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What Are “Design Sprints” and “Design Thinking”?

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Read Time: 4 min

“Design sprints” and “design thinking” are recognised creative strategies used by designers.

Design sprints use design thinking techniques through a prescriptive (more precise) methodology (five days, cross functional team, war room etc.) There’s less emphasis on user research or giving the problem context and more on domain knowledge of the team.

Design thinking is a broader concept that can be applied outside of product design (for example: social issues, education). In short: design thinking can be a technique or methodology, so there’s a lot of crossover. 

This article will look at the difference between the two in these areas:

  1. By describing how design sprints are more prescriptive and part of the broader design thinking tool kit. 
  2. How they are specifically tailored towards product teams with a shared organisation. 
  3. Most critically, how there’s far greater emphasis on context and user research in design thinking vs. design sprints, which rely more on a diverse team or participants to get insights from.

1. Methodology, or Not?

Design sprints are a methodology, whereas design thinking is much more; it comprises a bunch of methods you can use to approach a problem. You can pick and choose your timeline, and different techniques that are relevant to whatever problem you’re trying to solve. However it can also be a methodology if you want it to be.

Design sprints are actually modelled on design thinking practices but are more prescriptive. They require five days, a cross functional team and have a number of techniques to walk through each day.

For example, in the design sprint methodology, there is a technique called “lightning talks” where one person runs through a solution to give the team ideas, and then another person makes sketches of these ideas. In my experience, this is a great collaborative approach, but some more practically minded people will find drawing out solutions cumbersome and unnecessary (printouts are normally easier).

Again, the emphasis is on having a generous amount of time to innovate and go through each step methodically.

2. Who Might Use Each Strategy?

Design sprints are used by product teams, whereas design thinking can be used by “everyone”. When design sprints were first created they used design thinking as the core framework and made it work within the context of product design, software development and start up ventures.

Design thinking is a broader concept that can be applied in a number of diverse industries—most notably educators and social causes. For example, educators all over the world use design thinking to solve challenges in their work. Projects vary in scale and scope but can involve looking at curriculum, space, processes and systems.

Furthermore, in recent times organisations have been using design thinking as a way to deal with economic inequalities in developing countries–they’ve used it as a tool to think creatively and solve challenges in a nimble and resourceful way.

3. Expert Knowledge or Research?

Design sprints are great for innovation and coming up with new ideas (using design thinking techniques). One of the requirements is that experts from different parts of the business can use their domain knowledge to help bring out more diverse solutions and draw in different perspectives within an organisation.

Design thinking, when used as a methodology, relies less on expertise and more on research and getting context. The inspiration phase is all about contextual inquiry, user interviews, a plan for targeting and recruiting users or using guerrilla research methods.

Design thinking may take weeks to gather user research to build context around the problem, whereas a design sprint tries to neatly squeeze it into part of a day. For a design sprint to be effective you would probably need some pre-existing research that’s been carried out as a preamble to setting the stage on day one and trying to frame problems.

Relying on inside knowledge–even from diverse teams–can be a big problem. Your sales people, marketing people and stakeholders are not your users. There is no substitute for observation. Interpreting past behaviour, listening to what customers say (as opposed to what they actually do) can lead to misinformation and false assumptions around any initial insights.


There is a lot of confusion about what a design sprint is and how it differs from design thinking. In short, design thinking can be used as a framework or a bunch of methods. Design sprints are more prescriptive.

Have you used design sprints or design thinking before? Leave your comments below!

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