Practical tips for driving digital innovation

Ideas are easy. Making them happen is the hard part, unless you apply a clever new process that’s being implemented by some of the world’s most innovative brands to tackle problem solving and digital product innovation.

Tom Bradley, design director at Code Computerlove, explains how major brands are sprinting their way to digital success by using design sprints and provides a DIY Design Sprint guide.

Warning: do not read on if you have an idea but don’t want it to happen.

We’ve all been there. Business meetings where loads of great ideas are brought to the table… and left there because turning them into a reality poses a whole new challenge that no one really knows where to start.

But Design Sprints are a new, tried and tested way, to break this cycle of procrastination and take meaningful action towards bringing ideas to life.

Across all sorts of sectors (BBC, Center Parcs, Audi, Manchester Airport Group, and more), we’ve had lots of success in recent years using Design Sprints as a method to quickly explore problems and produce prototyped solutions for testing with real customers.

In many cases these projects have led to the commission of much bigger technical projects, that wouldn’t have been possible without first making the idea more tangible. Equally, we have run sprints that haven’t been conclusive, but we don’t see this as a failure, rather it’s an opportunity to change course before significant budget has been invested.

What are Design Sprints?

Design Sprints are productive way of working that allows businesses to quickly explore solutions, then get them in front of customers as quickly as possible. First developed by Google Ventures, they have become an industry standard method for design teams that want to rapidly explore and test ideas for innovation.

The ‘by the book’ process takes five days, which is very fast, but intensive, so requires commitment from a business in terms of resource and attention from stakeholders. There’s also the risk of blink and you miss it, so if you’re new to design sprints, we recommend focusing more on the process than the five day schedule, breaking it down into stages.

The most important thing is to keep an open mind. You have to be prepared to change or improve your idea based on the insights you gather, embracing the idea of learning to help you shift from a validation mindset to being more open and experimental. 

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So, how does it work?

Stage one: Understanding the problem

The first challenge is to go into your sprint with a clear goal. You may think you have a great idea, but you need to be certain that the problem you’re solving really exists before you do too much work. Understanding what you are aiming to discover or learn is very important.

Start by framing your challenge as a ‘how might we?’ question, then organise a short workshop to dig into it a little bit. Exercises like ‘the five whys’ are a good start, but flipping this by asking ‘what’s stopping us?’ can also help you find more interesting or achievable challenges.

In addition, try asking colleagues to prepare a short presentation in advance to share what they know about the challenge (10 minutes max, strict timing). As people share their expertise, ask everyone else to note down questions or ideas they have. Then group these together under themes.

At the end of this stage you should have the challenge framed and related insights organised in a way that you can work with them. There is always the temptation to start coming up with solutions quickly, so considering a range of methods to make sure you really understand the problem will save a lot of time in the long run. Less haste, more speed. 

Stage two: Exploring multiple solutions

Despite conventional wisdom, it is now well understood that brainstorming doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean you can’t work creatively and productively as a team, it just needs careful planning. Generally speaking, individuals are better at working on a solution to a problem by themselves, but then groups are good at spotting issues and opportunities to improve.

Using the output from stage one, give people different aspects of the challenge to work on, but make it clear that the output from their work should be consistent. We give people three post-it notes (mobile phone screen size) and a sheet of A3 paper and ask them to produce a simple storyboard. You might find some fear of this creative task (art!) so suggesting warm-up exercises like Squiggle Birds can really help to put people at ease.

When you have all of your ideas in good shape (aim of 10 to 12 different solutions), organise a group critique. A good way to run this is to use is ‘Rose, Thorn, Bud’ where you ask participants to review the ideas and identify the positives (roses), the things to watch out for (thorns) and the things that have potential (buds). This methods frames all of the feedback in a positive way, allowing participants to productively build on the ideas of others. 

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Take a break

It’s important to let people catch their breath. This is a good opportunity to write up everything you’ve done so far and share with people that haven’t been involved so far so that you can get any direction from senior people that you might need and generally keep everyone in the loop.

Stage three: Converge

The foundational principle of a design sprint is to learn by doing. Don’t talk yourself out of an idea before you had a chance to test it, as the process of making an artefact and putting in front of a potential customer provide you with rich insights, so you have to trust the process and focus from now on.

Resd more: How to know if it's the right time to make your idea happen

Take the top ideas from stage two, and start to flesh them out by plotting all of the touchpoints that will need to be thought through in order to bring the idea to life. This can become a big task, so limit the detail for now, focusing more on the individual jobs that customers will need to complete at each stage of the journey, and then what benefits they get and what might hold them back.

Start with pen and paper, and sketch out each screen that a customer would see along the way. You don’t need to be a designer to do this, as at this point we just need enough to communicate the idea.

Stage four: Prototype

Now that you have worked out all the screens that you need, it’s time to stitch them together as a prototype that somebody could actually use.

We look for a ‘goldilocks fidelity’ so there is enough design for someone to understand, but not so much that it takes too long to make or requires professional graphic design. Simple paper prototypes can be really effective, or you can make something more interactive using PowerPoint. Whatever tool you use, remember the objective is to make the simplest possible thing that helps you learn, not something that is made simply to impress people. 

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Stage five: Test

When looking for sources of feedback, people often look in the wrong place. Asking friends, family and strangers will often support your idea because of an unwillingness to offend you. You need to make sure you’re gathering objective and honest feedback from potential customers. (You should aim to find six to eight potential customers.)

Having spent time and effort working on your ideas and making prototypes, it’s probably fair to say you will be a little biased towards them. What happens in practice is that people subconsciously search for evidence that validates their thinking, so learning to spot this ‘confirmation bias’ is important from the start.

Make sure you take notes in a structured way, writing down direct quotes and highlighting positives, opportunities, issues and new thinking as you spot them. At the end of the sessions it’s important to look for patterns rather than focusing on single individuals.

The golden rules

  1. There are four essential roles: facilitator (running the process), designer (focusing on quality), researcher (understanding the audience) and subject ­matter expert (representing the business). Try to avoid doing everything yourself!
  2. Commit to testing and schedule it before you start - this creates the impetus to get through the rest of the process and stops you from going over old ground. Be realistic about what can be done in the time you have and what you need from others.
  3. Allow for insight gathering before you start (data and analysis, customer research, competitor reviews, etc.) as you need the background information to hand in order to effectively describe the problem that you are solving.
  4. Create a diverse team. It’s nice to work with people that agree with you, but you need different perspectives to properly test an idea. Remember, as the person with the original idea, you’ll be rooting for success so might easily miss important feedback.
  5. Have fun. Playfulness and humour are empirically linked to creativity and innovation.

Remember to photograph and document your activities. If your end goal is to pitch your idea to investors you will need to be able to tell a compelling story. If you are saying you have a solution to a problem, aim to provide evidence of the problem. Getting good at Design Sprints takes practice, so our advice is always to start small by trying a few things out before taking on the full process, or bring in the experts to help facilitate it.

Find out more about using Design Sprints on the Code Computerlove website.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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