All About Design Sprints with New Relic’s Silas Sao

Photo of Roboboogie's September Camp Optimization Meet-Up

On Thursday, September 19th, Camp Optimization returned with the familiar face of Silas Sao, Senior Manager of Product Design at New Relic. Back in November 2017, Silas taught us all about the importance of ADA compliance and designing for inclusion, and left us with a few strategies for helping make the internet accessible for all. This time around, his focus was on design sprints, and how crafting an effective sprint is key to reducing risk, achieving team alignment, and moving projects forward.

Meet Silas

With over a decade of experience in building digital products, Silas has a unique background. Starting his career as a Software Engineer, he has developed the ability to think on a deeply technical level, while still focusing on the customer. Defining Product Strategy, facilitating workshops, and leading high performing Design teams is what he does today. He believes awesome experiences come from teams of awesome people and works towards fostering a culture of customer-centricity anywhere he goes. Pretty cool, huh? We couldn’t agree more.

Tell me more about these… “Design Sprints”

So, what exactly is a design sprint? A design sprint is a 4-day process for rapidly solving big challenges, creating new products, or improving existing ones. It can compress months of work into a few days. The design sprint process was born from the problem that cross-functional teams find it hard to align to common business objectives. As a result, teams often work toward unclear goals as project scope changes rapidly and repeatedly. Ultimately, teams lack real data on which to base decisions and instead rely on a vicious cycle of internal discussions. Ever felt the pressure to be “innovative,’ but at a loss for where to start? Sigh. The endless cycle can cause teams to lose enthusiasm and focus, and thus become trapped and unable to move forward.

Matching problems with solutions

Worry not, for Silas showed up with solutions and strategies for kicking this cycle to the curb. In order for the design sprint process to be efficient and effective, it is important to first ensure that it is applied to the proper use-cases. Challenges best for this process should be:

  • Big enough to warrant blocking multiple people’s time for a few days
  • Worth the cost of devoting time and resources to a design sprint
  • Something that needs to be validated quickly before starting a long program of work to create it
  • Something that requires more than one or two people to address

Some examples of situations conducive to resolution via design sprint include: problems with user engagement on a particular product, developing a brand new product, and adding a new type of service to an existing product.

Design Sprint Principles

With this in mind, Silas provided a number of resources for helping adopt the design sprint process and making it unique to the organization embracing it. His favorite is the book Sprint by bestselling author, Jake Knapp. In his book, Knapp explains, “The process is flexible… the principles aren’t.” So while the design sprint process may vary from problem to problem, organization to organization, it’s important to keep the following key principles at the forefront:

  1. Together alone
  2. Tangible > Discussion
  3. Getting Started > Being Right
  4. Don’t Rely on Creativity!

The Process

Let’s get specific on what a design sprint actually looks like:

  • Monday, Day 1: Define the challenge and produce a mass of solutions.
  • Tuesday, Day 2: Curate and vote on the best solutions, then define the prototype with a storyboard.
  • Wednesday, Day 3: Design and build the prototype, then recruit and schedule user tests.
  • Thursday, Day 4: Test the prototype with 5 real users, then use feedback from testing to create clear next steps.

While the specific process may look a bit different depending on each organization and its goals, what is important is to not be afraid of diving in and finding a workshop that works well for that particular challenge or team. While you’re at it, make sure to be aware of the inherent risks in these types of processes. The problem with anything that requires creative & critical thinking, is that it’s easy to get lost, lose focus, and fall into the trap of having useless, open-ended, unstructured discussions. To avoid this, take the following steps to help set up a workshop for success:

  1. Start with what’s working
  2. Capture the problems
  3. Prioritize
  4. Reframe problems as challenges
  5. Ideate on solutions
  6. Prioritize
  7. Decide on what to execute on
  8. Make solutions actionable

There’s a ton to unpack here when getting started with the design sprint process, but taking the time to learn the ropes will provide immense value in the long run. Hungry for more? Head on over to Silas’ site to explore additional insights and recommendations. 

That’s all for this round of Camp Optimization! Stay tuned for announcements and details for our next event coming later in 2019.

Design is (not) just Problem Solving

CXO, John Gentle, working in design file.

“Design” is a fuzzy word. It takes on a vastly different meanings depending on the industry, context or background. So it makes sense to add some clarity and standard definition to the word.

There has been a hot debate around the philosophical purpose of design, in this quest for clarity and nailing down a definition. One camp gaining momentum advocates for a simplified explanation that “design is simply just solving problems.” And to take it one step further—if you’ve got a problem, the only cure is design.

We went to our CXO and long time UX Designer, John Gentle, to get his two cents on the topic. Turns out he had way more than a couple cents for us.

Roboboogie CXO, John Gentle.

So what do you think of this idea of design being “problem solving” for business?

Calling something a problem infers that it’s not working. Often design is addressing things that are not a problem, but could work better, or more efficient. So to refer to “design problem” and its “design solution” suggests that there is an issue that can only be rectified with one specific solution. I believe this way of approaching design is narrow minded and does not recognize there are often many valid design solutions to the same “problem.”

Design is a continuous process of evolution, designers are a curious bunch and always ask “How can I make this better? Be more efficient? Provide a better experience overall?”

For example, if a client came to us with a design request and I gave the project to three different designers, they would each come up with a solution that they believe will best fix “the problem.” It is likely they would all solve “the problem,” but the solutions would most likely all be different and each would have its own set of strengths and weaknesses, making choosing the “best” solution very difficult or highly subjective (that’s where testing comes in—but we’ll save that post for another day).

Ok, let’s back up for some context. What exactly is “design” to you?

Design is a way of creating that accounts for context. When we engage our clients, we work within a set of constraints. We’re producing something that meets a need for both them and their end-user. It’s our job as designers to move the needle forward and be mindful of their constraints, needs, and goals. Not just simply create what we think is the best thing based on our biases, opinions, or artistic vision.

At Roboboogie, our work is highly user-centric: we design from the perspective of the end-user and work hard to understand what their perspective, motivations, and desires are and improve those interactions significantly.

The design process is a journey of gaining more and more understanding—becoming more accurate and precise to the end user’s needs, and continuously making improvements. A/B testing key elements of our design is critical to that process. Not every test we run is a success from a “design solution” standpoint, but we often learn something from that design and the experiment that opens a whole new world of unanswered questions. At that moment we don’t have a solution, but what we do have is a whole new set of questions and other requirements we can use to evolve to a better place.

CXO, John Gentle, working in design file.

How has ease of access to data impacted the Roboboogie design process?

It’s removed a lot of the subjectivity and helped fill gaps around presumed requirements and user needs. We still talk to users, but now we can see those things—what’s working well and what’s not—in the behavioral data. Sometimes there’s a disconnect between what people tell us and what they actually do as they’re interacting with something.

It’s been instrumental in significantly improving website experiences and their performance over time. The old way was “we need a new website so let’s scrap this one and start over!” A lot of valuable learnings were tossed out and a lot of time wasted designing websites that did not meet the needs and expectations of the business and/or the end-user.

Access to data helps us be more informed with our design strategies and make improvements in confidence, trusting that with the design process there’s no “magic bullet” solution.

Final thoughts?

To tie it all together–no, design is not just about a single ‘right’ solution; it’s a process that combines curiosity and continuous problem-solving. Asking questions, answering questions, continually feeding new data and learnings back into the process. You’ll never fully solve the problem, because you can always go deeper.

— John Gentle, CXO of Roboboogie

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Want to go deeper on this topic? Here are a few articles we’ve been following that have fueled this conversation.


Looking for more design thoughts from the Roboboogie team? Check them out here.