Why design sprints WITH users rather than FOR users is the better way to create meaningful, impactful product design.

Everyone involved in UX design know the benefits of doing design sprints to speed up innovation for brands and product design. Google Ventures Daniel Burka’s latest post about why design agencies should embrace sprints is just the latest convincing point of view. Historically, design sprints sprang from IDEO and Google Ventures who have been the big champions for the process influencing how UX designers and researchers think about rapid ideation, prototyping and user validation.

While reading Fresh Tilled Soil’s recent design sprint how-to book as well as Burka’s article, I reflected on how much they’re really talking about “team-centered design” rather than user-centered design. Sure, they advocate for user interviews before the sprint and user testing after the prototype. However, I feel strongly from our own design process at iiD that design sprints with users involved throughout the definition, ideation, and prototyping phases make for better, more innovative and impactful design.

Introducing Co-Design

This is nothing new. Along the lines of co-designing with users talked about in Convivial Toolbox, there’s a body of mostly academic research largely untapped by product design teams. In fact, participatory design techniques have been in use since the 1970s, when Kristen Nygaard and Olav-Terje Bergo worked with the Iron and Metal Workers Union in Norway. Yet co-creation is still underutilized, in part because it requires organizations and designers to develop a new mind-set. It goes by different names: co-creation, generative design, co-design, and participatory design. I like “co-design” the best since it seems the clearest, designing “with” users of the product or service. Below is an interesting matrix showing “user as subject” on the left (conventional design sprints) and “user as partner” (co-design) on the right:


Source: Elizabeth B.-N. Sandersa & Pieter Jan Stappersb

In my design firm’s projects designing products for a variety of users, we employ co-design sprints where we have users 1) explain the problem from their own real life perspectives, 2) brainstorm possible solutions, 3) create quick-and-dirty paper prototypes, 4) focus the ideas by voting on the best to test, 5) then go away to create more flushed interactive prototypes, and 6) return to our users to try them, vote on the best and give feedback on their favorite(s).

I’m sure the sprint-savvy are asking yourselves how could we get users to sit in a room for the typical 5-day session. Quite honestly we don’t and can’t but we have been able to compress our user design sprint sessions to one day for defining the problem, ideation and rough prototyping; another few days for our designers to flush out the prototypes; and a third session for testing, feedback and ice cream/beer. And let me just say, it works spectacularly!


So why would (and how could I) I believe these user design sprints are better than IDEO’s famous deep dives and GV’s much talked about design sprints? And why would I encourage you to try it yourself? Here are 3 reasons:

1. The Need to Get Over Ourselves

The conventional design sprint still partially suffers from a Steve Jobs’ philosophy that “customers don’t know what they want until we’ve shown them”.  A team of designers, a product manager, a founder, developers and a few company topic experts surely know a thing or two about what “they” want to design. But the real magic happens when you see users of all ages, genders and walks of life sit down and dash out their own ideas for how a product or service design should work. Will it be perfect? NO. Will it be informative and inspiring? YES, definitely.

2. They Care a Lot About the Real Problem

Let’s assume you first pick the right mix of users, meaning regular people who may possibly want what your team is thinking of solving. You explain the problem you’re imagining they MIGHT have, see if that’s really true and if yes show them the tools they can go about brainstorming and sketching out what they wish they had. Your conventional design sprint team is probably passionate about the problem and their solutions. But the users who daily endure bad service, inconvenience or ineffective digital experiences are the ones who care a lot and hopefully can help see the light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t forget, the problem is their’s, not your’s.

3. Losing Control is Good (Before You Lose Your Pants)

Fear of putting real customers and users in the designer seat is not unfounded as questions about budgets, feasibility, company politics and the very business you are in, matter very little to them. What truly matters is that they get what they want (yesterday!) But while corporations carefully manage their brands, product portfolios and bank accounts, at this very moment a lead user is out there in his or her garage noodling over how to solve a problem that your company’s R&D could so easily create if you sat down with that person for a design sprint. A bit risky? A waste of time? The things we do to stay relevant.

I could go on and on, like kicking a dead horse, isn’t it? But lastly, I’d just like to say that “innovation” can be like a trojan horse for the same way we’ve always done things but incrementally better. Designing with users (whether they be kids or grandparents) allows us to take leaps outside of our own precious creative realm into their very real life world of wanting better ways to live, work, study and communicate.


About iiD

iiD is a strategy and design studio based in San Francisco helping companies invent breakthrough digital businesses. We employ a co-design approach to bring users into our design sprints to ensure that we can meet their needs. At iiD we are passionate about bringing transformative designs and ideas to the marketplace that positively impact people’s lives.