What is Design Thinking and Design Sprint?

Developing products physical or digital has changed. Design Thinking is philosophy, a fundamental approach to product design development that puts the user at its core. You want them engaged, so they will then purchase your product and your brand is enhanced by positive user experience. When doing this, its vital to understand how to improve the product by solving a customer’s needs and wants.

Design ThinkingCoined by mathematical engineer John E. Arnold – but developed into its modern iteration by David Kelley and Tim Brown of IDE – Design Thinking is a process that “uses the designer’s sensibility and methods to match people’s needs with what is technologically feasible and what a viable business strategy can convert into customer value and market opportunity.”

When developing products following Design Thinking, you need to have human-focused traits like empathy, integrative thinking, and optimism. You also need to think outside the box and learn to collaborate with your team.

Design Thinking phases

There are five iterative steps involved in Design Thinking. Although they will often follow each other they are not necessarily linear and it’s no uncommon to go back to a previous stage in the process.

1. Empathise

This phase involves putting yourself in the shoes of your target customers. Being open to question things. To ask the correct questions of focus groups & giving insightful answers, make sure you use questions that focus on the ‘why’.

2. Define

What were the patterns that stood out based on your customer research (i.e. common needs)? Set out the problem in simple terms, then dig deeper. Re define it to its most stripped down version. This will then define your problem statement.

3. Ideate

Let your team brainstorm solutions, give them complete freedom, use tools to stimulate creativity, and create an environment conducive to ideation. If you get stuck don’t be afraid to reach out to externals for a sounding out of your ideas.

4. Prototype

Build a prototype that’s focused on the user’s needs and behaviour. How would you like them to interact with your product? This way, you’ll be able to test your ideas and correct any issue that may come up during the testing phase.

5. Test

During this stage, observe how users interact with your prototype. What are the issues they encountered? Then, modify the prototype as you see fit. Return the modified prototype to the users and see if their experience improved. Continue testing until you come up with a final product with a seamless design.

Google’s Design Sprint

As with anything touched by technology, Design Thinking also evolved. In 2010, Google Ventures’ Jake Knapp took the traditional Design Thinking concept and started developing it into what is now referred to as Design Sprint.

Design Sprint is a time-constrained, open resource process that also includes five phases to be completed in five days. Its aim is to build and test prototypes within that time period using a step-by-step checklist.

While it shares similarities with Design Thinking, the main difference is that Design Sprint focuses on the concrete steps to execute the design (as opposed to DT’s underlying philosophy for innovation).

Design Sprint also has off the shelf exercise that will give you results with little preparation. This way, designers and business strategists can easily align their stakeholders and prioritise problems quicker.

Google designed this to support start-ups and help them develop their digital experiences. Since the Sprint book’s publication in 2016, this process gained massive following amongst product and app developers.

Design Sprint phases

Before you start with this process, make sure that you have the right challenge, the right team, as well as proper time and space to conduct the sprint.

You would also need extra experts on hand, as not everyone can be in the sprint the entire week. A facilitator is also needed to manage the entire process, as well as a decider to help each decision stick.

The key here is to remove distractions (no gadgets allowed), clear and block schedules, and plan for late lunches (to avoid crowds).

According to the Sprint Book website, this is how the week is broken down:

“On Monday, you make a map of the problem. On Tuesday, each individual sketches solutions. On Wednesday, you decide which sketches are strongest. On Thursday, you build a realistic prototype. And on Friday, you test that prototype with five target customers.”


1. Monday – Understand

On Monday morning, map out the problem that you need to focus on, so the entire team will know the long-term goal. This involves, among others, 10 to 15-minute sessions called “lightning talks” to be given by key people in your collective.

You’ll also need to find out who your users are via interviews, journey mapping, and empathy building exercises. Competitor review is also vital in formulating your strategies.

In the afternoon, you’ll ask company experts for their opinions. Lastly, pick a manageable piece of the problem that you’re confident you can solve within five days.

2. Tuesday – Diverge/sketch

On Tuesday, focus on coming up with solutions. In the morning, you’ll begin with reviewing current ideas that you need to remix and improve upon.

In the afternoon, the sketching begins. This involves assigning each part of the problem map to each group member so they can generate ideas.

Members will then need to brainstorm their own solutions to the problem, regardless of feasibility, using a four-step sketch process (i.e. gathering notes, jotting down ideas, picking eight ideas and sketching them, and then sketching solutions into panels).

At the end of the day, each person needs to have one well-defined idea. You’d also need to start recruiting five customers for Friday’s testing.

3. Wednesday – Decide

By mid-week, you’ll have several solutions at hand. Wednesday morning is dedicated to critiquing each solution and deciding which one would best take you to your long-term goal.

In the afternoon, create a storyboard (step-by-step plan for a prototype), which includes the winning panels from the chosen solution.

4. Thursday – Prototype

On Thursday, you’ll be creating a realistic prototype. To finish this within the day, all you need to do is focus on the customer-facing part of the product.

By the end of this day, you should have a working prototype for tomorrow’s testing. Confirm schedules with customers and come up with an interview script.

5. Friday – Validate/test

By Friday, you’ll be testing your prototype with real humans. Observe them as they interact with your prototype, watch their reactions, and interview them.

Everyone in the team should be participating in this process, so you’ll know which parts need refining. You can also gather feedback form experts and/or company leaders.

As Google Ventures puts it, this entire process “gives teams a shortcut to learning without building and launching. You can fast-forward into the future to see your finished product and customer reactions, before making any expensive commitments.”

Chris Flynn is the director and founder of Bristol based Flynn Product Design. You can connect with him on LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.