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Multiple remote Design Sprints – the agile way of…

Multiple remote Design Sprints – the agile way of solving challenges in times of pandemics (12 steps for designers)

Design Sprint Methodology was invented by Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, and Braden Kowitz to solve challenges and test new ideas in companies in just a few days. When the first Sprint book was published in 2016, the authors were not sure if the methodology would work remotely. A few years later, the remote version of Sprint was created. It seems like an ideal solution in times of pandemics for companies that operate fully remotely, but does it really work? Does it work for multiple sprints happening simultaneously and teams of people who have just met? 

Spoiler alert, we confirm Design Sprints can be done successfully remotely. What is more, it can be done on a large scale – you can successfully run 8 sprints simultaneously. In our case, it was 8 teams solving challenges provided by 6 companies from the health and wellbeing sector. Finally, design sprints, though designed for solving challenges by a team already familiar with the company and challenge, can also work for strangers new to the problem collaborating together. 

To make it happen however, the process requires some modifications.  Let me share some useful tips which may help you in organising your remote Design Sprint(s). I will try not to repeat key learnings and practices already listed by my colleague, Salla Kuuluvainen , which couldn’t have been better written and I highly recommend reading Key learnings from designing a remote multi sprint event. I will rather elaborate on some of them and add some more practical takeaways for those who consider organising multiple remote sprints. 

12 steps worth considering while designing multiple remote design sprints:

1.Give more time

The original Sprint is 5 days long. There is also the modification by A&J Smart, approved by Sprint authors, which lasts 4 days only. If you run 8 sprints simultaneously, participants are new to the challenge, and team building is required, even 5 days are not enough. You need more time at the beginning of the Sprint. This is why we split the first day program into two. Finally, we also added a Pitch day when teams presented their solutions to companies.

The original program of Sprint modified for the Digital Wellbeing Sprint needs. Original image from Mural Design Sprint template by Steph Cruchon (Design Sprint Ltd), Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, and Jackie Colburn.

The original program of Sprint modified for the Digital Wellbeing Sprint needs. Original image from Mural Design Sprint template by Steph Cruchon (Design Sprint Ltd), Jake Knapp, John Zeratsky, and Jackie Colburn.

2. Have the right amount of remote design sprint team members.

It is said that the optimal amount of Design Sprint participants is up to 7 people. In terms of the online version of a Sprint, with team members who do not know each other and are unfamiliar with the company and the challenge, it is better to have teams of less than 7 members. We had a chance to observe the dynamic of 8 groups consisting of 4 to 6 participants and among them the most developed prototypes had groups consisting of 5 participants. It might have been due to each team’s challenge area of focus. Nevertheless, the online group dynamic is definitely different than offline. Particularly, if you need to include team building in the Sprint process, I would recommend having 5 members per team.

3. Have the right challenge – one per Sprint

The challenge at Design Sprint needs to be well-defined. Unlike other design processes, in the Google Design Sprint process there is no time to do research on the problem and empathise with users, so teams need to rely on company representative knowledge. This is why the company representative needs to be present, especially in the moments where the role of the Decider is crucial (defining a long-term goal and sprint questions, adjusting a map, picking a target, selecting a solution to prototype).

We noticed that teams who had company representatives involved throughout the process were able to produce results which were much more appreciated and valued by the companies. Not to mention that the companies also benefited from fruitful discussions and ideas which weren’t picked to prototype. 

4. Ignite the additional power of  innovation “stealing” and individual ideation

What I personally appreciate from The Design sprint methodology is the included time for finding inspiration, the so-called Lightning demo. When you look at all great innovation, you will notice that it is based on existing ideas. We equipped participants with an additional source of inspiration by providing keynote speakers from IBM, Sitra, Helsinki Business Hub or Proimpro.

Additionally, the Sprint authors understood the power of individual ideation instead of popular group brainstorming sessions. Group brainstorming sessions are proven to be less effective in terms of the amount and quality of ideas compared to individuals working alone according to research done by Yale University in 1958. This is why the Design Sprint authors introduced “brainwriting and drawing” (sketching) in their Sprint Methodology. Through this process you can be sure of the quality of ideas but you need some quantity as well.

Examples of Design Sprint ideas on Mural (Art museum)
Examples of Design Sprint ideas on Mural (Art museum)

If you have less than seven team members, which is recommended in terms of online Sprints, you will have less inspiring examples in the Lightning Demo part. In addition, you will have less examples in ideation later unless you increase the requested number of ideas per person in the instructions. I would highly recommend you do it.  

5. Instead of storyboards ask for user flows (if relevant)

Storyboards are usually associated with a comic story with heroes which is great for visualising an offline service or a customer journey. However, storyboards in the design sprint are a map and guideline for your prototype. If your prototype is supposed to be online e.g. a website or an app, which is more likely in the virtual sprint, it may be useful to simply call it a user flow from the user experience field. Otherwise it may be confusing. 

6. Have a tangible prototype which can be tested online

One of the Sprint Days is entirely dedicated to prototyping. It seems too short, but it is enough to develop a working facade of your solution to test it with users. This amount of time prevents you from spending hours on polishing the wrong solution. Instead, you will have a low fidelity prototype which enables you to collect better feedback. People are more willing to share their real thoughts once you show them the functional draft instead of a high quality version. There is one more rule you need to follow when doing the Design Sprint online. You need to have this prototype adjusted to online testing. It needs to be understandable and interactive online and you need to take this into account while developing it.

A woman carrying a phone and sitting in front of her laptop

7. The core of Sprint is testing with real users. 

The first challenge to solve here is to find the right testers. It may be tricky especially if you don’t know who your users are. You can start recruiting during a Sprint once you specify your target. However, whenever possible I would recommend asking companies to engage in providing testers. They are the ones who know their clients  best and they will be more willing to believe in results provided. It is proven that 4 testers allow you to have 85% of problems identified. However, having the 5th tester enables you to really spot those patterns (Nielsen et al., 1993).

For testing, you will need to use some online communication tool which enables a tester to share its screen and have the camera switched on at the same time for example: Zoom, Teams, Skype. It is better to use a different communication tool for testing than the one you use for the whole Sprint. A good practice for interview observers is to have the camera switched off in contrast to the interviewee and interviewer. 

Other than above, the rules of interviewing are the same as offline.

8. Have one common tool for communication

We used Zoom and Mural as well as Onedrive and Moodle for communication with teams. Salla tackled it in her article. We also allowed teams to self-organise regarding their communication giving them a choice to use any tool including Basecamp, a tool recommended by the Design Sprint authors. No team picked Basecamp but it turned out that having one common place where tutors can add materials and where teams can share their results could be very helpful. Basecamp could easily replace Onedrive, Moodle and any other tool used for internal team material sharing and discussions. If I were to run 8 sprints once again, I would definitely use Basecamp for all Design Sprint communication, especially knowing how intuitive it is.

Digital Wellbeing Sprint on Basecamp
Digital Wellbeing Sprint on Basecamp

9. Use diverse online energisers

Using the chat feature is a great way to energise your Sprint participants, but don’t overuse it. The core of energisers is diversity and novelty for your participants. Use breakout rooms when it requires one-on-one or small team interactions. The order in which your neighbours appear on your Zoom screen is exactly the same as everyone else sees it, so you may easily invent some interactions based on this. 

Design Sprint community
Group photo with our Sprint community

10. Tandem virtual facilitation work

It is always good to facilitate Sprints in a 2 person team as the second facilitator who is not giving instructions can easily spot group needs and be able to immediately jump in if any technological issue appears, for example, being on mute. The second facilitator can also follow the questions on chat and react to them while you are showing the Mural boards. This is why in the Digital Wellbeing Sprint tutors were divided into 2 person teams.

11.Overcoming a groan zone during the Design Sprint

If you don’t always  have a Decider  in the room, who helps at Design sprints to minimize the risk of experiencing a groan zone, you are more likely to encounter it. For those who do not have a clue what a groan zone is, it is a common moment in the design process where you feel overwhelmed and confused and are not sure how to proceed. 

If this happens, make everyone speak and share their concerns and ideas for a solution and clarify the purpose. You can name it and say that it is typical. Aim to find a way for a team compromise. Have your cameras switched on whenever possible, so that others know that you are present and listening to them.

12. Have a backup plan

If it is an event for 40 people you need to be prepared for any emergency from technical problems such as a slow Sprint Mural board template, explained in Salla’s article, to anything else that may arise. Use your imagination by asking yourself “what if” questions and prepare for it in advance. The more you have rethought, the better your Sprints will be. The rest is having a great team to enjoy your Sprint roller coaster ride.

Last but not least – have fun with the right team

We had the right team to take and really enjoy these multiple remote design sprint roller coaster rides and I would like to thank Salla Kuuluvainen, Heini Heinonen, Michelle Sahal Estime, Hanna Lumenkoski, Henriikka Tikka, Pirjo Valpas and Teemu Ruohonen, Päivi Mantere and Merja Lahdenperä without whom this couldn’t be successful. I have learned a lot from this program co-designing and facilitation experience. Thank you!

If you are interested in how remote sprints work in comparison to offline sprints, we have some interesting data to share.

The Digital Wellbeing Sprint has been organised by 3AMK – Haaga-Helia, Laurea and Metropolia Universities of Applied Sciences for the first time fully remotely this year due to the pandemic. Only two out of 40 participants strongly thought that the offline environment is much more suitable for a Sprint. It is most probably related to the participant’s experience with Mural as a similar amount didn’t enjoy working on Mural due to its slowness. The Mural team promised to make some improvements in the near future, so this may no longer be an issue. Despite the issues with Mural, 7 groups delivered solutions which were highly appreciated by companies who claimed to implement them in the nearest future.  

Stay tuned for upcoming events.

About the author:

Cecylia Kundera is a digital project leader and a service designer helping companies to design and deliver real value. She is especially fond of implementing a foresight approach and holistic mindset in design, because the Earth is not only for human beings. 

Ready to get in touch with you if you have any questions.

Design Sprint community Yleinen

Key Learnings from Designing a Remote Multi Sprint Event

This is a reflection on learnings on designing the Digital Health and Wellbeing Sprint Event, a Remote Design Sprint. I should say sprints, since we actually run simultaneously 8 sprints with teams that were working with 6 different startup companies in the health and wellbeing sector.

The sprint teams were students of three universities of applied sciences in the Helsinki region (Laurea, Metropolia and Haaga-Helia). We were a team of 5 facilitators, a project manager and three teachers from the universities, and 40 students in 8 sprint teams. As we are in times of corona, the sprint which was originally supposed to be a face-to-face event was moved online.

A group photo of the design sprint participants
Group photo with sprint community

We used the Google Sprint methodology created by Jake Knapp – though we made some adjustments to timing, extending the sprint to seven days from the original five, added some inspirational speakers and a final pitching event for the sprint teams to present their solutions to the companies. The new Remote Design Sprint Guide was a very useful resource for us when designing. The online tools we used were Zoom for sound and video connection and Mural as virtual whiteboard tool. We also used a Mural template for remote design sprints (which doesn’t seem exist on Mural anymore).

Every day we congregated in Zoom, where the teams would get instructions about methods for the day and then work in their challenge in breakout rooms, on their team Mural boards. The teams had no facilitators, but worked in a self-organizing manner, and had help from the facilitator team whose members would pop in periodically to ask if everything was going smoothly. Some days the teams had more independent time and no support from facilitators.

A team’s Mural board with tasks for the sprint
Example of a sprint team Mural board with tasks

Main learnings from Digital Health and Wellbeing Sprint

Formulate the Right Challenge

Sprint as a methodology is different from some other human centric design methods, since it doesn’t allow much time for exploring and scoping down a problem. Also, the sprint is not an ideation method producing loads of out-of-the-box ideas, instead the beauty and efficacy of the sprint lies in the fact that within five days of working together you will have a functioning prototype of your solution, tested on real users.

This means that the challenge or problem for the sprint needs to be formulated properly. A too broad challenge won’t bring sensible results and will be frustrating for the team working on it. Some of the challenges we worked with were somewhat too broad, though I’m very grateful to my facilitator colleague Cecylia Kundera who did a lot of work in trying to make the best out of the challenges. The challenge needs to be formulated in a way that allows the group to start thinking about solutions right away – for example having a set target group or not having several different questions in the challenge.

A Sense of Community Doesn’t Just Happen Online

A sense of community doesn’t just appear in an online event in the same way as in a face to face event. There are ways of how a sense of community can be enhanced during the event. We had a Mural board that people would fill in with a few details and pictures about themselves before the design sprint. During the sprint we had a morning and evening one word check-in in the chat, which was a great way to gauge the feelings of the sprint teams. As expected, there was much excitement in the beginning and somewhat a slump in the middle

a warm-up exercise Mural to be filled before the sprint
The warm up Mural with presentations of people
An example of warm-up task

Team Collaboration is Key

In innovation events were strangers collaborate, it is very important to allow for enough time to discuss expectations and what kind of skills everyone brings to the team, in order to make the collaboration effective. The Design Sprint methodology itself doesn’t address getting to know each other in the sprint team, so that was added as part of our event. The teams had some time and questions during the first day to get to know each other. As such, the team constellations were made ahead the event with the idea of having people from diverse backgrounds in the same team.

In hindsight, we could have done more for leaving some room in schedule to discuss things like Yes,and… thinking, which is very crucial for a fast moving process like a sprint. Yes, and.. means that it is important to try to build on others’ ideas and try to be a productive team member in moving the process along.

Technology May Fail

When you are working with a complex setup like a Remote design sprint with 8 different remote teams, issues with technology can either make it or break it. If there’s a team member who has issues with internet connection or is less used to working with digital tools, the event may become not accessible for them and highly frustrating.

For as, the major tech issue occurred with Mural. There’s a readymade template in Mural specifically made for Remote Design Sprints. We used the template with a few modifications of our own, copied for all the 8 sprint teams. The unfortunate news is that the template is too big and therefore becomes extremely slow, basically rendering the whole template unusable and driving the sprint teams mad.

We solved this by making individual Murals for the different days of the sprint for all the teams, which was a lot of work during the event. In our communication with Mural they have promised some improvements which should help, but as the time for our sprint those were not yet functional. Other than the slowness of the template, Mural was a very useful tool during the event, and easy to use for the participants.

Information Needs to Flow Uninhibited

In the Remote Design Sprint Guide Jake Knapp et al. recommend using Basecamp as a tool for information exchange during the sprint. We did not use Basecamp, and for document storage for the teams we offered OneDrive folders and the students also had access to a Moodle LMS environment.

During the event it became very clear that especially for a multi-sprint event you do need a very solid structure for information sharing between all parties of the event – now the sprint teams kept forgetting about the OneDrive folders and how to access them, the facilitators were not able to upload anything to the Moodle environment, and the only way to communicate with sprint teams outside of Zoom was emails sent by the project manager, and in Zoom the communication from and to breakout rooms is not practical. It would have been very good to have a communication and file storage channel that everyone would have been able to access with questions or updates, since inevitably there will be all kinds of changes and needs to share information during a complex event.

One useful practice that we implemented was to create one breakout room in Zoom for the facilitator team. There we had privacy to discuss tech issues or any other problems the sprint teams were expressing, instead of having those discussions in the main room in Zoom.

The Decider Role is Important

The Design Sprint methodology is originally created for a team inside a company to work developing A solution. In our case, the sprint teams were external students who had relatively little time to discuss their challenges with companies, though we did our best to include the company representatives in several phases of the sprint. There are specific phases in the sprint where a Decider role is applied to make a final decision about which solution will go forward.

We noticed that the teams which were able to discuss their solution with the company during the sprint produced ideas that the companies found more useful at the end of the sprint. So, if you find yourself in similar setup with an external team sprinting for a solution, do try to engage the client in every phase where a Decider is needed, even if it may seem unnecessary.

Final thoughts

The process of facilitating this sprint was intense – and also fun! The complexity organizing it virtually is huge, and as a facilitator you have to stay constantly vigilant to make sure everyone stays on board. There’s also lots of work to be done ahead of the event. During the event one of the teachers, who was responsible for creating breakout rooms described it as feeling like working in flight control. But when you manage to pull it off it feels great – I also got the feeling the companies got some valuable solutions to their challenges from the 8 sprint teams.

I would like to thank the organizing team Cecylia Kundera, Hanna Lumenkoski, Heini Heinonen, Henriikka Tikka, Michelle Sahal Estime, Pirjo Valpas and Teemu Ruohonen, Päivi Mantere and Merja Lahdenperä for this amazing experience and all the hard work, as well as the companies and students who participated in making this happen.

About the author

Salla Kuuluvainen

Salla Kuuluvainen is a Service Designer and Facilitator working at Laurea University of Applied Sciences in Finland. She is interested in virtual co-creation and how innovation can be boosted through better collaboration. See Salla’s portfolio.