Building an organizational culture of design thinking

with the American Marketing Association

Post-it notes organized by AMA with Highland during a design exercise.

Scott Stern, the Director of Innovation & Insights at the American Marketing Association, is serious about customer research.

“There’s no excuse for doing something that’s going to fail based on your own preconceived notions. In the CIA, that’s what leads to people getting killed. In this world, it leads to businesses failing.”

As a former CIA analyst, Scott is an expert in uncovering assumptions and applying rigorous frameworks in order to understand people and scenarios. After attending a design sprint workshop, Scott was immediately enamored with the rapid, process-based approach to developing new ideas and conducting customer research.

“Design thinking is a valuable way of focusing on the customer. It helps you separate what you know from what you think you know. I would rather have a structured, repeatable approach that leads us to a wrong answer than some random, brilliant idea.”

So when Suzanne Fichter, Highland’s Director of Business Development, reached out to see if the AMA needed any support bringing design thinking practices into the 81-year-old organization, Scott was intrigued.

Moving to a customer-focused way of thinking

The AMA was in the midst of an organizational identity change, and they were looking for a collaborative partner to help them internalize this shift.

“The AMA is moving away from a very us-focused way of thinking. We talk about putting the customer first all the time. But actually doing it is really hard. We knew we needed some help to institutionalize that approach.”

Scott met with Suzanne and David Whited, the Director of Highland’s CX Practice. Scott appreciated the critical lens that Highland took constructing the project scope.

Highland didn’t just say, "Yes, we will just do a design sprint for you." You really dug into what we were trying to do, pushed back, and gave us some things to think about. It was about more than just the process. It was about getting to the right outcomes.
Scott Stern
Director of Innovation & Insights, the American Marketing Association

Starting strong with JTBD research

Before diving into the Design Sprint, Highland recommended that the AMA first do Jobs to Be Done (JTBD) Research to gain fresh insights on their customers. Highland provided guidance to the AMA on how to conduct JTBD interviews, and then used the information the AMA team collected throughout the Design Sprint.

One of the insights from the JTBD research was that potential AMA members might want to invest in “unbundled” AMA member benefits. Young marketing professionals wanted to advance their professional skills but didn’t seek out annual memberships in the way past generations had. These younger members and potential members liked the idea of obtaining online certifications that would show their dedication to ongoing professional growth without having to invest in a lengthy in-person training.

The design sprint process

We decided to do one full design sprint followed by a subsequent 3-day sprint to allow for additional testing. Both sprints were focused on the same goal of developing a more engaging member experience.

The first design sprint followed the traditional Google Ventures 5-day approach:

  • Day 1: Make a Map and Choose and Target
  • Day 2: Sketch Competing Solutions
  • Day 3: Decide on the Best Solution
  • Day 4: Build a Realistic Prototype
  • Day 5: Test with Target Customers

Because of the JTBD research, the idea of digital microcertifications - short online classes targeted to teach specific skills - emerged quickly as a sketch through the lightning demos during Day 2 of the sprint. This idea was chosen as the strongest solution that would address the larger sprint goal of engaging members.

Prototyping with software practices

When it came time to prototype, we started with a storyboard. This storyboard laid out the key actions that the prototype for the digital microcertifications would need to achieve. Using Highland’s knowledge from decades of developing custom software, we then agreed on technology constraints for the prototype. (Does it need to support video? Do we need the ability to upload files?)

After the storyboard was complete, we developed the sitemap (another software practice). We created a diagram of what the whole prototype would look like. Then we divided up the tasks required to bring the prototype to life and started building. We used Kanban project management process to keep track of our progress. We tracked four columns of sticky notes on a wall: To Do, Doing, Done, Blocked. This helped us to see what work was being done, what had been completed, and who was stuck.

“The interviews are really hard”

Scott remarked that he was especially grateful to have Highland there for the testing and customer research on the last day of the design sprint. “The customer interviews are really hard,” he said.

David Whited, Highland's Director of CX, agreed:

“There’s a real skill involved in taking the raw learning goals and turning those into questions that will get what you are hoping to get. If you don’t craft your questions and the series of actions you’re inviting people to take so that you get the learning that you need, it’s just a mess. At Highland, we have really reliable ways to uncover the kind of customer understanding we need when it comes to understanding these prototypes. ”

Why do a second sprint?

We used the second 3-day design sprint to continue to refine the prototype. While these second sprints are not always necessary, we find them helpful when an organization is looking to move their idea farther, faster. This second sprint addressed key deficiencies of the first prototype and allowed the team to go much deeper in the fidelity of the design.

Scott loved the fast pace and decisiveness required by both of the sprints. “It took me back to my old days in the CIA - there is no time to sit around and worry if we’ve made the right decision.”

The design sprint process was spectacular. For us, what really stood out was the clarity of decision-making that it forced. It removed the opportunity for politicking and second-guessing, which can trip us up. In a design sprint, it doesn’t really matter which decision has been made. We’ve all got to get on board and just execute.
Scott Stern
Director of Innovation & Insights, the American Marketing Association

Advice for first-time design sprinters

Here's some of Scott’s advice for people looking to bring design sprints into their own organizations:

  1. Try it. It’s only a week. "Asking for a week of people’s time is a lot, but it’s much faster and more productive than having endless meetings. Add up how much time you spend in meetings where you leave without having any clear idea of what to do, and you’ll probably end up spending a similar amount of time and money on a design sprint."
  2. Get ready to create something concrete and learn from it. "Where the design sprint shines is getting a vague concept into something you can put in front of a customer, an executive, or a board. Even if your solution doesn’t work, you know exactly where you need to pivot."
  3. Ask for help. "Hiring an outside facilitator is essential for people doing design sprints for the first time or two. There’s a lot of guidance online, but you really need somebody who has done it before. This is a very intense period. You’re going to be trying to follow the book, but you’ll probably be missing some of the key elements, especially when you get to the prototyping and customer feedback interviews."
  4. Don't forget to have fun! "Design sprints are a great team-building activity."

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We've built and launched over 268 digital products, and we'd love to help you take your idea from dream to delivered. Ready to get started? Get in touch.

Suzanne Fichter

Director of New Business Development