A DIY Design Sprint — notes from a first-time facilitator

Maxim Bassin
Jun 2, 2019 · 7 min read
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“- Look, a dot! -Yes, I see it now!”

TL;DR — with good preparation, it’s totally possible to facilitate a Design Sprint on your own. And it can even improve your daily team interactions as well. Tips and tricks are below.

Being a Product Manager for the last decade, I’ve led many initiatives, and the most crucial part was to start them. No matter what the company was, or how the teams were structured, it always took an endless amount of meetings, brainstorming, research, and resources to decide what to do and how to execute it. When I stumbled upon Design Sprint concept, it was clear to me that its the way to actually get things moving fast.

I’ve suggested to our product team to facilitate a Design Sprint for one of the other squads in the company, and we all decided to give it a go. Here is what happened:

I’ve dived into the videos from Google Ventures about the design sprint, to be able to speak about it with the team. I’ve read also few posts by Design sprint first-timers, and finally got to the videos by AJ&Smart about the Design Sprint 2.0. I’ve decided to go with the AJ&Smart version of the sprint to keep things simple.

Our first internal kickoff meeting was about setting expectations, deciding on roles and responsibilities and setting the action items until the beginning of the sprint. I held a meeting with the Product manager from the squad that is planning to kick off the project, and the Director of Product. The major outcomes of the meeting were:

  1. The sprint will take place in one of the unused spaces in the office, that is pretty isolated from the rest of the office
  2. The Sprint core team will be the entire squad (1 PM, 1 Designer, a technical team leader, 1 FE developer and 1 BE developer), Customer success manager, Director of Product and VP Product.
  3. The Product Manager of the squad will be responsible for bringing the experts and setting the meetings with clients (we are a B2B SaaS platform, so all the meetings should be scheduled few weeks ahead of time)
  4. The Product Manager of the squad together with the Product Director will come up with the question for the sprint. (I’ve shared with them some examples from DESIGN SPRINT MASTER Facilitator’s Guide)
  5. The decider’s hierarchy will be in the following order: VP Product, Director of Product, and then the Product Manager (so it will be clear who is the decider at all times since the VP Product might not be there all the time)
  6. I will be responsible for sharing the day-to-day schedule (I used this template for scheduling — I’ve also printed it and had it as my guide for the day-to-day of the sprint), marking key meetings for experts and external stakeholders to participate. Also, I will take care of food and supplies logistics

Day 1

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HMW notes

We’ve started off in our conference room, next to the design sprint area. We’ve gathered the sprint team and a few of our key developers. I’ve explained about the sprint and the HMW note taking. The most wakening part was the explanation of how to tear off a post-it note (from a side, not the bottom), which woke up most of the sprint participants and broke the morning ice. We’ve synced on different aspects of the main subject. During the meeting, I had to remind the participants several times to write down the HMW notes since most of them didn’t. At some point, I’ve started to take down notes myself, just to make sure we had enough for the next exercise. Turned out it was a good bet since my notes were about 40% of total notes taken. We moved on to the dedicates sprint area, without the guest experts. During the HMW notes categorization, I’ve added a bit more stickers for everyone just to get enough variance on the notes vote. The exercises went by the book until we got to the “Map” exercise. The team found it hard to understand what kind of scenarios should be mapped: “Should we map the first scenarios we should tackle right after the sprint?”, “Should we map the scenarios for the state of 2 years from now?”. I suggested the team to focus on 4–5 major scenarios to be tackled right after the sprint. As for choosing the scenario to focus on for the rest of the sprint, I told the team to choose the most tricky scenario that they don’t have a straight forward solution to.

When we got to the Ideas exercise, some people thought that only one idea was expected, so it's a good thing to emphasize that 2–3 ideas are expected.

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Ideas exercise

When we got to “Crazy 8s” exercise, only half of the team actually managed to create more than 2 different variations, that didn’t interfere with the energy level that stayed high. During the exercise, one of the team members had to go home early, so I’ve asked him to complete the solution sketch at home, as homework. We finished the day with everyone hanging their solution sketch on the wall.

Day 2

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Heat Map Vote results

During the Heat Map Vote exercise, I’ve put the post-its and sharpies into everyone’s hand to encourage them to add questions to the sketches. When I’ve started to present the ideas (Speed Critique), it was too hard to convey the right message, so we switched to everyone presenting their own idea. During the Straw Poll Vote, I had to clarify that the voting sticker should be put on the post-it, to visually connect between the dot and the explanation for the vote. During the exercise, there were several guests, including the CEO, that took part in voting. When we got to Supervote, we’ve skipped the sticker ceremony and let the VP Product decide on the winning solution, which based one of the ideas, and another 2 key elements from other 2 ideas. Storyboarding exercise is where the sprint became a bit tricky. Since its a 90 minutes exercise that for the first time had a group discussion it felt very different from the rest. VP Product and the Director of Product were off to their meetings, so we had a bit less driving power. We were stuck too much on each step and at some point, we got lost. Everyone was exhausted and we decided that tomorrow morning we will finalize the Storyboard.

Day 3

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Finished Storyboard

We picked up from where we finished the day before. When the discussion was starting to repeat itself without progress, I’ve decided to cut it. I told everyone to sketch their own idea to the sub-flow we were discussing and put it on the wall (I also added mine as well). Everyone presented their concept. I gave everybody 1 sticker to vote. Everyone put their sticker and explained their choice. I told the Product Manager (who was the decider at the time) to decide, and we’ve moved on — it was very liberating and got us our sprint mojo back. The designer had the entire flow to work with, we’ve left him alone to start designing. The developers got to their other tasks, Product Manager was preparing the interview, Customer Success Manager and I got back to our own day-to-day. At about 3 PM, we gathered to review the progress so far. Everyone gave their feedback and we made a decision on how it should be wrapped. Since the interviews that were scheduled were starting from the evening of the 4th day, we had time to do several runs of refinement.

Day 4

In the morning we had a meeting with the CEO to show the outcome of the progress (CEO was part of several exercises during the sprint, so he was aware of our general direction). We had it as a user interview and it was a great usability practice that added valuable inputs to refine the prototype. The first 2 interviews were happening during that day, and they were very insightful. The other interviews were scheduled during the rest of the week and the week after.

The retrospective meeting

On the 5th day, we had a retrospective meeting with all the participants, where we have shared our thoughts on the process and suggestions for future improvements. The key takeaways were:

  • “We probably saved over a month of work”
  • “Sometimes the process seemed awkward, but it worked”
  • “We have to stick with short timeframes, long exercises are less effective”
  • “It is very important to have the core team dedicated to the entire process of the sprint, without going to any other meetings”

Conclusion and lessons learned:

  • The Design Sprint is a great tool to jumpstart a project, getting everyone into the “business” state of mind (even the developers) and bonding the team
  • The Design Sprint is definitely something that you can do on your own, with the proper preparation
  • Keeping track of the time, and getting the conversations rolling is a very demanding task
  • One of the most important roles of the facilitator is to keep the ball rolling. Don’t be shy to cut a pointless/repeating discussion and ask the decider to pick a direction to move on
  • Group discussions (brainstorms) are far less effective than when everyone makes their decision individually based on the shared information, presenting their point and having a decider to continue

As a Product Manager facilitating a design sprint, I gained a great set of tools for optimizing group meetings and discussions for my day-to-day. It’s only when you experience it for yourself, you understand how powerful and effective those methods are.

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