When the partners of Google Ventures work with a startup, helping to remake a product over the course of a week-long design sprint, they simply don't have time to mull over ideas or debate which design is best. So how does the team reach consensus?
It comes down to an endless supply of dots. Sticky dots.
Google Ventures is the venture capital arm of Google. But it's different from most venture firms in that Google Ventures works side-by-side with its portfolio companies, running Extreme Home Makeover-esque design sprints to iterate their products. Google Ventures portfolio companies work in a wide range of fields from apps to robotics companies to coffee roasters.
Simple dot stickers, just like you can buy from any office supply store, are Google Ventures' preferred voting mechanism used to narrow down a big pile of ideas to a small pile of good ideas. A concept, or several concepts, are taped to the wall, and team members are allowed to stick a dot on the parts they like most. What results isn't just a design concept covered in stickers; it's a heat map for the best ideas.
"We very often run this general process where we bounce between discussion and voting, and then repeat," Design Partner Braden Kowitz explains. "The discussion helps everyone understand and learn from each other. But in general, people tend to talk for a long time and the decisions rarely get much better past about 15 minutes of discussion. So we usually time-box the discussion, and then force a vote, narrow, then go back to discussing."
Blue Bottle: A Case Study
Here, we see how this method worked for Blue Bottle when the coffee company was designing a new product page. An initial sketch features a large hero shot of the coffee, complete with a label and prominent buy and subscribe buttons.
But apparently nobody from Blue Bottle or Google Ventures really liked that buy button (there appears to be one lone dot placed near the $12 price tag, though). And nobody liked the coffee’s title and description either.
So in the prototype that was built next, you see that while almost every other dot-laden component is intact somewhere on the page, the hero shot has been toned down. It is less prominent, the "buy" button has been replaced with "add to bag," the $12 price tag has been kept—though moved to a slightly different spot—and the name of the coffee is now at the top of the image.
The final site Blue Bottle decided upon, above, actually retains most of the buttons and ideas that the sticker dots emphasized (even if it looks quite a bit different at first glance).
So what makes the dots so effective? From what we can tell, they cut through egos, for one thing, and force discussions to the point of "yay or nay," whether you're talking about big features or granular details.
How To Use Stickers In Your Own Design Sprint
The Google Ventures team recommends giving everyone unlimited dots to begin the process. Allow people to vote for their own ideas. Just get everyone involved at first.
"The time spent voting isn't tense, but discussing the ideas afterwards can sometimes feel that way. It can be tricky to have a discussion about an idea that didn't get any votes," Kowitz says. "But there are lots of ways to mitigate this tension. The biggest thing to remember: you are not your design. I think I'm a pretty good designer, and often I sketch ideas that get zero votes. That's okay, because good (and bad) ideas can come from anywhere!"
But for a second (or third, or fourth, or fifth) round of voting, things work very differently. The tone remains positive, but Google Ventures passes out a limited number of what are called super votes. The CEO might get all the super votes, sharing a few to especially trusted people like his or her lead designer.
"The process is intentionally NOT democratic. The last thing we want is design-by-committee," Design Partner Jake Knapp says. "There are different structures that work well for design, but a democracy almost never does."
The super votes may not represent a democracy, but they do lead the team to formulate a real thesis—to not just agree on a pile of good ideas, but to also create a structure, built upon the very best ideas, which will address the real needs of the company, its customers, and its product. In other words, it's ultimately up to a company's leaders to steer the ship in the right direction.