Back in February of this year, I was feeling a little stuck. My team at Spotify had been making incremental improvements to our product for a couple of years, but what we really needed was a bold vision for the future. Something to inspire our tribe to shoot for the moon. Something big.
So what’s a tried-and-true way to quickly break the cycle of overanalysis, put a stake in the ground, and give people an inspiring product vision to rally around? Did you guess a design sprint? It’s a design sprint.
But as I began the planning phases of the sprint, a serious problem loomed elsewhere in the world: a then-little-known virus called the novel coronavirus started to concern public health officials. In just a few short weeks, we would learn that the threat posed by COVID-19 was very real, that it had arrived in New York, and that we’d all be entering quarantine to protect ourselves and each other. Just in time for the scheduled sprint to start.
At Spotify, as with so many other companies around the world, the very nature of how we work has changed dramatically in the last few months. Even as some cities cautiously reopen, there’s no telling what things will look like six months or a year from now—and depending on where you are, remote work might just become a new way of life.
So what’s a designer to do? How are we supposed to solve those big, squishy problems when we can’t pull our teammates into a room with a whiteboard to jam on it? And what about the mountain of sticky notes? Is it even possible to run a design sprint without sticky notes?
It’s challenging, but you can do it. Here’s how.
About design sprints
First, a quick intro for the uninitiated:
Originally developed by Google Ventures, design sprints are a framework for quickly moving from abstract problems to testable solutions. They emphasize speed over perfection and aim for collaboration without groupthink. The goal is to produce and test a realistic prototype in just a week.
Before the sprint
Read the book
If you’ve never run a sprint before, your first step is to read the book. If you have run them before, your first step is to… seriously, read the book. Giving it a run through in advance will help you facilitate more effectively during the sprint. Make notes for yourself to reference, and take advantage of the included daily checklists.
During the sprint, these were things I did each night to make sure I felt prepared for the next day, but you know your own learning style best. As the sprint facilitator, you’ll have a lot to balance when you’re in the sprint itself, so at least give yourself a refresher on the activities in advance to ensure you can speak to them effectively.
Write a plan
Write out your sprint schedule, and think through the tools you’ll need for each activity. For example, we used Google Meet for real-time communication, Slack for asynchronous communication, Mural for virtual whiteboarding, and Figma for storyboarding and prototyping. Whichever tools your team prefers, list them next to the activities in your schedule and provide links to any digital spaces you intend to use. Tip: Set the same meeting code across the entire sprint in your calendar, so that it’s always easy for people to jump in and out.
Prep your materials
Good news: this part’s a little easier when you’re remote! Instead of hundreds of Post-its, dot stickers, easel pads, and fresh markers, you’ll mostly be preparing digitally. Set up Mural boards (or Figma artboards, etc.) for each day, with sections and “materials” for each activity. There are lots of digital sprint kits out there now, but we kept it simple. Most of what goes on these boards is going to be coming from your team anyway, so don’t overthink this part; it will be plenty crowded by the end of the day.
Don’t forget, however, that everyone will still need some supplies for sketching solutions. Remind your team to have paper and pens ready for day 2.
Hey, I get it: as designers, we want our desks to look like Unsplash photos, ensconced within the coziest nooks of our homes, bathed in natural light, surrounded by plantlife, with just enough space on our mid-century modern desks for a laptop and a cup of single-origin pour-over coffee.
But you’re probably going to need a little more real estate. I’m not saying you need a three-monitor battle station to run a sprint (though, if your manager is willing to approve the expense…), but as the facilitator, you’ll be swapping between your web conference, virtual whiteboard, sprint schedule, books, sketches, and so on—it’s a lot. So if you can, try to set up accordingly. When the week is over, you can go back to your immaculately manicured portfolio-photo-worthy desktop.
Optional: schedule deck
Finally, since you’ll be on a web conference most of the time, it can be nice to have a visual schedule breakdown to return to, along with descriptions of the activities to help set the stage for the group. You can make a slide deck with this info and share it as the presenter in the meeting throughout the sprint, just so the rest of the team always has context for what’s currently happening.
During the sprint
The time has come! Day 1 of the sprint has arrived. Your book will tell you what comes next, but let’s cover a few things that will be particularly important for a remote sprint.
Ask for focus
In person, design sprints are device-free zones. There’s no escaping them for a remote sprint, but ask your team to give as much focus and energy to the sprint as possible. Set Slack to Do Not Disturb and phones to silent, and encourage the team to catch up on other priorities during breaks if needed. That being said...
Take generous breaks
Per Jake Knapp, author of Sprint, there’s something about tracking a group of people over video that just exhausts our poor brains. Plus, many folks have kids to check on, other work that needs their attention, or simple biological needs to address. Be sensitive to these needs; take frequent breaks between activities, and give more time than you’d normally expect for lunch. You want the team to bring their best ideas to the sprint, and they can’t do that without the time and space to recharge along the way.
Webcams on, microphones on
It’s hard to replicate the feeling of working through problems together in person, but at a minimum, seeing and hearing each other is a must. Even muted microphones can change the mood, so with a smaller team, consider leaving them open. (*Exceptions may apply for passing sirens, grumpy kids, roommates on conference calls, etc.)
With all the offline breaks and asynchronous activities that happen throughout the sprint, it’s extra-important to be super communicative about what’s happening to reduce the chances of people getting lost.
Use Slack to announce when folks should plan to be back online in the morning or after breaks. Check in together frequently when you’re building out the prototype. Externally, consider sharing your daily sprint output with colleagues who can’t participate in the sprint itself.
After the sprint
Fast forward a week: you made it! You picked a target, built a prototype, tested it with your users, and got some amazing feedback—all from the comfort of your favorite sweatpants. Now what?
Structure the shareout
Outside of your sprint team, who needs to see the output of your work? What feedback do you need from them? We did our shareout in three parts:
Guided review of sprint activities and prototype with various stakeholder teams (1 hr each)
Open access to Figma prototype for comments (3-4 days)
Design team “office hour” to field any further questions and discussion from the tribe (1 hr)
This might look like a lot of sharing, but remember that you’ve been doing this work away from your office all week. That means your colleagues haven’t been able to walk by your meeting room or workspace to peek at what this sprint business is all about, so this is your chance to invite them in and show them!
Hopefully retrospective sessions are a common activity in your company, be it after an Agile sprint or some other project milestone. They’re always valuable. What worked? What didn’t? What will you do differently next time?
Keep your momentum
At this point, you’ll already have lots of ideas for iteration and refinements to make to your designs. What are the next steps? Do you know enough to polish what you have into a buildable solution? Do you need to back up and try a different approach? Maybe even… another sprint?
Whatever it is, figure it out now while that electricity is still there.
Finally, I want to end on a few of the more specific things we learned in the course of running a sprint remotely, just so you don’t think everything has to be perfect for the sprint to be valuable.
ABC: Always Be Capturing
This is a key principle of design sprints that’s easy to overlook when you’re remote. Capture discussions. Capture ideas. Capture disagreements. Capture! Capture! Capture!
Mural/Figma will leave you with lots of artifacts, but they’re an incomplete representation if you haven’t captured the surrounding context. You’ll look back at your artboards and see lots of clusters of Post-its, but all those discussions and other considerations along the way will be lost, like tears in rain.
Explore storyboarding alternatives
Storyboarding (day 3) is one of the parts of a sprint where you’d normally have someone standing at the whiteboard while the team works through the details of the prototype experience. We decided to do a group wireframing session to replicate this, but we all agreed in our retro that it was clunky and exhausting. If someone on your team has a tablet or iPad and is willing to be the sketch artist for your storyboard, I recommend exploring that approach instead.
Have a clear prototyping process
Our team for this sprint was all designers, and we knew we needed a prototype that would get the rest of the tribe excited about the future. Because of this, we worked in higher fidelity than what’s typically recommended.
Figma was a blessing and a curse here. It was great being able to see how other people were approaching their screens, but because we didn’t establish enough consistency from the start, there was substantial work to be done at the end to get the various screens to feel cohesive. Made for a long night.
The more clearly you can divide and conquer, the more efficiently your team will be able to work through day 4.
The big question, answered
So, can a fully remote design sprint really be effective? Let’s ask a user.
“This is so amazing, I’m almost tearing up. This is so great!