How to Prepare Effectively for a Remote Design Sprint

March 15, 2020
John Vetan

We are not living ordinary times; offices and schools closed, planes grounded, events canceled. It is a new reality we all need to adapt to, but that does not mean we should stop everything that we usually do. We can still learn, spend (more) time with our family, and of course, work.

And the word of the day is remote work. Social media is full of advice about it, lots of experts chiming in with tips and tricks, to the point where remote work seems like a whole different animal, and we have to unlearn everything we know about work. While that might as well be the case in some instances, it’s not so much when it comes to the management consulting business world that Design Sprint Academy is part of. I will explain why.

Among the tools we use, workshops are the most visible, get most of the attention, they create almost magical bonds between people and that is where we make the big decisions. You could say that they are the pinnacle of our work.

We run workshops for strategy, for mindset change, to frame problems, uncover opportunities and to solve big challenges. They often take the form of a Design Sprint, which has become hugely popular over the last few years.

And the reality is that a Design Sprint involves a lot of work, out of which the actual workshop is just the tip of the iceberg, while preparation requires the bulk of the effort and is the most critical ingredient for success.

Our headquarter is in Berlin, but we run design sprints with our clients all over the world: New York, San Francisco, Chicago, London, Munich, Salzburg, Krakow, Bangkok to name just a few places.

These are all high-stakes projects in large organizations, tackling complex challenges, involving numerous stakeholders and affecting broad target (customer) audiences. It is out of the question that Monday morning comes, our skilled facilitators would just show-up, pull out the post-its, run through the activities and in four days we’d test and prototype a well-thought solution with real customers. While we consistently achieve that, it is not because our facilitators pulled off magic tricks or because the process works (how often have you heard just trust the process?). It is because of all of the preparation work behind the scene. And that is all… REMOTE.

Design Sprint Preparation

Some of the most important activities we do to prepare a Design Sprint are:

  • Writing the Design Sprint Brief
  • Interviewing key stakeholders and customers
  • Synthesizing research and existing data
  • Creating a draft Customer Journey Map

The Design Sprint Brief

The Design Sprint Brief is an essential part of our Facilitation Toolkit. In this document, we centralize everything important for the upcoming Design Sprint. We start with the challenge we defined through Problem Framing; we add the business context, success metrics (KPIs), desired outcomes, stakeholders involved. We then throw in the gist of our customer knowledge: persona, research insights, a draft customer journey. Finally, logistics: agenda, sprint team, external experts, location, supplies.

We use Google Docs to collaboratively write the Design Sprint Brief with our clients.

Write the Design Sprint Brief

A well-put-together brief is invaluable to secure buy-in and to onboard a sprint team. When the sprint starts, everyone knows why they are there, what’s expected of them and there will be only the excitement to solve a problem instead of fear of the unknown. But it also helps us tell the story of the sprint once we complete the sprint, and it’s time to report back to the key stakeholders.

To prepare a sprint, we need to understand why is the challenge important and needs to be solved, what are some expected outcomes, and what is the business or industry context. For that, we need to talk with the key stakeholders. Given stakeholders’ busy schedules remote is the default choice for the interviews. A 20-minute video call is much easier to coordinate than an in-person meeting, which on top adds additional to travel and logistics hassle.

More often than not our clients do not have much in terms of customer research. To avoid working with assumptions only during the sprint, we usually conduct a few user interviews to get some insights that will help the sprint team think of solutions. These customers will be more willing to hop on a call then go to a research facility, visit an office or let you in their homes. We also have access to a broader base of customers when a location does not bind us.

Interview key stakeholders & target customers

There are a bunch of tools that can be used, at Design Sprint Academy we prefer Zoom, especially we get the video recording and the audio transcript in the cloud, which makes our work to synthesis results a lot faster.

Check out 👀 our webinar — Problem Framing. How to prioritize the target audience and define the problem statement for more details and a live demonstration on how to run a problem statement workshop with key-stakeholders.

Data and Research Synthesis

There could be a lot of information related to the sprint challenge: customer research, analytics, product metrics, industry papers, business data, etc. The bigger the organization and problem, the more data we get. Making sense of large volumes of data and bringing into the design sprint only those relevant insights that will help the team to better ideate solutions is critical. No one will want to sit and listen to a facilitator sifting through a 100-page research deck throwing numbers, facts, and quotes towards an overwhelmed audience.

Synthesise research insights

Our tool of choice for this is Mural with all of the templates, beautiful visualization capabilities, and collaborative workspace.

Customer Journey Map

Arguably one of the most challenging and time-consuming activities in a Design Sprint. We use the insights from the customer research (whether existing research or based on the interviews we conducted) and put together a draft customer journey map.

That is a huge boost on the first day of the sprint because it allows the team to have a productive and frictionless conversation about the challenge. We end up with a team that is aligned and has a clear focus, instead of a team that is frustrated because they were asked to do something they are not familiar with. Goes without saying that a customer journey map is an effective way to bring customer research and insights into the sprint.

Build the customer Journey map

We use Mural and its powerful templates to build customer journey maps, experience maps, and service blueprints depending on what we need for our sprint.

For the actual Design Sprint, we print out a large Mural map (think wall-size), and we bring it to the workshop room. We make sure there is enough empty space between elements and swimlanes so that the team can amend/add new stuff as needed.

Running the Design Sprint

The Design Sprint is always the fun part. That is if you do the hard work to prepare. If not, the whole thing can quickly go south.

Whether in-person or remote the most common reasons Design Sprints fail are: lack of clarity about the sprint challenge or wrong problem to solve, no executive/stakeholder buy-in, not the right people in the team, and working with assumptions instead of hard facts. All of these are addressed during the prep phase which should mount to 75% of your effort, and which can be done 100% remotely.