15 design sprints in 12 months: what we learned so far

On what a design sprint is, but also on what it’s not

When I started at KLM Royal Dutch Airlines’ Digital Transformation program a year ago, my colleagues had ran 3 design sprints so far. By now, we have facilitated somewhere around 15 sprints, turning it more into a marathon. We’ve covered a range of topics: from fixing rostering for ground staff to redefining our corporate communications philosophy, and from cabin crew training to employees’ personal development. Without getting into what a design sprint is exactly (for that read this article for example), I would like to share our most important learnings from the past 12 months.

‘I can’t clear my schedule’ is no excuse

Part of a design sprint’s value comes from having the right people in the same room for the entire week working hard towards a common goal. This means there is no room for dropping in and out because you have other important meetings and e-mails you have to get to. The results from sprints where we had people dropping in and out were less spot-on than the ones where we had full-time commitment and focus from the right people for the entire week. And yes, this will require you as facilitator to keep your back straight and dealing with some scheduling issues upfront. But if people are not willing to clear a week in their schedule they apparently don’t find the problem important enough. Of course, there’s a catch: if there are people who you absolutely need to involve that can’t make it the entire week, see if you can still invite them as an expert on Monday.

Embrace the process

When asked to commit their full week to an unknown process, many people asked us ‘But what will I get at the end of the week?’. My answer is often: ‘I don’t know, but we know will have something’. I learned to embrace this ambiguity and the feeling of not knowing on Monday where you will end up on Friday by now. But it definitely takes some getting used to. Key is conveying your personal confidence to participants: it will feel weird and fuzzy to them on Monday, but they won’t be able to work without it on Friday. So make sure you explain to your participants why certain steps are necessary, what they bring to the table, and what they will contribute to the end results.

Get the right team

Getting the most out of a design sprint requires the right people in the room, with the right roles and mindset. Make sure you invite people who are willing to commit their time, come with an open and fresh mind, and are up for something a bit out of their comfort zone. Selecting the right kind of people will make sure participants start to live the idea on their own by the end of the week.

In terms of roles we usually aim for a combination of business stakeholders providing their own expertise, combined with a few designers from our team. Make sure you do your research upfront: who should be involved in the project, who may oppose it (and should thus be involved early), and who can provide valuable expertise? Mix this with some seasoned designers to be able to do the heavy lifting if needed, and provide the creative spark you’re looking for. Selecting the right team upfront will help you create a great, fitting solution for your problem.

Pressure works

A design sprint is a pressure cooker: you’ll dream, build, and test a solution in just one week. So make sure once you’ve convinced the right people to clear their schedule, you’re ready to commit yourself to the 1-week deadline. Don’t find some lame excuse to move your deadline: done is done. We have built things in a week that would normally have taken take months of internal discussions just by locking people together in one room for a week. Yes, that will require taking making assumptions on things you’re not sure of, but sometimes you have to just try things out to see if they work. Just make sure you’re aware which assumptions you’ve made and how you can test them with your users on Friday. You can even use the time pressure to your advantage: it will enable you to get tricky discussions done quickly by making an educated guess or assumption. But make sure you include all these shortcuts in your test plan to collect enough valuable learnings by the end of the week.

Don’t do sprints back to back

There have been weeks where we had design sprints lined up back to back, with the same team in charge of facilitation.

Don’t do this. Really, just don’t.

Facilitating a design sprint takes energy and focus, after which you need to recharge in order to be able to bring your A-game in the next design sprint. A good design sprint also needs work upfront (e.g. scoping the problem, doing extra research, composing the team) and afterwards (collecting materials, learnings, and prototypes), work which you’re not able to do properly when doing multiple sprints in a row. Taking some time in between will give you the time to be better prepated, as well as help improve the result by recharging your own battery.

Don’t fall in love with the result

Design sprints are not a silver bullet for doing all the necessary design for your project in one week. So don’t let yourself and your participants get too attached to the actual prototype you build during the week. You will take shortcuts along the way, some of which may be right, others are not. So make sure you focus on keeping the learnings from the user test, and detach yourself from the actual facade you have built in a day. Take time to reflect on the result and the things you’ve learned, while still being able to trash your prototype if things don’t work out. Re-think and re-test your solution again in a new sprint if necessary.

Shortcut to failing and learning

Design sprints are a great tool for getting sh*t done under pressure, if used properly. Just get ready to make your hands dirty by making sure you and your participants put in the right effort and motivation. Take great care in your preparation and make sure you collect all the ideas and learnings at the end of the week. We’ll definitely continue using design sprints at KLM Digital Transformation to kickstart all kinds of topics, by shortening the road to failure and learning.

Let me know your own personal design sprint learnings in the comments!

Service Designer @ KLM Royal Dutch Airlines | Thoughts on (service) design, design books and other random things.