Much has been written—and much has been accomplished—in the realm of design sprints since the concept was introduced in 2016. In that year, a team from Google Ventures shared their “Sprint” approach with the world in a riveting book by that name.
Since then, many companies have applied and adapted that approach internally or for their clients. In fact, a majority of the Fortune 100 have applied design sprints in some capacity. At Do Tank, we have run dozens of sprints with our clients in healthcare, financial services, consumer packaged goods, and higher ed.
Here’s the problem, though: design sprints were designed to be a highly tactile, in-person activity. The aesthetic of design sprints was always the bright colors of Post-It notes, the detail and rigor of hand-drawn sketches, and the joy of collaborative teams working shoulder-to-shoulder as they fleshed out ideas.
Since the onset of Covid-19, this has had to change. While we had experimented with digital-first work and remote design sprints, it took a global pandemic to push us into the brave new world of all-remote, all-the-time design sprints.
In the course of five months adapting these methods to a digital environment with our existing customer groups, we have enjoyed breakthroughs, facilitated successes, and—full disclosure—learned from some memorable mistakes. The following tips are the fruits of Do Tank’s client experience.
1. Form an aligned, energetic team
In a largely work-from-home environment, people feel busier than ever. It is all too easy to turn every task or conversation into a meeting, and this contributes to over-scheduling, Zoom fatigue, and general exhaustion.
Knowing this, it is crucial for any sprint team to consist of people who have the time and mental energy to work on something new in a new way. Choose people who have a hunger for change, a bias for action, and the know-how to make your project a success.
2. Choose your digital tools
Like any team-based remote project, your sprint will take place via Zoom or a similar video conferencing software. (We often use Microsoft Teams with corporate clients, and it works quite well for groups of 4 to 10 people.)
Even more important, though, is your digital whiteboard. This is the space where your team will actually record, organize, vote on, and present ideas—taking the place of all those Sharpies and Post-Its. We love using Mural because it is inexpensive (after a 30-day free trial) and easy for new users to learn, but its competitor Miro has many similar features and offers a few more ready-made templates (including an option to maintain a free account with 3 “boards” or fewer). Either would be an excellent choice for your team.
3. Set a focused, realistic timeframe
Given the fragmented calendars (and attention spans) confronting most teams, the standard 5-day approach to a sprint is not likely to work in a remote setting. Instead, consider dividing up the roughly 30 hours of sprint meeting time into several video conference/Mural sessions spread out over a number of weeks.
For a team with a tight timeline and ample bandwidth, this could look like three sessions per week, over the course of 30 days. For teams with lots of day-to-day responsibilities and a more generous timeline, a 60- or 90-day approach might be best. Whatever you choose, make sure the team understands the commitment they are making and the end date they are driving toward.
4. Have a back-up plan for inevitable tech challenges
Every major element of your digital approach should have a back-up option that can be deployed at a moment’s notice.
For your video conference software, some may have trouble connecting; make sure to offer a dial-in option as well.
For your digital whiteboard, large groups with many virtual Post-Its may slow down the interface; be ready as a facilitator to type participants’ ideas for them.
As a facilitator, your own connection to the call or digital whiteboard may fail; have a co-facilitator (or a person on the client side who knows the agenda) in place to keep the team on track while you re-connect.
5. Start with the end in mind
When the sprint work begins, determine in your first session where you want to go as a team. Is this sprint intended to launch a new product or service? Is your ambition to define and roll out a bold new strategy on an accelerated timeline? Do you have a compelling story to tell and a need to road test it with your audience? Whatever the area of focus, align on it up front so the team can focus its activities and stay motivated!
6. Meet periodically but work frequently
One result of having realistic timeframe, based on Tip #3, is this: team members will have opportunities to work on sprint activities outside of the official team sessions. Whether the team is meeting 3x/week, once a week, or less often, there is a clear opportunity to develop the prototype, recruit customers to interview, or react to feedback in between sessions.
7. Get creative when recruiting customers to interview
In a classic sprint, you would ask customers to join you in person to see and react to your protoype(s) in real time. While this is not feasible in a virtual setting, there is a bright side: you now have the opportunity to recruit folks who aren’t local, as long as they have interest—and an internet connection.
Go beyond outreach tools like Craigslist and consider Facebook, LinkedIn, or even Reddit groups where the customers you seek might congregate. Additionally, consider the possibility that your own colleagues can give feedback in their capacity as customers. This is usually the case in fields like tech, healthcare, and financial services. (e.g. The hospital where you work is the one where your doctor practices.)
8. Know the signs of a team that’s off track
The remote environment and its many distractions (from meetings to life at home) can make it easy for a team to get off track. Stay attuned to factors like these:
- Frequent rescheduling due to emphasizing other priorities
- Confusion about what outputs or decisions the team just arrived at
- Unwillingness to volunteer for customer recruitment or prototype-building work
9. Check in on each other and offer support
When problems arise, be frank with the team about what’s required. Ask them to be frank with you about what they’re struggling with. Most importantly, offer to coach people individually on what they can do to make progress when the going gets tough. This can make all the difference for a team on the rocks.
With these tips in mind, we hope you’re better equipped than before to deploy the remote design sprint way of working. If you have further questions or would like to chat with us directly, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our company email is a good option as well: email@example.com is the address.