Design Thinking vs Design Sprints

Jack O'Donoghue Avatar


The Google Design Sprint and Design Thinking are both effective tools for building digital products, but they serve different purposes.

The Design Sprint is best used for quick iterations of existing products, while Design Thinking should be used during the discovery phase to build a knowledge base and explore possible solutions.

By combining and leveraging both methods, you can create value at different phases of product development.

This article explores each method and how to combine them to create maximum customer value.

What Is a Design Sprint

A Design Sprint is a 5-day digital product development process based on Design Thinking and The Lean Start-Up Methodology. The goal of the process is to dramatically shorten the time it takes to launch new features and products while incorporating learnings on how to meet the needs of the end user. A Design Sprint is a linear sequence of specific and structured design activities that guide practitioners through the process of choosing a problem and creating a prototype of a solution.

The steps of the Design Sprint are as follows:

  • Day 1: A series of conversations help the sprint team choose a focus for the sprint. This time will be used to choose a long-term objective, map the experience and pick a focus.
  • Day 2: Participants take the time to think deeply about the problem and generate a range of possible solutions by brainstorming individually and sharing back with the group.
  • Day 3: The group votes on the ideas they find most promising, a Decider then chooses the idea that will be taken forward. The team then sketches a storyboard as a draft prototype.
  • Day 4: A realistic prototype is built based on the solution described in the storyboard in the previous step. The idea is to simulate a finished product to elicit feedback from customers.
  • Day 5: The team shares the prototype with 5 different customers during a series of 5 1:1 interviews. They ask questions and get feedback to help them test new ideas and iterate the prototype.

This process can be repeated multiple times in order to iterate and continuously improve a digital product. With each iteration, the sprint team selects a different priority area of improvement to address, leading to rapid incremental improvements across the UX design of a digital product.

The Design Sprint process and the Design Sprint kit was conceived by Jake Knapp during his time at Google Ventures – a Google venture fund – as a way to reduce waste in the development process and get products into customers’ hands faster with less waste. It combines the efficiency of the Lean Startup Methodology with the tools for exploration and decision-making from the Design Thinking toolkit.

Advantages of a Design Sprint

The Design Sprint process is a short, time-boxed series of activities that stakeholders are often more willing to try because of the relatively small investment of time, attention, and money. The process produces relatively small, incremental improvements by focusing on priority problems and opportunities. This makes it a good complement to agile ways of working due to its potential to create value through continuous improvement and iteration.

Because the Design Sprint is a well-structured process that’s easy to follow, it can be applied with limited experience which makes it easy for non-designers to start using. This has also led to the criticism that it devalues the role of the product designer and dilutes specialist skills into a less effective toolkit.

Here are the advantages of the Design Sprint:

  • It’s only 5 days long
  • It can be applied with limited experience
  • The process can be repeated often and quickly
  • Well suited to the Agile methodology
  • It’s good for incremental improvements
  • It’s solution focused
  • Good for stakeholder alignment
  • It complements Design Thinking nicely

Disadvantages of a Design Sprint

Design Sprints are effective when applied to projects that have a knowledge base of user research in place and the scope of the project is fairly well defined. Without these elements in place, Sprints won’t be focused or evidence-based and are unlikely to produce good results.

A Design Sprint is unlikely to produce radical innovations but rather small incremental improvements. Solutions are often based on the knowledge of participants and SMEs, this leads to a lack of fresh insights feeding into the project and constrains potential solutions to what is already known.

Due to the fast-paced nature, there isn’t much time for deep thought or customer involvement. This means that decisions are often based on assumptions made by people from within the business. The validation stage towards the end can, of course, validate this thinking and with each iteration, the knowledge base can grow. However, Design Sprints are often selected as a methodology because they are short.

Here are the disadvantages of the Design Sprint:

  • It’s unlikely to produce radical innovations
  • Solutions are based on what is already known
  • Not much time for deep thought and research
  • They can become business rather than customer driven
  • It’s simplicity disguises it’s need for expert facilitation

When Should a Design Sprint Be Used

A Design Sprint can be used to develop solutions in a variety of problem areas but it’s primarily designed to develop already established digital products with well-defined scope and a knowledge base already in place.

The Design Sprint is effective for continuous improvement and rapid iterations of existing digital products. They go hand in hand with agile ways of working because they can be repeated often, each time on a different focus area.

They’re effective at exploring solutions quickly and getting validation from customers before committing large amounts of money, time, and attention. This makes them attractive to budget-conscious managers and teams with limited time and resources.

What Is Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a problem solving framework that is useful for generating innovative solutions to complex and ill defined, or ‘Wicked’ problems. The goal of Design Thinking is to gain deep insight into the needs of humans and deliver innovative solutions that meet their needs. Design Thinking is a fluid and iterative process that has no fixed path or sequence of activities. Rather, it is a mindset, a collection of principles, and a toolkit that can be combined and modified based on insight gained throughout the process. Over the years, lots has been written about Design Thinking. Each source of information has it’s own articulation and description of each phase. Stanford d.school describe Design Thinking as having 5 phases, each with iteration loops. Even though we describe the phases in sequence, in reality, feedback can emerge at any time signaling that you need to revisit an earlier part of the process.

The 5 phases of Design Thinking are as follows:

  • Empathize: Empathy is what drives the human centered design process and differentiates it from other design methodologies. This is where the practitioner seeks to understand a complex problem from the end user’s perspective and get insight into their needs, habits, and behaviors by observing the people and the problem in context.
  • Define: The goal of this phase is to articulate a well defined problem statement, or point of view. This statement will bring clarity and focus to the rest of the project. It needs to be actionable, insightful, and focused on the needs of a specific group of end-users.
  • Ideate: During this phase, ideas are generated and potential solutions are explored, evaluated, and selected. The principle here is to generate a large volume of ideas that forces participants to go beyond the obvious and challenge themselves to solve the problem from multiple different angles.
  • Prototype: This is where prototypes are built that represent your selected ideas. They’re designed to help you learn whether or not your ideas are viable and desirable. During the first iterations, prototypes should be low fidelity, rough versions that can be iterated quickly or discarded easily if found to be ineffective. Over time, the fidelity can increase as your questions become more specific, requiring a detailed clickable prototype to get the answers you need.
  • Test: Testing is an opportunity to observe the end-user interacting with your new idea and get feedback to help you improve it. Testing is also an opportunity to learn more about the problem and the user to deepen your understanding and provide more insight to inform your design decisions.

Although each phase can be completed in sequence, practitioners often cycle through phases multiple times and go back and forth as needed to gain a deeper understanding.

Design Thinking is useful for solving big problems related to the varied, complex, and changing needs of humans. It’s this uncertainty and ambiguity that makes the fluidity of Design Thinking effective because the practitioner can change the course of the project at any time as new information is discovered.

The theory of Design Thinking was developed throughout the 1970s as an alternative to the analytical problem solving approach that isn’t very effective at solving complex human problems. More recently, Tim Brown and David Kelley from IDEO have popularized the method by sharing case studies and learning materials to allow others to adopt the process.

Advantages of Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a fluid innovation framework that’s effective at solving problems in any area of human experience. It’s a user centric iterative process that makes it well suited to solving problems relating to the complexity and changing nature of human needs.

Design Thinking is highly collaborative and encourages diversity of thought from a cross functional team. This leads to more thorough and robust interpretations of problems and needs.

It’s useful before development has started to build a knowledge base and get a holistic overview of the problem and any related variables.

Here are the advantages of the Design Thinking method:

  • It’s customer focused
  • It’s often more thorough and grounded in research
  • It can be more effective at solving complex, ill defined problems
  • It can be more effective for producing radical innovations
  • It encourages collaboration and diversity of thought
  • It’s highly creative
  • It’s fluid and open to change

Disadvantages of Design Thinking

Design Thinking can be portrayed as a simple path to innovation but it requires deep expertise and experience. It demands research, and engagement with the people you’re designing for along with collaboration from a cross functional team in order to create valuable outcomes.

For Design Thinking to be effective it requires a lot of time and energy to plan, organize and conduct thorough user research activities. Due to its cyclical and iterative nature, the exact process and timeline aren’t always clear. This can make stakeholders nervous if they are more accustomed to the traditional approach to problem solving.

Here are the disadvantages of Design Thinking:

  • Design Thinking requires expertise to plan and facilitate
  • It can be a long process
  • It requires collaboration from various stakeholders

When Should You Use Design Thinking

Design Thinking can be used to understand and solve complex and ill defined human centered problems. When the problem isn’t very well defined, or it’s difficult to define because success relies on understanding a variety of customer and stakeholder needs. Design Thinking can bring a deep level of understanding during the early stages of a project.

Design Thinking is effective during the discovery phase of a project to build a knowledge base and explore a range of possible solutions. It should be treated as a research project before delivery begins. The goal is to understand and define the problem the generate a range of creative solutions.

How to Combine Design Thinking With Design Sprints

Design Thinking is effective for understanding the complex, varied, and changing needs of humans. This deep insight allows practitioners to solve complex problems and design innovative solutions.

The Design Sprint methodology is effective for aligning stakeholders and rapidly iterating existing digital products. This speed and focus makes it an ideal process for use in agile ways of working prior to delivery.

The two can be combined and leveraged to create value at different phases of product development. The Design Thinking process can be used before development has started, during discovery, to build a knowledge base and explore a range of possible innovations. This can give the product team the information they need about the user experience, in order to give context and direction to the development team.

Later in the development process, once this foundation has been established, the Design Sprint method can be used to rapidly iterate the digital product, producing incremental improvements for continuous delivery, within agile sprints to refine and validate ideas.


Although they are different processes, Design Sprints and Design Thinking can both be used to create value during different phases of product development. When combined, they can help teams rapidly explore solutions, validate those solutions with customers, and build a knowledge base that helps inform the delivery phase of a project. If you’re looking for ways to improve your existing digital products or get started on a new product, consider implementing these two design processes in your workflow.

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Jack O'Donoghue Avatar