Concept Sprints

Delivering and Testing Prototypes in Five Days

Concept Sprints - Delivering and Testing Prototypes in Five Days

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Dmytro_Aksonov

Gather an expert team and get a new project going at speed.

Have you ever found yourself working on a project that seemed to be going nowhere?

Perhaps the scope of the project expanded, and it became more complex than you intended. Or maybe no one really understood what the ideal outcome should be.

If any of this sounds familiar, you could use a Concept Sprint to “fast forward” a product’s creation, and to produce and test a working prototype in just five working days.

In this article, we look at what Concept Sprints are, and how to run them.

What Are Concept Sprints?

Concept Sprints, originally known as Design Sprints, were devised in 2009 by Jake Knapp of Google Ventures. Since then, other organizations – including McKinsey – have developed variations, but the basic format remains the same.

Concept Sprints are particularly suited to digital product development – few other industries are able to go from a concept, to a tested, working prototype as quickly as Concept Sprints demand.

The approach enables developers to progress with a project that might otherwise get bogged down in analysis and indecision. It also allows them to explore potentially risky areas of a project, without committing to them.

Note:

The idea of “sprints” derives from Agile Project Management, where a small group gathers to build and test a product in a short time. It also has elements in common with Stage-Gate® Innovation. However, the idea of moving from concept to tested prototype in five days is particular to the Concept Sprint.

How Do Concept Sprints Work?

Concept Sprints involve small teams doing all the research, development, decision making, and prototyping for a project in five working days.

A “project” can be the development of a single, distinct product, or a part of something larger – the creation of a landing page within a website, for example.

Partly because time is short, good preparation is essential for Concept Sprints. You need to arrange:

  • People: assemble a dedicated team that's responsible for developing the product.

    Appoint one member to act as a “decider,” to make the key decision required on Day 3 (see below). The rest of the team can be designers, coders, and anyone else necessary to develop and build the prototype.

    You also need to include end users. Ask people from the customer groups that you’re building the prototype for to work with you on Day 1, to define the scope of the project; and on Day 5, to provide feedback on the prototype that you've created. Five people is ideal, to gather a variety of concept ideas and feedback.

  • A place: a dedicated quiet, comfortable space where the Concept Sprint team can work without unnecessary distractions.
  • Equipment: a large whiteboard, stationery, and access to presentation software, such as PowerPoint® or Keynote®. A timer could also be useful.
  • Time: the whole sprint lasts only five days – a day for each step – so you may need to plan strict time limits for each activity. You can adapt the tips in our article, Running Effective Meetings, to help you with this.
  • Scope: if the project is large and complex, divide it into multiple sprints, and focus initially on one small part of it.

Day 1: Visualize the Customer Journey

Start the first day by imagining the end of the sprint process: the best possible outcome for the project, and the one that your customer wants. Write down a goal that expresses this, and then brainstorm the potential obstacles and risks that could prevent you from reaching it.

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Develop end-user personas to help the team to focus on the people who will use the prototype. Devise a simple diagram on a whiteboard that maps the desired user journey. This will form the basis of your finished prototype.

Ask team members with design and process management expertise to help during this step. They may be able to offer improvements to the customer journey, or to overcome some of the potential obstacles that you identified.

Day 2: Develop Concepts

On Day 2, focus on exactly what kind of product you are going to deliver – what it will look like, how it will work, and so on – and how you will solve any known problems. Use the diagram you made on Day 1 as a guide.

Brainstorming can be effective here, but it’s crucial to keep the end result in mind, and to avoid scope creep. Ask team members to come up with concepts for the product that satisfy the requirements of the customer journey – on their own at first, and then as a team.

When you have a range of concepts, select three or four that show the most promise. Gradually refine these so that each one describes a viable user experience, keeping the best possible outcome in mind.

Note:

Don’t just seek to enhance or improve existing processes. Explore new ways of doing things, too. Consider what your competitors are doing, and any recent developments in your industry.

Warning:

Don’t try to solve all of your customer’s problems at once. Keep your focus as tight as you can, even if it’s only one small area of a complex process. You can always run more sprints later.

Day 3: Select a Concept to Prototype

To make this decision, ask each team member to independently review the best concepts that you identified on Day 2. Then, regroup as a team and compare notes to assess each one.

Eliminate concepts based on what you can reasonably achieve within the remaining two days, and whether time or cost issues, for example, make any of your concepts impractical.

Finally, home in on the most promising concept. If there’s more than one, the person you designated as the “decider” will need to review the options carefully and pick one, using feedback from the other team members. Watch out for groupthink (where a desire for group consensus prevents people from sharing alternative viewpoints), and remember that time is short.

With the “winning idea” chosen, create a final storyboard that shows exactly what this concept should do. Break down the main parts of each storyboard into sublevels, and create sublevel storyboards for those parts as well.

This establishes the detail before you start building the prototype, so that you’re ready to create something at speed.

Tip:

Don’t introduce any new concepts on Day 3. Only work with the ones that you identified on Day 2.

Day 4: Build Your Prototype

Use the quickest development and graphics tools that you have available to produce a basic, functional prototype, made of mocked-up elements from your storyboards.

Remember to keep it simple. You don’t need to deliver a fully functioning product yet. A realistic outline that allows your customer to understand how the finished version might work is enough.

Now is also the time to draw up a user testing guide to help your customers test the prototype on Day 5, and to outline a “next steps” plan, should the prototype get signed off.

Day 5: Validate Your Prototype

To understand whether the prototype meets the customer’s brief, or whether further sprints are necessary, test your prototype with a small number of your customers.

Ask them to do this in person, where possible, although they can do it remotely if necessary. And, remind them at the outset that your prototype is just that: a prototype.

Once they’ve tested your prototype, collect their feedback. Ask them to be as specific as possible, to ensure that you learn as much as you can about the strengths and weaknesses of your prototype. Use open questioning techniques here, and avoid any leading questions.

Document everything that you learn. Recording the interviews is a great way to capture accurate feedback, and it allows you to refer back to what was said.

If the Concept Sprint process has worked properly, you should now have a working prototype and a strong idea of how to “work it up” into a fully functioning product.

Many sprints won’t lead to finished products. But even if your prototype isn’t quite right, it will still deliver valuable insights. Use these to improve your concept in subsequent sprints.

Key Points

A Concept Sprint is an accelerated development process – usually for a digital product, or a part of one. Within a single five-day period, a Concept Sprint team will:

  • Research customer requirements.
  • Develop a viable concept.
  • Decide on the requirements for a working prototype.
  • Build the prototype.
  • Gather customer feedback.

The team can then use the feedback to develop a prototype into a fully formed product.