Adopting the Idea of Maxima for Design Sprints

One shortcoming of design sprints is that the resulting prototypes can sometimes be underwhelming. A team may start a sprint with a very ambitious idea, but by the end, they’re left with something that doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on the problem they planned to solve.

It’s important to know that this can still lead to a good outcome. A good way to think about this is borrowing the idea of maxima from statistics.

In a mathematical function, maxima include the largest value of the entire function (global maximum) and the largest value within a given range of the function (local maximum).

Let’s loosely translate this concept to design. Our design problem can be the entire function and the different components of the problem can be the maxima based on their potential impact.

One design sprint team I worked on wanted to solve the problem of ‘redesigning coffee cup waste’. Something really ambitious like developing a biodegradable coffee cup made out of gourds could have been our global maximum. Growing awareness for a biodegradable coffee cup through an app could have been one of our local maxima. An app may be more feasible than the biodegradable cup, but it may not be as impactful.

When our team reached the prototyping phase, there was some feeling that we got away from our original ambition of solving this problem. Although our prototype may not have been the most impactful choice, does that mean it was a waste of a design sprint? I don’t think so. Here’s why…

A local maximum can amplify the global maximum. DJ Khaled using snapchat is one example of this. Snapchat was very innovative for social media and communication when it came out. The global maximum of snapchat is the complex technology. A local maximum is DJ Khaled growing awareness for snapchat based on his usage of the platform. DJ Khaled’s usage of snapchat was correlated with massive user growth as well as massive increases in company revenue.

Local maxima can be quicker and easier to execute. Smaller iterations that are executed more frequently can lead to more success than larger iterations that are more spread out and methodical.

Here’s a soundbite of Naval Ravikant talking about how high shipping cadence is a great predictor of a company’s ability to achieve product-market fit.

Local maxima can inform how well your team works together. This is more relevant for newly formed teams, but it’s still helpful. You can still discover your strengths, along with the skills that you need to add to you team. This will also (hopefully) build some team chemistry.

Even though it may seem frustrating or underwhelming in the moment, It’s always valuable to experiment with the local maxima in a design problem. It may not seem like it will have the biggest impact, but try it anyway. At worst, you’ll get learnings relatively quickly, with the option to experiment on a different maximum next. At best, you’ll realize that specific maximum has more impact than you thought.