Learn about the human-centred insights and actionable feedback a five-day design sprint can provide through the lens of an Early Literacy Project.

The Early Literacy Alliance of Waterloo Region, (ELAWR) has dedicated six weeks of 2017’s Prescription for Literacy Project to participating in 6 separate design sprints: a series of “unique five-day process[es] for answering crucial questions through prototyping and testing ideas.”

The Prescription for Literacy Project, in collaboration with Overlap, is on a mission to create an early literacy movement that drives people to understand the critical importance of early literacy and its resulting impact on our children and society. The goal is to design, test, and implement new or re-imagined approaches to ignite a passion for early literacy.

This post will outline ELAWR’s Prescription for Literacy Project, explain what a design sprint is, walk you through a five-day design sprint, and share the invaluable insights the week provided.

This deep dive on design sprints post was written for Overlap by Troy Wiatr, the Project Coordinator at Early Literacy Alliance of Waterloo Region. He and his team are currently working on the “Prescription for Literacy” Project.


The Importance of Early Literacy

One in four adults in the Waterloo Region function with Level 1 literacy. People at a Level 1 literacy experience daily challenges including difficulties following dosage instructions on medicine, completing a job application form, and using online banking.

Despite the challenges one in four locals face, there has not been a significant shift in the adult literacy rate for many years.

What can we do about it?

Start early. Early literacy contributes to increased employment and earnings; decreased spending on Employment Insurance, Social Assistance, and Workers Compensation; better health and lower health care costs; and higher high school graduation rates.

It’s our mission to investigate possible health care channels and design mechanisms to improve early literacy skills. That’s a huge undertaking, and we’re beginning to tackle it using design thinking.


Utilizing Design Thinking

We have all been to those meetings. The ones that have every great intention of being productive, but at the end of the meeting, we feel like all we did was talk about what we are going to talk about at the next meeting, which will be held in a month. This makes it hard to work efficiently.

What happens next? Members of the team could start to lose interest or faith in the vision of the solution. Soon you just start to have meetings about meetings, and that’s not very fun for anyone.

We’re looking for a different outcome here, so we’re taking a different approach.

Design Thinking puts the needs of people at the core of the process so that we can design solutions that address their real needs and problems.

This form of problem-solving can be used in all aspects of life. From coming up with a solution for the next App that will change how you shop, to deciding what colour you are going to paint the bathroom. Design Thinking, is adaptable and that’s why we’ve chosen to build our Prescription for Literacy Project using a wide variety of design approaches, including six design sprints.


What is a Design Sprint?

In the book “Sprint: How to Solve Big Problems and Test New Ideas in Just Five Days,” author Jake Knapp describes a Design “Sprint” as a unique five-day process for answering crucial questions through prototyping and testing ideas.

A sprint is a small window of time where project team members are focused and dedicated to the project, from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm, for five days straight.

Knapp’s book is filled with detailed information on the “Sprint” week. Check out www.thesprintbook.com to find out more.

The week is built around the Design Thinking stages – Definition, Research, Ideation, Prototype, and Testing.

Overlap Five Day Design Sprint

On Monday, the team works together to map the problem.

On Tuesday, we ideate with solutions.

On Wednesday, the team combines the solutions to pick some of the best ones.

On Thursday, we build 1-3 prototypes based on the best solutions.

Finally, on Friday, we test and refine our solutions with actual customers.

There it is – a problem gone to a real solution in just five days. It’s a way to efficiently set-up the project team for success. Sounds pretty simple, but it still requires a lot of hard work and dedication.

We are using the six weeks in 2017 to come up with the ideas we want to test, re-work, and test again until implementable solutions are found.


Working Through a Design Sprint Monday – Friday


The first day is all about fleshing out the problem, so we started by choosing the actors involved and discussed how they might get to our end goal.

After choosing some deciders and establishing the rules of the week, we looked at the project from a completely different perspective.

We discussed early literacy with a negative lens. If this project wasn’t successful, what would that look like? What happens if literacy rates decline? What if literacy begins even later in a child’s development?

When we looked at the project differently than we ever had before, it opened our eyes to the importance of the project and got all of our hesitations out in the open.

There are a few rules that typically hold true in design thinking, for instance, when working in a group, it is best to start solo.

So we started solo with ideation, a process that defers judgement and puts a priority on the quantity of ideas. Each member of the group is first able to work independently when faced with a problem. Working individually at the start allows for an unbiased approach to recording the most amount of diverse ideas as possible.

After an abundance of ideas are put forward, we can then focus in by questioning our assumptions and seeking clarity. When it comes to ideation, quantity beats quality (at the start). The team is encouraged to come up with as many ideas as possible. From those ideas, we will have a chance to prioritize and pick the best ones.

The analogy used by Overlap during our Design Thinking Master Class was: “To catch a big fish, catch a lot of fish and throw back the small ones.”

How to catch a big fish.png

We mapped out the problem and talked about the actors involved including the literacy community, babies, mothers, young people, pregnant women. We defined Early Literacy as Talk, Write, Read, Play, Sing – TWRPS.

At the end, we reflected on everything we did that day. It was a long day, but we left with a clearly defined problem we could begin solving the following morning.

Watch Monday’s Vlog to learn more about Design Sprint Day 1.



The goal of day two was to continue to map out our problem and to look closer into our actors or key people and groups at the centre of our problem.

We worked on Empathy Maps for pregnant women, parents, and doctors. Empathy maps provide a process for empathizing with your own customers, product users, or stakeholders. They can help you dig into a person’s experience resulting in rich human insights. Learn how to use an empathy map here.

From these insights, we were able to develop “how might we” questions. Near the end of the day we narrowed down our focus by dot voting on the questions we thought were the most important.

ELAWR Impact Effort Matrix

Overlap helped us map each “how might we” statement on to an Impact Effort matrix so that we could easily see which direction would give us the most bang for our buck.

Our question that we needed to answer going into Wednesday’s Ideation Session was: How might we spread the TWRPS (Talking, Writing, Reading, Playing Singing) message and brand to create universal awareness and a culture shift?

Watch Tuesday’s Vlog to learn more about Design Sprint Day 2.



On Wednesday we went back to ideating.

As a team, we generated a lot of ideas!

ELAWR Idiation.jpg

Overlap helped us organize this list so that we could see some similarities:

ELAWR Idiation Combine Ideas.jpg

From there, we were able to break off and start to sketch out what some of these ideas would look like. After about an hour, we came back and posted our sketches in a separate room so that we could have an “exhibit” of all of our ideas.

We then discussed as a group which ideas would be tested in this sprint and which ideas would be revisited in future sprints.

We narrowed it down to two of our favourite ideas, ones we thought we could tackle right away. These are the ideas we will take with us into Thursday’s prototyping day.

Watch Wednesday’s Vlog to learn more about Design Sprint Day 3.



Thursday is for building a prototype.

It was arguably the toughest, but most rewarding, day of the Design Sprint (in my opinion). This was the day that we transferred one of our ideas from paper format to something tangible that could be tested. We had two new additional Overlappers join us for our prototyping day to help us with the vision of the idea.

To start this process, we used a storyboard to take a closer look at our actors and their journey towards our end goal. The idea we landed on was titled “The Brain Box.”

ELAWR Brain Box

It was a box that would be given or delivered to new parents or newly pregnant mothers at some point during their parenthood. The box would contain useful items such as diapers and blankets with important Early Literacy messaging branded within.

The team then divided up and worked on prototyping the “Brain Box.” Some of us went out shopping for testing items, and others worked on our key messaging and developed questions to use when we tested the product.

All of this was done in about 2 hours, and by the end of the day, we had a physical thing that we could test.

ELAWR Brain Box Prototype.jpg

We lined up some contacts, and we were ready to receive some feedback from our end users.

Continue reading see more photos of Thursday’s prototyping session.



On Friday morning, two members of the project team and 2 Overlappers headed to Our Place, Kitchener Family Resource and Early Years Centre.

We visited two programs that were occurring that morning. We were able to test our product with two groups of mothers with children between the ages of 3 and 12 months. We received a ton of valuable feedback on our “Brain Box” that we then brought back with us to the Overlap Office in the afternoon.

We had two individual mothers come into Overlap for a one-on-one interview that allowed us to gain additional feedback. One of these individuals was pregnant as well, so we got to hear a perspective we didn’t have in our morning research.

In the afternoon, we reconvened as a project team to review our feedback.

The Overlap team had us group our responses in a feedback grid, which has four quadrants:

1) Like

2) Improve

3) Questions

4) New Ideas

This was eye-opening to us as a project team. The “Brain Box” idea was something that we all had a vested interest in the day before, but it definitely had a lot of flaws that we weren’t aware of until it was tested with the actual people who would be using it.

You can download Overlap’s Feedback Grid here to collect your own quality feedback.

At the end of the sprint, we completed a retrospective of the week, which will help us decide how we will move forward with this idea and others to come. The design sprint was long but unbelievably productive week, and it produced powerful insights that we wouldn’t have attained otherwise.

The examples outlined above come from ELAWR’s first design sprint. Over the course of the year, the Prescription for Literacy Project team will complete a total of 6-design sprint all with a self-chosen direction. You can read about ELAWR’s future design sprints on the Early Literacy blog.


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