Design Sprint vs. Design Thinking

Guest contribution by | 01.10.2018

How I combine Design Sprints and Design Thinking in one remix

Product improvement, innovation and user-centred services are important for the development of a business. The ongoing digitalisation and the associated opportunities and risks have a catalysing effect, many companies feel a strong pressure to innovate. In the area of conflict between young agile competitors and new digital business models, they are looking for suitable methods to test and improve their products.

Design Thinking and Design Sprint promise solutions in this context. What is hidden behind these two terms? How do the approaches differ? How quickly can problems actually be solved? I work as an independent Human Centered Design & Innovation Consultant and support companies to think outside the box and to question and improve existing products and strategies. I almost always consciously involve relevant user perspectives in order to verify internal hypotheses and take real needs into account when finding solutions.

In this article I explain what is behind the terms Design Thinking and Design Sprint and describe which remix format I successfully carry out with my clients in the German-speaking world.

Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a mindset and framework behind which a set of established methods from the user-centred design process is hidden. It provides a focused and comprehensible introduction to the way of thinking and working that designers have been using successfully for decades when it comes to developing products in relation to human needs. A good designer is curious, empathic, asks many questions, verifies the initial question thoroughly before starting to find solutions, develops many ideas and builds rudimentary prototypes at an early stage in order to test the ideas cost-effectively. The procedure according to the Design Thinking textbook reads very similarly: understand context, explore user behaviour, define the problem, develop many solutions, implement a few ideas prototypically, test them with users.

Hasso Plattner and David Kelley had the vision to make this way of thinking and working accessible to other disciplines. For this reason, design thinking is part of the curriculum at Stanford and the HPI in Potsdam. Students from all disciplines come together here to learn together what it means to consider not only the technical and economic factors, but also the human being at the centre of a product development. Design Thinking serves as a means of raising awareness of user needs and as an example of how, in principle, anyone in a company can work creatively if an open and inspiring working atmosphere is provided. Above all, it offers surprising insights to those who have never before thought or acted user-centred. It also motivates people to question and change the way they work.

In the project context, Design Thinking is used when the client has not yet defined a concrete problem, a specific challenge. With the help of Design Thinking, basic knowledge about the customer can be gathered in order to subsequently find solutions based on the identified needs. The desired goal is radical innovation, i.e. a new and useful product or service. A major component of the Design Thinking project is therefore an intensive user research phase, the exploration and understanding of users and their behaviour.

Basically, Design Thinking is therefore a collection of tools from user-centred design. In every project, the challenge is to consciously select the methods from the framework that best fit the project framework and the desired results. The length of the project and the workshop agenda is variable and will be individually designed according to the challenge. For the planning of Design Thinking projects and the selection of methods, experience is therefore essential. Design Thinking is not a quick blueprint for implementing innovation projects.

Design Sprint

The Design Sprint is a process, a clear and structured approach, how to work out solutions for a specific problem with a team of experts within one week and in the last step validate these solutions with real users. In contrast to Design Thinking, the challenge of the Sprint is very precise. It is verified at the beginning during team synchronisation and modified if necessary. The field of action is often the improvement or further development of a product or product component. The goal is not a radical but an incremental innovation. In contrast to Design Thinking, no user research, e.g. in the form of user interviews, is carried out at the beginning of the sprint; the customers are only involved on the last day, in the user test.

Jake Knapp developed the Design Sprint for Google Ventures to develop solutions for specific problems quickly, independently and effectively within the company’s team of experts. The existing expert knowledge and the personal experience of the participants form the basis for reviewing the challenge and developing solutions.

In contrast to Design Thinking, the Sprint is limited to five days and has a precise agenda for each day. Shorter formats are possible if parts of the process are compressed. The Sprint is a comprehensible and clear workshop instruction with the following sequence of events: Understanding and modifying challenges, finding solutions, selecting the best solutions, building prototypes, testing with users.

A remix of both approaches

Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses, that’s why I use a remix. For project planning and agenda I use the Design Sprint as a guideline. The schedule and the clearly defined daily goals help me and the project team to assess their own progress and go into the end of the day with a productive feeling. In many German companies it is also difficult to mobilise a team of experts for five days in a row, so I break the five-day format down to two or three weeks. This strategy has another advantage: the team can continue to work on the prototype during the breaks between workshops, sometimes lasting several days, or acquire users for the final test.

Jake Knapp describes factors that are decisive for the success of a workshop: Most important is the selection of participants. Employees should be involved who come into contact with the product at various points and thus contribute a variety of perspectives. In addition, the participation of 1-2 designers is important for the realisation of convincing and testable prototypes. If no designers are available internally, e.g. because there is no design department, I recommend the acquisition of suitable freelancers.

After team synchronisation, I involve clients of the company, using design thinking methods, to test the internal hypotheses and the defined challenge. This is an important moment of insight that confirms or questions the direction taken. So far, this project phase has always led to valuable insights, provided that the clients are real clients and not superficially acquired by a market research agency. For example, the team conducts live and telephone interviews, or selected stakeholders keep diaries which are subsequently evaluated in the workshop. At the end of the process, when prototypes are built and user tests are conducted, I supplement the sprint with appropriate methods from Design Thinking. Following the workshop, a comprehensible documentation is created with all the findings from the user research phase as well as the qualitative test result and clear recommendations for further action.


The more diffuse a challenge is, the more worthwhile it is to integrate user research elements such as those contained in the Design Thinking Framework. If the project goal is more precise, a stronger orientation towards the Design Sprint makes sense. It may be sufficient to involve users only in the final test, but if internal hypotheses are to be tested, or if the project goal is a radical innovation, early dialogue with selected users is recommended in order to broaden one’s own horizon and gather new insights.

A sound basic knowledge of both approaches provides a solid basis for planning short and long-term product improvement and innovation projects. Use this knowledge as a source of inspiration for the conception of your own formats. Depending on the project framework and internal possibilities, combine the elements that suit you into a remix and validate the format. There is no generic recipe for success for the conception of a workshop or the development of innovations. I learn with every project and optimise my approach after every workshop. If you are looking for support in implementing your innovation project, I would be happy to hear from you.



Further information about Steffen Sommerlad, his portfolio, concepts and downloads can be found at
Picture credits: Astrid Möller (workshop room), Anne Deppe (portrait Steffen)

Steffen Sommerlad

Steffen Sommerlad

Steffen Sommerlad is a well known expert in human-centred design, product improvement and innovation development. Among other things, he conceptualises, advises and moderates in the context of innovation projects and creative workshops. As a studied and experienced communication and interface designer he works with a special focus on usability and the user experience.