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Design Sprints Are Snake Oil

You think this is weird? Look up “snake milking”. That’s someone’s job.

A design sprint is a five-day intensive process intended to solve tough business problems using design approaches.

Design sprints are snake oil, and I’ll tell you why.

Their creator, Jake Knapp, a designer with Google Ventures, promises fast, tangible results for virtually any problem of any size, in any organization.

That is quite a claim. Jake, and his colleagues John and Braden at GV, are smart, thoughtful folks. They packaged the whole process up in a book called, well, Sprint, which has caught a lot of attention. It’s a swell read that intersperses detailed instructions for the week-long program with case studies and the kind of solid practical advice you can only give after you’ve gained a lot of experience from real-world (read “annoying”) situations. The key problem statement runs thus:

“When our new ideas fail, it’s usually because we were overconfident about how well customers would understand and how much they would care.”
— Jake Knapp, Sprint

If the problem with your business is that you need new ideas, and your new ideas are failing because you don’t bother to check them against what your customers need, and you can use a solution fast, a design sprint could be just the thing you need. And…

Back to snake oil. When Chinese workers came to San Francisco as indentured laborers to build the railroads there was no health plan, so they brought medicine from home. One popular remedy was joint liniment made from the Chinese water snake. Like salmon and other cold water fish, Chinese water snakes are high in omega-3 fatty acids. Research has shown that because omega-3's have to stay liquid inside cold creatures at cold temperatures, they have special structural properties that allow enzymes to cross cell membranes. Great for pain and inflammation.

American entrepreneurs heard about snake oil and wanted to get in on the ground floor. Given that the Chinese water snake supply chain was a little nonexistent, they had to get creative. Rattlesnakes were plentiful and exciting. And the public wanted simple, exciting solutions to common ailments. So, Stanley’s Snake Oil containing 0% snake of any kind (except for a picture on the label) really had a good run…until about the time the FDA was invented in 1906. And since then “snake oil” has been synonymous with a scam sold as a panacea, even though it began as a real solution to a specific malady in a particular context.

I believe design sprints can help solve hard problems. There is a solid body of evidence, and I respect the expertise of everyone involved in their creation. As with most collaborative methods, I encourage anyone who thinks they might benefit to give it a try. Just make sure you commit to the genuine article.

I also believe that design sprints can appeal to people who are looking for an exciting panacea. Or who want to trade their habitual nostrum for another in order to avoid confronting deeper questions. Dogma is comforting, and in this business it goes by many names.

Not all design problems are product design problems. Often we use research questions as a way to establish a framework for decision-making or design as a means to reorient complex organizations, one conversation at a time. Some projects require weeks or months because the challenge isn’t generating ideas or artifacts quickly, but turning insights into lasting habits and sustainable processes.

So, no matter what your problem is, I suggest starting from a set of goals, rather than a specific solution*, no matter how appealing it sounds. Consider the larger context as well as the issue at hand. And, while I am grateful that the GV team shared their recipe for success, I prefer to remain unclear on how precisely one extracts beneficial fatty acids from a slightly venomous cold water reptile.

*Upon reflection, “method” would have been the more apt word here. The moral of this story is that many methods start out as legitimate tools to promote better, clearer thinking faster and end up as activities substituted for thinking (and in the case of the design sprint, shorthand for “you can do anything in a week”). This happens when the method gets watered down and over-hyped in practice. Practitioners start identifying their expertise with the style of activity—e.g. “I run focus groups”—rather than with the substance of the intended outcome and the discipline the method requires.

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Call to action (CTA)

A call to action is a marketing term that refers to a prompt that invokes a response leading to a sale. When referring to a call to action (CTA) in the digital design world we usually mean the interactive element that leads to the next step in the experience - something that needs to be clicked or tapped.

User testing

User testing refers to a technique used in the design process to evaluate a product, feature or prototype with real users. There are several reasons why you might want to undergo usability testing, the most common is that it allows the design team to identify friction in a user experience they are designing, so that it can be addressed before being built or deployed.

WYSIWYG

WYSIWYG (pronounced WIZ-ee-wig) is an acronym for "What You See Is What You Get". It helps identify an an interface that allows user input resulting in an output that is rendered in a similar way. For example; a word processor application interface might resemble a piece of paper,so when printed the user can see how the output will appear.

Content Management System

A content management system (CMS) is an tool that allows a website editor/administrator to manage the content that is displayed. Websites are made of HTML and CSS to create pages. Pages can be hard-coded but would require technical development skills to make changes. A CMS usually allows a person without coding knowledge to amend existing and add new content to a website using a WYSIWYG interface.

Responsive Web Design

Responsive web design refers to a web page that dynamically adapts its layout to fit the size and orientation of the device on which it is viewed. A responsive design allows for a more optimised user experience across desktop and laptop computers as well as smartphones and tablets of varying sizes.

User Stories

User stories allow the functionality of a product or service to be expressed as written descriptions of an experience as seen from the users perspective. The writing of user stories creates a list of design and development tasks to complete in order to create any required functionality.

User Interface

A user interface (UI) is a conduit between human and computer interaction - the space where a user will interact with a computer or machine to complete tasks. The purpose of a UI is to enable a user to effectively control a computer or machine they are interacting with, and for feedback to be received in order to communicate effective completion of tasks.

Personas

A persona in UX Design is the characterisation of a user who represents a segment of your target audience. On a project you might create any number of personas to be representative of a range of user needs and desires. The solutions you design must answer these needs in order to deliver value to your target audience.

Card sorting

A great, reliable, inexpensive method for discovering patterns in how users would expect to find content or functionality. Card sorting is used to test the taxonomy of data with a group of subjects, usually to help inform the creation of the information architecture, user flow, or menu structure on a project.

Brainstorming

A technique used to generate ideas around a specific topic. Often done in groups, but can be done individuals. The process usually involves writing down all ideas around a topic onto paper, a whiteboard or stickies often implying some kind of association.

Minimum Viable Product

An MVP is a product that has the minimum set of features to prove the most essential hypothesis for a product. Businesses building a new product can create a Minimum Viable Product to prove that an idea is viable and warrants further investment. A further benefit being that the next stage of development can be informed by feedback obtained from testing that MVP.

Sitemap

A sitemap is a diagrammatic representation of a hierarchical system. It usually depicts the parent-sibling relationship between pages in a website, showing how sub pages might be arranged underneath their parent groupings. This arrangement forms a map of the site.

User journey

A user journey represents a sequence of events or experiences a user might encounter while using a product or service. A user journey can be mapped or designed to show the steps and choices presented as interactions, and the resulting actions.

Prototype

A prototype is draft representation built to test ideas for layout, behaviour and flow in a system. Prototypes are an indispensable tool for resolving a large number of potential issues in a concept or business before too many resources are deployed to put a design into production.

Wireframes

A Wireframe is a visual schematic that conveys a basic level of communication, structure and behaviour during the design of a system. Wireframes are low-fidelity designs that bypass including a detailed user interface or visual design, conveying just enough to get across the core idea.

Usability

To say something is usable is a qualitative statement about how easy that thing is to use. Usability is an assessment of how learnable a system is and how easy a user finds it to use. The usability of a system or product is a key factor in determining whether the user experience is a good one.

Information Architecture

Information architecture is the design and organisation of content, pages and data into a structure that aids users understanding of a system. A more organised system enables users to more easily find the information they require and complete the intended tasks.

UI Design

User Interface Design is the discipline of designing software interfaces for devices, ideally with a focus on maximising efficiency, responsiveness and aesthetics to foster a good user experience.

UX Design

The practice of User Experience (UX) Design is the coming together of many specific design related disciplines to improve the usability, responsiveness, uptake and aesthetics of a product or service.

User Experience

A general term that covers all aspects of a user's participation while engaging with something that has been designed. Usually when talking about User Experience in the digital design field it refers to the interactions, reactions, emotions and perceptions while using an app, service, website or product.

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