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Pat Dryburgh

This past week, the design team at Brewhouse experimented with a process new to the three of us called a Design Sprint. Developed and popularized by the design team at Google Ventures, the design sprint takes a product’s stakeholders and those intending to design and build it through a 5-day design process encompassing 5 phases: understanding, diverging, converging, prototyping, and testing. Each of these phases ebb and flow through any product design process, but the 5-day design sprint allows designers and product owners to quickly and efficiently prototype and test a design solution.

Before embarking on the sprint, we set out to accomplish three goals by the end of the week:

  1. To gain a better understanding of running a design sprint as outlined by teams like Google Ventures and Thoughtbot.
  2. To attempt scheduling the standard 5-day sprint within Brewhouse’s standard 4-day client work week (we generally save Fridays to work on administrative tasks and activities intended to improve our knowledge and skill sets).
  3. To design, prototype, and test a new interface for the newsletter builder in Goodbits.

We did not successfully complete all three objectives.

But, it was not a complete failure, either. We did improve our understanding of design sprints, especially the purpose and approach to the activities associated with each phase of the process. We technically did schedule the 5-day sprint into four days. And, we did make significant progress in our understanding of the problems we need to solve with the Goodbits newsletter builder.

In the spirit of transparent collaboration, I want to share what went right and what went wrong so that those on our team and those in other product companies can learn from our experience.

First, the good

Up until May of this year, Brewhouse had marketed itself as a Ruby on Rails development shop. When I was hired, the company began to build up the design side of the business. It was thought that we’d make do with just me handling all of the design work until just a few months in when it was clear the design business was growing faster than anticipated. In September, we hired Lee to help with design, but it wasn’t until this week that he and I had a real opportunity to collaborate on a project.

As well as collaborating with Lee for the first time, this was also my first full week working on Goodbits. While I had been involved in discussions and have made small contributions to Goodbits, I had not yet had the chance to dedicate an entire week to our own product. I also relished the opportunity to work with our product manager, Mark, on our own product rather than a client project.

Practice makes perfect

Reading through the details of the Design Sprint exercises, I was struck how they felt both familiar and alien at the same time. I have years of experience researching, sketching out different user interface ideas, prototyping and building products of various sizes and levels of complexity, however I would tend to start generating ideas with pen and paper and move rather quickly to wireframing in either Keynote or Photoshop as quickly as possible.

In the design sprint process, sketching ideas by hand is the primary means of coming up with multiple possible solutions in a short period of time. Exercises such as Mind Mapping and Crazy Eights are intended to help us get to the heart of the problem and propose as many solutions as possible.

It was great seeing the various options that each of us came up with. However, it wasn’t until we had completed a few rounds of this process that we realized we had missed the Storyboarding exercise to refine the ideas we were brainstorming.

During this phase of the sprint, I found my own ability to sketch ideas paled in comparison to both Lee and Mark. I also noted that my frustration with my limited output caused anxiety that I was unable to contain. Not my proudest moment during the week, but I hope by acknowledging it I will be able to improve my output for our next sprint.

By practicing the activities that make up a design sprint, we were able to gain a better understanding of the purpose of each activity as well as improve our ability to critique and collaborate on our ideas. By the next time we attempt a design sprint, we should be more comfortable with each activity and more efficient moving through each phase of the process.

The importance of documentation

Though it was not one of the goals we had stipulated at the outset of the project, we did use the sprint as an opportunity to test a new tool, Paper by Dropbox. We used Paper as to document our ideas and decisions throughout the process. Overall, it was an excellent experience.

Having our assumptions and solutions derived from the sprint available to us as we embark on building out our ideas insures that we won’t be scratching our heads when a we need to explain a particular decision to the developer responsible for implementation.

As stipulated in the goals we established before the sprint, we were able to gain a better understanding of the activities involved in the design sprint process. The ideas we developed during the sprint are far stronger than what any one of us could develop on our own, and I believe Goodbits will be a better product as a result of the thinking we did during this sprint.

Then, the bad

There were two fundamental flaws in our approach to our first design sprint.


Scheduling our first sprint into a 4-day schedule was a mistake. Our team had never completed a design sprint together, and thus spent considerable time understanding each activity and its role in the process. I believe as we gain a deeper understanding of each activity, we will develop the ability to move from activity to activity far more fluidly.

By scheduling the 5 phases of the design sprint over a 5-day week, each phase experiences a natural beginning and end. You can show up to the office, begin the day’s phase, and be more relaxed knowing that you won’t have to switch mental contexts until the day is done.

The cognitive expenditure of switching from phase to the next in the middle of a day proved to be rather taxing on us. This is likely exasperated by the fact that the process was new to us, but I’m not sure that’s entirely to blame.

As each phase of the process builds upon its antecedent, it is important to carry each phase through to its natural completion. There should be no lingering doubt that the goals established for each phase were successfully accomplished. By scheduling each phase down to the minute, not enough time was left to reflect as activities were being completed, causing us to rush through decisions just to keep moving forward with the process. Many activities were only half finished or worse, ignored altogether.

Though we had scheduled our activities down to the minute, interruptions throughout the week caused our forward momentum to become inert. I bare much of the responsibility for this — I accepted requests for meetings at times when I knew I was meant to be focused on the sprint. Back when I was a freelancer, these interruptions could be mitigated by the fact that I was working alone more often than not. When two other people are waiting for you to wrap up a podcast that was rescheduled to a time you were all meant to be prototyping, it can be tragically debilitating to progress.

There were several times I felt I was being brought back up to speed on discussions I had missed. Perhaps this could have been mitigated by better documentation, but that too requires either further resources to be assigned to the sprint or a slow down in productivity on the part of those participating.

The elephant is the room

The room where we engaged in this week’s sprint was our company board room. Brewhouse works in a loft apartment which has been converted into an office. Our board room is a dark, narrow room with windows looking out at a brick wall two feet away and a sliding door which acts as a somewhat ineffective white board.

But worst of all are the chairs. Due to Brewhouse’s disdain for meetings, a decision was made early on to purchase chairs which would act as a deterrent from spending too much time in the board room. However, if collaboration is a value that we care about at Brewhouse, we should care about designing a space that best supports our collaborative efforts. There were many times we simply wished not to be in that room, even though the actual work we were doing was both challenging and engaging.

What’s next?

This week I plan to schedule a retrospective on our initial design sprint, so we can do it again the following week for another area of Goodbits. I want this process to be ingrained in us to the point where it becomes routine, so that the output of our work is of the utmost quality.

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