Wearing the facilitator hat in a remote Design Sprint

What I learned running online workshops with a distributed team.

Pierluigi Rufo
Apr 13 · 6 min read

Recently on one of our projects at Elli, the team was just about to start developing the concept for a new product, facing big questions and getting familiar with new personas.

Before jumping into any kind of scoping or roadmap definition, we wanted to take a step back and get the team aligned on the core problem we were trying to solve.

In other words, it was the perfect moment for a Design Sprint!

Moderating a team of 8 people over 5 days in a fully remote setup can be quite challenging. As a facilitator, you’ll never feel 100% prepared for what’s coming up (even if you’re a workshop veteran!).

I’m sharing here some things that I tried, failed and learned during my journey.

The sprint board is the record of the team work. After 5 days you’ll have a good picture of everything that’s been achieved during the sprint.

1. Before the sprint

Good preparation makes half of the work.

Don’t rush through

Good preparation is essential to run successful workshops. This is especially true for remote Design Sprints.

While planning your sprint, make sure you have enough time to gather the team, assign roles and involve all the necessary stakeholders (and we know, if you’re working within an organisation this might take a while 😌).

Best case scenario, everyone involved should have a good understanding of:

  • The problem space (What are we trying to solve?)
  • The customer needs (Who are we solving the problem for?)
  • The Design Sprint process (How are we going to do it?)

📝 2–3 weeks ahead is a good time to start preparing a DS. Giving a short presentation one week ahead to illustrate the process and the sprint goal helps the team to come better prepared on day 1.

Agenda

Staying on track is crucial to the success of a Design Sprint.

Having a detailed agenda will help you to manage the time and makes sure you don’t lose important steps on the way.

For instance, our agenda included:

  • 🗒️ The sprint exercises are broken down into steps
  • ⚡ Warm-ups and side activities
  • ☕ Breaks (you’ll need a lot of those!)
  • 🎤 ️Wrap-up sessions

📝 We created our agenda in Google Docs. Here we also tracked notes and feedback at the end of each day.

Tools & Resources

We used GoogleMeet for video conferencing and Mural for the activities.

Mural offers great facilitator features such as secret voting, a timer and a “Follow me” option. It also comes with a handy template created by the Design Sprint book authors Jake Knapp and John Zeratsky (the same template is available for Miro).

📝 If you have a small screen, keep the video-conference open on a different monitor or device (Meet works quite well on mobile and tablets). This will let you concentrate on the board, without loosing contact with the rest of the team.

📝 Figma is a great tool for the prototyping phase. Make sure to reserve some time for guiding the team through the interface and let them play around. It’ll be much easier to create the prototype afterwards.

2. During the sprint

Stay on track and trust the process.

Focus Focus Focus

Keeping the team focused in a remote setup is challenging.

At the start of each day, remind everyone to turn off Slack notifications and other distractions.

Also staying in front of the monitor for a long time is exhausting, reserve time for stretching the muscles and stepping away for a few minutes.

📝 Follow the The Remote Design Sprint Guide for the sprint activities. It contains detailed description of the exercises optimised and improved for the remote setup.

Rituals and side activities

Design Sprint are great to boost team collaboration, you don’t need to come up with many extra exercises.

Is there a better ice-breaker than the Crazy-8 🙂?

Scribble something together before starting the day or having a photo challenge during the lunch break can help the team keeping the fun level high.

📝 Establishing some rituals makes the remote setup more comfortable. I like to let reggae music play in the background while the team gathers after each break or during fun activities. It brings nice vibrations and good mood 🎵🇯🇲

Don’t overdo

Keep an eye on the agenda but be loose. Don’t plan for more than 6hrs/day and take breaks any time you feel the team need a rest.

Rely on offline activities (e.g. the sketching exercises) to step away from the screen and let everyone gather their thoughts.

📝 Beware of long discussions! No matter if in person or remote, humans have natural tendency to dive into detailed discussions. These drain energy and slow down the decision making. Call on the decider or use the Note&Vote exercise to keep moving on.

Learn as you go

The best way to learn is to ask for feedback.

Reserve 10 minutes at the end of each day to gather thoughts and feelings from the team.

Those insights are extremely valuable and help the Facilitator to improve their process and better prepare for the next day.

📝 Use the digital board to record users insights while testing your prototype on day 5. With this completed, you should have a good overview to draw conclusions and wrap up the sprint.

3. After the Sprint

Gather insights and take actions.

Follow up and share results

During the five days of the sprint, your team went through the understanding phase, came up with different ideas, prototyped the most promising one and tested it with real users.

Now, what’s next?

It’s time to document the sprint results and plan for the next actions.

Together with your Product team, you can decide if you have enough insights to move on with the implementation or you need a follow-up sprint to tackle new problems that emerged.

It’s also worth sharing the outcomes with the larger team to maximise the impact and increase awareness within the organisation.

📝 Remember: While the prototype might be the obvious output of the sprint, understanding and learning are your most important outcomes.

Conclusions

Contrary to what you would expect, some activities are much easier when run remotely than in person.

The secret voting keeps the decisions unbiased and the digital board simplifies notes management a lot.

Keeping the team focused is probably the hardest challenge.

The facilitator must pay extra attention to make sure no one gets lost or distracted along the way. Having a co-facilitator in the team can help you fill the gaps and identify when the group is losing grip or a break is needed.

I was very lucky to have a passionate team who stayed engaged from day one and pushed for the best outcome at each phase. Even if it takes a lot of energy, the insights gained during the week are going to be essential for improving your product and de-risk your decisions.

TL;DR

Preparing and running a fully remote Design Sprint can be quite challenging. In this post I shared some tips I learned as a facilitator:

1. Plan in advance
2. Create a detailed agenda
3. Pick the tools and onboard the team
4. Stay focused and avoid distractions
5. Don’t overdo
6. Ask for feedback and learn as you go
7. After the sprint, follow up and share the results

Let me know what’s your experience running remote Design Sprints and which methods work best for you in the comments below or at @pierluigirufo.

Looking forward to hearing your feedback! 🙌

Huge thanks to Amelie Duchardt for helping to organise and running the sprint! 🙏

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