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ITX Product Momentum Podcast – Episode 11: Validating Products Through Design Sprints

The design sprint process introduces 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.

The Design Sprint Objective

The goal the product design sprint is validation: getting to the point of success or failure – quickly. The 5-day process gets the right people in the room to define the challenge and sketch out all possible solutions. Once the group selects its top one, two, or three ideas that address the question, these ideas are tested in front of real users. In effect, the sprint is about fast-forwarding the full-blown design process to see how users respond – without all the time and expense of building a real product.

Sounds simple, right? It’s not.

“The design process is in no way easy,” Jonathan cautions. “It’s actually much more difficult than what designers are used to…much more energy draining and much more intense. Fortunately, the ends justify the means, Jonathan says. “Designers and product managers are seeing the design sprint as the first, repeatable, robust way to start projects that’s been around – like ever.”

Designers and product managers are seeing the design sprint as the first, repeatable, robust way to start projects that’s been around – like ever. – Jonathan Courtney, CEO AJ&Smart

The Design Sprint, Applied

Organizations must be wary of the panacea paradox: as effective and efficient as design sprints have proven to be, they should not be applied in all situations. The problem has to be big enough to warrant a design sprint: a new product line, a “gut feeling” that offers tremendous upside but also brings many unknowns, or a customer problem in which the solution lacks clarity or involves lots of different people in creating it.

Here’s where the paradox comes in. It seems completely absurd to not use a design sprint to address design challenges. But that’s precisely what Jonathan advises against – in his own unique way. “Even though they call it a ‘design sprint,’” Jonathan says, “it’s not for design-specific challenges.”

Wait. What?

“It’s not for ‘Oh, let’s fix the navigation…’ even though you could if you have the luxury of money and time. 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, too simple, and too specific where potentially one person could do it.”

At the same time, Jonathan says, “don’t jump to the design sprint solution if your challenge is overly broad.” It’s not a brainstorming session, he adds. “We’ve used design sprints for a lot of different things internally, but for us it’s mostly a product-focused process.”

“Failure is success in progress.” – Albert Einstein

Einstein was ahead of his time in so many ways, but when he uttered this memorable quote, he may well have been talking about the design sprint. Design sprints are about validating product ideas. Some ideas are validated; others not. The power of the design sprint is that each validation represents success.

There’s no doubt that product teams become energized by a “positive” validation. But no organization would be disappointed to avoid significant investment of time and resources into a product doomed to failure. Instead, they’d welcome the opportunity to peer into the future, get to that failure point quickly, and pivot effectively to chart a new course.

“Sprints are not supposed to be about success or failure,” Jonathan adds. “If we do a sprint where the answer at the end is ‘we shouldn’t do this,’ that’s actually a great sprint. You’ve validated the fact that you shouldn’t make this product at all…that it’s too risky.

“And as the design sprint facilitator, I’m like, ‘I’m so glad we helped them to not build this thing,’” Jonathan laughs. “They’d have spent millions.”

If we do a sprint where the answer at the end is ‘we shouldn’t do this,’ that’s actually a great sprint. – Jonathan Courtney, CEO AJ&Smart

Is It the Archer or the Arrow?

In his book, Sprint, Jonathan’s podcast partner Jake Knapp shares his recipe for implementing the 5-day design sprint. He explains the process in such unambiguous detail that you’d think “anyone can do it.”

Not so fast.

A skilled facilitator is a vital ingredient to run a very good sprint. “Anyone can run an ‘okay’ sprint,” Jonathan says, “but to run even a good sprint you need a facilitator who has product knowledge, someone who understands the product world and who understands product strategy. And they also need to understand the product business model.”

“I’m a pretty good facilitator, but I’m a great facilitator with a process.”

Design Sprints and Innovation

To many, generating innovation is the desired result of the design sprint. Jonathan sees it a bit differently.

“Most people hear the word innovation and think of ‘interesting and exciting ideas.’ But I see innovation as ‘a much better way of doing something.’ The design sprint is not about driving innovation. It’s really about finding product-market fit…about making sure you’re creating something useful, something there’s a market for. If it turns out that your product becomes a product that changes people’s behaviors, then that’s innovative.”

To learn more from Jonathan’s conversation with Sean and Joe – including his frustration with Europe’s recent “follower” role to North America in terms of designing for product, as well as his assessment of the Irish-German beer-drinking debate – check out Episode 11: Validating Products Through Design Sprints.

Recommended Resources

Blitzscaling: The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies, by Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh. 

The Product Breakfast Club, a podcast by Jake Knapp and Jonathan Courtney.

Design Sprint Foundations, Udacity. Learn Design Sprint with AJ&Smart.

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