Product design

updated on:

6 Mar



The Definitive Guide to Design Thinking vs Design Sprint


min to read

Mariia Kasym

Writer at Eleken

Mariia Kasym

Writer at Eleken

Table of contents

To the untrained ear design thinking and design sprint may sound confusingly similar. And it’s nota completely wrong assumption as these two concepts do have a lot in common. However, if you are going to build a successful product you definitely need to comprehend the difference between these two methods. 

As a design agency focused on SaaS, we understand the importance of up-to-date methodologies for modern businesses and how using user-centered approaches such as design thinking and design sprint can elevate your product’s success. In this article we would like to walk you through the differences and similarities between design thinking and design sprint methods and also help to understand where each of them is best applicable. 

Once again, what is design thinking?

Design thinking

There’s been a lot said and written about design thinking since it became popular in Stanford university in the 1980s and a decade later introduced by creative agency IDEO to the business world. Design thinking is best defined as human-centered design methodology that includes empathy and creativity in order to generate solutions that stand out. This methodology for discovering and solving problems helps product teams to drive innovations for the global market

Design thinking process consists of step-by-step stages that lead you from defining the problem itself to finding the best possible solution to it: 

Empathy phase is when you listen to the needs of your target audience, which helps you understand their perspective.
Definition phase is for you to use the insights from your users to understand the problem and ensure that your solution addresses the correct challenge.
Ideation phase. In this stage you unleash your creativity and generate possible solutions to the problem.
Prototyping. During this stage you create a working prototype to embody your idea.
Testing.You test your prototype to reveal what works and what doesn’t.
You can repeat the ideation, prototyping and testing stages as much as needed until you find a creative and practical solution to your problem.

Design thinking

Focused on listening to users, understanding their needs and applying that knowledge in creating solutions for complex problems, design thinking has proven itself as a method that withstands the test of time. In fact, design thinking methodology was also a ground from which a new approach of design sprint has sprouted. 

What is a design sprint?

Design sprint

Design sprint emerged around 2010 in Google Venture that invests Google money into startups. And this is exactly the case when the origin best explains the essence and the main purpose of the concept.

It’s not a secret that responsible investing is more than just handing money to potentially successful startups. It is also a mentorship in order to help new companies grow. So Jake Knapp and his colleagues from Google Ventures came up with a rocket fast method that helped them validate startup ideas and train them to grow. It was the design sprint. 

Design sprint is a five-day process for cross-functional teams based on design thinking methodology that aims to validate a business idea, design or redesign product.

Design sprint

Design sprint process is very intense but interactive. It consists of five main stages:

Map. This is the stage where you set the goals for the whole sprint. Gather all available data on the problem statement, customer profiles, and any other relevant information from previous rounds of user research. Map the user journey and define the project scope. Don’t forget that the design sprint addresses only one specific problem. 

Sketch. In design sprint model the ideation process is often conducted in a form of sketching workshop. During the workshop, you create hypotheses and assumptions based on gathered data. In this stage you generate ideas and define key success metrics.

Decide. Team members vote for the best idea. It can be done through open discussion or silent voting.
Create a prototype of your solution. Choose what you will build based on your team's skill sets and time constraints.

Test. Put your assumptions to the test with real users. Find out if the potential solution works.

After these five main stages you evaluate findings with stakeholders and users. Identify areas of improvement for the next iteration or release.

The design sprint methodology lets you achieve an optimal solution to a business challenge using the least amount of time and resources.  Among successful products created thanks to design sprint are Slack, Twitter, and many more. 

Companies using design sprint model
Companies using design sprint model
Image source: SprintCube

Design sprint is still the most popular among startups. But it doesn’t mean only early stage companies can use it. The beauty of Design Sprint is that it scales well regardless of team size or company. It is a simple framework that allows you to cut through complexity and get right to business. 

The biggest fans of this method often compare it to the cooking recipe - that’s how precise, clear and fast its steps are. You can take the design thinking philosophy and toolkit and apply it to the product through a design sprint in just a few days. 

Now let’s take a closer look into design thinking and design sprint similarities.

What design thinking and design sprint have in common?

A Design sprint is a process that integrates the learnings from other methods like Agile, Lean Startup, and Customer Development, but mostly design thinking. You won’t be completely right if you say that design sprint is one of many ways to do design thinking. 

Just like design thinking, design sprint is a highly collaborative approach to ideation, innovation, and problem-solving. Both methods are performed by cross-functional teams and help them answer crucial questions through design, rapid prototyping, testing and instant feedback from users.

At the first glance, the processes of design thinking and design sprint don’t seem close. But in fact their stages (even if named differently) overlap or have similar purposes.


As you can see these two methods are similar in many ways but there are differences between design sprint and design thinking too.

Design thinking vs design sprint: key differences

The main difference between the two is that design sprints are used to solve specific problems, whereas design thinking is applied for general ones. Design thinking is more of an overall philosophy for approaching problem-solving, while design sprints are a method for creating a prototype with limited time and resources. Let’s compare these two approaches:

Design thinking vs design sprint: main differences

Considering all the similarities and differences, it can be confusing which one to choose for your project. 

When to use a design sprint and when design thinking?

When to use a design sprint and when design thinking?

The key is to understand the difference between these two methods and apply design sprint or design thinking where they are most effective.

You will need design thinking most when you notice an opportunity that can change people’s lives for the better. This methodology focuses on thinking outside of the box so it can provide a truly innovative solution. 

Use design thinking when the idea for the product/service or any complex problem is raw. The methodology will help to define the challenge itself and find a creative solution to it. One of the main advantages of design thinking is a deep understanding of your audience. Insights coming from users lead to more successful and long-lasting projects. Apply design thinking when you want to create game-changing products and have time and resources to invest.

Design sprint is like a mini rapid version of the design thinking method. Some even call it a design thinking sprint. It works best when your problem or idea is already defined. Design sprint is highly business-oriented. It effectively answers a straightforward business question:`Will this idea work on the market?`

Design sprint is especially useful when you are limited in time and resources as it lets you validate your idea in just one week. Design sprints are also very effective when you suddenly receive some market insights in your niche and want to test if they are applicable to your product or when you face a blocker and need to break through with a decision.   

You can surely use both design thinking and design sprint especially if you work on a big project. Combined, these methods give even stronger results. 

Got inspired? Come talk to us about your digital product design or redesign! Our team is eager to implement your ideas using both design thinking and design sprint. 

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