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The Five Hats You Wear During a Design Sprint



stacks of hats

We’ve written a lot about Design Sprints here at Fresh Tilled Soil. I’ve personally run well over one-hundred of them and taught thousands of students over the years. One aspect that’s critical to working through a Design Sprint is the mindset that’s required for each phase of the sprint. Each phase requires a different mode of thinking and a clear separation is needed in order to be as effective as possible. One interesting way to think of it is that it’s like wearing a different hat for each phase:

Phase 1: Understand — Detective

Phase 2: Diverge — Artist

Phase 3: Converge — Scientist

Phase 4: Prototype — Architect

Phase 5: Test — Journalist

Phase 1: Understand — Think like a Detective

In the first phase of the Design Sprint, you’re looking to uncover all the facts, all the assumptions, and determine the current state. An detective looks for clues, interviews, eyewitness reports, and collates all the evidence to determine what is accurate, applicable, and which may be full of assumptions and/or half-truths.

In Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, this type of mindset is the thinking slow, or “System 2.” We want to avoid the “System 1” thinking that causes us to jump to conclusions or try to solve the perceived problem based on surface-level observations. The simple advice is to constantly ask “why?” I often use the example of water on the floor (Hat tip to my colleague Wolf Brüning) Why? There’s a leaky pipe in the ceiling. Why? The water pressure in the pipe is too high. Why? The pressure regulator broke. Why? We didn’t catch it in inspection. Why? The inspection is every two years.

Now that you see this chain of events, you can see that there are some things that need immediate attention and others that may better solve the root cause of the problem. We see this all the time with our client work. One great example was a client who came to us asking for a dashboard redesign due to low user engagement. During the Design Sprint we learned that the reason for their low engagement of the dashboard wasn’t due to the dashboard itself (though it did need work) it was that none of their sales team could sell the product as effectively as their CEO. We then prototyped a sales presentation that articulated the value proposition and they saw their sales go up as a result. All because we kept asking why. A lot. Over and over.

Phase 2: Diverge — Think like an Artist

When seeking to generate many ideas, the artist mindset is the one to embrace. Artists often break the rules so that they can create something that makes a statement. While we’re not looking for you to be the next Pablo Picasso, Banksy, or Ai Weiwei, we do want you to think like they do.

In 2008 Banksy saw an opportunity to provoke the world on the 3rd anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. He (she? We don’t know, do we?) spotted an abandoned building with graffiti that read “No Loitering.” In response, Banksy painted a mural of a black man sitting in a rocking chair holding an American flag underneath. While there are plenty of other provocative, rule-breaking works by Banksy, Ai Weiwei, and plenty of other artists, the key point here is to look beyond the obvious constraints and create something that may prove valuable. Many times we look at our product and problems through one lens, however shifting our focus can help create a breakthrough idea that we can build and test.

The second point here is that artists are prolific and are known for generating work on a regular basis. You have likely heard the term creative habit. Not all of it has to be good work, but it has to be produced. Hemingway famously said “The first draft of anything is sh!t,” so making many variations can help overcome that. I often coach my Design Sprint teams that quantity begets quality. The more you produce, the more likely you’ll produce something good. It’s like hitting a baseball: If you never practice, are you really going to hit home runs on your first few tries? Unlikely, so get creating multiple solutions and iterations and don’t forget to be a little provocative.

Phase 3: Converge — Think like a Scientist

The third phase is all about being critical and setting up an experiment. You get critical of the ideas generated and begin forming a hypothesis on what might work to solve the problem and delight the customer (or user, or stakeholder, however they are named).

To set up an experiment one must have a premise, a hypothesis. This is not a theory, as a theory is a hypothesis which has been proven out over a number of past experiments, yet is still subject to being proven wrong. A hypothesis is most commonly written as a statement of cause: If __X__ happens, then we should see __Y__ result. For your top assumptions and key questions, you’ll need to determine how you’ll best test them to determine if they are true or not.

For example, one critical assumption may be that “less tech-savvy small business owners (SMB) are hesitant to use an app to solve a communication problem between them and their customers.” We could turn this into a hypothesis “if less tech-savvy users encounter an simple solution that comes off as less ‘techy’  then they’ll employ it for communication to their customers.” We then need to determine the criteria s for it this hypothesis to be true. Maybe the SMB decides to send a text message to their customer in the testing phase, if they’re presented with a prototype that shows them three options:  texting via app, a phone call, or nothing.

The mindset of a scientist to probe and observe can help set up for testing in phase 5 as you’ll have a clear idea of how to test what’s critical for your project. But before you get to testing you’ll have to make something.

Phase 4: Prototype — Think like an Architect

Architects represent a combination of analytic and artistic creativity. Before an architect goes off to build a building or even a house, they make blueprints and create models. Columnist Dale Dauten wrote about Frank Ghery in 2007: “He works by taking sheets of heavy paper and making models out of them. Not blocks, not wood or styrofoam, but paper. Curving, folding, crumpling paper. So he can work in three dimensions rapidly and cheaply, doing dozens of variations in an hour.”

In a Design Sprint, the prototypes created are never a fully-fledged product. Whether it is a digital, physical, or service product, it’s rarely the “real” thing. The model allows the team, and the test participant, to see how something might work in real life without needing all the resources to build it. Build-to-think is the mantra as each part of the model builds a more accurate picture of how the real thing will operate. New ideas will emerge from this process and you’ll have a better prototype because of it.

Phase 5: Test — Think like a Journalist

Sarah Koenig, a journalist for National Public Media and This American Life, most well-known for her podcast series Serial, interviewed many different people in the re-investigation of the 1999 murder of Baltimore High School student Hae Min Lee.  Sarah’s curiosity drove those interviews that eventually synthesized into her podcast. She started the process without knowing where it would end. “I’m here to report this story. I don’t know what I’m going to find,” she stated. The same premise applies here in Phase 5.  A good journalist listens and determines if there’s something hidden underneath what’s being said on the surface, something else that needs to be probed. And while there is a testing guide that’s prepared, a good journalist knows when to ask impromptu questions that dig deeper to uncover the truth.

The ability to interview test participants with a lack of bias, make them comfortable enough to give you honest information about their challenges, and listen for honest feedback on how the prototype is perceived is critical for success in this phase of the Design Sprint.  Once you’ve completed all your tests, you then need to synthesize all the information into insights on what was learned and how to move forward.

All five hats are combined into what I refer to as the “Designtist” mindset. Since a Design Sprint is part design process, part scientific method, and part agile philosophy there’s a blending of the rigors of science with the empathy, creativity, and human-centeredness of design. These five hats can help orient you to tackle each phase as you work through a Design Sprint. One note of caution: Should you combine days to shorten the sprint so that there are two (or more) phases in a day, be sure to give yourself a healthy break when switching from one to the next so you can get your mind ready to tackle the challenge. Just as it’s a challenge to wear two hats at any one time (and you might look a little funny), trying to be both the artist and the detective can be a challenge so give your team the opportunity to reorient themselves when you the move through the sprint.

If you have any specific questions or challenges that you think might benefit from a Design Sprint, we are always happy to have a conversation. Drop us a message, and we’ll jump on it!

Author C. Todd Lombardo

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