When to Use the Design Sprint (and when not to)

Jan 14, 2021


A framework for deciding when to apply the Design Sprint and when to apply the Discovery Sprint

By Linn Elster, Associate Director, Innovation & Strategy, Monstarlab.


Over the past years, I-as many other design thinkers have-fallen in love with Five Day Design Sprint. I have flexed and tweaked it to match the challenges at hand. Whilst I don’t plan on abandoning the Design Sprint, there’s definitely a new cool kid in my class, namely the Discovery Sprint, which I have only recently started to bond with.

Both are rooted in the core of design thinking and the British Design Council’s Double Diamond. They both work with problem-solving in an agile way, at speed. So how can they play alongside each other and what sets them apart?

The key factors in choosing when to use each are concept maturity, the staging of the disciplines and work and the commercial commitment.

I’ve seen the design sprint being applied with great success! But I’ve also seen it disappoint in situations where it did not fulfil the team’s need for detail and depth. In this article I suggest a framework to help you decide which sprint to apply in order to reach the desired outcome and progress depending on where you are in your development process.

In order to do that here’s a very brief overview of each. 

The Design Sprint is often thought of as the way to start something brand new, with a big bang. The Discovery Sprint is spun out of the Dual-track Agile methodology and is the Product Manager’s tool to continuous and incremental improvements through the product life-cycle.  


Five Day Design Sprint

See the sprint with all its detail in the “Sprint bible” by Jake Knapp


Discovery Sprint

With this rough brush up, we have already established several of the key differences. Let’s look more into how they differ and when to use what. 


Playful vs tactical – work formats

The Design Sprint relies on a consecutive row of workshops that supports co-creation and empowerment. In the sprint, the facilitator is a key asset to enable User Journeys Mapping, Lightning Demos and sketches. As a facilitator, I love the playfulness, the quick pivoting, the fast decision making and that everybody is in the loop. However, the day-long workshop format is not for everybody. In a provocative way, the Design Sprint is purposefully uncomfortable and brings people out of their comfort zone to reach new standards of collaboration.

The Discovery Sprint is framed around a Sprint Goal but more flexible, and there are no defined agendas for a fixed amount of time. The Discovery Sprint is still intense and since it’s less workshop heavy, everyone in the team is committed to deliver, individually. In your frequent check-ins, you can align and set out tracks of research, business modeling and scoping. The benefit of this way of working is that you have experts working efficiently and targeted. This allows each track to progress more at their own pace and deep dive into specific areas. Be aware of maintaining momentum and energy in the team and if possible, bring the team together in informal work blocks to energize and enforce continuous dialogue. 


Convergent vs. divergent thinking


Both sprints take their starting point in the double diamond methodology and alternate divergent and convergent thinking and methods. In its essence, the double diamond prescribes that the ratio of the two sides in each diamond (divergent efforts and convergent efforts) is one to one. In reality, I will argue that the Design Sprint is more open and explorative (divergent) than the Discovery Sprint. Exploration, ideation and inspiration take up much more time in the Design Sprint. In the Discovery Sprint the end goal is a detailed description and prioritisation of epics, so you have to round the ideation off early and spend more time on deep dive into functionality. 


The application of the sprint: Level of uncertainty vs. willingness to invest

 Both sprints are an investment in the future of your product or business and even the ‘let’s not do this’-outcome can save you money, time and energy. But when should you apply the Design Sprint and when to use the Discovery Sprint? 

The first thing to bear in mind is how mature your idea is. If you are very early in your process, you are most likely facing a problem but you have no clue of the solution. You are working with a high degree of uncertainty. You are not willing to invest a lot of money in this phase – the outcome is not tangible and your ROI is imaginary. However, at this point in time, you can make a huge impact on the solution and the final cost. By investing a small amount of money in a Design Sprint, you can decrease risk significantly. 

If your idea is more mature already, eg. you know that you are most likely going to build a mobile application with three main areas A, B and C. And you are looking to refine and retain the alignment in your organisation. Then the Discovery Sprint will be a better choice for you. The tangible outcome of the Discovery Sprint will probably feel like a more safe investment and your C-level’s willingness to invest increases. You can start measuring the impact and define KPIs and you will have a safer bet on the actual cost of implementation. 

The willingness to invest is highest in the development phase. It’s logical that to launch a product you have to build it first, and that costs. If you haven’t worked out all of your uncertainties before starting the building, the development will associate to a very high risk of not getting a good ROI. 

Key Takeaways

  • The two sprints have a lot in common in terms of purpose and origin from Design Thinking 
  • The work formats in the sprints are different. The Design Sprint is more workshop heavy and playful whereas the Discovery Sprint is more focused on tasks in individual tracks within each profession. 
  • The Design Sprint focuses a lot on exploration and ideation, whereas the Discovery Sprint focuses more on prioritisation and mapping features. 
  • Consider if your team is ready to solve your challenge, or if you are still struggling to define your challenge – if that’s the case, start with the Design Sprint. 
  • Consider the maturity level of your solution idea, if you have one. If it’s a rather mature idea go for the Discovery Sprint. If you are clueless go for the Design Sprint.
  • Consider your willingness to invest in reducing the risk of not getting good ROI and that your budget will slip. 

How to decide if you are going to do a Design Sprint or a Discovery sprint: 


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