Real Sprints #6. ‘’Use Design Sprint activities to improve your everyday problem-solving competency!’’

Interview with Alex Britez, Director of Digital Innovation for Macmillan Learning

jeltsje boersma
Oct 29, 2018 · 7 min read

Alex Britez works as a Director of Digital Innovation for Macmillan Learning, a college and high school publisher. In this interview, he talks about how design sprint exercises help him in everyday business situations. Moreover, Alex is one of the early adopters of running design sprint remotely, with a UX team that is based in multiple locations. Get ready for some great tips!

Let’s start from the beginning….

“I’ve been fascinated with the design sprint process for many years. Back in 2012, even before the Sprint book came out, I was trying to put together a “Design Sprint process”. It started with Geoff Gothelf’s book ‘Lean UX’. I tried to create a 6-day process, but to be honest, it was a mess! I was way too ambitious. Fortunately, more and more knowledge was shared online, which helped to structure my own process.

Working in education presents a variety of interesting challenges for product designers. When building educational products, it is not only about making a product that students find efficient and desirable. The product also needs to help the student learn effectively. You need to balance efficiency and effectiveness, which are sometimes at odds. Much like in the medical field, these claims need to be backed up, so our design is very outcome driven. Second, the education sector knows many stakeholders, from learning scientists, authors, and editors. They all have different interests. And last, our User Experience team has grown quickly in a short amount of time, which required restructuring our work and processes. When I started working with the design and product team, about 5 years ago, we only had four UX designers. Now, that team has grown to 30 people, divided into 12 different initiatives.

Decision making

Design sprints help our team to speed up the decision-making process. Every project at Macmillan Learning impacts the work of many stakeholders. Each has their own expertise and interests. We try to better understand their perspective and leverage their experience and knowledge.

It is important that from day one the stakeholders feel invested in our initiatives. We share our preliminary project ideas and invite them to give feedback. With stickers, they can highlight ideas relevant to their department. The opportunity to provide feedback makes them feel included. This helps later down the line, once we need their buy-in.

Always invite stakeholders into the sprint room and ask them to provide feedback. By including them early into the process, they feel heard and understood, which will eventually speed up the decision- making process.

Running a design sprint, yes or no?

In an organization like Macmillan Learning, running a full design sprint comes with significant costs. Cost rise, even more, when we need to fly in team members from across the country. Macmillan Learning used to be based near New York and Boston. Now we now have stakeholders in Austin, Seattle, and France. Deciding to run a design sprint comes down to the ROI of both time and money. A great tool to create a common vernacular amongst our team and stakeholders is the Cynefin Framework. This framework helps our teams analyze the complexity and importance of the challenge. And, just as a side note — if you’re interested about learning more on this framework, you can also read my article on Cynefin Framework. With this tool or framework, it answers the question: is it worth organizing a full sprint?

It is worth trying to calculate the ROI for running a full Design Sprint.
Use the Cynefin Framework to analyse the complexity and importance of the challenge.

Sometimes, a design sprint is the answer. But in many other situations, I try to solve the challenge in a different or more compressed way. For obvious or well-defined problems, I find that ‘smaller exercises’ work well. They are much less disruptive. They can speed up the decision-making process or create better solutions in a shorter amount of time. Therefore: analyse the intention behind your initiative and make sure they are worth the investment. Try to do ’just enough research’ and make sure not to reinvent the wheel.

How to ‘play’ with the design sprint process?

In my job, I love experimenting with the design sprint method. But beware: only ‘play’ with the exercises when knowing the methods and their purpose well. If I am not mistaken, the Sprint book advises: ‘’first, do the process ‘as it is’. Once you get comfortable with it, you can start trying to tweak it.”

I have adapted and tweaked the Design Sprints in many ways. One of the examples I am proud of is an adaptation of the sprint during a national sales conference. Our UX team was invited to show ‘what our team could do’. The challenge was around the question: ‘what is our place in mobile?’. We were only given as little as 30 minutes of our top salespeople’s attention. It gave us a small yet important opportunity to learn about their perspectives.

We outlined the problem and the challenge we wanted their input on, and then divided the group into 6 teams and ran them through ideation and sketching. This led to 6 potential solutions which were pinned up in the hotel lobby of the conference to take advantage of the foot traffic. Since sticky notes were not feasible in this context, I coded a voting app, much like those used on shows like American Idol, that allowed the salespeople to vote and make suggestions on how to make the designs even better. We collected about 200 suggestions which led to combining 2 of the top ideas, which we built a prototype and tested with students near a local university. We went from problem to ideation, sketching, synthesising, prototyping and testing in 3 days!

This ‘adapted’ sprint was a great opportunity to acquire knowledge and needs within the sales team. It also allowed us to show the value of the design sprint process, as well as UX research. The speed of turnaround impressed everyone, but it was the integration of other parts of the organisation that offered true value. This has been a great learning lesson- now, I always include professionals from different departments into the process.

The design sprint is a great tool to acquire knowledge and needs from different departments.
Gather knowledge by including professionals from different departments into the process.

How to run a remote design sprint

A true challenge for facilitators is running a remote design sprint. I find Mural useful for collaborating with distributed teams. In the software, you can add virtual sticky notes in an online environment. This makes design thinking tools and process accessible in a remote context. Mural also added features like the timer and ‘dot voting’, which definitely made the process easier.

One of the main challenges of remote sprints is keeping every team member focused and on task. Recently one of our UX Designers, Tina Bizaca, put together canvasses that facilitators can use throughout sprint activities. Instead of a blank page, the canvas helps team members to stay on track. It also engages the whole team as they together fill in the empty spaces in the framework.

Running a remote design sprint has limitations too. As a facilitator, you can’t walk over to a group of participants to listen and get a feeling of the team and their level of collaboration. Instead, you need to put a lot more energy moving around the virtual canvas to see where everyone is on their task. Making sure you are well-organized helps a lot. In the next 2–3 months, we realise about 10 remote sprints, split across multidisciplinary teams. This is going to be a great learning experience — and will likely need some creative adaptations of the process.

Running a remote design sprint is tough. Use Mural to stay organized and create a canvas that your team can fill in together.

Participants get easily distracted, and as you are not there, you can’t ‘feel’ it. Invest a lot of time and energy to find out where everybody is standing.

And lastly, beware of the words you’re using!

Some people feel excluded when you talk about design, as they think about design as a profession. Especially when you use words like ‘design-led organisation’. They might misinterpret that the designer is doing the most important work. What we mean is that we facilitate the design process with a multidisciplinary group. The goal is to reach alignment and gain most learnings. Design Sprints help articulate this mode of thinking by the way teams interact. They solve big and small problems in a creative and efficient way. It’s not about ‘Designer designing’, it is about teams that together find innovative solutions. And that is exactly why the process is so valuable!’’

Language matters. The word ‘Design’ can give non-designers a feeling of exclusion. While actually, it is about a multidisciplinary teams finding creative and innovative solutions!

As a wrap-up, here are 7 tips from Alex Britez:

  • The design sprint process holds many ‘exercises’ that can help you in everyday business situations. But practice caution: only ‘tweak’ the process once you’re comfortable with it.
  • Always invite experts from other departments into the process, to provide feedback. This guarantees better discussions, a smoother decision-making process and eventually, better outcomes.
  • Running a design sprint can involve significant cost. It is worth trying to calculate the ROI for each new initiative. Use the Cynefin Framework to analyse its complexity and importance.
  • Running design sprints remotely is a big challenge for facilitators. Use Mural and create a canvas that your team can fill in together. Participants get easily distracted. Therefore: invest a lot of time and energy to find out where everybody is standing.
  • Language is important. The word ‘design’ can give non-designers the feeling they are excluded. While actually, the design sprint is about teamwork, so make sure you keep everyone on board!

Thanks to Mark Garner / Design Sprint Academy


Looking to learn more about Design Sprints?

Get in touch with other Design Sprint practitioners by joining our Design Sprint Masters Facebook group or the Design Sprint Group on Linkedin.

Learn more about Design Sprint 3.0 by joining one of our workshops offered worldwide by Design Sprint Academy and our global network of partners in Europe, North America, India, and Australia.

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jeltsje boersma

Written by

PR & Comms @PharmAccess. Amsterdam based, again. Tags: culture // (gender-) equality // social entrepreneurship. My stuff is in Dutch & English.

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