The Value of Design Sprints for Entrepreneurs

Last month, we had the pleasure of conducting a 5-day Design Sprint with healthcare entrepreneurs at ALX in Nairobi. The Design Sprint was sponsored by the Swiss Re Foundation, the foundation of one of the largest reinsurers globally. With eight entrepreneurs and their teams, six experts from Swiss Re who joined the entrepreneurs as expert team members for the week, and an amazing ALX support team we embarked on the 5-day Design Sprint journey.

What is a Design Sprint?

Originally developed at Google to generate, prototype, and test ideas quickly and cost-effectively, the Design Sprint is a framework for answering critical business questions through design, prototyping and testing ideas with users. We adapted the original sprint format and incorporated some elements from Design Thinking to ensure that the developed ideas are based on real user insights rather than assumptions from the teams.

The adapted Design Sprint framework follows six phases: Understand, define, sketch, decide, prototype and test.

We started the week with a deep dive into empathy building with the people whom the teams are creating their solutions for. From our experience, many entrepreneurs find it challenging to conduct meaningful research with their target audience and often perceive it as a costly, time-consuming, and challenging task. Therefore, it was important to us to kick off the week with an intense one-day human-centered research session to allow entrepreneurs to build empathy with their users and get real insights. Due to limited time and resources, the entrepreneurs focused on qualitative interviews and observations in their research. Luckily, the Design Sprint took place at Nairobi Garage, one of the vibrant co-working spaces in Nairobi, and thus provided ample access to real users for the entrepreneurs to learn from.

This human-centered approach was at the center of all the activities over the next five days. The teams analyzed and clustered their main findings from the research the following day and came up with specific design challenges to focus on during the ideation, prototyping, and testing days. After developing a plethora of ideas, the teams sketched out the main ideas and prototyped the ideas quickly with the available material and resources at hand. On day 4 each team tested their prototypes again with their targeted audience and incorporated the gathered feedback in a small iteration round. On the last day, each team got the opportunity to pitch their developed prototypes to two healthcare experts and the three winning teams were awarded US$ 5000 to further develop their prototypes.

What did we learn?

1) Design Sprints are a great tool for entrepreneurs to learn from users, to prototype and test ideas quickly & cheaply

Design Sprints offer a fixed-time framework (often four to five days) to focus on generating, prototyping, and testing ideas with users. This encourages entrepreneurs to build ideas into prototypes fast and immediately test prototypes with users which offers entrepreneurs a unique opportunity to learn from users at the beginning of a (product) development process. Thereby, Design Sprints guide entrepreneurs to build prototypes for ideas quickly and with the resources at hand which reduces both time and costs spent to develop a prototype and get user feedback on an idea.

2) A human-centered approach is critical to getting the most out of the Design Sprint

Entrepreneurs set out to solve a problem they think is worth their time and energy to focus on to solve it. Naturally, entrepreneurs have a grand vision and great knowledge about the problem they are trying to solve. However, entrepreneurs (as well as everyone else) operate with a lot of assumptions around the problem, their solution to that problem, and the people they target with that solution. The first challenge is to understand the problem you are tackling deeply because an idea to solve a problem can only be as good as the actual relevance of the problem. This means that the best idea won’t work out if it is not solving a real (rather than perceived) problem. Therefore, building empathy with your target audience before any ideation activity is particularly important to get an in-depth understanding of the problem and the insights generated from user research are the foundation for the generation and prototyping of new ideas. This ensures that ideation is led by real user insights rather than assumptions.

3) Design Sprints help you to identify and focus on a specific challenge

When you first start on your entrepreneurship journey, the problem(s) you are trying to solve might seem insurmountable. In Design Thinking, we refer to these kinds of problems as wicked problems which translates to very complex problems that seem impossible to tackle. Getting an in-depth understanding of the problem (by conducting desk research AND by building empathy with your target audience) helps you to break down the problem and identify which areas within the problem are most relevant to your target audience. Once you have identified a more specific challenge it makes it easier to develop creative and relevant ideas.

4) Design Sprints can be applied beyond new product development

Design Sprints are most known for being a great tool to speed up new product development. While Design Sprints were originally developed to focus on the development of new products, they can be applied to accelerate the growth of any area in your business. The Design Sprint is merely a useful tool for idea generation and prototyping and is agnostic to the areas it is applied to. For example, if you need a marketing strategy to market your product/service to your target audience, then the Design Sprint framework can also help you understand the needs of your target audience and ideate, prototype, and test marketing elements with your users in a short time frame.

5) Multi-disciplinary teams increase the learning & outcomes of a Design Sprint

During the Swiss Re-Design Sprint, employees from Swiss Re worked together with the entrepreneurs & their teams on generating, prototyping, and testing ideas. Having experts with at least a decade of work experience in healthcare and/or insurance join their teams, ask critical questions and provide valuable insights was a great way for the entrepreneurs to expand the diversity of their ideas and tested prototypes.

Do you want to conduct a Design Sprint with your team at work? Are you looking for support to help you manage & implement your innovation projects more effectively? Visit for more info!

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