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Jonathan Courtney is a Product Designer who helps some of the biggest companies in the world bring new products to the market, faster. He’s also the founder and CEO of AJ&Smart, an award-winning product design studio based in Berlin, Germany.
Catch Jonathan on The Product Breakfast Club, a podcast by Jake Knapp and Jonathan Courtney.
Blitzscaling: The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies, by Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh.
Design sprints introduce experimentation and the scientific method to the world of digital product development. Like experimentation, the process is not about success or failure. It’s really about validation, getting quickly to the point of success or failure with considerably less investment of time, resources, and money.
In this episode, hosts Sean and Joe catch up with Jonathan Courtney, co-founder and CEO of AJ&Smart, a 21-person product studio in Berlin, Germany. A product designer by training and trade, Jonathan commands attention not only because AJ&Smart has facilitated more than 200 design sprints since 2016 – and he about 100 – but because of the engaging, humorous, and impassioned way he talks about using the design sprint process to help companies that struggle with defining their product goals.
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Joe [00:00:00] OK so today’s episode we have Jonathan Courtney and I’ve been following Jonathan’s podcast for quite awhile and I’ve been loving it. I think he’s hilarious. You and Jake are putting out great content, making it fun, making it interesting. So, I thought, hey, Jonathan would be a great guest for our podcast to talk about what he kind of specializes in at the moment, which is design sprints. So Jonathan, welcome.
Jonathan [00:00:22] Hey, how’s it going, lads?
Joe [00:00:24] All right. So we’ve got folks on all spectrums listening to this, you know, about design sprints and everything, so can you just give like a brief overview of what you do, where you work, and what you guys do design sprints?
Jonathan [00:00:38] Yeah, cool. So can you hear me okay, by the way?
Joe [00:00:41] Sounds great.
Jonathan [00:00:41] Just double checking. I’m literally, like I mentioned earlier to you guys, I’m home because I’m having my first sick day in, I don’t know, like eight years or something. And in my house, in my apartment in Berlin, there’s zero phone reception. So my phone is outside on the terrace and I’m inside with AirPods. So if anything falls apart, it’s not my fault.
Joe [00:01:06] You know people should know it’s your first sick day with a baby which is a whole different world.
Jonathan [00:01:11] Yeah, it’s intense. It’s hard to just like kind of enjoy it. I remember before I used to just be really able to, you know, just enjoy it and watch stupid stuff on TV or play video games, but now it’s not as relaxing. But it’s still fine. So what I do, okay. So, well basically, I’ve been running this design agency, product design agency, in Berlin for the last seven and a half years. We’re called AJ&Smart. We’re a 21 person product studio and pretty much what we do, and I’ll get into specifically what I do, what we do is we help companies all around the world to come up with new product ideas, come up with new expensive like feature overhauls, or also validate new products. The main way we are doing that or the main system for doing that is sort of like a custom version of the design sprint process. Originally it was taken from the book Sprint by Jake Knapp and we sort of adapted it to the agency and let’s say corporate product design world.
Jonathan [00:02:14] So what I do kind of on a weekly basis or on a daily basis is either kind of building out the product teams within AJ&Smart, or, you know, working with different companies to help them define sort of what their product goals are and it can be everything with the word product related to it. And when I say product I should say I’m always talking about digital products rather than, you know, cups or tables or something because I always get the question, “oh, but what about a design brand for a physical product?” And I’m like, “we’re on a digital product or UX podcast here, so don’t ask me about the physical product.” Someone always wants to, though.
Sean [00:02:52] So how many design sprints have you actually run? I think that I’ve heard that number bounced around on some of your podcasts and I’m just curious, how many have you run now?
Jonathan [00:02:59] So pretty much, I think probably well over 200 at this point. Because, well us as a company, you know, we run them in parallel so we often have two running in parallel and pretty much have since late 2015. So that’s been going on for about four years now. And me personally, I don’t know, maybe around 100 probably at this point I would say.
Sean [00:03:24] And you run them for about a week right? So that’s it’s quite a bit of time.
Jonathan [00:03:28] Yeah, so it’s a lot of sprints. We actually run them a little bit differently now than we used to a few years ago. So the way we sell, let’s say we don’t run them differently, but we sell the package of the design sprint differently. So we only allow customers to book a four week package from us now. And so we do like a week zero, we call it. And on week zero, we just do some prep, we call the stakeholders from that company, we try to understand what their challenge is a little bit more clearly… It’s not about user research, it’s just about understanding the challenge more clearly and sort of the politics that are going to be happening in the company, and then we have week one, and this is just the design sprint, pretty much, we run a design sprint. Then it’s week two. This is an iteration sprint. So we’re running the second week of the design sprint. It’s not really in the book but it’s something that Jake, the creator of the design sprint, is also doing and we picked up as well. And then there’s week three which is then sort of like the, you know, just delivering all of the stuff that came up in the design sprint to that company. So even though in the past we used to sell sort of one week standalone sprints, I see the first week of the sprint being like, you know, going into a dark room and throwing a dart and not knowing where it’s going to land. Darts are like a thing you know in the US, right?
Joe [00:04:43] Oh yeah, oh yeah.
Jonathan [00:04:47] It’s a game, darts.
Joe [00:04:47] Big bar game.
Jonathan [00:04:47] It’s like throwing a dart in a dark room. And I feel like the light only comes on at the end of the first week and you see where it landed and on the second week you actually see the board; you know where you need to throw it. So I feel like the first week of a sprint is always like, “let’s just see if this is something that’s really a valid product. Let’s see if there’s any chance of product-market fit, and then in the second week we can sort of, you know, make that product proposition a lot more clear and actually design the screens, make it a lot more like a real product and get it to something that could actually be released as an MVP.”
Joe [00:05:20] Yeah, so anyone who haAsn’t read the book or isn’t familiar with it, a design sprint as opposed to just a regular sprint in scrum: design sprints about a week long as they’re outlined in the book, you got to set the stage kind of beforehand, you gotta get it all prepped, then day one is understanding your problem, day two is sketching it, everyone sketches, day three is deciding which one we’re going to go with, day four is prototyping, and then day five is validating. So you mentioned something that you’ve kind of made it your own for the agency environment, that’s a question I get a lot of, do you have to follow it exactly as its outlined in the book or can you tweak it? So since you’ve already kind of alluded that you guys tweak the process, like, where’s the limit of that, you know, some people want to compress it down to two days. Is that really pushing it? Like where is the kind of line of how you’ve found where customizing it works?
Jonathan [00:06:02] So the limit we found, and keep in mind that we’re experimenting with this pretty much every week for the last three or four years, the limit we found is four days and that’s because there’s a couple of elements that if you remove them it sort of kills the sprint process. And those elements are, first of all, getting the important stakeholders in the room, the important people who are part of this product to just get all of the ideas out of their head and that sort of thing you need to understand as part of the sprint, you really can’t skip that. Then there’s the sketching so really getting everyone to pump out as many solutions as possible. Then you have to create the prototype and then you have to test it.
Jonathan [00:06:40] So we do it as a four day process at AJ&Smart right now rather than a five day process and that was just through tweaking it non-stop month over month over month over month and working with different types of companies, whether it’s like the big corporates or Silicon Valley startups. We wanted to make sure that the process was as efficient as possible so we created a couple standalone exercises. One is called the lightning decision jam, that’s a one-and-a-half hour exercise which we sometimes call a mini sprint, but I think if you want to get the full power of the sprint, as in going into a room on a Monday with nothing but loads of different possible directions and leaving at the end of a Thursday with a high fidelity prototype that, you know, five users have already given you some validation on, then I think really for me four days is the minimum and I think anything less… And companies do less. I know that Google, for example, internally they play around with doing less days than that, but I personally think that it’s first very very good to master the week-long version before you start immediately playing with it. I see that often people, before they even understand what the design sprint is all about, they’re already customizing it and I think that’s a really bad idea.
Joe [00:07:57] I think that’s really good advice to start out with how it is laid out and then based on what’s wrong tweak it from there. So the other question I get a ton is, and it’s great that we’re getting this all out there, for example, “we have a new idea for a product line,” I’ll hear from a company. Is that fit design sprint, or like what should a design sprint be used for? Because I see it being kind of seen as like a hammer and everything’s a nail.
Jonathan [00:08:19] Yeah. So you’re right, it isn’t good for everything. I mean, I’ll just tell you, kind of because I train also the sales team at AJ&Smart in this question, also because we don’t want to get projects where it doesn’t make sense to do a design sprint or it’s completely —–ed for us because we’ll be in a sprint that we actually can’t complete and then we would just have to get the money back. So the way we see it is that it needs to be a big enough problem to warrant running a design sprint. And a big enough problem is a new product line just like you said, yes a design sprint would be good for this. So if it’s something that has a lot of potential different people who would be involved in creating it and it’s just blurry, there’s no clear direction for it yet, that’s a perfect perfect design sprint proposition. So that would be something like, “we have this technology or we have this gut feeling that this could be an interesting product but we don’t really know what it is, like, we know there’s this customer problem but we don’t really know what the product could be.” So design sprints are really great for that for getting some clarity on it.
Jonathan [00:09:21] They’re also good for, you know, a common thing is like if you have a product that’s been out there for a while and it’s been targeting like a niche market and you want to make it into a mainstream product. We’ve done this for banks or for a lot of startups who’ve been tech-focused at first and now want to go for a bigger mainstream market which means the entire product has to be ripped apart. So it’s a big enough problem. Where I would not do a design sprint is for specific design challenges. Even though it’s called a design sprint, the design sprint is not for design challenges, it’s not for, “oh let’s fix the navigation,” even though you could, if you have the luxury of time, you could use a design sprint for that, but it’s totally overkill and a total waste of resources and time. So don’t use a design sprint for things that are too basic, like too simple, and too specific where potentially one person could do it, or also don’t use a design sprint if it’s so broad that it’s something like, “hey we are a company and we want to innovate more let’s do a design sprint on that.” I had a company call me recently and they said, “hey look we want to digitize, generally.” They were a multi-billion dollar company. They wanted to digitize in general. Like, they wanted to go digital. That’s a digital transformation project. For me the design spirit might be one tiny tiny tiny element of that, but it’s not the solution.
Sean [00:10:43] So it’s not to be used for things that are so broad that you don’t have any idea. It’s just not a brainstorming session. It’s a focused tool, right.
Jonathan [00:10:52] It’s not. It’s also quite product focused, I’ll be honest. Like, I mean, we’ve used design sprints for a lot of different things internally, but I think it’s mostly a product-focused process. You know, you can use it for, and one of the most common questions I get is, “can we use this for company culture change?” And the answer is, yes, but not in the context of the results of the sprint actually being the thing that changes the culture, but actually doing the sprint itself helps change the mindset of the team. So there are a lot of benefits for running sprints, but I think that most companies should just focus on using it for product-focused challenges.
Sean [00:11:29] Right. It’s the outcome and the experience that could affect the culture and the language that you learn to use when you’re operating the design sprints, right.
Jonathan [00:11:37] It’s huge. I mean, I’ve seen companies completely change their attitudes to innovation or product design or collaboration by seeing a sprint happening. And you know, there’s a couple of super counterintuitive things within the sprint like the fact that you work in a group but you don’t speak to each other and you don’t share what you’re doing with each other and everything is anonymous. I think that’s something that people are not used to, especially if they’re expecting it to be something similar to design thinking.
Sean [00:12:06] Cool, so I’ve got a question for you. So I’ve pulled a quote from one of your previous podcasts: “Failing fast sometimes sucks. It’s exciting in a masochistic way.” We know design sprints aren’t intended to always be successful, it’s not really the point right, so we are running experiments we come up with a solution, we test them in front of real customers. Curious if you have any measures or if you keep track of this, but like what percentage of your design sprints since you’ve done so many, more than anybody that I know. What percentage of them fail?
Jonathan [00:12:34] That’s a really good question. So I would say that in the beginning, a lot more of them failed then they didn’t fail. I think AJ&Smart is a bad example because we’ve built a company around being excellent validating products. So we’ve gotten to the point with a couple of clients where we will say to them, you know, at the end of week one… That’s why we have the two weeks so that we can pivot within the work that we’re doing. So it has definitely happened. In fact, it happened two weeks ago that we started a sprint and at the end of the first week we said to them, “OK, this is not a product, like you shouldn’t bring this to the market, it’s too risky. It seems like you think people want this but actually no one wants it. And our recommendation would be to go in a different direction.” So in the old AJ&Smart way of selling individual sprints, that would have been a fail. And I think back in 2017, I would say that maybe only about 50 percent of the work that we did actually made it onto the market and actually was successful for our clients, which was fine. I think this was kind of OK because the design sprint is really about validating.
Jonathan [00:13:39] But now that we’ve built really excellent product teams and now that we’ve really focused in on making the process a bit longer to make sure that these products actually come out. But also to be honest, like I said, the reason why it doesn’t really make sense for me to answer it from the perspective of AJ&Smart. We also charge a lot. So the companies that are coming to us, they already have a hunch that their thing is going to work but they just don’t really know what that thing is and they just want to be sure. So I think today at AJ&Smart you’d be looking more around the 80 percent number of products that we work on actually come out and are actually successful for our clients. But internally, design sprints: again, they’re not supposed to be about success or failure. As in, a sprint where the answer at the end is, “we shouldn’t do this,” is actually a great sprint. So I think myself and Jake, when we’re talking about, you know, what should be tell these companies, how often should those sprints end with a failure? 50 percent is totally fine. You should expect that 50 percent of the time that you’re going to validate the fact that you shouldn’t make this product at all.
Sean [00:14:47] That’s a great answer. And that’s a lot less expensive than, you know, traditionally how companies go down that path.
Jonathan [00:14:53] A 100 percent. A 100 percent. It’s crazy how often I’ll be one week into one of these design sprint processes and I’m just like, “holy —, I’m so glad we helped them not to build this thing. And I’m so glad we get to pivot next week because they would have spent millions on this thing.” And also, once they see it in their hands, once they’re holding the prototype sometimes, these customers of ours they’re like, “oh yeah, it is kinda too basic, there’s no business here.” And so it’s really great that you can get to that failure point very quickly with the sprint. And sometimes we go against our own rules at AJ&Smart and we’ll build a product and we’ll spend too long on it and we’ll release it and it will completely fail. And then we’re like, “why the — didn’t we use the design sprint for it when we know that it works so well for everything else we do?” You sometimes do forget that it’s actually about also figuring out if something can fail.
Joe [00:15:47] Yeah, so not only what if they had built it and spent all the money actually building, it but just the time aspect of, it’s all the kind of work you’d have to do anyways. All the questions you’d have to ask, all the testing. So let’s compress it down and just get it done, because you know in coportate everything takes way longer if the longer you draw it out, obviously.
Jonathan [00:16:04] Yeah, exactly. We work with a lot of corporate American companies, and to be honest, these large companies are the same everywhere. And even the kind of big famous Silicon Valley companies that everyone thinks are like super agile super fast, they also get bogged down in all of the bureaucracy and they’re also quite slow and struggle with, you know, validating things quickly. And you know, they have so many resources, they have so much money, that it often goes unnoticed that a simple task that could have been validated in two weeks has been worked on for like two years and the team is focusing on nailing the animations or nailing the branding and then it comes out and flops. And no one really thinks of it as a failure, it’s like, “okay, next.” And I think that’s also why the design sprint kind of went from being, “oh this could be a nice little fun trend for a while to being as much a part of the kind of design systems within these companies as design thinking claims to be, or kind of like, user-centered design.” So I think it’s because of what you said, because of these large corporates just being so unbelievably slow that the design sprint is coming in as at least a small bit of an antidote to that.
Sean [00:17:14] Right. When you interviewed Jason Fried ahwile back, one of the things he said was not to design by anecdote. And I think the design sprint is a cure to that. It’s one anyway. Executive anecdotes tend to drive a lot of spending. And if we don;t test those anecdotes against data… We should be treating everything like an experiment.
Jonathan [00:17:36] Yeah, sorry I’m such a rambler, but like, it’s such a good thing to bring up because I think, you know, one of the things that used to piss me off the most when I was a UX designer sort of working within companies would be my boss or his boss coming up to me and saying that, you know, like their cousin saw this cool thing and showed them this cool thing. Therefore, five million dollars is now going into this new project that I, in my gut feeling was thinking, “wait what? how did this happen?” Just like these really really basic assumptions turning into huge huge multi-million dollar projects that span two years and have a team of 20 people instead of just trying to see if something like this is even valid in the first place. It blows me away that I used to be part of projects like this and that’s still the norm in most corporate companies.
Joe [00:18:29] I’m waiting for the day when like a board or someone high up in a company looks at what their team is doing to be like, “why didn’t you just do a design sprint or why didn’t you just do something like this or that like that?” and that’s the new norm.
Jonathan [00:18:39] That is happening now.
Joe [00:18:40] Oh really, good, very good.
Jonathan [00:18:42] Yeah for sure, for sure.
Joe [00:18:44] So you know, one of the devil’s advocate questions too out there when you’re trying to sell it I’m sure is, “is this a fad?” You know, I get pitched some new way of doing something every couple of years or every few years, so are design sprints a fad?
Jonathan [00:18:56] So this is even, like devils advocate ourselves every few months and we put a video on YouTube called, “is this a fad or is this a trend?” And we do almost like a temperature check on the design sprint. So I think I can answer pretty easily why it’s not. So I think a lot of trends, and a lot of design trends, and a lot of kind of, I don’t know, snake oil quick fixes are generally easy things. They’re generally like it sounds, like quick fixes. The design sprint process is in no way easy. It’s actually much more difficult than what designers are used to having to do, much more energy draining, much more intense, and a lot more communication with stakeholders has to happen. And I think for me when I kind of recognize that something’s going to be a trend that’s going to fade away is when designers are selling it and talking about it but deep down, they’re all kind of like, “this is actually —.” And an example of that for me, and by the way I’m a big fan of IDEO and I’m a big fan of the philosophy behind design thinking, but how design thinking is being sold and how design thinking is being talked about behind closed doors is, “huh, this is —, but yeah, we’re gonna do it because the clients like it anyway.” And for me that’s the warning signs of a trend or a fad that’s on its way out. And I know for a fact that when I was working as an employee in large corporate, you know, we would all roll our eyes when we had to give someone a design thinking workshop or when we had to use design thinking to make a product. We would all pretend that we were doing it, but we would never actually use any of the exercises. Whereas with the design sprint, designers are seeing this as an actual tool to take out of their toolkit that they can say, “oh —, you know, in the past we didn’t have a way to run kickoff meetings; the design sprint is the most ideal way to start projects that just has not been there before.” There were loads of different ways to do it, you would basically, every product strategist and every designer had their own kind of magical way of starting projects but it was always very ad hoc and I think that designers, you know, these are the people who are going to have to champion this, designers and product managers are seeing the design sprint as the first almost repeatable very robust way to start product projects that’s just been around ever, pretty much.
Jonathan [00:21:21] And like I said, there have been lots of different things. You know, I used to try using the Business Model Canvas combined with lean personas and all of this kind of stuff. But for me, the design sprint is like the first system for starting product projects that actually works repeatedly. And when companies start to see the results of these things in a very short amount of time they start to realize, like, “hey, this isn’t just some fun cool flowery designer thing like design thinking that all these designers love. This is actually a very cold robust repeatable process.” So I’m the most critical person in terms of like, you know, is the design sprint the only thing you can use, is the design sprint a trend? Because I have to be because I don’t want AJ&Smart to be selling design sprints when other companies are not interested in buying them anymore. So for me I think the trend has not even started. I was recently in a very famous Silicon Valley corporate company, which is kind of a funny thing to say, Silicon Valley corporate. I was training them in how to run design sprints. And I asked them, “hey, how many people in this room have heard of design thinking?” And only about three people put their hand up. And I was like, OK, design thinking hasn’t even made its way into these corporates, the design sprint has barely even started. But with the momentum that I see now, I think even in 15 years, 20 years, we’ll see the design sprint as still a valid part of the toolkit. And they’ll be other parts of it too, but the design sprint’s just a great way to get things started.
Joe [00:22:53] That was great context.
Jonathan [00:22:54] So the answer is no. I think it’s a no. I was just —- rambling for two hours. No.
Joe [00:23:00] I watched your YouTube video by the way, I saw you creeping up on everyone with that camera.
Jonathan [00:23:04] That’s good fun making those.
Sean [00:23:09] All right. That’s the part of the podcast where we dig into your brain and take advantage of the fact that you’ve built a company around this and you’ve done over 100 sprints yourself. So here’s a tough one.
Jonathan [00:23:18] Yes.
Sean [00:23:19] How important is the facilitator versus the process? Because if the process is so clean, then, you know, anybody that can read a book could potentially operate a design sprint and execute it perfectly.
Jonathan [00:23:31] Yeah.
Sean [00:23:32] You have a firm that’s based on this so I’m assuming there’s some magic to the facilitation too and I just want to understand how important you think that is and what makes a great facilitator of a design sprint.
Jonathan [00:23:42] OK. So I’ll answer this as two questions one, exactly what you said, how important is the facilitator versus the process? And the second thing is sort of, why a do people book AJ&Smart in particular? And I won’t make that a sales pitch, I’ll just explain the kind of systems we have built in-house. So number one, the facilitator is very important, unfortunately, haha, which makes it extremely hard to scale this. So what we find is that when we go into one of these corporates and run a design sprint, they always then want to run them internally and we always used to think, “oh yeah, well, you know, just put someone in the room with us and they can run it themselves the next time, you know, we’ll give them them like access to, you know, the book and all of that kind of stuff.” Now we have an online course that really helps them as well. But what we’ve realized is that without training of proper facilitators the results of the sprint are a lot worse.
Jonathan [00:24:41] So you know, it does. Like for us at AJ&Smart, it’s a bit of a nightmare because, I mean, we’ve been doing sprints for years now but in our sprint team which is around 8 people, we still only have two to three people who we can say could actually facilitate the sprint and lead it from start to finish. So for me, I think the skill of a facilitator is really really needed to run a sprint, to run a very good sprint. Anyone can run an okay sprint, but I think to run a good or very good sprint you need a facilitator who has product knowledge, who understands the product world, who understands product strategy and who can pull up case studies out of their head and say, “oh yeah, well this is like this.” And honestly, they kind of need to understand product business model especially if they’re going to be running sprints for multiple different departments or multiple different companies. So I would say the process is important but the facilitator is…. Well here’s the way I would say it, a great facilitator, I will say I’m a pretty good facilitator, a great facilitator without a process… I used to still get to the same end point but it would take me like three or four months of hell working with the client. And now with the process I can get to that same point within one week. So I think the process like accelerates the whole work for a really good facilitator. But a really bad facilitator with the excellent process I think is also not going to have a fantastic outcome. Honestly that’s a really bad answer but I think you need both to make it work really well.
Jonathan [00:26:20] Now to answer that kind of slightly more granular, on the AJ&Smart front, when we do a design sprint for a client, we not only provide the facilitator, we also provide a user researcher who researches the potential product inside and out and also recruits all the users for the user testing, does the user testing, and then turned that information into actionable results. But we also then have a super high-quality UX/UI designer who does all of the prototyping work, all of the design work, even if we are being brought into a company that’s already known for being excellent at design we do that ourselves because we kind of offer ourselves as a plug-in-and-play product team. And I think, no matter what, that’s just something that’s extremely difficult to replicate and extremely difficult to scale. I thought we’d have five teams that could do that now at AJ&Smart but it’s just… Maybe I’m just bad at building a company like that, but I found it extremely difficult to build 10 out of 10 quality teams and so far we’ve only built two within AJ&Smart over the last three years. I could build like a million 6 out of 10 quality teams, but really really high quality, that’s super difficult.
Sean [00:27:32] You answered the question spot on. So facilitators are critical.
Jonathan [00:27:36] I think so.
Sean [00:27:37] You put a bunch of people in the room, in any room… I’ve been running workshops for 20 years. One day workshops on the things that we do, which is our own unique specific thing. But the people that you put in the room are critical to the output. You’re going to get all kinds of personalities in the room, right, and you’re gonna have naysayers, and you’re going to have pessimists, and their perspective is important and a great facilitator knows how to get the juice out of those guys as well as the juice out of the optimists and the idea people.
Jonathan [00:28:04] What kind of workshops do you do when you’re going in there and getting juice out of people?
Sean [00:28:08] They’re one day, we call them innovation workshops. So yeah.
Jonathan [00:28:13] Okay. Just trying to add a dirty joke into the podcast.
Sean [00:28:18] That’s good, that’s good.
Joe [00:28:21] I won’t tell people is really called.
Jonathan [00:28:27] Keep it quiet.
Sean [00:28:28] Yeah. So I put a lot of value on empathy, on customer empathy and group dynamics and training people on, how do you identify the different players in the room? Because some someone workshops we run have up to 17 people in them and the facilitation part is so important to get a valuable workshop done.
Jonathan [00:28:47] Totally and it’s so —-ing hard to find good facilitators. It’s the bane of my life.
Sean [00:28:52] All right.
Joe [00:28:53] So here’s a question if it makes any sense. So companies start to run design sprints, maybe you train them or they’ve just run a couple or even one maybe. But what are some of the unexpected side benefits they might get out of it just from having done the process.
Jonathan [00:29:05] So the same thing pretty much happens every time and I’m always so excited by it. So first of all, what will happen is we’ll go into a company and we’ll work with a product team in there and we’ll work on a new product. We’ll help them get that out faster than they’ve ever gotten out before and then basically what starts to happen is other teams, non-product teams like sales or HR or customer support or, who was I talking to last week? There was this team, it was a really unexpected phone call. I don’t know. It was some sort of like operations within the company. Anyways, these teams, without us doing any advertising or anything at all, they hear about how quickly this works and they hear that like we managed to get some of these troublemaker stakeholders into a room and get ideas out of them and have them basically sign off on things without micromanaging the — out of it. Which is basically a thing that used to be a huge problem for us at AJ&Smart was we would work with a big company and we would never be able to get a sign-off on the design because these managers would keep asking you for last minute changes.
Jonathan [00:30:10] So anyways, because of the design sprint we’re able to get all this stuff done super quickly, have that product come out pretty quickly and also with less stress, and other people start to get jealous that they were able to get this done and they get super curious and they start to learn the design sprint themselves using our YouTube channel or buying our courses or something like that. And we’ll get a call a couple of months down the line from someone, or an email, saying, “hey Jonathan,” like I got one also two weeks ago from a high school in the US, it’s like, “hey Jonathan, I just wanted to let you know, one of my colleagues was using the design sprint, and I checked it out, and now I’m running it with our internal sales team to help optimize our sales processes.” I got one from a human resources manager a couple of months ago saying that she completely redesigned onboarding for hiring new employees at their company with a really small team using the design sprint process.
Jonathan [00:31:05] So I think the side effect is that people start to see the value in being able to start projects in a systematic way. You know, the normal way of doing it, just to indulge my rambling, the normal way of doing something is, “hey, we want to fix something, let’s all get in a room together with no agenda, or we try to have an agenda but really it’s not an agenda.” And then at the end of the day, the result of that meeting is, “let’s have another meeting.” With the design sprint process, what the human resources manager can say is, “hey, you two, can we sit down next week? I just need you Monday and Tuesday. I’m gonna faciliate or and I’m going to bring in a facilitator and by Thursday we’re gonna have a little bit of a prototype of an experiment I want to try out.” And that for me, and that for these people, it’s kind of mindblowing and extremely liberating and also something that for the first time to get to actually do things and work on things that are very visible and show it to their seniors, show it to their bosses.
Jonathan [00:32:02] And so I think one of the biggest side effects is just people start to see the value in having a structured process for starting new projects when it’s within a group and they just start to do it themselves without any intervention, without any begging, you know like in a lot of companies they have to beg their employees to use design thinking or beg their employees to be more human centered and they have to go through all these programs, they have all these —ing booklets on how to do it. But the design sprint actually makes you look good. So these employees don’t need any sort of prodding to do it. They just do it. They want to look good, they want to get these projects done quicker. And they also want less stress so they start using the sprint process and it starts to spread like a virus on its own.
Jonathan [00:32:46] This company, I think you’ve heard of a company called Lego, and we’ve talked a lot about them on our podcast. We talk a lot about them on our Medium page or whatever it’s being called these days, and yeah, like one person within Lego was just like, “oh, the design sprint is cool,” and within a couple of months they’d run 60 design sprints. This thing spreads like a virus. It’s crazy. It’s crazy how quickly this spreads once it gets into a company. One of the companies we work with right now, they’re like a very old very famous German car company, we just ran one sprint with them in November and now there’s no chance that we can keep up with the amount of teams that are calling us without the other teams knowing that they’re calling us, right. They’re like, “we want to run sprint on this and on this and after the first sprint it’s often non-product-related challenges they’re calling us for. For example, I’m often called to do the, like let’s say these bigger corporates that have a board or investors, I’m asked to come in and facilitate like a lightning decision jam or a mini sprint for their quarterly annual review meetings and stuff like that. It’s crazy, it just spreads like crazy, you don’t need to tell anybody anything. They look behind the design sprint and see the principles that are involved and start trying to apply it to their own work. So it just spreads. That’s the side effect. It spreads on its own without designers having to kind of beg people to be interested. You know, like designers, our job everyday at companies used to be, “please care about users, please care about usability.” And now I don’t need to do anything because they want to do this stuff. It’s really interesting.
Sean [00:34:22] That’s amazing.
Joe [00:34:24] That’s cool. 60 sprints, holy cow. I got thousands of Legos around my house right now, these kids, working.
Sean [00:34:30] I have one last question for you. I actually have a whole bunch but just to be respectful of your time because we promised you only an hour.
Jonathan [00:34:39] No worries, it’s been really fun. Thanks for having me as well.
Sean [00:34:42] No worries. You talk about innovation a lot. I think your opening episode is about innovation and the next to last one was about innovation as well and I just want to understand, of all the things you’ve learned, the goal of the design sprint is to create innovation and put it in the world, right. How do you define that word, innovation?
Jonathan [00:35:00] So I would say that for me the goal of the design sprint is not to create innovation and put it in the world. I’m personally sort of… I don’t actually like the word innovation at all. I think that the most people think that what innovation means is good ideas. And I think that also what people think innovation means is interesting and exciting ideas. But what innovation actually is is just a much better way of doing something that people have already been trying to do another way. And it can even be something as basic as, you know, Uber: no one would consider Uber an innovation if you actually talked about what it actually was when it came out. It’s like, “oh instead of taking taxis there’s some black limousine and you can book those” That’s not innovation at all, but incrementally it became very innovative, incrementally it changed people’s behaviors.
Jonathan [00:35:54] So I think what the design sprint is really about is about finding product-market fit. So basically making sure that you’re creating something useful and creating something that there’s a market for and whether or not that becomes a product that changes people’s behaviors and changes their behaviors in a new way which is then that’s something that’s innovative, I don’t know if that’s important or not because there’s a lot of products out there that don’t need to be considered innovative to be good. For example, Google Sheets is not an innovative product. It’s just Excel but they decided to make a non-native version of it instead of picking it up they had just made a web version of it. Now I wouldn’t consider that to be innovation but I would consider that to be a very useful product that I’m glad is on the market. So for me the definition of innovation is something that’s useful and executed really well. And I would separate that from the innovation which is sort of about surprise and delight. So for me, one innovative product that I think is clearly obviously innovative is, you know, like a Tesla. When you get into a Tesla, you’re like, “holy —. This is so different. There’s nothing similar to it. This is like out of this world. It’s crazy.” But on a day to day basis, the Amazon Kindle, which everyone uses and everyone loves, this e-reader that Amazon makes, this is not innovative, but it’s also the best product in its category just because it has all of the books that you want and it’s simple and it’s cheap. You know that if it breaks Amazon will take it back for free. So I just think that, in my opinion, innovation in terms of like exciting, delightful, beautiful, crazy, different products; I’m not a fan that and I think almost no company ever manages to do that but it’s like this incremental usefulness that’s what I’m interested in.
Sean [00:37:45] Yeah. Thank you for correcting me and clarifying designs that design sprints are not about putting innovation in the world, you’re absolutely right. And I think the problem with the word and its use is that it’s subjective. You know, we all have a different definition for what it means.
Jonathan [00:38:00] Yeah absolutely.
Sean [00:38:01] So you have your growth levers, acquisition, activation, retention, that you use in your growth experiments and I love that by the way for how to get our early growth going. And you’ve come up with, it seems like, some sort of measurement system there. So if you’re gonna do an experiment, a growth experiment, it should hit one of these three measures, right: acquisition, activation, retention.
Jonathan [00:38:20] Yeah.
Sean [00:38:21] We’ve kind of done it similarly. Trying to kind of push into my culture, if you’re going to use the word innovationm let’s use it very specifically and let’s use it in a way that matters, in a way that you can actually measure. Otherwise it’s just word salad, right.
Jonathan [00:38:34] Yeah, for sure. I think it also causes a very negative problem. I get called to a lot of corporates and I’ll go in the door and they’ll say, “hey, we have to innovate.” And in their minds it’s about, we have to make something extremely weird, and often it’s like, you know, for them innovation is having a crazy hollow lens tool app or something like that. And often they’re just doing it as a vanity project so that they can, the hope, the people who would want to work in that company will just think that they’re doing cool stuff. So I know a lot of companies who are doing the opposite of creating useful things and they just create boring stuff which is totally fine, but they’re kind of self-conscious about their brand and try to do crazy cool weird wacky stuff that they do in their innovation labs. And I have like no respect for any of that even though I really find it fun to work on those projects if the team will admit that it’s also just —–.
Sean [00:39:30] Ouch, painfully honest.
Joe [00:39:32] That’s awesome.
Jonathan [00:39:32] Sorry, it’s so true though, like the amount of companies that I know that just have these innovation labs and they’re like, “oh we’re gonna do this cool thing and it’s like it’s like you sit in the car but you’ll see all these holograms,” that I’m like, “OK, as long as you know this is just a vanity thing for the Internet, we’ll work on it, but if you think this is actually useful I don’t want to be part of it.”
Sean [00:39:51] Put AR on it and we’ll call it an innovation, right.
Jonathan [00:39:53] Yeah that’s it. That was all of 2018.
Joe [00:39:58] Right, AR VR. So living in Europe now for ten years now, I’m just curious, you know, pulling this back to design in general now. Do you think Europe thinks about building product or designing for product differently than North America? Do you see any kind of like intricacies there?
Jonathan [00:40:11] I think that, if I’m being super honest, you know, I know that Germany used to be sort of the place that was the greatest design and engineering center in the world, you know, and Switzerland as well. But I think today all of that is happening in North America. I think that the most interesting product work is happening in North America and I think that, at the moment, unfortunately, Europe is lagging behind and following more than leading. So I don’t really see anything interesting coming out of Europe at the moment. I’ve been saying that actually for a few years now and I’m not going to hold back as well, I just think that I’m not inspired by what’s happening in Europe at the moment. And obviously when we work with European companies I try to do the best work possible to pull them out of that and stop this sort of cloning mentality or this sort of weird, I don’t know, but it’s just a weird vibe in Europe that the only thing that matters is what’s happening in the US and we’re just going to clone it. Like yesterday I was looking up one of these Casper mattresses and they’re like these mattress-in-a-box things that you hear on every podcast, you know Casper, right?
Joe [00:41:15] Oh yeah. I’ve got one similar.
Jonathan [00:41:16] And I search for it. And of course I found the 30 other U.S. clones. But the US clones at least try to slightly do things differently. The German clones, there’s one called Felix, there’s one… it’s the same website with the logo changed and in some cases accidentally using some of the same fonts. Like it’s ridiculous. This for me personifies what’s currently happening in Europe, and in a lot of cases, it’s just, we wait to see what happens in the US and if it works in the US then we might try to make our own cloned version of it, or nothing. Yeah. So I would say that design is not in an interesting state right now in Europe and I know a lot of people in my industry would agree.
Joe [00:42:03] What’s funny with those mattresses is if you actually buy one, they wrap them so tightly that when you cut it open, if you’re not careful, it’s like a roundhouse kick to the face.
Jonathan [00:42:15] That’s so cool, haha. I love that.
Sean [00:42:19] Alright, most important question of the day. You’re an Irishman living in Germany. Who drink more beer? The Germans or the Irish?
Jonathan [00:42:27] The Germans drink more beer overall if you would look on a weekly basis, but the Irish drink more beer in one go. So for example, you almost never meet a super drunk German person puking on the street or fighting someone. But whenever I go back and visit my family in Ireland, it’s like, night one I go out and I see, you know, people fighting, puking, like every possible imaginable… That doesn’t happen in Germany because there’s no closing time to the clubs or the bars. In Ireland, everything closes at the same time, so it’s like, “hey, all drunk people go up onto the street and see what happens.” So I think Germans drink more and do more drugs but in a more moderate way.
Joe [00:43:08] The line is blackout drunk, Sean. That’s the line.
Jonathan [00:43:10] Exactly.
Sean [00:43:11] Great answer, great answer. All right. We have one question we ask all of our interviewees as well. And it’s, what’s the number one book you’re recommending right now? And obviously we know Design Sprint, that’s the obvious one. And we recommend that one as well, it’s a great book.
Jonathan [00:43:28] Haha, imagine if I just recommended that book how boring an answer that would be. Oh yeah, just the Design Sprint. How about that. Bye!
Joe [00:43:36] Good talk.
Jonathan [00:43:38] Currently I am really enjoying the Blitzscaling by Reid Hoffman. I didn’t really think about this before you asked it, that but that’s the book I’m really really liking at the moment and it’s just about the behind the scenes of these hyper growth Silicon Valley startups but from the positive perspective. Because I think that everyone’s only reading about the negative aspects of hyper growth at the moment, which are more obvious than the positive ones. And so I think it’s a book on, you know, what are the positives and what are the mechanisms behind hyper growth when it comes to Silicon Valley, and also China.
Sean [00:44:13] Cool. Great answer. Good book. We’ll put links to all that in our write up. Is there anything that you want to plug?
Jonathan [00:44:19] Not really. Just follow me on Instagram @jicecream and say hi, and, oh yeah, I mean, listen to my podcast, which comes out every week, not once a month like these lazy —-. It’s called The Product Breakfast Club and it’s very product focused and coming up we have the V.P. of product design at Facebook which is going to be an interesting one.
Joe [00:44:44] Fantastic. Awesome.
Sean [00:44:45] I highly recommend it as well, I’ve not listened to all of your episodes but I’ve listened to most of them.
Jonathan [00:44:50] Thank you. It’s a comedy show kind of.
Sean [00:44:53] It really is, it’s rambling. That’s a fair warning, right.
Jonathan [00:44:56] Very rambling, oh yeah.
Sean [00:44:58] But it’s good. The content’s always good. You always have some great thoughts on there and you have the best opening of any podcast ever it’s great every time.
Jonathan [00:45:06] Thank you.
Sean [00:45:07] You always have a vocal trumpet, or a, you know, something to make it interesting.
Jonathan [00:45:12] We actually got we actually got, her name is Julie Zhuo, the VP of product design, we actually got her to sing the podcast song with us which was great. That was really cool.
Joe [00:45:24] Oh no way.
Jonathan [00:45:24] So that’s what I’m plugging.
Joe [00:45:24] All right man. Well Jonathan, this was an amazing episode. I think it’s the first time we’ve been roasted on our own show. So that was great. So we really appreciate you doing this thing.
Jonathan [00:45:35] Well I hope you guys have enough time to write up the transcript in an entire month. Jesus. I hope a month is enough to write the transcript, guys.
Sean [00:45:46] That’s good. This was great.
Joe [00:45:50] We’re going to have to change our rating on Apple now. Get the end in there.
Jonathan [00:45:50] This was really fun guys.
Jonathan [00:45:55] Oh yeah, you know what, I just don’t do that, I don’t know. It seems to somehow happen automatically sometimes I don’t know how that happens.
Joe [00:46:01] Interesting. Hmm. Apple…
Jonathan [00:46:04] Yeah. Yeah I don’t know. What are you up to Apple? Well guys, have a really great day. Send me the link to this when it’s out and I’ll share it. And the questions were really great. Thanks so much for your time. And I hope you don’t have too much trouble bleeping out all the swear words.
Joe [00:46:21] No, it’s all good man, thanks so much. Talk to you later.
Jonathan [00:46:24] And if you’re if you’re in Berlin give me a shout.
Sean [00:46:26] Oh I definitely will.
Jonathan [00:46:28] Have a good one lads. Bye bye.