Virtual Design Sprints? Yes we can.

It started on a whim

I’m a frequent contributor to two of AJ&Smart’s Facebook groups: Innovation Hackers and their Design Sprint Masterclass. I check those groups every day, sometimes twice or three times a day if time warrants. I find both offer an opportunity to see other perspectives and challenge my own thoughts and assumptions around the design sprint process.

For graduates of the Design Sprint Masterclass, there’s a live, monthly Q&A event hosted by Dee Scarano. She fields questions about the process, when to use design sprints and how to work through issues or problems that may occur. Occasionally, the event will feature a special guest from the agency to answer additional questions graduates want to know more about (selling design sprints, using the process for strategy and branding, etc.)

Between all of those inputs, one of the common themes I picked up on (and had been wondering about personally) was the ‘Okay, I have the certificate, what now?’ question. Specifically, how do professionals who have gone through the process of learning design sprints actually put it to meaningful practice for their situation?

Some practitioners have an easy outlet right from the start. There’s interest in their workplace, or they have an existing practice where they can introduce something like a Lightning Decision Jam and explore the potential of doing a more involved engagement with a Design Sprint. For folks like me, I throw caution to the wind and start a business selling the framework.

Yet, I wondered out loud…

Could there be an event that would offer others the opportunity to try the design sprint process out in real time? Moreover, could I test some of my previous hypotheses about remote sprints and leverage a prototype for a future software build?

You’re damn right I could.

I had about a little over a month to put the event together. I had to figure out what kind of audience this would appeal to, who could potentially get involved and how I could best serve those that volunteered.


Starting with self-awareness

First things first though. I had to take stock of what I knew I could handle best. I started with indexing some of my native strengths. These were:

  1. Analytical: I tend to think about all the factors that might affect an particular situation. I really enjoy big data, ideas, patterns, links, combinations and connections.
  2. Arranger: I’m at my best when simultaneously handling various activities and projects. I try to align and realign optimal configurations of people and process to position them for success.
  3. Discipline: I’m very time oriented. I’m all about structure, routines, procedures… anything to improve efficiency. I can be productive and maintain progress no matter how many distractions come up.
  4. Restorative: I’m a focused, professional problem solver. I love taking challenges head-on. I especially like to enable others with tackling their own obstacles and working towards their success.
  5. Relator: I value character and personality over status and title. For me, it’s all about genuine, honest interactions. If you have the courage to listen and understand the motivations of others, you have all the potential for a lasting, professional relationship.

I knew I’d need help with other aspects I couldn’t cover effectively, such as team organization and execution. I needed strong facilitators (or confident ones) to lead the charge AND feel comfortable reaching out when needing help and assistance.

I also needed someone with a strategic mindset. I could compensate by using enough data and pattern recognition to realize a path forward, but I’ve always been better off with someone that could see the long-term view in a more tactical fashion. This was especially needed if the pilot in November showed some compelling potential.

Finally, I absolutely needed empathic volunteers. Not everyone needed to agree with each other, but there was a foundational need to understand the perspectives of others on their respective teams. Since I was going to be running short term tactical and support, having a few professionals with high emotional intelligence and empathy was crucial for this events’ success.

Beyond those concerns, I was feeling pretty good about my role and the contributions I could make. I felt ready to take it on.


Thinking of a Master Plan

Next up was crafting a general schedule of events that I could forecast for companies and community organizers that wanted to get involved. I spent a full day grinding on a Sprint Brief with the following outline:

  1. An open call for submittals (ideas, concepts, challenges), where winning candidates would be voted on and/or promoted via crowdsourcing.
  2. An open call for volunteers (developers, designers, architects, program managers, etc.) to participate in the event.
  3. Prepare participants with a schedule of events, educational material slide decks for each day of the Sprint and live broadcasts to manage communications and expectations.
  4. Participate in a four day (or more) virtual design sprint.
  5. Encourage practitioners to promote their work for professional branding, marketing and networking.

The Brief also included granular details on each day’s activities for the virtual design sprint. This was especially important for others to understand the vision around execution and process, knowing we were going to be taking AJ&Smart’s 2.0 model and applying it within a virtual framework.


Who wants it? I got it!

Finally, it was time to test the idea with the design sprint community and see if it had some potential. I thought it could work, but I didn’t need convincing. The higher court of public opinion would lay a quick verdict on the matter.

For reference, here’s a visual of the initial inquiry I had posted in the AJ&Smart Design Sprint Masterclass Facebook group:

Between this and circulating the inquiry on my social networks, there was definite interest. Some of it was passive, but the far majority of it was follow-up email, direct messages… even a phone call from someone local here in DFW (and from Berlin!) to ask about the event, what I had in store and if I needed any help.

To capture that interest in the event, I whipped up a quick Typeform survey that explored what ‘success’ looked like for those who wanted to sign up. As the feedback rolled in, I started to understand what roles volunteers wanted to play, what their availability was, their interest in the various design sprint challenges that were submitted, and what ideal outcomes they were shooting for. I ported everything over to an online spreadsheet in Google for reference.

By the time the deadline passed for getting involved, over 60+ professionals, as well as representatives from Mural, AJ&Smart and the Webflow community all signed on to participate or consult in one form or another.

I was stunned.

I had expected around 6–8 solid engagements… maybe 15 if I had done a decent job at making the case for the event. Instead, I was looking at the prospect of supporting 5–6 fully staffed design sprint teams with some of the finest professional talent working within the discipline today.

What the hell had I gotten myself into?


Ermahgerd!

If I went ahead with this, I knew it was going to be a marathon.

I’d be staying up late, literally every night and on the weekends. My available time was already tapped with raising a son, taking care of in-laws and supporting the family. The majority of the work had to be done while the house was asleep.

I also needed to manage communications and expectations with a whole bunch of gifted, talented and hard working professionals. They were giving whatever spare time they had left in a week to be part of this. All of them had work, friends, family, Netflix, Fortnite, Roblox, dogs, sheep and kids competing for their attention (at the same time). I had to make the case that this virtual design sprint event had to be in their Top 3.

I’d be putting a lot of effort into marketing and social media to get the word out. Between Facebook Live updates, posting on Twitter and Instagram, documenting the journey in an online diary and maintaining a Facebook group devoted to the virtual design sprint pilot, I added it to the pile.

Finally, for this thing to work… I had to be the last line of defense. I had to take the attitude that if something went wrong, it was my fault. Someone didn’t show up on Tuesday? I didn’t do enough to warrant their attention. Not responding to emails or correspondence during the weeks leading up to Sprint Week? I could have done better. That’s how it had to be.

To be completely honest, I really didn’t have time to worry, get excited, stressed or panicked. We had more than enough volunteer practitioners to cover at least 5–7 people in every major area of the planet (Americas, Europe, Asia/Oceania regions). It was just going to be a LOT of work to get it done.

Design Sprints. Design Sprints everywhere…

So, did I really want to sign up for this, knowing it could be an epic disaster? Would just hoping for a single team to cross the finish line at the end of a virtual sprint week be enough? Was it worth the risk and the effort?

Worse case scenario… it’s a total failure.
I’d learn a lot, gain a few friends I’ve never met, dust myself off and get ready for the next challenge.

Best case scenario?
It’s a game changer.

Now only do I learn from the experience and gain a few friends, but I start setting the stage for something really challenging and exciting in 2019 with virtual design sprints.


Getting Ready

From the very beginning, I had adopted a mindset of over-preparing for the event. If I got it right, our volunteers wouldn’t have to do any heavy cognitive lifting at all. They could just step in, get oriented and start executing.

Here’s what I did, at a very high level, to prepare for our virtual sprint week:

October 28 — November 3:

  • Send preparation email to volunteers, verifying availability and outlining engagement parameters (tools, cadence, expectations).
  • Set up Slack, Basecamp or related file-sharing/messaging platform for the team to use.
  • Create a comprehensive calendar of activities for design sprint week. Show when participants will be working together versus working alone.
  • Begin constructing Mural boards (templates w/some detail) and around group activities typically done during a design sprint.
  • Begin the process of documenting/recording each days’ activities to repurpose for later use.
  • Outline each teams’ entire schedule from Monday to Friday, including when volunteers are scheduled for their involvement, efforts and contributions.
  • Schedule both SME and user interviews for each team where requested and needed.

November 4–10:

  • Manage communication, late signups and logistics for each virtual design sprint team.
  • Prepare and review training/overview presentation materials on Mural, Webflow, Zoom and Sprint 2.0 for team consumption where appropriate.
  • Meet with volunteers to discuss their concerns, questions and expectations for virtual sprint week.
  • Host kickoff meetings with each of the six virtual sprint teams to align on the stated challenge, address schedule challenges and other related topics.
  • Finalize sprint decks and materials for each day of the Sprint Week by Friday COB

Interestingly enough, the number of volunteers began to taper off right before the Virtual Design Sprint started. Whether it was being unresponsive for information inquiries or not showing up on Facebook or Slack, nearly 1/3 of the original signups were absent or missing in action.

But that was okay. I assumed that a lot of them had to leave for pressing work engagements or family-related matters. I never defaulted to judgement. Some folks had some serious life events that needed attending to, and that always came first no matter what.


A live shot from one of our online kickoff events. Name the team, win a prize!

The Usual Suspects

Even with the organic disappearance of engagement, we rolled into virtual design sprint week with 6 teams of talented practitioners. The following outlines the teams’ chosen challenge and their professional profiles:

Group A (Americas): ReadMo App

  1. Kim Atkinson, UX Designer | Design Sprint Facilitator
  2. Caleb Moen, Apprentice at Brass Tacks Collective
  3. David Holl, Founder & CEO at Postobject
  4. Amer Arab, Product Designer

Group B (Americas): Disaster Response Front End App

  1. Lee Duncan, Internal Agency Designer at IBM
  2. Bill Alexy, Principal of Alexy 19 LLC
  3. David Magdaleno, Advisor and Consultant at Crystal Cove Consulting

Group C (Americas): Design Sprint Referral Network, Team 1

  1. David Todd, Coach and Consultant
  2. Richard Butler, Lead Manager, Training Design
  3. Douglas Struble, UX/UI Designer
  4. Benoit Landry-Vernon, Community Manager & Design Sprint Facilitator

Group D (Europe): Design the Workday

  1. Christoph Schmaltz, Digital Enthusiast, Freelancer
  2. Lukasz Mazur, Product Designer & Design Sprint Facilitator
  3. Mihai Balea, Senior UX/UI Designer
  4. Lee Duncan, Internal Agency Designer at IBM
  5. Gustavo Razzetti, Change Instigator, Speaker and consultant on Change Leadership, Team Development and Culture Transformation.

Sprinternationals! (Group E — Europe) : Design Sprint Referral Network, Team 2

  1. Fabrizio Faraco, Strategist, trainer, mentor and facilitator
  2. Giovanni Atalmi, Digital Designer, Strategist
  3. Sabrina Goerlich, Design Sprint Master
  4. Amer Arab, Product Designer
  5. Niko Peltoranta, Managing Director, ALSO Cloud Solutions
  6. Saadia Ali, Customer Journey Mapper, Design Sprint Enthusiast

Group F (Asia/Australia): Design Sprint Referral Network, Team 3

  1. Dan Levy, Principal, Strategist, Design Sprint Facilitator
  2. Brian Leung, UX Designer / Design Sprint Facilitator
  3. Chao Kung Liu, Sr. Engineer at Trend Micro
  4. Abel Maningas, Product Designer and Design Sprint Facilitator
  5. Phil Smithson, Design Thinking Consultant
  6. Sandra Arps, Open Innovation Lab, Engagement Lead APAC

My hope was that at least one team could make to the end of the week. This wasn’t a slight on any of the volunteers, nor discounting their intent and drive to make the week meaningful. This was setting my own expectations at a bare minimal to fully appreciate what could (and eventually did) happen.


Virtual Design Sprint Week! (Nov 12–16)

It was finally here, with Teams E and F starting off on the other side of the world with their challenges. Both were exploring their long term goals, sprint questions and starting discussions on what the map would look like. I stayed online in case I was needed for anything, and kept a close watch on both the general Slack channel and my Facebook Instant Messenger window.

When the morning rolled around, I volunteered my time to facilitate for two different teams. The first was really unsure of how get things started, while another team needed clarification on the days’ schedule of events. There were also some unexpected support events that occurred, but nothing major.

I tried checking in every evening and morning to make sure everyone was okay. I did a lot of task switching and general assistance to each of the teams but we were rolling along. I kept up on live updates in the morning and continued to support where I thought I could make the most impact.

Long story short, here’s a cliff-noted version of what happened:

  • 5 out of the 6 teams finished the week with a testable prototype.
  • Almost all teams were able to schedule qualified testers to verify their designs/approach.
  • Despite the technical and logistical challenges teams were faced with, they all did incredibly well. Some practitioners (I’m looking at you Lee and Amer), took part in TWO design sprints at the same time. That’s just crazy.
  • While most teams had disparate schedules where they couldn’t all meet at the same time, affordances were made to record or reschedule particular events that team members felt important to include others on.
  • All the online tools we used to support the Virtual Design Sprint (Mural, Zoom, WebEx, Slack, etc.) worked very well. Mural in particular was a hit with many practitioners.
  • Some sprint teams were interested in moving faster than the schedule afforded them. One person in particular proposed cutting online time together to a bare minimum while still maximizing gains for the overall team. That included working on the prototype.
  • The original thesis of using Webflow as the basis for a prototype build was validated. The caveat being that the team isn’t looking to build out a total solution. It works if you concentrate on just the screens from the storyboarding process.
  • Some teams are still testing and scheduling retrospectives, even after the event ended two weeks ago. This perfectly illustrates the determination, passion and enjoyment some team members had with their experience.
  • I’m apparently very entertaining while suffering from chronic sleep deprivation and repeated instances of bed hair from day time naps.

After it was all said and done, it was a smashing success. Better than I could have ever hoped. I still can’t believe it turned out the way it did.

Of course, it wasn’t all wine and roses. I made some missteps with each teams’ proposed schedule that caused some confusion. The lack of a structured Wednesday for prototyping left some designers/developers to do a lot of heavy lifting. Some of them worked into the weekend on their projects, which isn’t what I had wanted nor intended.

Some teams lost their designated ‘researchers’ and struggled with finding proper testers for their prototypes. Others were without real design resources, and volunteers found themselves fulfilling two different roles to keep things moving along for the week.

Overall, I’m incredibly humbled and grateful towards everyone who gave even a fraction of their time and attention towards the event. Whether it as Lee and Amer doing double time across two different design sprints, Lukasz handling facilitation duties for his team or Sabrina going above and beyond with her own promotional deck for others to use, there are numerous examples of everyone making meaningful contributions.

I also felt a real sense of camaraderie amongst the teams that worked together, especially in their retrospectives. Just like in-person sprints, the virtual ones generated the same feelings of reciprocity, good will and shared experience. It was the most rewarding feeling to literally feel a sense of accomplishment and success from team members, especially when everything was said and done.

Team F’s Retrospective: Yes, they’re all laughing at my horrible bed hair.

After the Sprint

As for the challenges each team took on, they seem to all have a viable future.

Design Sprint Referral Network
The Design Sprint Referral Network idea produced some great insights around its perceived value and utility. Each team had a different approach to their prototype and where they collectively saw the network evolving.

After reviewing their findings and discussing some possible directions in their retrospectives, I’ve started discussions with some closed social network providers to explore a platform for the referral network to live on. If all goes well, there’s a really good chance that the design sprint referral network could make its debut early next year. :)

Design the Workday / Disaster Response Front End
While both of these projects are still being worked on and/or needing additional user testing, I believe there’s an intention to carry both of those projects forward to produce something meaningful. For the Austin charity involved with the Disaster Response app, there’s a real interest in seeing it through to a potential project.

ReadMo App
The ReadMo app was a casualty of too many volunteer dropouts. However, there’s still interest in finishing out that project before the end of the year.


Where do we go from here?

Based on what’s happened and what I’ve heard from those who participated, here’s what you can expect for next year:

  1. An official virtual design sprint event in mid-April, 2019. Planning would start in December with interested parties on what it could look like.
  2. Multiple tiers of involvement with the event, based on experience, interest and intended outcomes. These might include:
    - Mentor/mentee pairings for a virtual design sprint challenge.
    - Partnering with a charity, organization or non-profit to conduct a virtual design sprint for the common good.
    - Experimenting with the design sprint process, combining it with other techniques or hacking the 2.0 model for further optimization
    - Challenge sprints, where teams can compete against each other for compensation and/or recognition (which would include sponsorship)
  3. A larger organizational team to make this happen. I would literally die if I tried to take this all on myself.

Beyond preparing for that potential future, I need to step back and reiterate why I’m putting all of this effort in the first place. Clearly, I seem like a crazy person who likes organizing large events for the benefit of others. You don’t run into too many people who enjoy what I’ve done with this pilot.

You’ve been reading a long time, so I’ll be brief.


I’m doing all of this on the fervent belief of two distinct hypothesis:

  • Virtual design sprints are the future.
  • Self awareness, gratitude, professional brand and hard work will disproportionately differentiate you from the rest of the pack.

I see those two statements as natural compliments to one another. The first is a vehicle to elevate yourself from your localized circumstances and connect/work with others around the world. The second, if done with the right intent, would elevate awareness of your potential to others in ways you never could have done before.

If I can somehow contribute to that future where I can help others rise above their professional circumstances and bring them to a better place in their career, I’ll live that dream all day long.

With that, here’s to the hope that you’ll join me for the next virtual design sprint event in 2019.

It’s going to be amazing.


If you want to inquire about the virtual design sprint event, or would just like to have a chat… you have options!

Hope to hear from you, and thank you very much for reading this article. I’m pretty sure I covered everything, but you never know. :)