Ten years ago, the phrase “design sprint” didn’t exist in the Google lexicon. Yes, there were workshops. And brainstorms. And a fairly amorphous thing called design thinking. But there was no singular approach to launching projects in a way that made them stick. That all changed when a handful of Google colleagues discovered that good things happen when everyone clears their calendars for a few days and gets in the same room. More than simply working toward a common goal, the magic combination was in developing a hypothesis and testing it quickly. And what this group of collaborators didn’t realize at the time, was that what they were co-creating would later become a global phenomenon.
Fast forward a decade, and Design Sprints are the primary method for kickstarting projects big and small at Google. The time-boxed process helps teams solve critical business challenges through designing, prototyping, and testing ideas with real human customers. “A Design Sprint gives you a sense of power, creativity, and infinite possibilities,” says UX Design Manager and early sprinting champion Nadya Direkova. The process of a Design Sprint has evolved in many ways over the years, but that foundational element of holding time and space for people to come together remains central. Here, seven Googlers past and present, share how Design Sprints became the primary engine for innovation at Google—and beyond.
A look back in celebration of Design Sprints ten-year anniversary
It all started in Stockholm. (And Seattle.) (And Mountain View.)
In 2010, a handful of pioneers from different parts of the Google ecosystem—UX designers, engineers, researchers, and product managers—started looking for ways to break from the tyranny of back-to-back 30-minute meetings and the challenges of working cross-functionally. A few people who had been trained in IDEO's design thinking approach began experimenting, remixing different methods—user research, business strategy, and even psychology—into something that could supercharge their work on bold, never-been-done before projects.
Jake Knapp, Designer and former GV Partner: We’d been limping along on a video conferencing project and we finally said: Let’s our calendars. Let's forget about making this thing perfect. At the end of the week, we had a good enough prototype that people started to use and it took off. (This “thing” would eventually become Google Meet.)
Every idea needs a champion
If there’s one aspect of the sprint origin story pretty much everyone agrees on, it’s that UX Design Manager Nadya Direkova was the Johnny Appleseed of sprinting at Google.
Jake: Nadya took on the big task of figuring out, “How do we make this a thing that works Google wide?” So much of the credit in Design Sprints really taking off inside Google goes to Nadya and then to Kai Haley, the current head of UX methods and process, who took up that mantle after her.
Marta Rey-Barbaro, Senior Staff UX Researcher, formerly Corporate Engineering: When I first got to Google, I was facing a very, very tight deadline for the redesign of the system we use to do performance reviews. I knew we all needed to be together in the same room making decisions. I had to convince people who were working against that deadline to stop for an entire week. I was nervous, and I remember thinking, “Maybe they’ll fire me.” But then I met Nadya.
Nadya Direkova, UX Design Manager, formerly Google X: I remember Marta rode up to Google X on a bicycle, and we started chatting about the sprint she wanted to plan. An hour later, still standing outside the building, we had figured out the whole thing together.
Marta: That was the beginning of doing sprints at a big scale: more than 25 people came together for five full days. It was a huge success. And it was part of Nadya’s vision of moving Google from an engineering company to a design company. We knew Google was going to double or triple in size, and we knew many of our existing tools would need to be completely re-engineered and redesigned. Sprints were going to help us get there.
Nadya: The self-driving car was my first large sprint—50 people! I went to visit Jake, who was working with Google Ventures at the time, to see if he had ideas about how to do a sprint of that size. We ended up adding a team of advisors and prototypers to participate in the sprint—increasing domain expertise and helping us create more, faster. By the end of that week, we had two visions of the future of this amazing technology. This experience made me realize I wanted to work like that all the time and inspired me to think about sprints at scale.
5 days. No devices. Really?
Everyone’s busy at Google. Calendars are packed with meetings and “syncs.” To-do lists are never-ending. Email inboxes are overflowing. And that makes it really, really hard to find time to work in a focused way on anything. And without momentum it’s difficult, if not impossible, to get an idea off the ground. Enter sprinting.
Marta: No technology is allowed unless it’s required for whatever we’re doing in the sprint. So cellphones, out of sight. Computers, out of sight. It doesn’t matter who you are. I remember in one sprint, a director said, “What if Sundar calls me?” And I said, “Your team can come get you.” That’s why they work: there’s a big commitment and a big vision.
Catherine Courage, Vice President of User Experience, Ads and Commerce: Every year we would do this annual event called Sprint Week, and we would get hundreds of people across the globe together to spend five days sprinting on a whole array of projects. Initially, Sprint Week was about training people in the methodology and selling people on why sprints were worth the investment of five days (not to mention travel). Once people participated in one, they’d be like, “This is amazing!” We realized the sprint methodology just sells itself, and so it really grew organically over time.
Jason Blythe, UX Principal for Image Search: My first formal sprint was during the very first Sprint Week in 2013. I admit I was skeptical. In my naivety, I couldn't see that having a group with domain knowledge in other areas could make our thinking more robust and more vibrant. And the process also felt a little too democratic for me. Aren’t we just regurgitating bad ideas? But once I had a little bit of distance and time, I was able to see that the sprint reframed the problem in a more productive way than I was able to see it. I don’t have this hangup anymore, by the way.
Demystifying the process
What became clear early on was that the unique, structured environment of a Design Sprint can create something magical. Teams like Google X and Google Ventures were tackling all kinds of big, meaty challenges—launched in 2009, GV is the venture capital arm of Alphabet and helps startups interface with Google—and they needed help. The sprint methodology provided an elegant model for innovation and even helped mature teams break from their usual ways of operating.
Ricardo Prada, AI UX Team Lead, formerly Google X: People think designers go off in a cave and come back with a product that’s perfect and amazing. But that’s not how it works. Especially when I was at Google X. The ideas we had were way too big for the traditional design process.
Jake: I think what I was looking for more than anything with the Design Sprint was the chance to have these true moments at work where you elevate that thing that matters most to you and to your teammates. There are no politics. No distractions. You’re just focused on the most important thing and making progress on it in a way that just feels right.
Ricardo: Design Sprints sped things up for us by helping us extract all the different concepts and put aside the ones that weren’t going to be useful. It was such a refreshing process for us—and an exciting thing to see happening at the company.
Each one, teach one.
The lynchpin of a Design Sprint is the Sprint Leader; without a leader, it’s just a brainstorm. When sprint fever started to take off, the small team of people who’d been leading sprints found themselves spread thin. It was clear that Google needed to train more people to be sprint leaders, so they launched the Sprint Leadership Academy in 2014.
Nadya: I realized how important the Sprint Leader role was to making sprints successful, and so I worked with Marta to create the Academy. We’ve since trained hundreds of people, and it’s one of the main reasons that Design Sprints have blossomed as a practice at Google.
Marta: We saw the Academy as a way of developing the methodology even more and then teaching it to UX leaders, designers, and researchers across the company.
Ricardo: One of the things I’m most proud of is how the Sprint Academy has helped people develop their voice and taught them concrete skills: how to control the room; how to figure out what’s important; how to understand business strategy. In just ten years we’ve seen so many people grow into great leaders, both within Google and in other companies where they continue to spread these techniques and build great new products.
When something works, people tend to talk about it. And so it didn’t take long for sprinting to go viral at Google. It was clear to everyone who tried a sprint that it was the most efficient way to make meaningful progress on a problem, and develop solutions that had staying power. And then there’s the actual process of huddling up in a room with a bunch of colleagues you don’t know, which, as it turned out, people really loved.
Jake: At first, I thought there might be an appetite for five or ten Design Sprints a year. But people wanted to do it more than that. And though I might be good at facilitating, it turns out that lots of different people have the ability to do a great job at that.
Catherine: One of my favorite quotes is “creativity loves constraint,” and I think the sprint methodology completely embodies that. It gives a structure for approaching innovation and ideation, which for some teams can seem very daunting. But in a sprint, you can kickstart amazing ideas that people can continue to develop.
Jason: A sprint puts collaboration into hyperdrive, which is great regardless of the actual outcome of the sprint. Because it isn’t just getting people to talk—it’s getting them to be empathetic to each other, get in alignment, and then find a shared path.
Nadya: When you commit to a cause with a sprint, it changes you. In my case, I found that I’ve become a little more confident. I’m a better listener. And I’ve become more humble, because sprints give me the chance to see that rarely is my own idea the only way.
Outside the box
While Google’s culture is particularly suited to sprinting, the GV team wondered if the process could help the companies they were investing in. It wasn’t long before word started to spread even farther afield, due in large part to GV’s sprinting blog, written by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky. Soon they had a massive community following who were eager to try the method themselves.
John Zeratsky, Designer and former Design Partner, GV: The fundamental challenge for every startup is navigating uncertainty, so we thought Jake’s model of doing sprints was something that could help our companies succeed. We started to run Design Sprints with the companies in our portfolio, optimizing it for the types of uncertainties and risks our startups were facing.
Jake: The sprint process had to be able to work as well for a company that’s building a new iPhone app as it did for a company that’s creating a new cancer diagnostic test, or a company that’s making coffee. With GV sprints, we got the chance to battle test the methodology in all these different environments.
John: One of the big breakthroughs was getting researcher Michael Margolis to help us compress the long user research process down to just a matter of days. This meant we could now test the prototype with real customers in that same week—not after.
Jake: When I started writing about sprinting, I hoped people would think, “Oh, man, that guy’s really smart. We should work with Google Ventures, so we can work with him.” But what happened was people read them and they were like, “We can do this ourselves!” They did—and it worked.
Kai Haley, Head of UX Process and Methods: People in the developer and product development community were starting to see how this way of working could help them accelerate, and they began asking for sprint training. With Developer Relations, we catalyzed a global community of experts to help spread the methodology. They started hosting meetups and offering training programs, and it was exciting to see the way it was embraced and adopted globally.
It’s a sprint world (we’re just living in it)
Design Sprints haven’t just improved the way Google innovates. They’ve really changed our company—as well as so many others.
Ricardo: Sprints started out in this little corner of the company where we weren’t really interacting very much with the rest of Google. But we wanted the sprint to spread because we could see how beneficial they were. Now, ten years later, I’m kind of shocked—and pleased, of course—that sprints are such a big part of how we do design.
Catherine: Twenty-twenty has been a challenging year, and when I think about the bright spots, the growth and power of sprinting is one. This methodology has allowed us to work from home, and I’m grateful that Google has invested so much time and energy in this methodology so we can keep moving forward.
John: After all these years, the thing that keeps me excited about sprints is that I feel like it’s a recipe for helping teams focus on the work that really matters. And I’ve been amazed and humbled by the way people around the world have adopted these ideas, and brought this way of working into their organizations.
Nadya: The thing I find really exciting is that design sprints are flexible enough to apply to any sort of challenge or problem. We’ve worked on challenges related to products at Google X, created new internal tools for helping global nonprofits, and even helped to define and launch the Obama White House TechHire Initiative.
Kai: If 2020 has shown us anything, it’s that the ability to learn and pivot is critical to our success. As the future of work becomes more distributed, how we work—collaboratively and synchronously—will continue to change and adapt.