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How do design sprints lead to better product decisions?

by Nis Frome in Customer Development
April 13, 2017

When we looked back on the 2,000+ experiments that product teams have run on Alpha, we noted some of the challenges that they first had to overcome. Conceptually, most teams already buy into the value of experimentation and user insights, so that part was relatively easy. For corporate product teams in particular, the primary difficulty was in setting aside the time to make experimentation a continuous process. That’s why the design sprint has emerged as a powerful framework.

When it comes to user-centricity, there is a wide spectrum of competencies and practices. To keep things simple, we categorize product teams into one of three buckets. The first, and least mature, is for product teams that don’t conduct any user research, and make decisions based on opinions. As you can imagine, product development in these cases is fueled by untested assumptions, which more often than not leads to unsuccessful products.

On the other end of the spectrum, in the third bucket, we have product teams that make user research an integrated part of their workflow. Few product decisions get made without customer validation. Most product teams though are in the middle bucket. They do ad hoc user research: when there’s time, when it’s convenient, when the capabilities are readily available.

While continuous research makes sense in a small company, it typically doesn’t within a large organization that has various stakeholders with different (and often competing) objectives and projects. Product managers must diligently consult these stakeholders when explaining customer feedback and deciding on next steps. A predictable and recurring cadence is often necessary to go from assumptions to user insights while keeping everyone on the same page. That’s precisely what the design sprint offers.

Formalized by the Google Ventures team as a way to keep startups aligned with customers even as they scaled rapidly, the design sprint is:

A five-day process for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers…it’s a “greatest hits” of business strategy, innovation, behavior science, design thinking, and more—packaged into a battle-tested process that any team can use.

– Google Ventures

Although the design sprint has since been modified and adapted to meet the objectives of particular scenarios, the 5-day process proposed by Google Ventures involves outlining and prioritizing assumptions and corresponding decisions that need to be made, prototyping potential solutions, and getting feedback from prospective users.

Five days is a tough sell for product teams to dedicate at any regularity, but the notion of dedicated cadences for stakeholders to get aligned is why the design sprint has taken off. For teams currently doing ad hoc user research (or even no user research at all) design sprints are a powerful way to answer key questions and make better product decisions.


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Nis Frome

Nis Frome is the co-founder of Alpha, the platform that enables management teams to make data-driven decisions about users, products, and new markets.

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