Design Sprints: rapid innovation in a regulated world

02 Apr 2020 18min read

You may have heard of the term ‘Design Sprint’ – an increasingly popular process developed by Google Ventures (GV) where a team work together in a fast paced way to answer critical business questions through design, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers in just 5 consecutive days.

At Team we’ve been running Design Sprints for a while now as part of our front end innovation process and have learnt some valuable lessons on what makes the tool more effective in our field of medical device development. We thought we’d share our experiences and the hybrid sprint process that we’ve developed.

The Design Sprint Process

The ‘official’ GV Design Sprint is a five day process. It starts on a Monday taking the team through a day by day journey where by Friday you’ve understood the problem, created promising solutions, chosen a frontrunner, built a realistic prototype and tested it with users.

The aim of a Design Sprint is to create and test ideas quickly, so if you’re going to fail, you fail fast and fail early. You move through the process rapidly so you make decisions quickly and avoid getting too wedded to early ideas. Prototypes are low fidelity – something that can be made in a day – with enough functionality to get early feedback from stakeholders. Ultimately, whatever you learn from your user testing on the Friday, you’ll have uncovered an enormous amount of information helping to steer next steps.

Sprinting at Team

Since we’ve been using this innovation tool (and in the true spirit of innovation) we’ve experimented with a few approaches. We’ve followed the five-day Design Sprint process to the rule book as well as adapting the process for longer with two, three and four week sprints. We’ve also conducted multiple 2-3 week sprints consecutively as part of a larger innovation programme which has enabled us to rapidly parallel track a number of early ideas, working very closely with our clients. We’ve learnt that a 5-day Design Sprint isn’t always the answer and that some challenges and clients benefit from a slightly longer sprint to address prototyping challenges, source materials or fit with our ‘remote’ clients’ travel schedules.

Each time we run a sprint, we adapt the process, taking elements from the 5-day version and tailoring them to the specific challenge and client at hand. Sometimes the exploration of the problems varies in length, sometimes it’s the idea creation phase and other times it’s the prototyping or testing phase that’s longer.

But each time we’ve evolved what we’ve done and this experience has enabled us to tune what works for us in a medical device consulting environment and work out how we can best help our variety of clients with product innovation – quickly!

What follows are 7 key learnings we gained from running sprints and how we have adapted the process.

The right ‘sprint’ environment (for the duration) is key

Having the right creative environment for a sprint is essential. First it needs to be a space where the group can lock themselves away, undisturbed for days at a time. It needs to be somewhere you can stick things up on the walls to help you map out your problem, create, display, explore ideas and move through the Design Sprint journey without having to change rooms or take stuff down at the end of each day.

We have found that keeping the same space for the duration of your sprint(s) is key – so you have the information, stimulus and ideas all around you, all the time. So we’ve created a dedicated sprint room with cork walls, write on walls, AV equipment and a lifetime supply of different coloured and sized post-it notes, white-tack and sharpies. We redecorate the room each day with creative and strategic output from the sprint. It becomes a physical manifestation of the inner working of the group’s mind – a 3D mindmap if you like. This serves as an accurate capture of the project progress and is far more powerful than any slide deck. It is particularly useful if we are joined by clients for co-creation sessions, as it cuts down on presentation time and enables members of the broader team to immerse themselves quickly.

You need the right brains in the room at the right time

For a successful Design Sprint you need the right mix of people with the right knowledge and skills and the right open mindset – right! These are most likely
a mix of our client’s commercial and R&D teams working collaboratively with Team’s design, engineering and human factors specialists who love solving a good problem and who can think quickly, laterally and diversely.

Although everyone isn’t necessarily needed for all 5 days of a Design Sprint, the core team does need to commit. The client team and other Team specialists are needed for at least the first 1-3 days where the bulk of the creative and selection work happens. But finding 3-5 consecutive days when all these people are available can present some real scheduling challenges for the sprint process.

To help with this we’ve either condensed some of the sprint days or had a day or two off in between so that we can get the right people available. By being flexible with the activities and/or spreading the sprint over a couple of weeks instead of one, it’s not quite so demanding on the participants and just makes life a bit easier to manage.

But as if scheduling people for a sprint in the first place isn’t enough of a challenge, keeping busy people from being distracted by their important day jobs once the sprint has started is another challenge. To minimise distractions, we use the dedicated ‘sprint’ room mentioned above and we encourage sprint participants to switch off phones and laptops during the intense creative days, ensuring we schedule lots of coffee breaks and go offsite for lunch to re-energise and check emails.

It’s crazy and intense – but you’ve just got to go with it!

I can’t lie, participating in a Design Sprint is intense. It’s fast paced and requires dedicated brain power for ~6 hours a day. It can seem a bit crazy and uncomfortable at first, as it’s a move away from traditional working practices, but it can be great fun and immensely rewarding as you see things happening so fast.

This all steps up a notch for the facilitator who has to guide everyone through the process and keep track of time. We’ve found it really beneficial to read the book as it lays out what happens each day and what is needed. But it still requires a good facilitator to be on top of everything, to be energetic and highly organised, to ask questions to get information out in the open, to make sure you and others write that information down properly, and to mind the clock and move through the steps. It’s intense and takes practice – so we had to get comfortable with the published process before being able to work out how we could tailor it for our needs.

You need a well-defined (right!) problem before you start sprinting

The point of day 1 of the sprint is to define the problem and the question(s) we are trying to answer in the 5 days. It is critical to be able to clearly outline the user, technical, and business requirements. But sometimes the problem just isn’t that well defined, there are gaps in the groups’ knowledge and more research is needed to inform the requirements before we get sprinting. That could take the form of an upfront strategic requirements gathering workshop, or it could be a piece of design research with end users, competitor device landscaping or technology scouting for example. Whatever form it takes, we’ve found that an intensive sprint process just doesn’t work well without having a very clear problem defined on the first day. This prevents you heading off down the wrong track with your sprint.

Sometimes you just can’t prototype something in a day

The 5-day sprint process developed by GV is best suited to digital or consumer products where prototyping times are a little quicker. It allows just 1 day for building the prototype (day 4). If it’s a digital solution or a simple interaction you want to test then that’s long enough to mock up a few fake app screens in Invision, or create prototypes in cardboard, foam or a basic 3D print. But in our medical device world we often want to test more complex interactions which demand more complex physical prototypes to be able to answer the questions we have. The fact is, sometimes a day just isn’t long enough to even design and build some useful low fidelity prototypes and we need a bit more time.

We’ve realised that if you want to create the sorts of physical prototypes we need to test with users, then you need at least a 2 week sprint. The first week to do the creative part of the sprint process and the second week to create, fettle, build the prototypes and test them. What’s important though is that you don’t use it as an excuse to drag out the process and lose the benefit of rapid-fire development – so our advice is that you only build in the extra time that you REALLY need.

Recruiting real end users to test medical device product ideas isn’t straightforward

At Team we only develop medical devices, so our end users are primarily patients, carers and health care professionals. This can sometimes present challenges with the testing which should occur on day 5 (Friday) of the Design Sprint process. Unlike consumer products where almost anyone could be called upon for the testing, end users for a medical device might be very unwell or hard to access. Finding and recruiting people often takes longer than the few days the sprint process allows.

Firstly, we’ll consider whether we need to see the actual end user or can we find out answers to questions we want by testing with healthy volunteers of the same demographic who we can find more easily (friends, family and colleagues can be a valuable resource). But if we do need to speak to a handful of real end users, we typically need 1-3 weeks to recruit, meaning a delay to the scheduled sprint process. To ensure this happens as efficiently as possible we need to initiate recruiting as soon as we know our target users. If we know who they are before the sprint starts, then we can line them up earlier and hopefully for the 5th day.

If we are only able to identify the target users at the start of the sprint, then the time gets added on at the end. To help with this we’ve formed some links with local hospitals and recruitments agencies to help us get quick access to small numbers of patients and professionals nearby.

It’s OK to not know what’s happening from one day/week/fortnight to the next!

Working in an Agile way where multiple design sprints happen one after the other or where design sprints turn into fortnightly Agile development sprints, requires a different mindset than we may be used to in a typical product development process. Not everyone will be comfortable working in this way – those who are more used to having a defined set of requirements at the outset and following a set linear process may struggle to adjust – so a lot of encouragement and reflection on what is being achieved is required from the facilitator. We have found that if the team has an open mindset then it’s easier to adjust to this way of working where you are finding things out as you go along and where you don’t know what’s happening from one day to the next.

The front end innovation process can be fairly haphazard and ill-defined at the start and gradually becomes more focused as more information becomes available and a direction can be agreed. The same needs to happen with the focus of the sprints. As you undertake several in a row and more information is learned in each, then the focus becomes clearer and the sprint activities need to adapt and change as this happens. You just need to trust in the process!

In conclusion, I could imagine the documented 5-day Sprint process works really well for fast moving consumer products and digital solutions where it’s easy to mock up prototypes and get access to users for testing.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t use the outline process and elements of it to
be more efficient and collaborative in a slower moving, more regulated industry such as the medical device world. It just means it needs adapting slightly to address some of the challenges outlined above – and we’re working on that. As we do more and more sprints we will continue to evolve and tailor the way it works for our clients, works for us and the specific problem at hand. It’s a different way of working that gets results quicker, means failures occur earlier and prevents going off on the wrong path leading to costly failures later in development. So it can only be worth strapping yourself in and going along for the ride!

This article is from Insight, our twice-yearly magazine all about healthcare and medical device development. Click here to find out more and get your free subscription.

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