Mastering Design Sprint Prototyping with AJ&Smart's Top 3 Secrets
Upgrade your Design Sprint prototyping to the next level by stealing these methods.
During 2022 I started freelancing on the consulting team at the renowned Innovation agency AJ&Smart.
I’m assuming most of this Substack's readers are familiar with AJ&Smart. But for the few that aren’t – AJ&Smart is a digital product design and innovation consultancy that specializes in helping organizations bring their products to market faster using Design Sprints and collaboration techniques for the modern age.
They’ve been running Design Sprints for clients since 2016. I don’t have an exact number but I would estimate that they’ve run well over 500 Design Sprints by now.
During my time with the AJ&Smart consulting teams, I learned tons. And specifically as a prototyper, I picked up some neat tricks and surprising learnings that I will share with you in this article.
Anyone who ever tried running a Design Sprint knows it can be very, very intense. And depending on who you are, one of the most labor-intensive parts of the Design Sprint can be putting together the prototype.
In this article, I will uncover 3 things that surprised me about how AJ&Smart organizes their prototyping efforts and how they make sure to create a successful prototype and subsequent user test, every time.
Alright, let’s get into it!
Secret #1 – The Design Sprint by AJ&Smart is kind of a waterfall process
It might seem counterintuitive and the term waterfall process sounds afwul in most people’s ears – but hear me out. The way AJ&Smart run the Design Sprint process is actually not too different from a classic waterfall process, except it’s super efficient and fast.
First of all, they only workshop with their client for 3 half-day workshops, then the waterfall ‘runs down’ to AJ&Smart and we take over. The client does not have to take part of any of the prototyping or user research efforts – we manage that as the consultants.
The waterfall analogy continues in the internal AJ&Smart team as well. For each sprint we’re a team of 2–3 consultants that share different responsibilities. The roles can vary but most often it looks like this:
Design Sprint Lead – primary facilitator and manages customer relations
User Researcher – recruiting of users, user interviewing and insight synthesis
Prototyper – facilitates the storyboard exercise and puts together the prototype, sometimes helps out with user interviews
When the decision workshop is finished, me as a prototyper usually picks up prototyping instantly.
The way AJ&Smart schedule sprints with clients usually leave me with 2 or even sometimes 3 days of prototyping actually. This is different from the original GV Design Sprint created by Jake Knapp which only leaves one single day of prototyping. But adding some more time for prototyping serves the agency+client model really well.
The extra time ensures that I can create an even more impactful prototype and “wow” the client as well as the users. This wow-factor isn’t as important when doing a Design Sprint in-house though.
The waterfall of responsibilities usually looks like this:
We all do the Design Sprint workshops together with the client, and this is when the Sprint Lead gets to shine and pulls the heaviest load as the workshop facilitator.
Then the ball is handed over to me, the prototyper. I run the storyboard exercise at the Decision Workshop. I then grab the storyboard and turn it into a brilliant prototype. This usually means I’m working from early morning ‘til late evening. I happily work weekends as well (I don’t have kids yet and am a freelancer, I understand this is not possible for just anyone).
When the prototype is done, I hand it over to the User Researcher who uses it to structure the interview script and then does the interviews (sometimes I and the Sprint Lead help out with the interviews though). After the interviews are completed, the User Researcher starts synthesizing insights from the interviews which is presented in the upcoming iteration workshop together with the client. The user researcher process usually takes 2–3 days as well.
You might wonder, what is the Sprint Lead doing when the Prototyper does their thing or what does the Prototyper do when the User Researcher is doing their thing? You might have realized that this waterfall process leaves every sprint consultant with some spare time to spend on other things.
This is perfect because it gives everyone in the sprint team a breather. We usually start preparing the next upcoming sprint with a new client, or start working on the handover report, or internal agency stuff. Doing back-to-back Design Sprints is INTENSE and if we didn’t have this buffer of different responsibilities we would kind of break down.
What can you learn from this?
Design Sprinting AJ&Smart-style is by nature a compressed waterfall process. The original GV Sprint is all about a single team working hard, doing everything together. But as an agency, running back-to-back sprints we need to work differently.
You don’t have to squeeze everything into that by-the-book 5 day sprint week to call it a success.
I think the agency format is even better because it decreases the time spent in energy-draining workshops for the client, and increases the time left to improve the quality of the output (prototype and interview findings).
Secret #2 – We reuse prototyping assets from other sprints
Few designers really knows their full potential about how fast they actually can work until they get to experience the pressure of being the Prototyper in a Design Sprint delivered as one of the world’s best sprint agencies for a client.
You simply cannot delay any of the design work as a Prototyper at AJ&Smart. If you do, the user researcher won’t have anything to show the testers. And then we won’t have any results to show the client. And then we can’t start the next sprint with a new client in time. You get the idea.
This pressure means two things:
Forget the 9-to-5. During the prototyping days you can’t really plan anything with your friends or family, be prepared to work from early morning to late night.
You need to take any shortcut possible, without sacrificing quality of the output.
I mentioned AJ&Smart has done well over 500 sprints right? This means that they have plenty of prototypes in their archives to look at for inspiration. Why waste time reinventing the wheel?
As a Prototyper at AJ&Smart, we steal with pride from previous sprint’s Figma files. Doing a Design Sprint for a B2C app? There are already solid buttons, tab menus and header components existing you can grab from all the previous B2C apps.
Doing a Design Sprint for a SaaS or Corporate web app? There are plenty of pre-existing menu components, dashboards and typical desktop layouts to steal from.
And of course, some clients already have an existing Design System I can grab from too. But they are rarely adapted for prototyping. I like to add hover states to interactive elements for desktop experiences – and surprisingly few Design Systems I’ve come across at clients utilize things like Figma’s Auto-layout and component variant features.
In the week leading up to the Design Sprint, I usually spend an hour or two preparing a small Design System in a Figma file with the minimum basics such as:
The client’s type styles
Client brand colors
A component set with buttons and input fields based on the client’s current branding (and adding basic prototype effects such as hover and pressdown states)
An icon pack
However, I never do any more than this before the Design Sprints starts because the Sprint challenge might take a new direction which means we need a different design style or anonymous branding (sometimes the test requires that the client brand is kept hidden from the testers to avoid bias), or going for a desktop or app experience. The rest of the design system is built as I move along when the prototyping day starts.
What can you learn from this?
You don’t have access to AJ&Smart’s Figma archives of course. But Figma has its community feature. In that community, there are hundreds of thousands of high-quality Design Systems, pre-designed apps, and icon packs you can copy and give yourself a head start in your prototyping.
Here are some solid design files, design systems, and plugins I usually steal and grab from (when I don’t steal from the AJ&Smart assets):
Tailwind color styles – A Figma file you can copy color styles over from
Tailwind color styles generator – a plugin that generates the styles for you
Ant Design System – Open source design system, limited free version
Uber Base – the Uber Design System
Fluent (Web) – Microsofts Design System for web apps
The Untitled UI Icon pack
Tabler icons Figma Plugin
Unsplash – Plugin for commercial free-to-use stock photographs
Blush – Plugin for commercial free-to-use illustrations
Secret #3 – Every prototype is linear
When doing “normal” Product Design prototypes – the point is usually to simulate a full product to be able to share both internally and to use when testing with customers.
I normally make all sorts of convoluted connections to make sure a website or web app feel as real as possible. Meaning you can navigate back and forth through menus and click almost anything interactive on the screen.
However, when doing a Design Sprint prototype, going this advanced on your prototype connections is a huge waste of time and even detrimental to the success of the interview.
Let me explain.
Design Sprint User Interviews are NOT Usability Tests
First, I should point out something about the style of user interviews we run. They are NOT usability tests in the traditional UX sense. We are not testing for the usability of the product ideas, we rather perform something that should be called Concept Tests or Concept Interviews.
Think less “Did they find that button fast enough?” and more “Do they feel excited by this specific concept?”
Remember, the point of a Design Sprint is to evaluate if your product idea concepts have desirability or not in the minds of your customers.
In the workshops, we create and vote to test a couple of core concepts that are put into the prototype in order to find answers to our Sprint Questions. The concepts can be things like:
A conversational style onboarding to setup a new SaaS product to see if customers are excited and feel helped by this type of onboarding (or if they’d rather just explore on their own)
A new custom start page builder feature to find out if customers are interested in the notion of building their own start page or not.
The most important job the prototype has is to successfully showcase these concepts to the interviewee, step-by-step, so that we get ample time to capture feedback and reactions to each concept.
The user researcher guides and directs the interviewee very closely and tells them when to click and when to move on. The interviewee is actually rarely allowed to explore any navigation elements freely.
If I build a prototype where the user can click to go back to the start, the user test will quickly de-rail and time will run out before we get a chance to capture feedback on the most important sections.
I have made this mistake before and it sucks to have to say to the client that we didn’t have time to test that super cool concept they came up with because time ran out.
What can you learn from this?
It can be so much fun building a realistic prototype with cool loading animations and a fully navigationable (is that a word?) menu.
But when doing a Design Sprint you need to stick to a linear prototype. Of course, you should add back arrows and menus to the design. But don’t add too many prototype connections to them so that the user can move backward more than maybe one step. If they need to go back, the user researcher can always instruct them to use the back arrows on the keyboard.
For a Design Sprint interview, you almost have to consider the prototype more like creating an advanced Slide Deck. We simply move the user from left to right, showing them concept by concept as they were organized in the Story Board exercise. This method avoids unnecessary time-wasting and confusion during the interview.
One thing I almost forgot – to be a successful Prototyper, you need to have good quality chocolate and coffee on hand at all times. Seriously.
Thanks to Sarah McKenna at AJ&Smart for reminding me. By the way, if you want to upgrade your sales game, you should check out her video on how to sell 6-figure workshops.
Rapid prototyping in a Design Sprint context is stressful and fun. I hope these pro ‘secrets’ gave you some insight on how you can improve this part of the Design Sprint process.
I will continue to share more learnings, secrets and best practices about workshop facilitation and Design Sprints in this newsletter so make sure to subscribe if you haven’t already.
Before you go, I have a question for you:
If you have ever been part of a Design Sprint – I would love to know – what was the most unexpected part about the process to you?
Drop a comment below or write to me on Linkedin.
Need more help?
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Check out some of my other posts on my Substack-blog for more in-depth guides and reflections.
I also help companies facilitate super-efficient problem solving workshops. Schedule a call with me and we’ll discuss how I might help you.
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ah okay, thanks for clarification, now I understand, because from my point of view, it has nothing to do with the waterfall process modell and for me, it was just misleading here. But just my five cents :) But now I got your point.
Thats very insightful mate, thanks a lot for sharing. I just have one question. I dont get this waterfall analogy. Why you call this a waterfall process? Maybe you can explain this!? Thanks