Running a Remote Design Sprint

Backstory

I worked as a UX Designer for Sotheby’s Auction House in New York (today was my last day). Primarily I designed internal tools that improved business workflows, efficiencies and organization. My PM worked with me on-site here in NYC. However, we also worked remotely with a Dev/Design Agency located in Reykjavík, Iceland. They can do anything from front-end to back-end to QA. Even though they work four hours ahead, as a team our process was pretty seamless. That being said, running our first design sprint remotely was not so much, but we were still able to generate ideas that would help to solve our problem.

We scheduled time across four days to try to accommodate for all participants regular responsibilities. In NYC, we would work from 9–11AM , while in Iceland, they would be working on the sprint from 1–3PM. This is not a terrible time difference, but it still would prove challenging to make sure everyone could participate during these time windows and get there on-time in their respective time-zones.

Getting prepared

Since 2016 when Jack Knapp first published his book, Sprint: How to solve big problems and test new ideas in just five days, the process itself has been iterated on and can now be accomplished in just four days! But that means that preparation and time management are key to being successful.

Thankfully, there is a whole YouTube series created by AJ & Smart, who specialize in running design sprints and training others how to do them too! My design counterpart in Iceland, Sigga Hrafnsdóttir and I both watched their tutorials since we would be taking the lead respectively in our geographic location. If you’ve never participated in a design sprint before take the time to watch this series and take notes!

Essentials for Remote Sprinting

  • Reliable Internet
  • Some type of video conferencing (Google Hangouts, etc.) We use Highfive.
  • Google Jamboard or Mural for a collaborative single source of truth workspace.
  • If using Jamboard, you’ll also need to download the app to your phone.
  • Paper, Post-its, Sharpies, Dot Stickers and Tape (You’ll still participate this way even though a lot of the work will be done digitally).
  • A dedicated conference room that can be scheduled for the same time each day.
  • Positive energy and vibes since you won’t be in the same physical space.

Ready, Set, Sprint

View from NYC through the interwebs to Reykjavík

Our first day was about framing our problem. It’s important to timebox the sprint exercises or else you’ll run the risk of getting bogged down by the problem instead of using the sprint to help you to continually push forward. Our first exercise was to right down on post-it notes our HMW’s (How might we…). Using this method, we can think more broadly about the problem we are trying to solve and then vote on which HMW’s make the most sense to use in our sprint.

Having a Google Jamboard in both NYC and Reykjavík was very helpful to organize our physical post-it notes digitally by snapping photos of them with the jamboard app on our phones. You could see in realtime when a photo was being added to the board and either side could move and resize the notes.

After all of our HMW’s were added to the board we dot voted by using the stylus to draw our dots instead of physically sticking them on the post-its. You could also do this from your phone, so it sped up the process rather than everyone trying to tango around each other in a confined space to physically place the dots. As you can see below, we even voted on the office dogs in Reykjavík.

The next part of the sprint was to think about what our product could look like in two years. This is a good strategy to get the team to step outside the confines of our day to day work and imagine new ideas or directions we could take for our tool. And we also found some time to make this process a little more fun as you can tell from the selfie our QA Ninja, Joi Sigurdsson added to the board.

After writing down our thoughts about the product in two years, we then devised and voted on questions that would guide us for the remainder of the sprint. We also learned that the jamboard has a built in feature for adding post-its, which makes it much easier to keep the readability consistent.

After voting on our sprint questions, we combined them with our two-year goal. This would serve as our source of truth if we needed to refresh our memories on what we were trying to solve.

On the third day, we sketched paper prototypes and presented them to each other. Again, having the jamboard and video conferencing helped to make this process as smooth as it could be not being in the same physical space.

Biggest Challenges

We had a lot of overlap from our day to day exercises due to a combination of not efficiently managing the allotted time for each exercise, but also things not completely in our control, such as traffic/train delays getting to the office or miscommunication about the start time for the sprint on a given day (especially if it was different than the day before).

In general, good facilitation also includes keeping the energy of all involved up and staying positive, but when you’re in two different locations, even though you have a portal through video conferencing, it is still challenging to keep all participants energy at the same level. This is why it was great to have a partner on the Icelandic side to help facilitate the sprint from planning to implementation.

The other challenge was just the problem itself that we were trying to solve. It was complex due to the multiple systems that were part of it and the multiple type of users for who we needed to solve the problem. The sprint is designed to help you frame your problem, but it’s probably best to spend sometime before the sprint to narrow down the scope of the problem so it is easier for all participants to quickly understand and get going.

Keys to Success

Running a remote design sprint in two different countries and time-zones is achievable through solid time-boxing, reliable internet, collaboration tools and great critical thinking skills. Ultimately, being in the same physical space would be the ideal design sprint situation, but running this first remote sprint showed us that we can still achieve solid results through the innovative use of internet connected collaboration tools. We can learn from this initial experience to improve the quality of output the next chance we get to run another sprint remotely.

Thanks for taking the time to read! It would be great to get your comments if you have also run a remote sprint and share what worked and didn’t work.