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Why Your Agency Should Run Design Sprints

When I started my career, I was an intern and Jr. Copywriter at a few midtown NYC agencies. At this low level, it was always exciting when the bosses would run through the halls screaming “Emergency meeting!! Conference room, NOW!” We’d throw down our already overdue work and run into the meeting, and more frequently than perhaps it should have been, the meeting was about a client’s complete derailment of the plan and a strong objection to the work we’d shown them. As a person who now works with my own clients, this is the stuff nightmares are made of.

As I progressed in my career I’ve always had a peripheral relationship with the agency folk. Often, the work I do with a client parallels or supplements work done by their agency and, at times, validates a greater agency spend as my work scales. I also find that many agencies are not executing full usability testing or user studies for their clients (and we will talk about THAT later!). But because I’ve seen their work from inside, I see a huge opportunity for the work I have done in design sprints to benefit the agency, particularly with regards to client onboarding and project kickoff.

Here are a few of the ways a design sprint as a project kickoff can help an agency better serve their client:

Clarity and Shared Vision

Show of hands (we won’t tell): how many times have you been deep into a project where you thought everything was falling perfectly into place, but then you show the client some in-progress work and suddenly they are upset — it wasn’t at all what they thought they’d be getting. Now it’s back to the start in a completely different direction!

We’re not talking about scope creep (totally different) or course corrections (absolutely normal), or even new ideas (expected and par for the course). It’s when the client and the agency have completely different takes on the exact same information, and now it’s far enough in where it’s a loss to the agency to restart the project.

Here’s where a design sprint can help. By kicking off the project collaboratively, and through exploring and even testing ideas before too much time has been invested, the agency and the client are strategically aligned from the beginning. Instead of a hypothetical plan, there is a clear roadmap (and complete buy-in on what comes next).

Kick up your kickoff

It’s been awhile since I worked at an agency but I’ve been on the client side a few times with some of my clients, and it seems like kickoff meetings are still going the same as they were during my first agency internship (2005). These meetings are also largely unbilled — a full day with a ton of your team tied up sitting through a presentation where your client explains their business and goals to you and the needs of the project. But how often do still leave with unanswered questions? (And what about the client?)

Let’s ditch this outdated and boring kickoff that feels like a waste of everyone’s time, and let’s get to work — agency and client — as partners and collaborators. Let’s start day one with a sprint instead of a powerpoint and start understanding the problem in a concrete way, getting to know the team and building camaraderie with the client — and let’s bill for it! After all, we’ll have made fantastic progress and gained unparalleled insight.

Redefine the Client-Agency Relationship

Sure, you say “partner” or “let’s work together” on your website, but realistically how much of your work is done with your client? How much of the process are they involved in? How much of your team do they meet?

Clients are savvy consumers. They want to see how the sausage is made. They want to make sure their investment is a good one. A design sprint is the ideal way to show a client you’re truly in this together, and to show them where the magic happens behind the scenes. And they’re a useful tool for your team as well — they know their own industry inside and out. That insight is incredibly valuable to your solutions. Make sure you’re capturing it in the most productive way.

How to Convince the Client

Most pushback on including a sprint is either “We can’t get our clients to commit to a full week onsite” or “My client won’t pay for a week of consulting where they have to do the work.” I’ll address these separately.

Like, a whole week?

Well, technically, no. You can modify the sprint to fit any timeline you have. But the proven model of success is with four working days, and the minimum of client participation in those four days would be the first two. But four working days in the same room (or again, even if the client attends just two) replaces months and even a year of missed steps, back-and-forth, email chains, meetings upon meetings upon meetings about meetings for other meetings…etc. The sprint gives you actionable clarity and scalable validation.

We have to work too?

It’s definitely not going to feel like work, and it replaces work your client would have done anyway that would have taken more time. Instead of the kickoff day (a full day), they’ll have two days, but it won’t require the same prep or the same attendance as the kickoff meeting. A sprint is only seven people total (ideally two to three from the client side and four to five from the agency side).

Give them a complete deliverable with tangible results.

You’ll leave the sprint with a validated — tested — prototype. Everyone will be on the same page. The roadmap will be clear. Assumptions will be validated (or invalidated). You and your client will have spent a week understanding, designing, prototyping and testing solutions that will result in actionable, qualitative and quantitative data as well as a plan to move forward while saving time and money (on both sides).

The design sprint (and shorter workshops based upon similar methodology) can be used for nearly any problem for any client in any industry with very little adaptation. Your team can be trained to facilitate these sessions, or you can bring in the experts (that’s us!). We have trained with and learned from the creators of the Design Sprint and with some of the largest practitioners of design sprints and design thinking, including AJ&Smart, IDEO and Google.

Let’s chat!

Dana Publicover is the founder of Tiny Piñata, a consulting firm specializing in empathy-led user research, problem solving and product development.

sales experience designer. founder, Publicover&Co. author, Empathy at Scale