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Sidse Ansbjerg Bortal

Design Can Do a lot, But Can it Do Everything?

07. Dec 2021

Over 100 Danish SMEs have used design sprints to undergo rapid transformations as part of Sprint:Digital. As a follow-up researcher on the project, postdoc Sidse Ansbjerg Bordal has looked at how the method works – and what happens in those cases where it doesn’t.


Interview with Sidse Ansbjerg Bordal, PhD, Postdoc, Design School Kolding, DDC

According to Sidse Ansbjerg Bordal, postdoctoral researcher at the Design School Kolding and associated researcher on the Sprint:Digital project, the need for design thinking in Danish companies has only become more obvious during the pandemic. “We have seen that SMEs, in particular, have become less risk-averse during the coronavirus pandemic. They suddenly have time to do something different – and they can’t afford to stand still and do nothing,” she explains.

No matter what industry you’re in, “we know that design can do something,” says Sidse. But she also emphasizes that from a research perspective, there is a risk in assuming that design can do everything.

Important to be adaptable

From its very beginnings, Sprint:Digital has been configured around a desire to validate and document the effect of the sprint method. But the large range of industries combined with the many diverse issues facing companies has formed both the project and its format along the way. For precisely that reason, it has been difficult to get a firm handle on Sprint:Digital from a research perspective.

“I had assumed that the sprint format was a constant – that I would be able to do various rounds, collect knowledge and then feed it all back into the project,” explains Sidse. However, the reality proved to be quite different.

For Sidse, the challenge in Sprint:Digital did not lie in demonstrating the effect of a design method. Rather, it was about understanding how to target the design effort toward the profile and needs of the company or venture in question.

“If you want to create new knowledge and to learn something from what you get involved in, you will only yield truly new insights provided that you were not previously in a position to predict what you might learn,” says Sidse.

What really stood out was when the sprint method did not work. “It is always exciting to discover what it is that is standing in the way of progress,” says Sidse. “When things go awry or fail to work, then it is out of this that the opportunity to learn emerges.”

The research report

Download Sidse Ansbjerg Bordal’s research report in Danish here

The four steps

Among other things, Sidse discovered that the sprint format did not always harmonize with the needs of the company. She found that the suitability of the sprint process was more or less pegged to the degree in which a particular task was narrow or broad.

In the case of very well-defined issues, companies were often frustrated by the need to go through the initial, more exploratory stages of the process. “They had to ask themselves if this is what they really wanted even in cases when they were already quite sure,” Sidse explains. On the other hand, there were also companies facing highly complex issues who felt that the sprint moved at too quick a pace.

“Sometimes very complex tasks end up being trimmed down in order to fit the format,” says Sidse.

Based on her research, Sidse has developed a so-called task ladder which differentiates between four different task levels. The task ladder looks at how open or closed a particular task is at the beginning and to what extent it must be rejigged or curtailed by the design agencies involved. Between steps zero and three, the task ladder helps to define how clear the companies are in relation to their problems and how far along they have come in their handling of the problem.

Burning platforms light the way

“In its original form, the sprint is best suited to tasks which are more toward the narrow end of the scale,” says Sidse. In a situation such as a global pandemic, the sprint method is, therefore, a suitable tool for helping companies to come out successfully on the other side. “Once the platform starts to burn, it suddenly becomes very clear where the fire is. But this does not mean that the solution is simple. Just that companies have a better idea as to where they should direct their efforts.”

Going forward, Sidse sees great potential in looking more closely at the broader side of the scale and those tasks which are less well defined. “The whole process is about identifying what mechanisms we have to create new things and what circumstances are in place that might influence them, and that is something which I think is well worth mapping out and taking stock of,” she says.

If research projects are to generate the greatest possible value for companies going forward, however, then Sidse believes that a somewhat different approach is needed.

“Scoping often falls outside the actual work itself. If research is to help generate value for companies, then it also needs to be incorporated from the very beginning so that the research design becomes a part of the actual project formulation,” she says.

This makes it possible to ask the right questions and simultaneously to map out what exactly design thinking can achieve. According to Sidse, it is about mapping out “what it actually is that we do with design which creates a new idea that can then go on to develop within a company.”

“This is where the change actually happens, and where the sparks begin that ultimately make things become truly interesting,” Sidse Ansbjerg Bordal concludes.

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