Running a Remote Design Sprint

How we reinvented charity transparency by running a Design Sprint across four time zones. 
(Note: The following article presupposes that you know the Design Sprint process. If you don’t, please look them up first.)

Recently, we got approached by Daniel from SaveTheChildren to work together with the CEO of BitGive Connie on the transformation of their charity platform onto a blockchain. The idea was to increase transparency and overall trust for charity projects.

The problem was that Daniel lives in New Zealand and Connie in the US, while the AJ&Smart office is located in Berlin, Germany.
Obviously, with our Design Sprint skills we suggested to run a Remote Sprint.

Overview of the schedule. Effectively, only 7 hours of real time collaboration are needed. Everything else can be done asynchronously.

I work at AJ&Smart, we specialize in Design Sprints and insanely fast problem solving for large companies and teams with very different interests and backgrounds. We started working in Design Sprints since 2016 and never looked back.

You can read about our process in our other articles but in this article I want to show you —

How I used the Design Sprint principles to successfully facilitate Sprints remotely.

All participants were in different countries and the results were as mind blowing as in a real life Sprint.

4 different time zones with very little overlap. We actually also had a regular sprint running at the same time.

We needed to transfer real life communication to online

Here are the challenges we are usually faced with in a local Design Sprint:

  • We need a facilitator who is familiar with the Design Sprint process and can run it with people he/she never met.
    The
    Design Sprint is a solid process which we have internalized and are good at facilitating it.
  • All of the participants (who have never been in such an intense workshop) need to stay awake, focused and taken care of.
    We have Coffee, we try to
    entertain people, we encourage and comfort people, we give them lunch and snacks in the afternoon.
  • The process needs to move ahead steadily, feel as effortless as possible and worth the participants time.
    Explanations are as simple as possible and always relevant to people’s needs. We also keep showing visual examples of how everything should ideally look.
  • Participants need to feel time pressure
    Time timer.
  • We need to make brainstorming visual and eliminate open and unstructured discussion.
    We are usually covered in post-its and sticky dots, we have whiteboards everywhere, and the together-alone principles of the Design Sprint help eliminate unnecessary discussion.

As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts which needed to be replicated online to make sure that the Sprint with people across the world runs smoothly. Some of them are technical, others depend on correct facilitation and careful communication of authority.

Here’s how we solved them in a remote setting

The problem is, in real life you can see people with your eyes and keep eye contact, you can touch people (only if you want), address participants individually and provide real life rewards like cookies or coffee. You also see how everyone on the team reacts on to your moderation and keep the energy in the room high.

The answer to this challenge is actually easier than you think. First of all, you obviously need to internalise the Design Sprint process and be able to facilitate a Sprint in real life.

But a lot of the social interaction is quite easily done with the online tools we already have. Seeing faces on camera in a single row (in Google Hangouts) and the mouse pointers in RealtimeBoard makes it very easy to keep an overview of everyones participation and mood.

The team is focussed on creating the map. You can see faces and mouse pointers, which tell you how attentive everyone is.

You can’t reward people with cookies and beer online (obviously you can always set up a meeting to hang out in real life) but you can emphasize results of the Sprint steps verbally and visually, which to the participants feels just great. Every time something gets produced by the team, feel free to show/send it around. Whether it’s a link to an article, or a simple sketch, or an idea which might be interesting, I tend to almost celebrate everything the participants contribute to the project during the 5 days, regardless of its amount or quality.

Keeping your participants focused is not easy and it helps if you are able to entertain people. But that is a personal skill to develop. I recommend doing stand up comedy to make sure you are able to entertain people continuously. It’s important to understand how to maintain people’s attention and recognize when they start drifting off based on how much they contribute, talk and look on the screen. 
The truth is, the process is tedious and sitting at a computer for hours is not always amazing thing, especially if you are skeptical about the outcome. Although in 2017 people are used to doing this and you are probably doing it anyway. (Talking to you, my future self. Get off the computer and get a life)

Also, make sure you give people a break every now and then to leave the computer and get some fresh air. This has a hidden benefit: It keeps them from drifting away from the problem by avoiding internal discussion, which usually happens during on-location Design Sprints.

Prepare participants for how it will look

Just a quick note on time zones: this project was particularly difficult because we had a 12-hour time shift. AJ&Smart is based in Berlin (currently) and one of our clients was in New Zealand and the other in the US. So while the NZ people just got up at 9am, I had to start a night shift at 11pm.

Day 1: Introducing the sprint
The first hour was spent just by getting Connie, Daniel and our team on the same page and showing them what to expect. We have a pre-made presentation that gives an overview of all the steps in the Sprint. I also introduced the software so people have a day to familiarize themselves with it.
It also gave me time to set up the working spaces for the Sprint on RealtimeBoard by creating individual workplaces, i.e. areas which people can see as their desks.

The workspace setup. Similar to how desks would look in an office, they are all surrounding one big creative area.

Make the most out of existing software

There’s a lot of online collaboration software on the market. Mural, Google Jamboard, RealtimeBoard etc. We went for the easiest with the least technical effort which is RealtimeBoard. It doesn’t work well on phones, but in a browser it’s the smoothest tool you can find, which has all the features we needed — post-its, dots, drawing. 
But on the other hand, you have to see for yourself, maybe a Google Jamboard is a better choice for your office. For the Design Sprint at least, it’s not necessary.

We used digital post-its and red circles as votes

Day 2: Defining the main challenges
This was the first half of the Design Sprint as we run it. If you know the Sprint Book, it’s the first day. I will not go into detail of the Sprint process here, but basically, together with BitGive we defined potential challenges (How Might We’s), an optimistic long term goal and pessimistic blockers (Sprint Questions). For BitGive, it was about creating a donation/charity platform which is built on a blockchain but had the best user experience possible.

As you can see, we used red circles for voting. Just the way you would do it with sticky dots on post-it’s, we had these red circles, which could just be copy-pasted around to vote. Also make sure to remind people of the correct amount of red dots.

Day 3: Solution Generation 
I announced how the solution generation was supposed to work on Basecamp by posting a video along with a description of the specific exercise and provided a clear deadline for sending in the individual solutions. In replies, people posted their inspirations for solutions and simply uploaded photos of whatever they drew on paper.

In Basecamp, I posted how-to videos of each step in the 4 part sketching process.

Day 4: Vote and Decide
In the Sprint Book you also use Supervotes, which are essentially big dots along with a comment on why each individual decided to vote on this area, for that we just used the comment-feature on the RealtimeBoard.

Screenshot from RealtimeBoard showing a few uploaded concepts.
It’s super easy to draw with a tablet and copy-paste images

Day 5: Storyboard
The last part of the Design Sprint is about storyboarding what should be the ideal solution, combining all parts of the winning concepts. Drawing a storyboard is easy with a Wacom tablet but can also be done by drawing boxes/shapes and cutting out pieces of existing concepts. To find specific copywriting we googled a lot of text or even images and simply pasted them into the RealtimeBoard.

The finished storyboard shows how easy it is to paste text, images and draw sketches.

Prototyping

The rest does not require participation on the clients’ side because we take one day to turn the storyboard into a clickable prototype. I won’t go into detail on how we do that now, but you can read my article on prototyping here.
We were all familiar with Sketch but used Figma this time, which is amazing for remote collaboration on design work.

User Testing

While some part of our team was designing the prototype, the other part was finding user testers. These can also be run remotely using Google Hangouts or Zoom (both have a nice screen-sharing feature to see what users observe and click at).
We scheduled 5 tests for the following day and I streamed them entirely onto a private YouTube channel, which gave the customers the possibility to watch them and give us some real time feedback. If you want to know how to set this up, I wrote an article on this, too.

This is really valuable, because everyone is very curious about what people are saying about their work.

The Result

As you can see, even though the process was spread out among several days, the effective real time collaboration only takes a few hours and is doable online. And if you know how to facilitate a Design Sprint, the tools I gave you will help you running a remote Sprint successfully as well.

The finished prototype, based on the storyboard above.

Closing thoughts

The Remote Design Sprint is still a work in progress and we faced a lot of challenges. Ideally, every participant should be familiar with the Design Sprint process. If not, you will have to put extra effort in explaining how to do every single exercise correctly (it’s very easy to miss out on some important details online). I still have to figure out how to streamline the exercises a bit better and how to put time pressure on everyone if needed.

If you like to try something similar but don’t feel like you are ready for an entire Design Sprint, I recommend running a Lightning Decision Jam remotely. It’s a great exercise for running retrospectives and is fast to do. It’s also just good practice.

You can follow the project at http://bitgivefoundation.org/ and check out some articles here:

If you are interested in how I evolve the Remote Design Sprint, just follow me on Medium, I will post some news every now and then.

You can also send me a message if you have any particular questions. I’ll reply as quickly as I can!

Here’s an article I wrote with a few principles on how to make sure you finish your prototype in one day:
https://medium.com/@kischiman/how-to-prototype-anything-in-one-day-3d81a7f68e10

If you have any comments or questions, leave them below or send me a message. Also follow @kischiman on Instagram, I sometimes post stories with my work. And follow @ajsmartdesign to see more design-y stuff!