Balance the Scales of Influence with Design Sprints

This article was originally published on the edUiconf blog. It has been adapted for this publication.

Journey with me for a moment. Think back to the last big problem or initiative you worked on. Think about the solution that made it out the door to your users. Where did that solution come from? How did it evolve throughout the course of its life-cycle?

Now, think about who and what influenced that end product. Were those influences healthy, balanced, and meaningful? Or were there some influences that jeopardized or otherwise negatively affected the end result?

If you’re like most, you have probably experienced negative influences on a project. A boss or client swooped in at the end and forced selfish, unvalidated changes. An overconfident designer or product manager ignored feedback on their “perfect” design. Someone spoke louder in a meeting causing others to cede their ideas. Or maybe the project was completed in a silo with almost no external feedback or research.

These are all examples of an imbalance in influence. Something or someone altered or restricted a healthy balance in the problem solving process. When out of balance, your user’s problems and ideas to solve those problems take a back seat to ego, bias, and misinformed opinions. We won’t always have perfect balance but with vigilance we can manage the influences.

Bring on the Design Sprints

Rebalancing the influence within your organization will take a cultural shift. That won’t happen overnight and likely is beyond your direct control. However you can start to correct it, or at least bypass it, with Design Sprints.

Design Sprints are a design thinking tool that gets the team, including important influencers, on the same page at the beginning. Using a condensed timeframe (about five days) as a catalyst, the team answers critical business questions through a series of structured activities, prototyping, and testing ideas with customers. The result is a shared understanding of what the team is building and why.

By bringing together important influencers at the beginning of a project, everyone discusses and agrees on the problem, the assumptions, and the challenges. Then individually, and quietly, ideas are generated from everyone in the room. With no names or titles associated with each sticky note idea or sketch, bias is removed allowing the best ideas shine.

Democratizing the Design Process

Design should not be an exclusive practice. At its core, design is about solving problems—an innate skill everyone possesses. A project manager solves schedule and human problems. A developer or engineer solves complex technical problems, giving life to our solutions. Someone working in customer support solves problems for your customers is their primary responsibility.

So, why should solving a core user problem be the exclusive responsibility of the designer? It shouldn’t.

A Design Sprint brings together a small multidisciplinary team from across your organization ranging from designer and engineer to the president or CEO (or person with the highest authority to veto results).

Everyone involved in the sprint contributes ideas and sketches out solutions, yes, even the CEO (imagine that!). Great ideas can come from anyone. Often the prevailing idea or concept at the end of a Sprint doesn’t come from a designer. Design sprints allow those ideas to have a seat at the table where maybe they wouldn’t have otherwise.

Politics Stay Outside the Sprint Room

One of the strengths of the design sprint process is its ability to neutralize the politics in the room. It can prevent the all too well known executive swoop n’ poop.

Through each Sprint phase, a facilitator leads the activities using techniques designed to empower each participant, regardless of role or power. Ideas and contributions from sprint team members who are lower in the org chart are equal to that of members at the top of the chart.

The same effect can happen when, regardless of position in the organization, there are personalities and voices in the room that are “louder” than others.

Agreeing on a clear problem and then reviewing potential solutions with equal weight as a group focuses the discussion on the idea rather than the source.

Test Your Ideas with Users First, Not Last

When it comes to influence, your users should have the lion’s share. Not involving them early can be a costly mistake. Ideas and solutions to problems are only assumptions until validated or invalidated by users. Odds are high that you will go down the wrong path before finding the right one. Even the best designers and teams are wrong two-thirds of the time.

Trying out your great idea and discovering you’re wrong is a great way to learn. Failures are the best learning opportunities and the best design teams embrace them. The key however is discovering you’re wrong quickly and early in the process.

The icing on the design sprint cake is on the last day of the sprint, you test a high fidelity prototype with your target audience. You’ll know whether you’re on the right path or if you’ve stumbled. And the best past is you’ve only invested a few days into that idea. If you were wrong, you learned something, saved time, and saved money. If you’re right, you can confidently move forward.

Using Design Sprints to Manage Influence

We all have our own biases, our own agendas, and our own opinions. So, as long as humans are the ones solving problems (we’ve got at least a few more years, right?), there will always be factors threatening to tip the scales of influence.

Design Sprints aren’t the only way to control influence, nor will they succeed at it 100% of the time. Yet, they do give your team a recipe for gaining a shared understanding of a problem, democratically finding a solution, and learning from your most important influencer: the user.


By Mike Shelton

Designer at Automattic, making a little better everyday.