How to run a successful remote design sprint
March 04, 2022
Design sprints are a great way to quickly test and validate ideas with your team. But what if you can’t all be in the same room? Or, what if you’re working on a project that’s geographically dispersed? No problem! A remote design sprint is just as effective as an in-person meeting. You just need to follow a few essential tips.
Advances in technology mean new ways of working, and it’s now possible to run a successful design sprint with a team spread out across the globe. Here’s everything you need to know.
What is a remote design sprint?
First of all… what’s a design sprint?
A design sprint is a five-day process that involves rapid product design, prototyping, and product testing with customers to solve business problems. The goal is to make productive decisions about how to steer the business, and this approach helps teams develop products much more quickly than they would otherwise.
So, what are the five stages?
- Understand (Day 1)
- Diverge (Day 2)
- Converge (Day 3)
- Prototype (Day 4/5)
- Validate (Day 5)
When we say “remote” here, we mean that your team won’t be meeting face-to-face. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re working from different geographic locations; it just means you don’t need everyone crammed into one room. You can plan and run a design sprint entirely by phone or email, but we recommend doing a video call so that you can see each other’s faces and body language.
If you’re working offline or without a video connection, just use the best tool for your situation. Is everyone in the same place? Then, do a standup-style meeting where everyone gets on one phone line and talks for about five minutes each. On Days 2 and 4 (which involve sketching and prototyping), it might make more sense to divide up the work and send around PDFs.
Whatever your team decides to do, make sure everyone has access to all the materials you’ll create during Day 1: the Understand stage. Usually, this will include the Sprint book and other research documentation.
What are the advantages of running a remote design sprint?
Running a design sprint remotely comes with some clear advantages.
- Everyone can participate: no one has to miss work, and no one has to fly across the country. If you don’t know everyone who’ll be involved in the sprint (e.g., you’re working with people at multiple organizations), this is especially valuable! All your teammates can contribute equally regardless of location, which means remote teams can also include more people than local ones.
- Timing is flexible: a five-day schedule might not make sense for a remote team. They may have less time available due to their schedules because fewer team members are attending in person. A remote team might prefer to have people attend in shifts or complete the work over a longer period of time. While in-person sprints often last for short increments of time (e.g., five days), this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule. Just allow enough time for everyone on the team to make progress.
- The logistics are simpler: in-person design sprints require more logistical planning than remote ones because you need to consider when, where, and how they’ll run. With remote sprints, it’s just the ‘when’ you need to worry about.
Types of remote design sprints
There are four main types of design sprints: virtual, partially virtual, in-person, and hybrid. Let’s look at each one below!
Partially virtual: this type of design sprint is also known as a ‘remote plus’ sprint. In other words, the process takes place partly in person and partly online.
An example of this:
- Day 1: the whole team (and possibly stakeholders) gets together at the main office to hash out an idea and do some initial sketching. However, there is no time limit for this meeting — it can last as long as needed.
- Days 2 to 5: team members working remotely gather online via video chat to discuss ideas and flesh them out. Then, everyone presents their work on Day 5 (or whenever you deem appropriate).
Virtual: each person works remotely in a virtual design sprint and presents their work via video chat (or by sharing a link to an online presentation through your team chat app).
In-person: everyone gets together at the main office in an in-person design sprint. There is no limit to how much time you spend brainstorming on Day 1 before moving forward, as long as you have a structure for Days 2 to 5.
Hybrid: a hybrid design sprint means that some of the team works remotely, and they come together physically to present their ideas or results on Day 5.
Virtual, partially virtual, and hybrid are all types of remote sprints. While hybrid and partially virtual setups can work for team members in the same area, a fully virtual sprint is ideal for nationwide or global teams.
Tools you’ll need for a remote design sprint
Remote design sprints are often conducted online using the following tools:
- Google Hangouts for video conferencing, presentations, and discussion groups
- Diagramming tools for creating visuals with text, sketches, and images
- Project management tools for document sharing and task management
- Polling tools to facilitate group polling and voting sessions
- Google Drive for sharing documents, notes, and files
- Screencastify for creating and sharing videos
Remote design sprint tips — Stage 1: the prep
All successful projects begin with good preparation. Here’s how to lay the groundwork for your remote design sprint.
Tip 1: embrace videoconferencing
Video conferencing is key. Make sure you have a good video conferencing tool that allows all participants to see each other and share screens. Reliable communication is essential for sharing designs, sketches, and ideas.
Tip 2: get acquainted with virtual whiteboards
Virtual whiteboards (or idea boards) allow team members to develop ideas and draw sketches with each other on the screen in real-time. Even better? You can store and share work with people who weren’t present and refer back to the materials throughout the project.
Tip 3: set the schedule in advance (and add breaks)
Be sure to set the schedule in advance, and make sure everyone is aware of it. This will help ensure there aren’t any delays caused by scheduling conflicts.
- Participants should be available for at least two hours every day (ideally) of your scheduled sprint. Note that it can take participants between 40 and 90 minutes to get into the right mindset and on task.
- Figure out how you’ll coordinate the online sprint and the conferencing tools you plan to use (e.g., Google Hangouts, team chat channels). Everyone has to be prepared with the right technology and reliable internet access.
- Include lots of breaks in your session. Remember, a sprint is typically only 30 minutes, so people might not need a break until 45 minutes in. Set an alarm on your phone to ring every 45 minutes. You can also remind everyone with a gentle ping from Google Hangouts, letting them know it’s time to take a short break.
Tip 4: choose reasonable hours
Choose your times carefully if your team is dispersed across the globe. You don’t want people working through the night or during their children’s school pickup time.
It can be challenging to find a time that works for everyone, but try to find a slot when most of your team is available. This will make it easier to schedule follow-up sessions and increase participation.
If you’re doing multiple days, try not to leave too much downtime between days. We recommend at least an hour break before jumping into Day 2. That way, people won’t feel rushed or overloaded with information on Day 1 when they’re focused on improving their designs after their first round of testing.
Stage 2: getting your team ready
Now, it’s time to prep your team, so they can get the most out of the sprint.
Tip 1: define your goals
Before starting your remote design sprint, take some time to define your product goals. What are you hoping to achieve? Referring back to your goals during the sprint will allow you to evaluate your progress.
Tip 2: assign tasks
In a remote design sprint, it’s important to assign tasks to specific team members. You want everyone to have a clear understanding of what they need to do and avoid confusion.
In addition to the Facilitator and Co-facilitator, you’ll need to assign other roles, such as a timekeeper and interviewer. These roles will help keep everything running smoothly and ensure all aspects of the sprint are covered. Have a quick chat with your team before the meeting about how they’d like the sprint to run.
Some people might prefer a sprint leader role, where you tell them what to do or ask their opinions on specific topics. Others might prefer to dive in and try out ideas without any guidance.
Tip 3: create a communication plan
In a remote design sprint, it’s important to have a remote communication plan in place. The goal is to make sure everyone is aware of what’s happening and can easily communicate with one another. Some things to consider include:
- Which channels will you use for communication (Slack, Zoom, etc.)?
- What is the expected response time for messages?
- Who is responsible for sending out updates?
- What is the process for resolving conflicts?
Tip 4: prepare the space
In order to have a successful remote design sprint, you’ll need to prepare the space. Avoid frustrating delays or backtracking by having all necessary tools and materials ready to go. Some questions to ask include:
- How will you share video and whiteboard content?
- What tools or methods will you use to track time?
- How will you collect votes?
- What tools and materials will you need for interviews?
- How will you handle noise and distractions?
Find a way for employees who cannot attend in person to feel like they’ve contributed. For example, write up a list of topics and present them to participants ahead of time, so they know exactly what’s going on.
Tip 5: plan the agenda
Just like any other meeting, you’ll need to plan the agenda for the remote design sprint. You should include:
- The sprint goals
- Problem statement
- User flow maps
- Design sprint steps
- Testing ideas
- Final review
Tip 6: set out some ground rules (and share them pre-meeting)
Ground rules are there to provide a productive and positive experience. Some things to consider include:
- How will you address noise and interruptions?
- What is the expected behavior during the sprint?
- When is it okay to speak up?
- How will you handle disagreements?
Stage 3: running the sprint
Now that we’ve gone over some basic ground rules, let’s take a look at how to run a successful remote design sprint. Start by briefly introducing yourself and any guests joining via remote channels.
Tip 1: get to grips with the video software
One of the main challenges of running a remote design sprint is handling video. This can be tricky, especially if team members are spread across different time zones. However, you can easily overcome this obstacle with a few simple tips.
First, make sure everyone has good quality video and audio. Second, try to schedule video meetings when most people are available. Third, use a video conferencing tool like Zoom or Skype.
Tip 2: create a checklist
Now that you have a list of things to manage, running the sprint is as easy as checking everything off.
- Make sure everyone has all the tools and materials they need.
- Start by introducing yourself and explaining the goal of the sprint.
- Share the problem statement and user flows.
- Allow time for discussion and brainstorming.
- Encourage everyone to participate.
- End each step with a vote.
- Record any key decisions or insights.
Tip 3: try Pass the Mic
Pass the mic is a system that prevents everyone from talking over one another. In a physical sprint, team members can easily pass an actual mic (or an item representing a mic) — something you can’t do in a remote setting. Instead, assign everyone a number, and go around the ‘room’ sequentially. Don’t forget to ask everyone to mute their mic when it’s not their turn to talk.
Tip 4: split screens, don’t toggle
During a remote design sprint, it’s important to have everyone on the same page. For better communication, split screens between team members, rather than toggle back and forth between participants.
Tip 5: always keep the video on
To ensure everyone is in sync, keep the video on at all times. This will allow team members to see each other’s facial expressions and body language, which can be helpful during brainstorming and problem-solving sessions.
Tip 6: avoid multitasking and distractions
This one is pretty self-explanatory. To keep the design sprint running smoothly, your team members must stay focused on the tasks at hand. Make it clear that everyone should give their full attention to the meeting, instead of reading emails, multitasking, or checking social media.
Tip 7: use video for testing
Testing is an integral part of the design sprint and, if possible, should be done in person. But when it comes to remote sprints, video can be a great way to test designs and concepts.
To use video for testing, record people using the prototype or concept and watch the video later. This will help you see how people interact with your design and where they have difficulty.
Tip 8: let the facilitator guide things
In a remote design sprint, the Facilitator’s role is even more critical than usual. They need to be able to keep things moving and make sure everyone is engaged. Here are some tips for facilitation in a remote setting:
- Be aware of how people are communicating. If someone seems to be struggling, ask if they need help.
- Keep an eye on the clock, and tell people when time is running out. Make sure everyone has a chance to speak.
- Take notes. It can be easy for things to get lost in translation in a remote setting. Have someone take down notes, since you can’t use sticky notes on a wall. A spreadsheet is a great option here. While it’s less flexible than freeform, it helps the team stay focused on answers and pick out patterns.
- Think about how much structure you want in your sprint. For example, turn off the timer if it isn’t important to stick to a strict schedule and you prefer to give people freedom over when they work. You can use the timer as a loose guideline and let everyone know they can take more time as needed. However, if you like to keep strict timeframes, then setting up an alarm with 15-minute reminders might be helpful.
- Make the Facilitator feel accepted by the group if you hire someone from outside the organization. The Facilitator is extremely important, and you need buy-in from the team for this design sprint to succeed.
Tip 9: be prepared for tech failure
While conducting a design sprint remotely, it’s crucial to prepare for technical difficulties. Have a backup plan in case something goes wrong and the video or internet connection drops out. Take the following steps to prevent issues during the event:
- Have a strong internet connection.
- Try out any tools on multiple devices.
- Test the video connection before the sprint begins.
- Make sure your webcam is working properly.
- Ask the customer and other team members to test their equipment.
- Don’t waste time waiting around if the customer has tech problems: reschedule.
Tip 10: work out how you’ll do diagrams
Sketching can be done on paper or with a diagramming tool. There are pros and cons to each:
- Paper is tactile, and people can draw quickly and easily.
- Online tools offer more collaboration features, such as the ability to share sketches with others and comment on them.
Some people find it helpful to use both paper and software. If you’re using digital tools, make sure everyone has access to them and is familiar with how to use them.
Another benefit to online diagramming software is that you can use it for prototypes and electronic voting. To vote on a prototype, put it online and ask people to click on their preferred option. Share the prototype with others and ask for comments to get thorough feedback.
Running your remote design sprint: a step-by-step guide
1. Identify the problems
Designers and Product Owners each write a list of problems they heard from customers or stakeholders. These can be new problems or old ones that weren’t solved yet. Write the problems on a virtual whiteboard in a vertical line with enough room beneath them to add some notes as you go along.
Product Owners should choose the top three to five high-priority problems from the list. Focus on issues you think will have the biggest impact on customers if solved. Then, draw a horizontal line across the virtual board about one foot above the original list of problems, and label it “Priority Problems.”
3. Assign and assess the problems
Now, assign each problem to a designer by writing their name next to it below their newly titled column. The designer then considers the following scenarios:
- The designer previously solved this problem: what did it take to solve it?
- A first-timer is solving a new problem: what should be their first step?
- The designer is testing this solution right now: would there be any risks?
Either write down the relevant answers or talk it through and get one person to write it down.
4. Sort the problems
Now that you’re all thinking about how to actually solve each problem, let’s introduce some new ideas into the mix that might help along the way. Create two columns: “ideas for how to solve this” and “potential problems.” Set these two columns off to the side of the board, so you still have an organized list of problems and solutions.
5. Develop potential solutions
Finally, you should be able to start grouping these ideas by problem and solution: one list of potential problems and another list for each solution you’ve come up with. Each group should contain a basic description of the problem and any notes about how you might go about solving it (including any pre-existing solutions that came to mind).
6. Look for patterns
Time for some high-low analysis! Look at the “potential problems” list and the list of existing solutions one more time. See if there are any commonalities between them, like “we could solve this problem by using our own data” or “we would need to call in customer support for this.” If so, drag and drop them into their own list of possibilities, and then give that new list a name.
7. Define key milestones
8. Now, look at the potential solutions list. Does anything stand out to you, such as “we need to talk to our sales team” or “this would require an API we don’t have?” Draw a line across the page for each solution where you added new details, and circle it. This is your main flow. Essentially, describe the high-level milestones you need to achieve before you can move ahead with resolving the problem.
8. Narrow down the solutions
Now, here comes the fun part! You’ve got all your brilliant ideas in front of you, but how do you choose the solution that’s most appropriate for your brand? Comb through them all and solidify them into a handful of potential solutions, which you’ll present to your team at a planning meeting or sprint kickoff. This is where diagrams and voting come in handy.
9. Listen to feedback from everyone
In the event of conflicting ideas from different team members, don’t get hung up on which idea is better or worse. Just try to get everyone involved in the conversation about the trade-offs between each solution, so you can narrow down the list to one choice before moving forward. After all, every team decision involves compromise.
10. Think about possible outcomes
After you’ve made your final decision, everyone should add a touch of “future thinking” to their work. If it were up to them, what would they want to happen for their idea to be successful? What should others be doing if their ideas are implemented? Think about ways this project can continue being successful after you all go home and get back to your lives or day jobs.
11. Explore a variety of perspectives
Be suspicious of big group decisions. Oftentimes, they lead to groupthink, where one specific viewpoint becomes the norm and drowns out other important considerations. So, try not to let major decisions become biased or popularity contests.
12. Be considerate of others
Recognize that not everyone has the same level of technical expertise with online tools, software, or websites. It may be difficult for some people if certain aspects of your project require them to use technology. Many people don’t enjoy learning new things when they have a spotlight on them. Try not to assume that everyone will intuitively know how to use technologies or programs even if they claim they do.
13. Keep morale high
Remember to have fun! Stay energized, and don’t let conflicts escalate into arguments. Time is very limited during a design sprint, so try to keep everyone on track.
What to do after your remote design sprint
- Review and document your findings: make sure you fully understand and record what has been decided at the end of the design sprint (even if it feels like nothing was achieved). Aim to capture all decisions made by the group. Nobody should walk away from a design sprint feeling that their input wasn’t important.
- Assign action items: create a simple list of tasks for everyone in the sprint. And remember, not everyone will be located in one place, so make sure remote team members know their responsibilities even if they can’t attend meetings.
- Schedule your next meeting: while it’s possible to have multiple design sprints going on simultaneously, try not to get distracted or bogged down with a full day of retrospectives from previous sprints. Schedule your next design sprint planning meeting as soon as possible to stay on track, but not before finishing the retrospective from the previous one.
And that’s it! Thank everyone for attending, and get ready for the next round.
A remote design sprint can be a great way to get your team up and running without having to travel. By following these tips, you’ll be able to handle everything from video conferencing to facilitation with ease.
And best of all, with no travel involved or waiting around for in-person meetings, you’ll be able to get your team’s product ideas off the ground in no time! Just remember: choose diagramming tools that are up to the job, lay down some ground rules, and bring an agenda. Hit these three things, and your sprint will soar.