard make a list of all the patterns and label them as neutral, positive or negative. Now it’s time to review the long-term goal and sprint questions. Chances are you won’t answer every sprint question but you will make enough progress to easily understand what will be the next step. The team will discuss the sprint shortly and then the Decider will decide what to do next.

Google sprint summary

So Google Ventures design sprint allows you to:

  • Spend as little as 5 days on testing a solution
  • Receive valuable feedback on your idea.
  • Learn what you should do next.

Plus, sprint process helps to build a healthy habit in your startup company: moving from abstract ideas to testable hypotheses and then to specific solutions in a short time frame.

Studio stfalcon.com offers MVP, app and web design and development for startups. Our team will be happy to help your startup project succeed.

About author

Content Manager
Dasha keeps studio blog and portfolio up-to-date. In her free time she writes about sci-fi and games.

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