A brown dog raises its paw, like it's asking a question

Sprint Questions - The Design Sprint Unpacked

| Sam Hutchings

Sixty Second Summary

In this series of articles, we’re going to take a look at the individual parts which make up a Design Sprint, how each part helps us work towards a user-tested prototype, and how you can use the activity on its own within your business’s Design-led decision making process.

Now that we have the Long-Term Goal for our Design Sprint, which will keep the Sprint Team aligned during the process, we now need the Sprint Questions that we’re going to answer before the Sprint is over.

Full Article - 6 Minute Read

The Purpose of Sprint Questions

Whilst the Long-Term Goal helps keep the Sprint Team aligned on a common cause through the process of the Design Sprint, it’s the Sprint Questions that we’re aiming to answer by the time the Design Sprint is over.

Unlike the Long-Term Goal, which started from a place of optimism, the Sprint Questions start from a pessimistic approach. Instead of writing what we’d like to see from the future of our work, we’re going to imagine we’ve gone forward in time to when our Long-Term Goal should have materialised, and think of all the ways that our project could have been a disaster.

As it says in The Sprint Book, “lurking beneath every goal are dangerous assumptions. Ths longer those assumptions remain unexamined, the greater the risk”. During your Design Sprint, and at this very moment within you, you and your Sprint Team have the opportunity to dig out those assumptions, turn them into questions, and find the answers you need to make your Long-Term Goal a success.

During the Sprint, your sprint questions will help guide the solutions you discuss and the decisions you make. They’ll also provide a sort-of checklist you can refer to during the Sprint, as well as providing points you can evaluate against after Testing.

Finding The Right Questions

It’s important that your Sprint Team come up with the right kind of Sprint Questions to answer during the Sprint. For that reason, the following question prompts have proven useful:

  1. What questions do we want to answer in this Design Sprint?
  2. To meet our Long-Term Goal, what has to be made true?
  3. Our project has failed to meet its Long-Term Goal. What may have caused this?

Obviously, many of the answers your Sprint Team produces to these prompts will be statements. So, an important part of this activity is rephrasing our statements and assumptions into questions that we can answer.

For example, it can be safe to assume that one reason that we don’t meet our Long-Term Goal for any product or service is that our customers did not take us up on the new offering. This will often come up as “Our customers did not buy the new product”. So, we can ask ourselves, “For our customers to buy this product, what has to be true?” and when we have the answer to that, we can then ask “How can we phrase that as a question?”.

This may feel uncomfortable at first, because this isn’t how we have conversations or communicate like this, but we’re not in a normal situation. We’re trying to, in perhaps only a week, understand a wicked problem within our business, come up with ideas for solutions, turn one into a usable prototype, and test it with real customers. So, we need to make sure that we’re communicating in a way, especially this early on, that opens up opportunities and keeps conversations going, rather than in a way that shuts things down. And that’s where questions come in, as they’re easier to answer with sketches, prototypes, further exploration, etc.

As you go through this exercise, you may come up with just a couple of questions, or you may come up with hundreds. In a later activity, the Sprint Target, you and your Sprint Team will vote on which of these questions will work alongside your Long-Term Goal as the Sprint Targets. For now, just make sure that all of the questions that people raise are recorded and stuck up somewhere they can be seen - like on a whiteboard or a Mural board.

Good Sprint Questions

In their Medium Post “3 Steps To The Perfect Design Sprint Question”, Annabel Atloft describes how they and their team came up with a process for validating Sprint Questions and working out if one is good or not.

A flow chart showing the path from a Critical Assumptions to a Sprint Question, with a dead end for Untestable Assumptions
We're looking for questions we can answer, not assumptions we can't test.

Using the above flowchart, Annabel suggests that any good Sprint Question is derived at first from a Critical Assumption about the goal you’re working toward. That is, what are the things we assume must happen for the Goal to be a success.

We must then ask ourselves, is this critical assumption something that we can test ourselves? If so, we have a testable hypothesis that we can then turn into a question and add to our list of Sprint Questions. If not, then we have an untestable assumption that we won’t be able to validate during the Sprint, so we can throw it away.

Examples of testable hypotheses include:

  • Customers will buy a toothbrush that brushes their teeth in half the time.
  • We can’t retool our factories to produce a new product at that scale.
  • Our staff will need retraining to provide a new service.

We can turn each of these into a question or questions we can test, such as:

  • Will our customers buy a toothbrush that brushes their teeth in half the time?
  • How would we retool our factories to produce this new product/goal?
  • What training can we provide to our staff to provide this new service?

Examples of untestable assumptions include:

  • This product will or won’t be approved by regulators.
  • Our competitors will copy us if we do this.

We can’t test these assumptions during the Sprint, for various reasons, so we can just throw them out.

Annabel also adds a third part to their flowchart, asking if it’s critical to validate this hypothesis now or not. This is something we’ll cover in the Sprint Target in Part 7, and it’s best not to censor these questions too much as you try to come up with them.

Next Week

In next week’s article, we’ll be taking a look at Mapping and how that helps us understand the current reality and the potential future of what we’re working on in the Design Sprint.

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