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The Power of “See One, Do One, Teach One” with Design Sprints – Part 1

by Kathleen Barrett

A thin film of sweat may line your palms and glisten on your forehead when you recall the feeling of taking a college readiness exam like the ACT. That fear you might have had of falling short, of not making the cut. It casts a long shadow well beyond young adulthood. Standardized tests are a common feature of the academic world and a rite of passage for many. Students still arrive to take them with sharpened #2 pencils in hand.

The nonprofit behind the ACT test—ACT, Inc.—is known primarily for its flagship test product. ACT has been around for more than 50 years and is considered a thought leader in “education research and psychometrics,” explains Adrienne Leahey, former Senior Director of Product Line Management at the company. New product development hadn’t been the focus until more recent years, when the business began exploring ways of innovating around ideas.

As an industry, we bandy about and exhaust terms like “innovation.” These terms embody the promise that new ideas will move a business and our collective thinking about it forward in advantageous and unique ways. The leap from wanting this lofty concept of innovation to achieving it is wider than we think and fraught with the fear of failure.

Adrienne led the product innovation team at ACT with a goal to evaluate, test, and develop new product ideas quickly, while mitigating risk. (And to be fair, none of us are ever asked to dial-up the risk and blow some cash!) ACT needed to find a way to meet this challenge and allow new ideas to bubble up in a risk-averse, consensus-driven culture. Consensus isn’t known to breed speed or new ideas, and coupled with a structured internal governance model, progress was slow.

“ACT is highly consensus-oriented organization, so every step was consensus oriented. The team didn’t feel empowered. That’s not to say they weren’t empowered, but they didn’t feel empowered to make decisions. At every point where a decision could be made, or where some kind of obstacle was identified, they would be reaching out to somebody for permission to move forward, or permission to pivot,” explains Adrienne.

Consensus, says Richard Banfield, CEO of Fresh Tilled Soil, is often conflated with democratic vote. “The funny thing is consensus doesn’t improve the quality of the decisions. It allows you to improve the quality of the inputs but not the outputs. We are good at asking for opinions to the point where it stymies our ability to make decisions.” Richard’s company worked with ACT early on to demonstrate how design sprints could help the organization explore new product ideas and solve problems

Adrienne and her team trained with Fresh Tilled Soil, but before they began, they had to develop a process, a common language, for internal teams to use. Product managers had been using different criteria for evaluating ideas.

The product innovation team at ACT chose a “see one, do one, teach one” approach to design sprints. The team wanted to understand how the model worked first before they could apply it to a problem they wanted to solve. The first step for ACT was a training exercise with Fresh Tilled Soil, before they eventually moved toward adopting sprints on their own.

Fail Safe

What many companies find attractive about design sprints, Richard explains, is the structure of the exercises, and how they allow participants to fail in a safe environment. Knowing that they can fail without repercussions in a test environment can free up the thinking of sprint participants, and allow teams to be more creative and open with their ideas.

“When you try and that failure is rewarded in the design sprint process, you start to realize, ‘oh, actually making mistakes or choosing things that aren’t ultimately going to be part of the finished product, that’s okay.’ That’s part of how we do creativity. We need to make things that aren’t fantastically brilliant out of the gate, so that we can find out what things will stick and what things will not stick,” says Richard.

The underlying concepts forming design sprints aren’t new. Design sprints take a page from the scientific method in their approach by using data and observations to test a hypothesis. Sprints allow participants to explore the validity of a concept to reveal outcomes.

Traditional sprint models run over the course of five days and use the following format:

  1. Day 1: Understand: The team reviews background materials: the audience, competition, the value proposition, and problem/opportunity.
  2. Day 2: Diverge: The team brainstorms ideas.
  3. Day 3: Converge: Rank solutions and choose one.
  4. Day 4: Prototype: Create an MVP from the chosen solution.
  5. Day 5: Test Prototypes

AT ACT, ideas traditionally came out of research, but when Adrienne’s team implemented sprints, they wanted to bring into the room those voices that hadn’t been heard.

“When I first got to ACT, the way [we] sourced ideas was from an internal innovation crowdsourcing platform. It wasn’t bad, but what we found was that most of the ideas that were coming onto that platform were from our research and test development group, and we weren’t hearing voices from the field. We weren’t hearing from our sales folks, and we weren’t hearing from our policy folks,” explains Adrienne.

Adrienne’s team at ACT went even further to diversify the voices in the room by eventually branching out to include practitioners from outside of the organization.

“We needed to hear non-ACT voices in the design sprints. For our second big sprint event we invited two folks from the University of Iowa, with the view to getting external voices but also with the view to starting a relationship where ultimately we could be running design sprints at the University of Iowa, with post-secondary students, in the physical space of these customers,” says Adrienne.

An unexpected perk to running sprints is the way they can highlight what is missing in an organization through “assumption testing” exercises conducted in the first phase of sprints (the “understand” phase), explains Richard. In the case of ACT, Adrienne and her team realized the organization didn’t have enterprise user journeys, personas, and empathy maps of post-secondary customers, and they worked closely with their UX and Customer Insights teams to create them.

Design sprints were quickly becoming a model that would expose areas where ACT needed to grow. The sprint process would challenge the way teams made decisions around new concepts: who was in the room, how teams reached a shared understanding of their audience, and where and how innovative ideas could be found and validated. The next phase for Adrienne’s team would be to adapt the sprint model to their unique needs and design and plan for sprints on their own.

Want to learn more about design sprints? Check out part two of this article and explore how Adrienne and her team adapted the sprint model for ACT, inc.

About the Author

Kathleen Barrett writes for UIE about design, design strategy, and design methods. Her 15 years of solving problems, developing content, and managing products has helped her gain a solid perspective on what works and what doesn’t for today’s designers.