In Richard Banfield’s book Enterprise Design Sprints, he talks about how Design Sprints have become “a trusted format for problem-solving at many large companies.” As the sprint’s popularity has increased, I’ve noticed that some organisations and consultancies are eager to tweak the Design Sprint process. Sometimes, that means running abbreviated or compressed sprints — trying to do the same thing in three or four days instead of the classic five.
The way that Jake Knapp originally outlined the Design Sprint process in Sprint is prescriptive and in the best way possible. It takes place over five days — a full work week. Each day has a particular set of activities; the methods walk you through gathering insights, problem framing, prototyping, and user testing.
So, why are people turning to shortened Design Sprints? Are three or four-day sprints a wise choice? Let’s explore the perceived benefits and downfalls of a quicker Design Sprint. Plus, I even got Jake’s take on three, four, and five-day sprints.
Spoiler alert: I’m a proponent of giving your Design Sprint the full five days.
The Allure of the 3 & 4 Day Design Sprint
Because everyone is hyper-busy these days, it’s unsurprising that companies want to run a Design Sprint in three or four days instead of five. It’s almost impossible to align calendars for a one-day workshop. Now you want five full days?! I get it. As a Design Sprint facilitator, people often come to me asking for a shorter format. It’s tempting— a shorter sprint may seem like a more realistic investment of time (and money). But, when you’re talking about Design Sprints, I don’t think it’s as simple as working faster and jamming more into every day.
In a three or four-day Design Sprint, something has to drop off the agenda. Typically, this means that people skip prototyping or user testing. In my opinion, if you aren’t prototyping and testing, it’s NOT a Design Sprint. One of the most powerful aspects of the sprint is testing your ideas and assumptions through a prototype and hearing directly from your users. When you skip either of those steps, you cut out the moments that provide authentic direction, give voice to your users, and ensure that you’re not just navel-gazing.
“I always try to run five-day sprints because the ideas are deeper. Four days or less feel rushed and have less opportunities to uncover the boldest and most innovative ideas.” —Steph Cruchon, Design Sprint LTD.
When clients approach me about running a shorter sprint, I typically suspect a couple of issues could be at play. First, it indicates that they might not have a big enough problem in mind for their Design Sprint. If a challenge is large enough, the budget for a five-day Sprint should be there. It’s that important. Secondly, it tells me that they might not have total buy-in that this is an effective process or way of working. They’re hesitant to go all-in because they think it might not “work.”
Finally, the desire for a short sprint sometimes indicates that the organisation isn’t planning on including a diverse team in the process. I’ve seen three and four-day formats based on the idea that the design team will build the prototype while the internal team is working on the rest. To drive ownership and buy-in, you have to involve everyone and keep them engaged. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a team simply pushing someone else’s work.
Is It Really Only Three or Four Days?
Another thing to be aware of with consultants or companies that promise and sell three or four-day sprints: it actually ends up being up to eight days of work. That’s because they shift some of the activities to take place before the sprint (i.e. a problem framing workshop ahead of the sprint) or they take care of some of the heavy-lifting—like prototyping—behind-the-scenes. Additionally, they might ask you to run a second, shorter sprint the week after the first sprint.
There’s not anything inherently wrong with these modes of tweaking the sprint. But, at Voltage Control, I like to focus on skill-building and transformation through the sprint process. If we take on some of the activities or “burdens,” instead of insisting that our clients do them, I think something fundamental is lost. By fully participating in the sprint from soup to nuts, our clients understand the process deeply and get the most out of the week. Next time, they might not even need our help.
The Many Benefits of a 5-Day Design Sprint
I understand why the full 5-day Design Sprint is a harder sell. There are complex schedules to coordinate and clear. A team is missing their day job for an entire workweek. There’s significant upfront work to gather your data and research. You might rent an offsite space to hold the sprint. You might need a professional facilitator. It’s challenging. However, I believe it’s worth it to push through the logistics and fear of the time investment.
First, the five-day Design Sprint is a well-designed, tried-and-true process. It was initially perfected at Google, over time, and with different teams and scenarios. In short, it works. Every ingredient is there for a reason.
As you might expect, when I asked Jake Knapp about his feelings on the five-day sprint, he’s still a proponent: “Five days is the most robust. I believe I can deal with anything that comes up in a five-day design sprint. Even without pre-work, I know we’ll learn something valuable by Friday.”
Second, the five-day sprint provides adequate time for two of the most critical aspects of the week. There is a full day for prototyping and a full day for user testing. (And, trust me, this will still feel rushed.) These activities are likely the ones your team needs most. Rapid prototyping is an important skill, but one that not many companies utilize often. Similarly, many companies talk to users, but not enough as they should.
“I see the Sprint like an iceberg. A lot of the magic happens below sea-level, e.g. the organizing that goes into setting up a Sprint for success both prior and post. It isn’t a silver bullet that means you are ready to launch. It is an exercise designed for learning and mitigating risk from product/service development.” —Dan Levy, More Space for Light
Lastly, it’s about flexibility. The five-day schedule leaves enough room for the unexpected to emerge, or for things to shift and tweak. The first two days are somewhat loose, but they are vital for opening up conversations and spurring the thinking that needs to happen within the group. When you cut off one or two days from your sprint, there’s a lot less time to change course or dig into something surprising.
Shorter Sprints Can Work…IF
While I’m pushing hard for companies to take the leap and invest in a five-day Design Sprint, it doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions. In my new book, Beyond the Prototype, I share a story about The Home Depot. They’ve developed a practice of three-day sprints. “We’ve adapted the traditional five-day Sprint to work more efficiently inside Home Depot’s culture,” Eugene du Plessis, Senior UX designer said. “Getting everybody in a room for five days is close to impossible.”
However, I believe that they can run shortened sprints successfully because they’ve customised slowly, and only after mastering the sprint practices as designed. Brooke Creef, UX Manager at The Home Depot, shared: “What has gotten us so much success is that we customise slowly. We were very firm in staying as tried and true…and not as flexible with agendas until we matured.”
Similarly, Google runs Design Sprints of different lengths and flavors. And, like The Home Depot, I would argue that Google has “earned” the right to play with the model. They’re working from a strong foundation and are a highly-mature organisation in terms of design and innovation.
Jake shared his thoughts on three-day Sprints, and Google’s in particular: “Three days is super intense, and I wouldn’t sign up for it myself. If you look at Google’s three-day Design Sprint, keep in mind they have lots of designers and researchers, many existing products to pull design patterns from, and they have material design. They’ve spent many years specialising in the Design Sprint for Google. But if you’re not at Google, be careful and consider all the resources and trade-offs required to make a three-day Design Sprint work.”
He also shares my feeling that four-day sprints might be doable, especially if the team has more experience: “I find four days works best if the facilitator is really experienced, or if the team has Design Sprint experience. Pre-work becomes really important.”
Conclusion: The 5-day Design Sprint is your best bet in most cases.
Design Sprints can be a path to transformative organisational change. But, there is no shortcut to outcomes. If you are new to Design Sprints, I strongly recommend starting with a five-day sprint. It ensures that you hit all the critical activities. It also gives you the momentum and focus to continue what you’ve started after the sprint. (BTW, that’s what my book is all about — avoiding the post-sprint slump and how to transition from ideas to outcomes.)
Don’t short change yourself or your team. Invest in a five-day Design Sprint. Ideally, at the end of your five days, a light bulb will go off, and you’ll realise that you can work in this style any day of the year.