Design Sprints: A secret weapon for accelerating digital transformation and people development in life sciences

09.16.21   |  

Imagine this scenario…

You are a senior leader of a patient services hub at a large biotech company specializing in rare diseases medicines. You have recently received the innovation funds you requested from your CEO to pursue a reimagined patient support experience that leverages AI and data to enhance patient engagement and outcomes.

This is a BIG challenge but represents a critical opportunity to further differentiate the company and prepare for impending competition as the company enters new markets. 

Your challenge is how to:

  • Design a compelling new patient experience that leverages data and technology to enhance patient support that is innovative & future proofed
  • Align management, patient services, IT, medical and legal/regulatory around a shared vision & action steps
  • Make decisions quickly to ensure ideas are robustly validated without slowing down roll-out
  • Deliver in the short term while still building for the long term

How would you approach this challenge?

If you are a life sciences patient engagement, customer experience, or digital transformation leader you probably recognize the challenges and complexity of this sort of project.

Commonly cited questions we hear about large-scale change transformation initiatives include:

  • How do we enable our people to feel safe to fail and learn fast?
  • How can we break down silos to align stakeholders around shared goals?
  • How do we keep the customer needs front and center while managing complexity?
  • How should we give people the confidence to proceed on innovative ideas, and shorten project execution lead times?


Introducing the Design Sprint 2.0 

The Design Sprint has been described as the “greatest hits” of business strategy, innovation, behavior science, design thinking, and more—packaged into a battle-tested process that any team can use. Design Sprints are not just for designers or tech companies. They’re for any company and team who have to work through difficult, impactful, potentially lucrative, but costly problems.

We have found the Design Sprint to be a powerful tool when cross functional teams need to rapidly solve a BIG challenge, create new products, or improve existing ones.

Often, we see a team misaligned on the problem or diverging from business strategy. A Design Sprint provides clarity and alignment on what problem needs to be solved. It makes sure that the customer needs are at the forefront and are validated with the customer. And, in a world where speed wins, a Design Sprint delivers bite sized progress, so that teams achieve momentum, avoiding the trap of perfection over action.

The Design Sprint 2.0 provides a structured process that guides team/s from problem to solution resulting in a validated prototype or experiment to execute following the sprint. It offers powerful benefits:

  • Speed. Accelerates ideation to execution condensing what can be multiple meetings over weeks and months into days. Getting started is more important than being right.
  • Team Synergy. Boosts participants’ creative problem solving. Combine the benefits of group work: diverse opinions and expertise, with the benefits of individual work: highly detailed solutions to problems.
  • De-risk Innovation: By prototyping, testing & validating concepts with customers before building a full product you de-risk your project and improve the quality of solutions. Giving the team confidence in the solution before spending a lot of time & money.

You’ll find companies such as Lego, IBM, Philips & Google using Design Sprints as part of their business practices to get products and services to market faster.


How does a Design Sprint work?

The Design Sprint 2.0 framework is a step-by-step process for answering crucial questions through prototyping and testing ideas with customers. Originally created by Jake Knapp when he was at Google Ventures as a 5-day process, we now use the Design Sprint 2.0 that runs over 4-days. (plus shorter versions such as our Strategy Sprints)

Over 4-days the project team is guided to initially agree where the best opportunity is to get started, uncover multiple ideas, & develop a prototype to test with customers. You start with something vague, and finish with real feedback and something extremely tangible in just four days.

Typically the Design Sprint is run in-person from Monday-Thursday but since 2020 we have also been running remote or virtual sprints. We spread the sprint over 2 weeks breaking the 2 days into 4 half day online sessions.

A bonus with the Design Sprint 2.0 is that the full sprint team only must attend 2 days, which is good news when schedules are already full.

  1. Day One – Define the Challenge & Produce Solutions
  2. Day Two – Vote on Solutions & Develop Storyboards
  3. Day Three – Build the Prototype
  4. Day Four – Customer testing


Applying a Design Sprint

So let’s go back to your BIG challenge. How could you leverage the Design Sprint in this use case? Our first suggestion would be for you and other critical stakeholders to align on the Patient Hub future vision, identify the biggest hurdles to achieving it, and what key milestones need to be achieved over the next 12 months.

You would run a 2-day Product Strategy Sprint to help the leadership team

  • Agree on a clear purpose defining what will make the future patient HUB experience unique
  • Align on critical strengths
 and limitations in the first 12 months
  • Understand patients biggest pain points, ideate & prioritise solutions
  • Sign-off a roadmap with critical milestones to implement the product strategy

This will ensure that you and your stakeholders are aligned on the product vision, and what is realistic in the first 12 months. Following the Product Strategy Sprint, you would run the first Design Sprint with the relevant stakeholders for the first product feature in the roadmap.

If we imagine that the first challenge is to identify what interventions would have the most value for patients based on what conditions, then the patient support specialist & data scientists would be key players in the sprint with access to patients and patient advocacy groups during the sprint.

Pre-work would involve collating relevant patient needs across the patient journey, available data sources & content and potential data sources and content, and available Artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language processing technologies.

An outcome goal for the design sprint will be to have a prioritized intervention plan based on specific patient needs or actions, that will then need to be validated further via a time blocked experiment.

Within 4 days the team will have the first actionable step they can take. Often there is concern that medical or regulatory teams will derail an idea before it is validated or executed. In this scenario they would be brought into the sprint at critical moments so they can have input and understand the next steps. You and your team are not yet looking to jump into a build project but to validate ideas first.

By running design sprints like this it allows approval teams to feel comfortable with micro steps that are demonstrating customer value and allows teams to find execution solutions that work based on regulations.

Following the first Design Sprint you would move to a time-boxed experiment and would then follow-up with a shorter iteration sprint which will allow the team to confirm what assumptions have been validated or disproved to continue to take the next steps.

This approach stops teams from jumping too far ahead before they have validated critical elements, and stops siloed teams working at cross purposes, not aligned to strategy.  And critically the business achieves agile progress through robust experiments, without wasting time and money on unproven solutions.


Concluding Thoughts

As you can see the Design Sprint is a smart approach when faced with a complex challenge. It’s not limited to AI or Machine learning. It could equally be applied to other customer engagement challenges requiring cross functional teams to decide and execute together such as improving customer experiences, leveraging omnichannel and streamlining internal processes.

Rather than spending months having circular conversations, based on assumptions, the Design Sprint process allows the team to align on the first best steps; ensuring decisions are customer centric, feasible to execute and aligned to strategy.

In consultation with a partner who understands the challenges facing life science CX transformation leads you can accelerate your digital customer engagement strategies to impact patient lives, while adopting new ways of working.

So next time you have an important and complex customer engagement project to manage, ask yourself if using the Design Sprint process is the secret weapon you need to make innovative, validated progress within a week.

Feel free to contact Gregg Fisher or Tania Rowland at The Stem to discuss your next digital CX project.



Gregg Fisher, Managing Partner, The Stem, a global management consulting firm specializing in customer engagement and digital transformation in Life Sciences. The Stem’s unique networked consulting model draws on the industry’s most seasoned independent talent offering clients a nimble, cost-effective, and refreshing alternative to traditional consultancies. The Stem provides specialized expertise in customer engagement insight, strategy and analytics, digital transformation and excellence, program management, and impact measurement.

Tania Rowland, Innovation, and change consultant at The Stem. She leverages the Design Sprint to help cross functional teams collaborate, co-design & experiment to de-risk complex digital projects. Her approach helps individuals & teams learn skills today needed for the future of work.

Category: Customer Experience, Digital Transformation, Innovation

Tags: AI in healthcare, customer engagement, customer experience, design sprint, digital health, patient support experience, product strategy

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