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The “Understand” step of the sprint can be split into 2 parts.

  1. First, create a Common Language. This is where we understand the current landscape, identifying existing beliefs and assumptions, and imagine what the ideal scenario would look like.
  2. Then, we conduct empathy work. This is where we go out and gather insights on the users and the environment in which they exist. Here we often talk about proving our assumptions wrong.

##1. Identifying a common language

It’s important to ensure that everybody from the client side and on the Hanno team are all on the same page and speaking the same language. It is important to work with the client and our team to establish everyone\s expectations. and come up with specific outcomes to target right from the start. Creating a shared understanding of the project at the beginning helps to minimise miscommunication and misunderstanding further down the line.

To help us build a common language we work with our clients to complete a pre-kick off document. As part of this document we have regular contact with the client and work to identify what success would look like to them.

##2. Planning

Once we have a common language shared with the team and the client, we can start planning the rest of the Pre-Sprint and also the Sprint itself.

For the sprint to run as smoothly as possible we need to ensure that a number of things are prepared in advance. Firstly we need to work with the client to identify users to engage with for the empathy work. Then we must ensure that we have users available for the validation step of the Sprint.

As part of the planning stage we also need to confirm how and when the team will come together virtually as the team will be working from different locations and timezones.

The planning will be an ongoing task and will adapt as the work progresses.

##3. Identifying assumptions and unknowns

Experience is normally a benefit in any situation, however it can also be a hinderance. Sometimes experience means that we have a fixed viewpoint of a situation which leads us to develop assumptions that may not reflect the real situation. These assumptions often blind us to the real situation and prevent us from seeing incredible opportunities that are out in the open. This is often one of the reasons clients bring us in on sprints--for our outsider perspective.

Assumptions can be useful if they are used correctly and with the awareness that they are only assumptions. Therefore it is incredibly important to bring our assumptions to light so that we are aware of them and can identify when they may interfere with the Sprint.


  • What is the existing hypothesis?
  • Journey map
  • Listing knowns, unknowns and what we think we know (assumptions)
  • Charetting
  • Similar situations template

##4. Empathy Work

Empathy work is the key to human centred design work. It is through the empathy work that we are able to gain a true understanding of the user and identify the core of the problem. This way when we start creating solutions we know that we are addressing the most important elements and really solving a pain point for the user.

Empathy work means shedding any assumptions you may hold about the problem, and seeing things for the first time. It means asking “why” about everything that the user experiences, looking for insights and opportunities where we can create something better.

This is probably the most important part of the Product Design Sprint process. It is akin to Einstein saying that he would spend 55 minutes determining the right question to ask. If this is done well then the rest of the Product Design Sprint becomes easier. If it is not done well, then time and effort is spent during the Product Design Sprint to create a solution for a problem that may not be very important and therefore the impact will reduce.


  • Observation
  • Conversation
  • Immersion
  • Extreme users

Rules for empathy work

  1. The key is to record and make notes of everything.
  2. Defer judgement. It is ok to make notes on why you think something is happening but treat it as a hypothesis until you have evidence to support your reasoning.
  3. Try and view everything as a novice. If you look at everything with the eyes of a novice you won’t take things for granted and will be more inclined to ask why something happens and if it can be improved.
  4. Look for the “hidden” gems of information. These are things that may not appear to be of significance or are readily accepted but if changed could make a huge difference to the user.
  5. Also conduct empathy work in similar/analogous situations to see if you learn anything that can be transferred to your challenge.
  6. Look for extreme users as they will often give you the most insights.

##5. Synthesis: Pulling it together

After conducting all of the empathy work you will have a whole load of information that needs to be synthesised. This means distilling or filtering all of the information so that you are left with the things that are important.

We are looking for insights “an accurate and deep understanding” that will help us create something incredible for the users.

Sometimes these insights become apparent from the empathy work. Sometimes it requires the use of tools to draw them out.

Sharing the information from the empathy work

  1. Share what you have learnt from your empathy work with your team.
  2. Use headlining to capture the important information.
  3. One headline per post-it note.
  4. Code the post-it notes so that you can easily tie them back to the source later on.

Once the information from the empathy work has been captured onto post-it notes you can start using some tools to help you see more insights.

While using these tools keep a note of the following types of insights:

  1. Surprising or unexpected
  2. Extreme
  3. Confusing (what doesn’t make sense)
  4. Those with the most depth

Note some of these tools can also be used during the “Understand” phase.

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