Running a remote-friendly virtual design sprint

Jayde Ly
Jayde Ly
Jan 9 · 8 min read

At Galvanize we’ve integrated the Design Sprint process with great success. It has helped us arrive at working solutions faster so that we can deliver more value to the customer quicker. It took us a few tries to figure out how to adapt the typical design sprint for our complex domain, but that’s another article for another day.

One of the biggest drawbacks of design sprints is that they are not remote-friendly. While most of our designers work out of the Vancouver office we do have a few that are remote. We wanted to involve these remote teammates because they have a wealth of insight and ideas to contribute but we didn’t make it easy on them to participate.

Regular paper-based design sprints aren’t inclusive

Every time we had remote people as core members of the sprint team it was, to put it nicely, less than optimal. Remote folks could help generate ideas but that was about it, they had a hard time following along with each of the activities when discussions and voting happened.

Remote folks couldn’t see what we were pointing at. They couldn’t vote since they couldn’t put up stickers as they didn’t have access to all of the stuff we put on the walls. They just had to trust that the team would vote on the best direction but this wasn’t fair.

To compensate, I awkwardly walked around pointing a laptop camera at all the post-its on the walls. I ended up trying to juggle the laptop, guide the activities, and keep everything on track all the while needing to contribute ideas myself (our design sprint facilitators are also core team members). Even with the laptop camera pointed at the walls they couldn’t always read what was on them and we could only show portions of the wall at any given time.

Problems with paper

Even for participants who are in the room with you:

  • It’s hard to read all of the post-its: Some people have terrible penmanship.
  • It’s slow to hand-write and iterate over the sprint goal: I type way faster than I can print and making changes in ink was more work.
  • Grouping the How Might We’s post-its is slow: People have to scan over a large surface area.
  • Voting involved a lot of waiting: If people were standing in front of the thing you wanted to look at (e.g. HMWs and sketches) you had to wait.

Goal: Design a better experience for everyone

Our current design sprints were pretty good for people in the office and terrible for those who weren’t. But I didn’t want to solve for the lowest common denominator only. I wanted to make virtual design sprints awesome for everyone instead of creating an equally sub-optimal experience for the whole team.

Step 1: Pick from an existing tool

I wanted to use a tool that my team already had access to instead of introducing yet another tool — so I picked Whimsical. We already have licenses and most people are familiar with it. For those who weren’t, there’s a very small learning curve.

Whimsical is not the best tool out there for live collaboration, however. There’s a small delay so you can’t always see when someone is editing the text of a box. I hear that Mural.co is pretty good but I’ve never tried it myself and if you have access to Figma that might work better but I decided to try Whimsical for its low learning curve and the fact it was already part of our toolset. We didn’t need much beyond basic boxes that you could easily type text in to, and then rearrange.

Step 2: Set up expectations

Since we were going digital, at the beginning of the design sprint there was a modification to the no devices rule: You can use your laptops but only for the design sprint.

Everyone was asked to turn off all notifications, quit email and quit Slack. Anyone caught breaking the rule would have to buy everyone else coffee and doughnuts — joking not joking. Har har… just don’t break the rule, mmmkay?

Step 3: Convert the sprint activities from paper to digital

I went through each of the design sprint activities and set up a digital starter template. I went with a horizontal layout because it felt more like a timeline. Also, if your participants generate a lot of cards/ideas you don’t have to shift anything over.

Activity 1: Create the sprint goal

The first box at the top labeled “Final goal, don’t use this yet” is reserved for the facilitator at the end when we collaboratively create the final goal. I like to put the instructions right in the boxes themselves so that people aren’t looking around for instructions elsewhere.

Assign out columns

Each team member was assigned a column and their names were placed in the boxes. I had to assign out columns to compensate for Whimsical’s non-realtime updates to prevent people from overwriting each other’s ideas.

Randomize the assignment order

I randomized the assignment order so that at the end of the exercise you wouldn’t be able to tell who generated which set of ideas. This would keep the playing field level and prevent participants from influencing each other when it came time to vote. You can use random.org’s free online tool to randomize the names.

Create the final sprint goal

After all of the ideas were generated, the facilitator would be in charge of drafting the final sprint goal with the help of the rest of the team. Being able to type and easily make changes while we iterated over the sprint goal made facilitation so much easier.


Activity 2: Sprint questions

Most of the post-it type idea generation activities were conducted in a similar format. Everyone was assigned a column and were asked to generate ideas from top to bottom.

Create your voting dots beforehand

To make things easier when it came time to vote, I created the voting dots along the top ahead of time and assigned them out as well. Each “Px” was replaced with a participant’s name. Our deciders get 4 votes and other members of the team received 2 votes each. Users could then just move their dots around to the cards they wanted to vote for.

Separate the final sprint questions

After the voting was done, we would then moved the top voted cards to the top voted column. These would then become our sprint questions. In Whimsical, if you put your dots inside the card you could grab the card and it would also move the dots for you.


Activity 3: How might we

For HMWs I prepared a few group headings which would be replaced with theme names. During the subject matter expert and stakeholder interviews, sprint members would create their HMW cards after which were sorted into themes.

Everyone helped to sort the cards into their categories. We were able to scan more of the cards quicker than if they were posted on the walls. I found that we were able to get through this part much faster than using paper post-its since everyone could see everything and we didn’t have to deal with post-its falling off the walls.


Activity 4: Customer journey map

One interesting alteration we’ve made to the design sprint process is that the customer journey map is already created and ready to use. Before even going into a design sprint there’s a lot of research that’s already done up-front, these include customers and subject matter expert interviews. From those interviews, we’ve already built a customer journey map so doing it again in the design sprint seemed redundant.

Instead, we took a screenshot of the customer journey map that we had created previously in Whimsical, and we pasted it here. Then we put the HMW cards to create a heatmap of where we saw challenges.

Whimsical courtesy of our awesome product designer Julie Bélanger

Activity 5: Sketching

For the sketching activity, we still stuck with a fat sharpie and paper. Everyone, even those who were remote, was required to sketch using sharpies on paper. The sharpies were all the same medium. In a previous design sprint, some remote people used an iPad and were able to generate much better-looking wireframes which might have skewed the voting results.


Activity 6: Silent art gallery

After we were done sketching everyone was then asked to take photos of their sketches, and then add those photos to Whimsical.

This way the remote people could easily review all of the sketches and having the sketches in Whimiscal also made it much easier for everyone else who was in the office to look at all of the sketches too. They didn’t have to wait for other people to move on. Another great benefit of voting in Whimsical was that you couldn’t see who voted on which sketch.


Activity 7: Storyboard

We like to include some key details with our storyboard so I added an area for notes beside each step. This will help the prototype designer to work quickly without having to ask as many questions. The idea being that as the prototype designer, you should be able to whip something up by referencing all of the activity results including this storyboard.


Mission accomplished!

Looking back at the problems with a paper-based design sprint, I think we were able to resolve all of them nicely and make the whole process better for everyone involved.

  • Easy to read “post-its”: You didn’t have to struggle to try to make out what someone wrote down.
  • Faster to iterate over the sprint goal: Typing was way easier than dealing with handwriting.
  • Faster HMW grouping: Everyone could scan the whole area of cards and move them to the right spot faster.
  • Faster voting: You spent less time waiting in line and feeling rushed, and got to spend more time evaluating sketches/ideas.
  • Voting was anonymous: People weren’t influenced by who put which vote where.
  • Everyone could see everything: No more waiting around to look at something.
  • People didn’t feel as rushed: You didn’t feel like you were blocking someone else’s view.
  • Self-documenting design sprints: We no longer had to manually digitize all of the activity results by taking photos and transcribing notes to be used as references during the product design process.

Do you want to try this with your team? Use our template!

Build Galvanize

A window to the product, design, and engineering teams at Galvanize, an enterprise SaaS company

Jayde Ly

Written by

Jayde Ly

Lead User Experience Designer with Galvanize

Build Galvanize

A window to the product, design, and engineering teams at Galvanize, an enterprise SaaS company

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade