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When to run a design sprint

Anthony Kirkham, 6 minute read

Maybe you’re aware of design thinking or have used the technique before. At the very least, you’ve heard from friends, colleagues, and media that it can lead to great outcomes.  

You might be asking yourself if a design thinking approach is right for your project. In this blog post, I’ll describe what design thinking is, how to decide if it's right to use, and how to run a five-day design sprint. 

What is design thinking? 

Design thinking is about creative problem solving, understanding your users, and challenging assumptions so you can redefine a problem and create innovative solutions. 

When we design think we focus on the human aspect of the problem; we empathize and immerse ourselves in the mindset and behaviors of customers. This means that design thinking requires a lot of involvement from the end users that will be impacted by your product. They are key to arriving at a deep understanding of the people you are designing for. 

Design thinking is also about using methods that encourage you to collaborate and share ideas in a small group.

Together, you and your teammates understand the problem, share ideas, select the best one, create a prototype, and then test it on real end users to learn from their experiences.  

During the process you’ll be sketching, brainstorming, and prototyping. Design thinking is celebrated by leading global brands like Google, Amazon, and Apple and has led to industry-transforming products like Airbnb, Uber Eats, and more. It's ingrained as a Pega best practice precisely because it has the power to transform businesses. 

Is design thinking right for your project? 

In order to decide if design thinking is a good fit for your project, you need to figure out if you're working on a complicated project or a complex project. They sound the same, right? You may be surprised to learn that these project types are quite different. 

Projects that must adhere to a prescribed ruleset are complicated. When working on a complicated project, you might need to consider regulations. For example, if you need to adhere to the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA), the rules are so well documented that it will require an analytical approach to get you over the line, not a creative one. Alternatively, you could be working on straight-through processing, which is often hard to build and test and would not be a good fit for design thinking.  

Complex problems are different. When working on a complex project, you might face a lot of unknowns or different layers of interrelationships. Levels of complexity can vary, of course. When working through a project like this, you may be faced with a few unknowns. Alternatively, you could be working on a groundbreaking and multifaceted project with many unknown elements to solve for.  

Complex projects are a good fit for design thinking, but complicated projects are not. The reason? Because the nature of complicated projects can limit your potential to find a creative solution.  

Design thinking creates a collaborative, well-aligned, and confident atmosphere. It’s transformed the way Pega approaches projects and is an integral part of our Pega Express approach. When we begin a complex engagement, we almost always do it. 

But sometimes we live in the complicated space, and we realize it’s not for everyone. For example, we don’t employ the technique when we’re doing standard upgrades or pre-packaged Pega deliveries. You'll need to decide if it’s the best fit for your organization and the kinds of projects you solve. 

How to plan a design sprint 

If you’ve decided to move ahead with design thinking, you’ll start with a design sprint. Typically, this is an intensive five-day focused effort where a cross-functional team collaboratively moves through mapping a problem (day one), sketching ideas (day two), choosing the best one (day three), creating a prototype (day four), and then testing it on real people to gain insight (day five).  

At Pega, we start with preparing. It takes at least as long to prepare for your design sprint as it does to execute it, and preparation is critical for a successful sprint. First, you will assemble a team made up of the following roles: 

  • A Facilitator (or Experience Designer): During prework research, Facilitators or Experience Designers interview end users and observe them as they carry out tasks relevant to the problem the team is going to solve. Then, they run the design sprint and ensure the team keeps up with the daily pace. The Facilitator introduces various design thinking techniques and ensures the prework has been done. 

  • A Decider: The Decider has the most influence and is empowered to make business decisions. They understand the problem and what the organization needs to achieve. The Decider role is usually filled by a product owner or business sponsor. 

  • End-user representatives: End-user representatives are the voice of the end user or customer; they will be able to pinpoint the precise issues customers face.  

  • A business SME: The business SME provides expert insights based on their relevant knowledge of the business processes. 

  • And don’t forget to include a few Pega specialists! (Lead Systems Architects and Senior Business Architects)  

Once you’re found your team, schedule your design sprint in either a dedicated room or a virtual meeting space. Regardless of the setting, it’s crucial that team members collaborate for the entire sprint, and team members must clear their calendars to avoid any interruptions. 

Pega’s five-day design sprint process 

Now that you've finalized your preparation, you’re ready to begin the design sprint. Below is an overview of Pega’s five-day process that can serve as a guide for your team:  

  • Day one: Start by mapping the end-to-end customer journey and asking for expert input from business subject matter experts as well as end users. You’ll need to agree on the goal you want to accomplish at the end of the sprint. Map out the problem and set up the critical questions you want to answer. Frame the problem with ‘how might we’ statements that the team can focus on solving and decide whether the whole or just part of the problem can be solved by day five. 

  • Day two: Conduct research on existing products that can solve the problem. Then, each team member should describe their findings to the rest of the group in what we call ‘Lightning Demos.' These demos often lead to the best solutions. After these demos, each team member should sketch a solution to the problem. 

  • Day three: Decide which of the solution sketches have the strongest ideas and are more likely to achieve the goals set on day one. Give everyone the chance to vote on what ideas the team should prototype, with the Decider playing a key role. Once the team selects the winning ideas, create a storyboard that strings all the best ideas together. Now, the team can move on to prototyping. 

  • Day four: Convert the storyboard into a realistic prototype. The prototype should be a realistic enough ‘surface’ for an end user to interact with, but not a fully functioning prototype.  

  • Day five: Ask between five and seven end users to individually test the prototype. Give the end users a prompt and a scenario, and then observe from a remote location while they interact with the prototype as they complete tasks in a realistic scenario. During testing, the end users should think aloud so the team can get a deeper understanding of their experience. This is not testing in the traditional sense, but the results help you understand your end users. You’ll learn what motivates them, what may confuse them, what works well for them, and why. Based on what you learn on day five, you'll typically either improve the design by iterating the prototype and re-testing or decide to turn the prototype into something real.  

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About the Author

Anthony Kirkham is a Pega Express Director with over 20 years of experience delivering solutions to clients of all shapes and sizes, starting working life as a developer in the UK. He is now based in Sydney and is five years into his Pega journey. He spent three years as a Project Delivery Lead (PDL) before joining the Pega Express team in 2019. Anthony enjoys helping to drive the adoption of best practices and supporting clients, partners, and Pega colleagues to achieve great things with Pega.

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