How to Discover in a Design Sprint?

A closer look.

“What are his goals?”
“How does she feel?”
“What is he struggling with?”

Before we can design something meaningful for someone, we first need to understand who it is we are designing for. Interviews, observations of someone in their natural habitat, and our own first-hand experiences are some of the tools we can use to close the gap between us and others.

Direct interactions do not just help us, it also makes others feel more comfortable with the idea to share personal information. In fact, approaches that make use of familiar or informal settings are known to result in insights that might surprise both the designer and the person we are designing for. Beliefs, thoughts and stories someone might hold surface sooner. People often become aware of this information at the same time as the designer.

In short, in our design sprint, we first want to understand the person we are designing for as well as possible.

Hear me out.

When we design, all parties must be heard. Yes, the end user of our design must be content. That is our goal.

Still, it is important to not lose track of other stakeholders. A concept or design might affect more people than expected.

How to start discovering?


1 – A Beginner’s Mindset

Based on the things we know, like past experiences and knowledge, we create patterns of thinking that help us make sense of the world around us. These patterns help us grasp new concepts without needing to begin from scratch. Yet, these patterns are less helpful when we want to look at a situation without a bias or filter.

Assumptions are inherent to our nature, we cannot just switch them off. That being said, what we can do, is to assume a beginner’s mindset. This means that even if we think that we know how something works, we should still challenge our own patterns of thinking.

2 – Observe

When we make observations, we want to avoid interfering with the natural setting in which people are dealing with their problem. If this is not possible, organize a controlled session where observers sit around the table to gather information.

Make use of modern technologies. Recordings make it possible to review observations with other designers at a later date. Being able to rewind recordings makes it possible focus on the smaller details.

3 – Ask the right questions

Studies of people’s goals, struggles and emotions can be tough. Asking the right questions – What? How? Why? – can help decode some of the impressions we get as a designer. The questions help break down impressions that hold large amounts of information into manageable and highlight different aspects that we else might overlook.

What? – We capture and focus on the details of an observation.
“What has happened?”

How? – We observe and explain how a person is performing an action.
“How did he/she feel when he/she did that?”

Why? – We attempt to explain someone’s thoughts, motivations, and emotions.
“Why did he/she demonstrate that behavior?”

4 – Informal interview

A well-prepared one-on-one interview is often the method to connect with others. A genuine talk with someone in a more informal setting tends to encourage people to share some of their needs, ambitions and beliefs.

Interviews allow designers to target specific information. However, keep in mind that we get just one chance to conduct a proper interview with someone. Prepare the interview, questions, and topics of interest in advance.

5 – User Stories

No, we are not talking about stories on Instagram or Snapchat! Well, the concept is about the same.

Instead of observing people ourselves, in this method, we give people full control over the things we get to see. Ask participants to record themselves during moments of interest. Since we are not present, people tend to show more natural and personal behaviors. The downside? Participants can select the moments we get to see, knowing that a team of designers will sift through all the recordings.

You deal with a lot of personal information when using this method. So, make sure that both parties trust and respect each other.

6 – First-Hand Experience

There is no method more impactful than gaining a first-hand experience. It offers designers an experience that matches the real-world environment, atmosphere, and overal setting that users would also find themselves in.

It is difficult to plan and execute a proper first-hand experience. Yet, if done right, it offers insights no method can match.

7 – Learn From Extreme Users

The actions and projects of extreme users are known to act as a forecast of how regular users will behave in the near future. For example, Facebook derived features such as ‘groups’ and ‘events’ from extreme users misusing their ‘profile’ pages.

8 – Sharing insights

When we work in a design team, we all collect different pieces of information. Sharing studies allows us to exchange information, insights and interpretations. The different angles of attack on studies helps challenge assumptions and might lead to unique insights that otherwise would have went unnoticed.

Olivier Wouters

Olivier grew up in a design office. The designers and architects there showed him how to use design to innovate. In 2016 he graduated as MSc Information Studies: Human Centered Multimedia at the University of Amsterdam. He since specialised in Design Thinking and Meaning-Driven Innovation.

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