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How Disqus uses Discovery Sprints to design products

Posted by Gwen Brinsmead on September 22, 2017

Over the past year, the design team at Disqus has worked with product management and leadership make our product development process more open and inclusive. Myself, the Product Design Lead, along with the Design Team at Disqus successfully introduced design thinking practices, including user research and creative brainstorm sessions, across the company. At the heart of this work is the Product Discovery Sprint.

A Product Discovery Sprint is a multi-day workshop led by the design team and involves team members from sales, marketing, engineering, product management, data, and analytics. Most recently at Disqus, the design team led two simultaneous Discovery Sprints to define our roadmap for the remainder of 2017. The workshop helped us gather input from different voices across the company and conduct research more rapidly to validate ideas. The end results were broad, team-wide alignment and a new process that can be successfully replicated in the future.

Here we are sharing what we’ve learned about Discovery Sprints in hopes that other designers and product teams can apply these principles in their own work. We’ve included some information about what a Discovery Sprint is, but for the most part assume you have basic knowledge of what they are, but may not have run a sprint yourself.

What is a Discovery Sprint?

A Discovery Sprint is a 5-phase workshop that brings together participants from different teams in an organization to collaboratively solve a problem. It’s based on the popular Design Sprint, a design-thinking methodology developed at Google and IDEO. At Disqus, we choose to call it a Discovery Sprint because it more accurately represents what we accomplish and fosters a more inclusive environment.

The 5-phases of a Discovery Sprint are Align, Sketch, Decide, Prototype, and Test. Sprints are usually led as a five-day (Monday through Friday) workshop with each day dedicated to a single phase. However, this format is flexible. At Disqus, we configure the timeline to better suit our team and the project. For example, our last sprint at Disqus followed this format:

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There are many resources online teaching people how to run these sprints. Here are a few of our favorites:

We’ve also prepared an example slide deck close to one we would use at Disqus:

Why are Discovery Sprints valuable?

Disqus is a publisher-first company. Publishers work hard to create and distribute great content to their readers, and Disqus helps them increase engagement and build audience loyalty. Discovery Sprints make it easy to keep publishers at the forefront of our work because every exercise keeps the team thinking about what they know about publishers, what they need to learn about publishers, and how their ideas will affect publishers. In addition, conducting customer interviews, reviewing past research, and conducting user testing gives us the input we need from publishers to build new products with high confidence.

In our last sprint, we were able to significantly cut down the scope of upcoming projects based upon our research findings. We use Discovery Sprints to evaluate ideas before dedicating extensive time and resources to a project.

Our team creates a shared vision when projects are kicked-off with a Discovery Sprint. It helps us break out of the normal cadence of work and set a refreshing tone for the next problem to solve. Sprints create an inclusive and fun space for people to explore new ideas where everyone has a voice — no matter your role. Not to mention, sprints are fast and efficient. Our team comes feeling excited about the projects they will work on in the coming weeks.

How did we get team buy-in?

The Design Team didn’t start running full five-day Discovery Sprints from the get-go. We started with a smaller group of teammates and much less time. We identified opportunities to run small, ad-hoc sessions that addressed immediate needs in the projects we were working on. For example, when our ads team was looking for new ways to display one of our ad-types, we led an ad-hoc sketching session to generate solutions. The result of this session was shared out to the company. By working incrementally towards more rigorous Discovery Sprints, we established the confidence we needed to make Sprints a regular part of product development at Disqus.

The first step to take when planning your first Discovery Sprint is to get teammates involved. Start by getting buy in from a Product Manager and high-level executive. At Disqus, we’re fortunate our senior team values design and research. However, if you don't have buy-in from a senior decision maker to run a Sprint, talk to someone with a close relationship with your customers and get them involved. Then, scope down your sprint to a few exercises relevant to a project you’re working on. Think of this like building an MVP Discovery Sprint. When you’re done, present the results. Even with a smaller team and less time you can start generating output and show your company the results are valuable.

What did our team think?

The response from our team after our last sprint was very positive. Even though most of our teammates have never participated in this workshop before, everyone grew into the creative, publisher-first mindset we hoped to foster.

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“Discovery Sprint was an opportunity to look deeper into key issues and ask questions, such as, what makes a reader come back to a site and how does a publisher decide on what content to write. It was great to see Disqus, as a team, successfully come together to share feedback and create solutions for publishers.” Michelle, Account Manager

 

Mario_Paganini-2.jpg“We are never short of ideas for new and cool things to build. The Discovery Sprint helped us to focus our creative efforts around solving real problems that our customers face. The process kept us focused on tangible goals, without inhibiting creativity. The hands-on research conducted with customers at the end of the sprint was especially useful both for product prioritization and for me as a marketer. The insights we learned from research will definitely help me in the future when I work to introduce new features to our market.” Mario, Director of Product Marketing

Adam.jpg“The first day was a little rocky for us, but we really got into the groove in day two. Bringing together this diverse group of people brought out the best in our ideas. The creativity was through the roof!” Adam, Lead Backend Engineer

 

Tips for running a successful Discovery Sprint

Here are some tips we want to share with others planning their own sprint.

1. Plan the sprint with a clear goal

By defining the scope of the sprint, you will have a much clearer idea of what you’d like the output of the sprint to be. Which in turn, will help you decide what exercises to include in the sprint and how you will conduct the research. Here are two examples.

Example sprint one: The team’s goal is to form an Initiative, a group of projects solving the same customer need and that have a similar, if not the same, success metric. This sprint will focus more on exploring the problem space at a high-level by identifying overarching themes, uncovering assumptions to ask during the user interview, and generating a large swath of ideas to get signal on during user testing. The team would come out of this sprint with a proposal for an Initiative and why it's valuable? backed by research.

Example sprint two: The team’s goal is to deliver a successful product feature. In this case, the team already knows why the feature is valuable, but may not know to deliver the feature in the most valuable way. This sprint would focus on exploring different ways the customer could interface with the solution. The team would come out of this sprint with a prototype including the customer's first interaction with the feature through completing the core task it performs.

2. Understand how the sprint fits into your company’s roadmapping process

Having a clear goal will also inform how your sprint will fit into your company roadmapping process. Our last sprint at Disqus was run concurrently with the company’s quarterly roadmapping process. The output of the sprint was fed directly into the prioritization of projects for the following quarter. We lined these two activities up so that the results of the discovery sprint wouldn’t get lost in the day-to-day bustle of work.  Talk to the person who leads roadmapping at your company to see how the results of your sprint will translate to the roadmap.

3. Keep it small

We’ve run sprints at Disqus with over ten participants and found it’s difficult to keep everyone on the same page. A smaller group gives more people an opportunity to speak and keeps the agenda manageable when running discussion intensive exercises such as sorting How Might We’s. As tempting as it may be to include every single member of the team in the Discovery sprint, it’s ideal to keep it small at four to six participants.

4. Set participants up for success (especially the new participants)

For team members who aren’t in the design department or haven’t worked closely with designers in the past, a lot of the exercises can feel like being plunged into unknown waters. Jotting down every thought onto a post-it and not self-editing before writing down a thought is a learned skill.

Help team members familiarize themselves with the exercises in the sprint by running ad-hoc creative thinking sessions prior to the sprint. Before the sprint, send team members the agenda, goal of the sprint, and how to participate. The day of the sprint, kick things off by reviewing the agenda, goals, and how to participate (we’ve included an example slide deck we’ve used for this earlier article). We want everyone to know their creative muscles may be stretched, but their team is here to make sure everyone succeeds. During the sprint, before an exercise like Crazy 8s or How Might We’s, do a couple minutes of warm-up so participants can practice and ask the facilitator questions.

5. Schedule customer interviews on the first day

It’s easy to skip this step. Just do it. Talking to customers is like taking vitamins. And once you get good at doing it regularly, those vitamins turn into gummy vitamins. Try to have 1-2 customer interviews scheduled for the latter part of the first day. Since the first day is focused on defining the problem and outlining assumptions, your team will approach the end of the day with a lot of questions dying to be answered. Having a customer interview pre-scheduled will feel great.

6. Ask someone to help with user research recruitment

Planning, setting up, and running the sprint is a lot of work. Since our prototyping phase is done by our designers after the group sessions, having someone else help recruit user testing participants makes the process much more productive. Ask someone, like a Product Manager, Sales Rep, or Customer Support Rep to help recruit customers for user testing.

7. Schedule stakeholder reviews at the end of each day

Stakeholder reviews are an opportunity for team members to present the day’s findings, answer questions, and course correct. For one of our Discovery Sprints we scheduled the stakeholder reviews for the morning of the next day. This didn’t kick off the second day with the energy we needed to carry us through the rest of the exercises planned. Course correcting should happen at the end of the day so that coming into the next day, participants know how to move forward.

Having these regular check-ins saved one of the teams from wasting the entire sprint. After the stakeholder check in on the first day they found out the really needed to pivot their ideas.

8. Practice facilitating

Just like doing pilot studies for the user research we conduct at Disqus, we run pilots of exercises we’re less familiar with before adding them to the sprint agenda. Knowing the different directions the information can take and different ways to analyze, group, and prioritize allows us to be flexible when running the exercise during the sprint. Doing pilots of exercises also gives us a chance to practice time keeping and knowing when to let a conversation continue or be cut off.

Final thoughts

Our last Discovery Sprint was indispensable to the most recent roadmapping cycle at Disqus. We came out of the sprint with research that helped us scope down our efforts and set a direction for the rest of the year. As we continue using Discovery Sprints, we hope to share more tips and resources to help others run them successfully. Also, a big shout out to Darlena Tran who's work has been essential to making this happen.

What has your experience with design sprints been like? Any tips, questions? Let us know in the comments!