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How to test your ideas with a sprint and save millions

800m mark on a running track

Today's guest post is from Adam Babajee-Pycroft, Managing Director of UX partner Natural Interaction, who shares some of his experience on running successful sprints.

Developing new ideas within an established business can swallow up budget and resources as stakeholders weigh in, market research crawls along and plans are chopped and changed.

And after all that, the product you end up launching may not even achieve the results that you hoped for. It’s a big and potentially very costly gamble.

A sprint is a leaner, more agile way to test new ideas and short-circuits all that development mess, helping you evaluate the potential of an innovative idea quickly. Google Ventures use sprints to test startup ideas, compressing months of development into a week-long process that’s fast, cost-effective and nurtures creative problem-solving.

Just five days of brainstorming, prototyping and testing can ensure bad ideas fail fast, so that you don’t waste millions taking something to market that will never succeed. Here’s our quick guide to running a sprint successfully.

Warming up

Before the sprint, it’s a good idea to prepare so you can hit the ground running on the first day. Start by assembling a cross-functional team with a wealth of knowledge from across your company. Seven people is the sweet spot; fewer than that can mean too little input, and more than that can result in sluggish decision-making and too many discussions.

Don’t restrict yourself to the usual suspects from high up the management chain; great ideas can come from anywhere, so consider people from all levels of your company. 

Organize the where and how of the sprint and gather the materials you need.


Goal: Identify what challenge you want to solve

The team starts by committing to solving a single, wide problem within the company. For example, Blue Bottle Coffee, a successful San Francisco coffee chain, raised $20m to set up an e-commerce site to sell fresh coffee beans. The idea seemed sound, but their designers and web developers had no idea how to tackle actually building the thing. By collaboratively brainstorming, they began to understand their challenge; to bring the experience of visiting a cozy coffee shop to the web.

Once you’ve framed your challenge in clear terms, you identify two key roles within the group. The Decider takes control of the group, settles disputes and makes final decisions. Typically, this should be someone who is empowered to make major decisions and is accountable for the outcome of the project. Secondly, the Facilitator is in charge of managing time, summarising discussions and smoothing out the process.


Goal: Rapidly explore as many ideas as possible.

The second day is the time for the team to brainstorm lots of ideas. This can be done individually, with team members sketching their ideas out on paper. When someone comes up with an idea, they are given space to explain it to the rest of the group.

As the ideas are gathered, the group can try combining them together to spark off new and exciting inspiration.

You can also draw inspiration from elsewhere in the company. Challenges and ideas from around the organization may provide a starting point.

Robotics firm Savioke, a Google Ventures investment, used this process to improve the experience of interacting with their flagship product, a robot that delivers items such as toothbrushes and towels to hotel rooms. The team were worried that guests wouldn’t like the robot, so used a sprint to answer the question of how it should interact with humans. A risky idea was chosen; giving the robot a face and personality inspired by the friendly troll character from the Studio Ghibli film My Neighbor Totoro. The results of user testing were overwhelmingly positive; guests loved the personable robot.


Goal: Choose the best ideas and storyboard their development

Day three is all about choosing which ideas to take forward.


  •      All the idea sketches are pinned to the wall
  •      The Facilitator has 3 minutes to present each concept
  •      When the time is up, the creator of the concept answers any questions
  •      All members of the team then vote either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on the idea with a simple show of hands.


  •      The team creates a storyboard showing the intended audience’s interaction with the product and the value it brings to them.
  •      A quick ‘empathy mapping’ session involves writing down what potential customers may See, Think, Do, Hear, Taste and Smell whilst interacting with your product. This helps the team consider holistically the other things the customer may have going on whilst using the product.


Goal: Fake the experience you’re trying to create for customers

On the penultimate day, the winning idea is prototyped so it can be tested. But there’s no time for detailed models or full-scale prototyping – this is all about a quick and dirty way to get the idea in front of customers. It doesn’t even have to work in the way the final product would, it just needs to give the appearance of working.

Team management platform Slack wanted to use artificial intelligence on their homepage to demonstrate their app. On the testing day, the team answered queries using live chat, acting as if they were the computer programme they wanted to create so they could test user responses to it.


Goal: Show the prototype to real humans and learn what works and what doesn’t work.

Day five is time to leave the room and go outside, testing your prototype on real people. And that means people who are outside the company; it’s critical that you pick representative participants from your target audience. Random people or internal stakeholders aren’t what you’re looking for, because the answers you get from them may not apply to your actual customers, skewing your results.

This testing stage might sound daunting, but the sample size does not need to be large – as few as five participants can be enough. With software testing, five participants will expose 85% of your usability issues.

The finish line

At the end of your sprint, you’ll have concrete, evidence-based answers to your big question, and if you choose to take an idea forward you’ll know that you’re committing budget to something that’s already proven to work.

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