Inside A Google Ventures Design Sprint

Design isn’t something you would normally associate with a VC firm. But as more firms are adding value-added services, Google Ventures has created an all-star team of designers from Google, Mozilla and more to help portfolio startups create beautiful and easy-to-use products. In particular, Google offers its portfolio startups the opportunity to participate in a Design Sprint, which is an intensive, visual bootcamp around a design problem for portfolio companies.

We were able to embed ourselves in one of these recent sprints, in which a few members of the Google Ventures Design team were helping CircleUp, a startup that connects investors with retail and consumer companies that wouldn’t attract traditional venture funding. The entire process, which would normally take six months for a startup to work through, is compressed to five days (hence the word “sprint”), and starts with the design team spending time with the startup’s product and engineering teams to understand the problem and challenge.

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Day two is spent drawing out and sketching a number of solutions, day three is when the team decides which idea is best for the user, and day four is spent developing a prototype. Lastly, GV’s design team and the startup expose the design to potential users to understand what works with the design and what needs to be changed. As GV Design Partner Jake Knapp explains, this thinking and structure is based on a strategy developed by IDEO and Stanford’s

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As we witnessed with CircleUp’s sprint, the entire process is interactive, visual and effective, ending with real prototypes that have been tested by real users. The room where the Design Sprint takes place looks like a real research and testing lab, complete with pictures, Post-its and voting stickers all over the walls, as well as a giant timer clock.

With CircleUp, we sat down with Knapp, who previously worked on design for Google Search, Chrome, Ads, Gmail, Apps, Google+, Security, Commerce and the 2011 Google-wide redesign, as well as Braden Kowitz, the first designer to join GV who also led design for Google Buzz, Gmail, Apps for Business and more.

CircleUp founder Ryan Caldbeck tells us that GV taught his team how to think differently about design and come to conclusions that could have taken months. And Caldbeck tells us that the company adopted the eventual product that came out of the sprint, adding, “Ninety percent of what we used came from the process we went through with the GV Design Studio. The design sprint helped us completely redesign our core page, which helps investors evaluate private companies on CircleUp.”

In total, the Google Ventures Design Studio has done 27 design sprints for portfolio companies so far this year and 28 user research sprints. Last year they did about 30 design sprints and about 30 research sprints. It’s clearly a unique service that most other VC firms do not supply.