Design Sprints to Boost Innovation [btrax Voice #2

btrax voice is our blog series highlighting different employees at our company. For the second installment on our SF office staff, we had a chat with Jensen Barnes (JB), our Director of Design and Development.

JB takes us through his vast experience in the design field, as well as expertise in facilitating design sprints for clients, and general insights and ruminations on the cross-cultural nature of both his past work in Japan and current work at btrax.

Who is Jensen Barnes?

btrax Voice: Jensen Barnes (JB)

Job Title: Director of Design and Development

JB comes to btrax with 9+ years of experience using design in advertising, as well as 6 years’ experience working in Japan. He is excited to be able to apply that experience to btrax with a cross-cultural, international perspective.

The Move to btrax

What drew you to work at btrax?

btrax is interesting because we work within two unique places: Japan and the US. I’ve worked in design in the US so when I went to Japan it was very different. Being at btrax allows me to share those design differences with clients and help them understand the contrast. I feel like I’m bringing my experience from Japan to the US, and I’m equipped to work with Japanese companies in the US. Connecting what I was doing there to what I’m doing here is really exciting.

It made sense to me to join btrax for that reason, and I haven’t found many people or companies doing what we’re doing so I think it’s a necessary service. As we bridge cultures and ways of working, we take the best of both while learning and having fun.

Another reason I joined btrax is because I don’t want to lose what I’ve learned in Japan. There is a quality aspect to Japanese work. When you work with Japanese clients the craftsmanship culture influences lots of things so there is a level of quality that must be reached and I like that. In the US that quality aspect is oftentimes more loose. That’s one thing that could be exported from Japan in terms of design and development thinking.

Before btrax

How has your background being raised in California and living in Tokyo for six years influenced your approach to design?

There are different value structures in Japan and the US. There is no difference in the goal of achieving something great, but it’s a different way of doing things, and valuing the time spent on making something.

I got my start with design in advertising, and I worked in advertising for my first three years in Japan too. It’s a fast-paced industry that allowed me to work with a lot of higher-up people and big teams on different problems using advanced technologies.

The last three years of my time in Japan however was spent at en-japan, a recruiting company, where I designed and implemented projects and organizational structures. When I first started there they had an incubator program to create new products in-house, but we wanted to be more specific so we developed a company called AIR (Artificial Intelligence Resources). I was in charge of outlining objectives, presenting and approving them, interfacing cross-organizationally, branding, and developing the values within the team.

Hiring people who build new ideas in the company is super important, and I think it’s beginning to happen in Japan. AIR was the platform for us to build products designed to improve the recruitment process using advanced technology. It wasn’t long before we witnessed our development models being used in other teams within the company, and that was super positive to see. This is how that desire to achieve something great can be applied across the two cultures and influence design.

In your 15+ years of experience in the industry, what’s been your proudest accomplishment?

The people I’ve worked with have provided great opportunities to grow and learn. Through my work experiences and attending Yale for my masters, I had the chance to work with a lot of great people and awesome companies. I’ve been given so many great opportunities to learn how people get to those places, and how hard they really work, and this showed me how people succeed and create things for themselves. I’m proud of those connections that have helped me understand what matters.

Since your move back to the US, is there anything you’ve recently learned about or have been exposed to within the industry here that you’re really excited to try at btrax?

Advanced technology is super great and can open people’s minds to amazing possibilities. That’s the positive aspect of technological development and while there are a lot of scary things about it, I believe it can help people.

You have to look at the future and work towards your vision of it. Do you want fresh food and a healthy environment? Let’s apply technology to organic farming, and foster a community that cares about that value, instead of just having consumers buying more of everything. You could give back to the user too. Another interesting idea is bringing in microtransactions to give back to users whose data companies take and utilize for profit.

I’m also very interested in blockchain technology and how it can be applied to art, and new visualization systems. I think AR and VR can be utilized for designers and other people. The future is bright!

Design Sprint Speciality

How did you become interested in the UX design methodology of design and product sprints?

I learned about it from a designer I hired for the AIR project at a time when the idea was still in its infancy. We were working with it when it wasn’t a confirmed industry standard; it was just another way to do design thinking and incorporate the whole team.

Teams sometimes don’t use their full potential. For example, a designer might be hired as a contractor, then work alone in an incubation period and stay isolated, researching and carrying out requests. It might look great as a result but it doesn’t incorporate the perspectives and experiences of other people.

In a design sprint, you’re trying to get all that expertise and perspective out so the whole team can work for the betterment of a project which is really exciting to me.

How many sprints have you done? Has the process changed as you’ve gained experience?

Counting variations, I’ve done about 10 a year both internally and externally. They’re beneficial in a lot of ways. It’s simple to understand what happens each day but the content you’re dealing with can be complex.

The process can definitely vary, depending on client, company, and team needs. Everyone can offer something but only based on what they’ve experienced. If we are working on a problem that concerns young people, I would want younger designers or younger people in general because they’re really keyed into what affects them. If you’re dealing with more collective issues, however, you would have your team be more diverse.

Sprints are not silver bullets, but the beautiful aspect of it is the speed at which you can get a gauge on where you stand on your project. The output may be extraordinary, but it also may be constructive in its criticism of where you’re at with the overall assumptions of the problem you’re trying to solve.

Key Elements for Sprint Success

What makes a good design sprint team?

It depends on the problem. I wouldn’t rule out working with children if it’s a problem concerning children. It should be that simple. I don’t see it as something where you always need to have experts, although the consulting we do at btrax is at a certain level where most clients that come to us have complex problems they haven’t been able to solve.

That requires much more team design: who’s going to be on the team and why they should be there. But you can bring in as many people as you want on day two, which is “Ask the Experts” day.

One of the things about design sprints is it’s a solution but not a solutionist view of how you should look at your product or what you produce.

If you look at it more constructively, it may fail but the output could show you that you need to pivot your approach. You’re probably going to have to revise after the sprint, but you’ll be able to do that at a much higher level.

At btrax we can guarantee you’ll end at a higher level than when you started working with us. This is what I find fascinating about design. The output of a sprint could be super hi-tech but there is the ability to work with engineers and discuss whether or not it could be simpler. You have to think about making something effective, not just beautiful or fancy.

Who’s the ideal client/candidate for a design sprint?

Any company that’s looking to solve a big problem is a good fit. If a client is ready for that kind of innovation, or willing to solve problems in a different way, a sprint could be for them.

It’s different from producing something that’s not tested or aligned with real user interaction. I think that’s the future of making powerful, effective design work…the future is now!

In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge of doing a sprint?

The preparation, the intensity of it, and the speed of it is challenging, but that’s also why it’s so effective. I have found it often requires more research in the beginning. You can do better if you have some background and it makes people feel more at ease with what they know about the subject going in.

I have a customized approach where we do pre-sprint work to be more prepared and know more about the market and what competition there is. That way we know a little about the problem and maybe work with the client to develop the problem statement.

Having it really clear in terms of a lean canvas or understanding the client’s needs and problem is important but oftentimes that is lacking from the client’s side. If they have user research to back their ideas up, it is really helpful to come to the sprint with, and can boost its effectiveness.

What are some limitations of going through a sprint?

The limitations are only found in where the client takes the results. The results of the user test should be taken on board but don’t give the green light for full-on production.

Rather, it gives your team an understanding of what to fix or design, what’s missing, and so on. These are tough questions but the team will find out really quickly if a feature should not be developed. Wrongly being adamant about a feature and finding out later that it’s not desired or going to work is much more costly than learning beforehand.

What makes a sprint successful?

The limits of the team and the people in the room determine its success. It’s great because they are the heroes; the designers can show off their prototyping, the engineers and marketers can provide insight into what’s technically possible and what’s currently being done, and all this material together can help the project leader assess their assumptions.

People with different levels of experience often have great input. It’s really great to see the creative process unfold. You can see people who sometimes lack an outlet blossom, and that’s so cool. The team makes it so productive!

Concluding Remarks

A year from now, how do you see your design and development team?

Growing! It’s awesome…the key is being fearless and trying as hard as you can. I want fearless people, so don’t be afraid to apply to btrax if you have a background in design and a willingness to work really hard! That’s the key!