Product Design Sprints

April 2015

When I was running the team of designers at WPNYC, we worked on generating ideas and developing new products for The Washington Post. The design sprint process was inspired by the system developed by Google Ventures. This allowed me and my team to move fast, generate lots of ideas and create prototypes and designs that we could validate with real users.

The design team at WPNYC focused on long-term design initiatives and strategy. The larger product team was a cross-discipline group made up of designers, engineers, product managers and data scientists.

We were thinking about trends in media consumption and generated ideas for where the Post should be moving 2-3 years down the road. We were thinking about what kinds of tools we would need and what trends in the industry we should have been designing for. This allowed us to think without limitations and focus less on existing capabilities. Instead, we focused our thinking around how the design and user experience should grow and evolve as reader habits change.

We started following the Google Ventures product design process. Below is an example of how we worked through a design problem – Starting with brainstorming and creative exercises to generate ideas, then we conducted research within the industry, quickly chose a direction and made prototypes and designs for user testing.

Here are some of my mind maps & sketches and a big confusing group discussion:

I'm a big fan of the process. It kept us moving fast and pushed the boundaries of our creativity – everyone is creative even if they say they aren’t! And it was nice to include people from outside the immediate team in the design process.

Design sprints can save so much time in a product development cycle. Generating ideas, designing and building simple prototypes and being able to validate these ideas with real people can challenge existing thinking and assumptions in a really positive way. It’s much more effective than spending tons of time and resources building ideas that may not resonate with real users.

For a product exploration at WPNYC, we conducted a day of user tests at a Breather we rented in the Flatiron. The recruiting was all handled on Craigslist (over 300 responses!). We gave participants gift cards for their participation and took an hour of their time to talk about their news consumption habits and have them play with a prototype.

Here's Jessie Tseng doing an amazing job in one of the testing sessions:

The user testing was eye-opening. It was a good reminder that if you work in media, you are not a regular news consumer. Just by spending a day watching different people use your prototype, you can validate (or not validate!) your idea. It's so much better knowing up front whether or not something is worth spending more time on. Even if you love an idea (and it really is a good idea), but it doesn't seem like anyone would use it, it's OK to let it go.

Another thing that has been interesting for me is how this process feels within The Washington Post – it's a big place with lots going on and sometimes injecting a formal process like this isn't easy. But this one really seemed to work well. We've learned a lot, I think.

What I like the most is how much of a team effort working on a project feels – this is not just a design team activity. It's so much better to have a diverse group of people, across different teams, with different backgrounds that can work together in a constructive way. As a team, we have formed these ideas together. As a team, we generated ideas and perspectives that go beyond what we normally get. All facets of the product team should help to shape what we are making.

Here's Jessie, Angela, Shuguang and Sam at the WPNYC office during a day of diverging:

These guys are excellent divergers. We wrote the most important user story that day, generated 27 ideas, ate delicious Italian food, and made a solid plan for what we wanted to build in a matter of hours. It was fun, challenging, eye-opening and collaborative. A great day.

My mission-critical design sprinters: Ed Mullen, Jessie Tseng, Blake Hunsicker, Sam Han, Angela Wong, Navdeep Martin, Shuguang Wang.