How to run remote design sprints tips and tricks

Everyone’s daily routines have turned a little topsy-turvy recently. Most people are now working from home, which sounds nice, even fun at first. But behind the creature comforts of your couch, day-time pyjamas, and time saved on commuting, loom the harbingers of disorganisation and lack of productivity. So how on earth are you supposed to stay focused, or keep your team on track and genuinely engaged, when running a remote design sprint?

In reality, due to the structured nature of design sprints they are fairly easy to transfer to a remote setting. (Don’t know what we’re on about? Check out our blog on design sprints here.) The biggest benefit of running a design sprint remotely is that it by nature already cuts out a lot of the faffing about involved in getting a project started. No need to plan how to plan the project when the structure is already there! Not to mention that knowing ahead of time where you’re going to start the meeting and where you’re going to end it is great for keeping your team engaged. So this particular monster of inattentiveness isn’t so much of an issue even when working from home. But there's more to keep in mind.

The location

Of course, first you’ll have to set up ways to facilitate your online design sprint. With the right tools, the environment for a remote design sprint remains conductive to a productive and enjoyable design process even outside your usual workspace. We’ve got you set up with a few hot tool tips to get you started:

Slack is great for communicating with your teammates wherever they may be. (Although, it’s nice to respect “Out for lunch” and “In a meeting” statuses.) Talking about your project can be done in a dedicated channel, and direct messages allow you to discuss the nitty gritty details without clogging up everyone else’s feeds.

Google Hangouts is our video conferencing software of choice. Yes, we know that Zoom is where all the cool kids started hanging out at first, but until their glaring security flaws have been fixed, we’re sticking with our favourite. With optional video, audio muting, a chatroom, screen sharing, and shareable invite links, it’s got all the essentials so what’s not love.

What even is a design sprint without a space to fill up with diagrams and sticky notes? Mural is our new big, blank friend. Except this interactive whiteboard tool isn’t all blank, as it comes with plenty of pre-made templates to use if you don’t want to design your own. Not to mention that you don’t have to have an account to participate, which makes this one great to use with clients who don’t have time to set up a million new accounts for every remote meeting they have scheduled.

Every meeting is a meeting worth documenting. You can use Loom to record your screen or the audio of the call for posterity, Mural allows you to download your boards in various different formats, and you can file it all in Notion - a documentation sharing and planning software that our developers are particularly fond of.

The set-up

Just like a face-to-face design sprint, the virtual variant requires a little bit of set-up beforehand. Especially if you’re working with clients who are new to the finer aspects of remote working, make sure that they’ve been treated to a pre-workshop call to be taught the ropes of the software you’re using. You’ll also want to make sure that everyone has access to the conference call and any cooperative planning tools you’re using ahead of time. If their internet connection is questionable, closing any other bandwidth-hogging apps will help.

Depending on those connectivity issues or the limits of your conferencing software you may need to limit the participants in the sprint. Although in the case of design sprints, you wouldn’t want too many people in the first place. We prefer a maximum of around eight people, which is enough for all the right people to be involved (from project owners, developers and designers to business stakeholders) without risking drowning out voices due to a large number of participants.

The schedule

When it comes to running a design sprint, most of it is actually the same remotely as it is face to face. Keeping on track and productive when working online relies on on largely the same tips and tricks:

No one wants to sit in a mammoth 6-hour meeting where by the end your bum is as numb as your brain. Keep each session of a sprint to shorter hour to hour and a half sessions with breaks in between for people to grab a drink and stretch their legs. Keeping the energy up in a design sprint is vital to getting the best, most creative ideas out of people, so take care of yourself and your participants and embrace those break times.

Brevity is one of your best assets. It’s easy to get caught up in tangents during a discussion, or lose track of time when “quickly” checking your emails on another screen during an individual ideation exercise. Setting a timer for each activity and discussion will help keep people on top of the task at hand.

The motivator

Of course, being on topic isn’t the same as being engaged. Due to a lack of physical interaction, staring at a screen all day, and the distractions of life at home, it’s much easier to find yourself drifting and losing interest in a meeting - even if you’re genuinely invested in the product and your work. Here are a handful of approaches you can take to help reign in the naturally daydreaming human brain.

Most people aren’t born to do the same thing for an extended amount of time. Use this to your advantage. Mix up individual, pair, and group work throughout the sprint to keep people interacting with the project in a variety of ways. This also means that those who thrive in individual work get time to do what they’re best at, and those who tend to dominate group discussions don’t alway hog the spotlight. (I mean really - have you ever tried to get a word in over someone incredibly enthusiastic in an audio call when they can’t even see your awkward half-raised hand or the probing I-have-something-to-say expression on your face?)

Remember to reframe problems as challenges. This one is a basic concept for design sprints in general, and one you’ll no doubt implement during many sprints. But it’s good to bear in mind another benefit of this idea. People like open-ended ideas with opportunities to expand and create solutions for, far more than stone-walling statements about problems. Wherever you can, combat the more isolating and less energizing nature of remote design sprints by framing tasks as possibilities, not problems. A positive attitude really does go a long way.

End each session of your design sprint with something actionable for your participants to take away and get on with. Working remotely can make people feel disconnected and less organised, so having a clear path to follow can be incredibly useful. If it’s a break between two halves of a session, let participants know what you’ve achieved so far and what the next stage will entail. At the conclusion of a sprint, give everyone some clear next steps to get started on immediately. A few tickets in Jira or the date of the next meeting that needs to be prepared for gives everyone something actionable to do straight away. This lets people conclude a sprint with a sense of accomplishment - and nothing’s a better motivator and a lifter of spirits than knowing that you’ve achieved something with clear results.

The takeaway

A design sprint run remotely is in its structure not so dissimilar from one run in a traditional face-to-face situation. Most of the set-up, the process, and the results, are exactly the same. Aside from having to get to grips with a new set of tools to facilitate the sprint, the only new aspects are learning to employ the same tricks in a new environment. It’s all about engagement, and remembering that you and your team are people who thrive on variety, a common goal, and being able to look at yourself at the end of a day and say: "You know what? Today I achieved something that matters."

Are you feeling inspired? Do you want to learn more about design sprints and their benefits? Contact us today, or follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn to be the first to hear when our new free digital product development tool is released.

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Martin Sandhu
Founder – martin@nuom.co.uk