Even post-it notes have gone digital!

How to succeed with remote Design Sprints

By: Cathrine Larssen & Janicke Paus Hellebust , 3. December 2021

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When COVID-19 forced the closure of offices and in-person meetings, it wasn’t ureasonable to presume that most Design Sprints would be shelved until the crisis was over. But transitioning Noria’s design sprint workshops from a physical to digital environment has proven to be a great success, with several unexpected benefits.

We spoke with Norias Strategic Designer and Design Sprint specialist, Janicke Paus Hellebust, to learn how to get the most out of a remote sprint, the benefits and challenges involved, and why remote sprints are here to stay.

HOW ARE REMOTE DESIGN SPRINTS RUN?

Noria’s Design Sprint is a unique process that will rapidly solve big challenges, create new products and improve existing ones. They help our clients leap from idea to concept - design, prototyping and testing in a matter of days, instead of months or even years.

“We run Design Sprints as a pre-project to any new development project”, says Janicke. “It usually involves two full days with the client team and us in a room together, doing a series of exercises that set the stage for the project.

Noria has developed a Design Sprint methodology that’s based on Google Ventures, AJ Smart, Jack Knapp, our own local experience in the Norwegian market, and specialised for financial services.

“The methodology starts with determining where we’re going, understanding the user and what they need. For on-site sprints, the first day tends to be super-intensive, carving out the strategic direction for the process before coming up with solutions and ideas. On the second day we take those ideas, vote on the best, and work with them to bring them to the stage where they’re ready to prototype”, Janicke says.

For remote sprints, however, we have replaced the two full days with three, three-hour sessions run over two days, with a little bit of homework in between. “We’ve done it this way because too much intensive screen time can leave people feeling exhausted.” says Janicke.

“Apart from this, our aim is to replicate the in-person sprint as closely as possible in a virtual environment. The methodology is the same, but the experience is different.”

DESIGN SPRINT TECHNOLOGY

“Don’t make it too techy”, advises Janicke, “and don’t bring too many tools into the mix”.

A remote Design Sprint needs only two tools:

  1. A videoconferencing tool such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams.

  2. A collaborative whiteboard platform to replace the physical whiteboard in the office, and a place for team members to use the virtual equivalent of post-it notes. Noria uses Miro, but there are plenty of other solutions to choose from.

“One of the reasons we like Miro”, says Janicke, “is that it replicates the in-person design sprint as closely as possible with virtual post-it notes and coloured “stickers” for voting on ideas. This means that people new to virtual sprints will find the process familiar, and lessen the need for any training to use the tool.”

BENEFITS OF A REMOTE DESIGN SPRINT

Besides the fact that remote sprints have enabled businesses to continue running these workshops during lockdown, there are several other benefits.

  • Easier logistically: It can be challenging getting everyone to clear their calendars for two days to attend an in-person remote sprint. With a remote sprint, the shorter sessions and the fact that you can participate from anywhere makes it a lot easier to organise.

  • Makes sense for distributed teams: “We often have people joining from London, Amsterdam, and Vietnam”, says Janicke. “Remote sprints are perfect for global teams, where everyone can dial in individually or you can have a combination of physical and remote”.

  • No need for office space: If you’ve ever worked in a very busy office that doesn’t have enough meeting rooms, you’ll know that booking a room for two days can be very difficult. Remote design sprints bypass this issue entirely.

  • Improved anonymity: When a remote Design Sprint participant posts an idea to the board, they do so anonymously. This means that the team won’t all vote for “the boss’s” ideas, and encourages people to innovate without fear of criticism.

  • Better documentation: One of the clearest benefits of remote sprints is that documentation is better. “Everything on the [Miro] board is recorded, so anyone can go back and see what we did in each step. Not only does this provide easily accessible information as to when and why a project changed direction, but it can remind the team why a particular course of action was pursued at any given stage,” says Janicke. This is much more effective than gathering and storing handfuls of paper post-it notes.

  • Less time consuming: With an effective host running the virtual session, there is less likelihood that participants will waste time with chatting or irrelevant conversations. “It’s less social, but more efficient”, says Janicke. “The sprints are structured in such a way to avoid unnecessary discussions”.

  • Less wasteful: Using up reams of post-it notes, or other office materials, isn’t the most sustainable way to work. Remote design sprints are a greener alternative, creating less waste and boasting a lower carbon footprint because no one is expected to travel.

REMOTE SPRINT CHALLENGES AND HOW TO OVERCOME THEM

While running a design sprint in a remote environment has some challenges, they can be overcome.

Concentration: How do you ensure remote participants aren’t distracted by other work, such as checking emails during the sessions?

“Firstly, we encourage everyone to have their camera on. This means that it’s immediately obvious if someone ‘disappears’ on the videoconferencing or whiteboard collaboration tool. Secondly, the sessions require full concentration and participation, which keeps everyone super-focused and engaged all the time. We’ve also broken up the two, full-day sessions into three shorter sessions.”

Digital skills: Although many people can pick up new digital tools with ease, there are always some who need more help than others. How do you avoid this eating into session time?

“We keep the number of tools to a minimum – just videoconferencing and the whiteboard tool. We often onboard clients in advance of the workshop, showing them how to check their camera, mic, and teach them how to post ideas and vote using the Miro board.”

Collaboration: How do you replicate the team collaboration that occurs in on-site Design Sprints?

“With in-person Design Sprints, even though we work together we do a lot of exercises ‘together alone’. This basically means sitting next to a colleague, coming up with ideas individually, putting them on the wall, presenting them and voting. This is easily replicable in a virtual environment”.

Social interaction: How do you replace the social interaction that takes place at in-person Design Sprints?

“This is admittedly something you lose – the chats that take place on the sidelines and in the breaks. But even a virtual sprint is a team-building exercise, and [as noted above], one of the benefits of less social interaction is a gain in efficiency.”

Meeting goals: How do you ensure the session stays on-track in terms of reaching the outcomes the client expects?

“We often have a touchdown with the product owner, or the person who makes the decisions, during the break to check on progress and ensure we’re going in the right direction. Then we may make some small adjustments if required after the break.”

A VIRTUAL AND IN-PERSON MIX

Due to its usefulness for distributed teams, Janicke expects that virtual design sprints will be here to stay even after the COVID-19 crisis has concluded, but envisions a mixed process.

“What we can expect to see is a core team in the room, while others join the meeting digitally. For this to work, even the in-person team would have to use digital tools rather than paper and sharpies”

“Another trend may be that teams will come together in-person for their first design sprint to get to know each other and learn to work together in a team-building sense. Once this has been done, they can switch to remote sprints and meetings going forward with their project”

GET IN TOUCH!

Noria’s highly experienced team has been involved in over 80 design sprints, 35 projects, 5 company launches and 11 new products. Get in touch today to learn how to jump-start innovation with an in-person or remote sprint.