Eden has a long history of running design sprints – it’s our go to method for getting to know our clients and their requirements better. But in early 2020 things changed. You might be able to guess as to why. COVID-19 forced our hand and we had to adapt our sprint process so we could continue our work with existing clients while also servicing new ones.
When we started running design sprints, the technology to run them remotely just wasn’t up to scratch. Video-calling/conferencing was far from reliable let alone holding one alongside a multi-participant digital whiteboard, which were also lacking the features we needed to adequately service a design sprint. So, it was never really an option for us.
Hang on - what is a design sprint?
A design sprint or ‘sprint week’ as they are sometimes known, is a process created at Google Ventures (GV) by Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky as a way of determining problems and providing solutions to them quickly. It’s a versatile, intense one week process starting with information gathering and sketching before moving onto the building of a prototype and finally testing with users.
Normally, these sprints would take place in physical location. Ideally our office, with its wall-to-wall whiteboards and fancy coffee machine or that of our client. We’d gather round and talk and sketch and enthuse about ideas and solutions, scribbling on notepads and voting with sticky dots. It’s a frantic, frustrating but highly rewarding experience.
A Remote Design Sprint (RDS) is simply the replication of this process into a digital, online format. All the tasks and exercises are identical to that of a normal sprint – we’ve not reinvented the wheel. But we have tweaked it here and there, to fit better into a digital format.
And it’s working out rather well. We’ve ran twenty RDS in the past year or so, for both clients new to us and the design sprint process and existing clients familiar with it, all with great results.
Benefits of remote design sprints
The key benefit is, of course, physical distance. During Covid, our office and other offices all over the world have shut their doors with staff now working from home. The RDS negates this distance and allows people to take part in spite of the differing physical locations.
Beyond distance though, the benefits of going remotely are apparent even before you get one booked in. Travel times and planning, hotel reservations and potential travel bans are no longer a factor to consider. RDS removes these often-tedious logistical considerations and, of course their potentially eye-watering costs. Train fares and accommodation for six people can get a bit pricey! Instead, participants can take part in a Sprint from the comfort of their own homes or offices.
This remote capability will also enable you to run design sprints across different time-zones. So, if your client has multiple offices in different countries with potential participants in different parts of the world, they can still take part.
RDS tends to feel more collaborative. In 'normal' design sprints, it sometimes feels like the Facilitator is perceived as the expert in the room, and participants would defer to them for what the best approach would be. Not someone as merely a pen to record ideas, watch the clock and keep things moving. The removal of the Facilitator in a physical sense, levels things. This levelling, makes for a much more collaborative experience. When you see everyone's cursor working away on the Main Board, adding in their HMWs or sprint questions, or moving a section of the storyboard to another place to explain a concept, it feels like everyone is truly working together.
What's in the (tool) box: What we use
There are a whole series of tools that have seemingly sprung up from nowhere in the wake of Covid that can assist with facilitating an RDS. From video-conferencing software to digital whiteboards and a host of prototyping tools – there’s plenty of tools and software to go and try out. This is just an overview of what we use. If you already have something in place that works for you and your team/clients, stick with those if you're happy with them.
To run an RDS you need two key software additions. Something to allow collaborative working and something to allow reliable and effective communication.
The first and key tool is your virtual whiteboard. At Eden we use Miro, a web-based whiteboard tool that allows multiple participants to interact remotely. Miro also provides a free handy template for design sprints, which we tweaked and edited to match our preferred structure.
We used this template to create two types of board; a Main Board and a series of Participant Boards. Beyond the boards, there's also video-calling, text chat and screen-sharing, all of which have proven useful at different times.
The Main Board acts as the single point of truth, so if anyone is unsure of a decision we've made or wants to refer back to a question, they can find it quickly here. Everything is recorded here from HMW's to maps to lightning demos and storyboards. Voting also takes place here. This main board becomes a time capsule of the day and can be downloaded and shared to the participants to look back on the decisions and progress made.
We also create Participant Boards so people can work independently and more importantly, anonymously. For example, when doing HMW's, participants would write them on their own board out of sight of others and then when we come to categorise them, they can simply copy and paste their answers into the Main Board.
Miro also has simple drawing tools that whilst aren't good enough for the sketching & crazy 8's part of the sprint, they were more than adequate for creating storyboards. Granted they can be a bit clunky, but what we've found is that people are more comfortable expressing suggestions and ideas for the storyboard, in this way. The limitation of drawing with a mouse is a great leveller and people can quickly move and manipulate elements to showcase their thoughts without having to re-draw things.
Alongside this virtual whiteboard, you need a reliable video-conferencing tool. Unless a client has a preference, we opt for Zoom. During Covid, Zoom has become a new household name, keeping family and friends connected. This ubiquity makes it great for us in a Sprint, as most people will already have it, know how to use it, are comfortable with it and know what to expect from it.
Remote design sprint tips
So now we’ve got our chosen tools and everything in place, here are a few tips and tweaks for your consideration when running an RDS to make sure things run as smoothly as possible.
Participants - For RDS we recommend that the number of participants is kept to a maximum of seven. This is to minimise any potential internet/connectivity issues and cross talk between individuals. Any more and it starts to impact on completing the daily tasks effectively.
Breaks - We recommend that you have a few more, shorter breaks throughout the two days of a remote sprint than you would normally. The tendency for participants to drift off increases in remote design sprints and these mini-breaks help ensure people get a chance to clear their heads a bit and stretch their legs before returning a little more focused. Providing everyone agrees, it might be worth reducing lunch to 30 minutes and allocating the other 30 to these shorter breaks.
Video on – Speaking of participants potentially drifting off, if they are able, insist all participants have their webcams on. That way the facilitator can keep an eye on body language and attentiveness of the participants and draw anyone back into the conversation and make sure everyone is doing alright.
Time management – Like in traditional design sprints, time-management is critical. But in RDS, the tendency to slip is greater due to cross-chatter and connection difficulties. We have increased the length of each day to allow for this.
Connection issues – This is a tricky one and may involve the Facilitator taking more affirmative action than usual. If a participant is consistently having issues with connectivity, then it is advised that said participant be dropped. Discuss this with your Decider, explaining the importance of sticking to time and that we can attempt to get them back during a break/lunch and catch them up then.
Practice session – Before you start your RDS, arrange or allow for a half hour or so practice session with the various participants so they can get used to the tools and have a brief introduction to the process.
So, will Remote Design Sprints replace the Traditional one? In short, no, but that was never the intention. We were forced to adapt in a crisis, yes, but they’ve quickly become an important tool in the UX design strategy we offer to clients. RDS is now a fully-fledged option that we can proudly offer and recommend to our clients.
So, whether you go for a remote or traditional design sprint, be sure to pick the type of sprint that suits you, your team and your client.
Remote design sprints are new to us at Eden Agency, but they’re definitely here to stay.