Imagine a world where every design sprint produced sustainable outcomes.

This is the challenge we offered up to the design sprint community at this year’s Google SprintCon 2019 in Boulder, Colorado. SprintCon is the annual unconference of leaders in the design sprint community from around the world. Over the course of three days, we shared stories of lessons learned in our respective fields, collaborated on new techniques, and had a lot of fun. To say we came away inspired is a serious understatement!

As leaders in the design sprint community, we influence the things that companies put into the world. What if the products we co-create through design sprints weren’t just good for the people they serve and the businesses they drive, but also our planet? Design sprinters have the power to influence and encourage others to leave the take-make-waste economy behind and help diverse teams bring to life circular (i.e., sustainable) products, services, and experiences. And like Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben once said in Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Rethinking the Design Sprint for Sustainability

Protecting our future requires everyone to rethink how we live our lives and do our jobs, and by everyone I also mean people like me who use tools such as design sprints to help businesses create customer-centric products. I’ve traditionally discussed how design sprints can make products more lovable, and I’m not suggesting that we change the essential mission of a design sprint. But we need to think about how design sprints can help businesses achieve two outcomes, not just one:

  • Create lovable products that put people at the center
  • Create lovable products that put earth at the center, too

In a recent blog post, I discussed the role that design sprints can play to build a more sustainable world. This post focuses on how to optimize the design sprint process to make creating sustainable outcomes easier.

During our workshop at SprintCon, we discussed the awesome responsibility we as innovators have to make the world better not just through creating human-centric products but through environmentally-conscious design. So we asked how we could adapt a design sprint to do just that. We examined a real-world problem that a design sprint can help solve: given the rapid growth of population, how might we help Coloradans have easier access to nature on the weekends?

Now, a typical design sprint would use tools such as how might we’s and journey maps to keep the needs of Colorado residents at the center of the solution. But our workshop participants also asked, how might we also treat earth as a first-class citizen when we use these tools?

By adapting three key points in the design sprint process, we are able to bring to life the following learnings:

  1. When aligning on the challenge, people and Mother Earth must both be first class citizens
  2. When creating a journey map that identifies a focus area for solutioning for people, we would be sensitive to design an approach that accommodates both use and re-use of resources
  3. When creating concepts, make identifying the shared value between people and Mother Earth crystal clear

Let’s take a closer look at what each of these key points entail.

1. People and Mother Earth as first-class citizens

As shown below, during the workshop, we literally developed an empathy map for Mother Earth. We examined what kind of needs and concerns earth would have as we develop a solution that gives people easier access to nature on the weekends. We treated earth as a persona in order to understand her needs, such as clean land and water and a breathable atmosphere.

By making a minor tweak to the design sprint process – adding an empathy map for earth (actually, more like a sympathy map) – we increased the likelihood of designing a solution that respects the needs of both people and earth.

2. Journey maps that are mindful of use and re-use

Journey maps are typically used to help teams understand the customer’s pain points and to plot how a product or service can address those pain points within the context of their lives. And journey maps should still do that. But journey maps can also keep the welfare of Mother Earth front and center by addressing her pain points alongside the pain points of people – and this is critical for delivering outcomes that are sustainable and circular.

For example, giving more people access to hiking trails and bike trails through a newly designed ride sharing system might create more strain on the land and contribute to climate change if our solution were to require the use of carbon-emitting vehicles. But we might overlook that problem if we created journey maps solely for people. In fact, a people-focused journey map could lead to the creation of a solution that makes things worse for earth.

3. Concepts designed to create shared value between people and Mother Earth

At the end of Day One of a design sprint, each participant creates a three-part concept to solve the priority business problem in a customer-centric way. The concepts address pain points in the journey map described above. A design sprint that incorporates the need to respect earth actually becomes a four-part concept – addressing how the solution not only uses resources but re-uses them. Here again, we’re not radically changing the design sprint but enriching it with another dimension in order to create shared value for both people and earth.

Co-creating a Sustainable Future One Design Sprint at a Time

What we envisioned in Boulder is only the beginning. The opportunity for design sprints to bring teams together to create lovable, sustainable products is an opportunity worth pursuing — not only for this community of design sprint enthusiasts and innovation leaders, but for citizens around the globe. Having a global impact on our environment and changing human behaviors isn’t an easy task but it starts with small, mindful tweaks and small groups of people who believe that change starts with them; and who are willing to rethink  their everyday roles to create a different type of future.

Mike Edmonds

Mike Edmonds

Managing Director, VP Product