5 ways to rock virtual Design Sprints

This article is based on our downloadable Remote Design Sprint 101 Guide. Check it out!


A lot has changed over the last year and a half, but not our ability to collaborate, creatively solve problems, and design impactfully. While some are beginning to return to physical offices, many companies and employees are opting for a hybrid work model resulting in the shift to a distributed workforce. With the right practices and technology, we can still have meaningful virtual meetings and remote workshops. Namely, remote Design Sprint workshops are an essential tool to utilize during these transitional times. They’re more important now more than ever, as companies adjust to survive and thrive in the pandemic-impacted world – from solving big business challenges quickly, to refining company processes to launching innovative ideas.  

A Design Sprint is used for validating ideas and tackling business problems, guiding teams through a design-thinking-based process to uncover insights, prototype an idea, and test it with users. We at Voltage Control have successfully adapted our tried-and-true Design Sprint model for remote work and documented everything in our Remote Design Sprint 101 Guide. This comprehensive guide is for anyone who wants to plan and run their own remote Design Sprint. Some of these ideas were also featured in The Sprint Book‘s Remote Design Sprint Guide, written by the inventor of the Design Sprint Jake Knapp.

In this article, we’ll review some of the benefits of running a remote Design Sprint in your organization and how to lead your own in the virtual landscape. Let’s continue to work and create together! 

Remote Design Sprint Purpose & Benefits

Before we jump in, let’s recap some reasons you may want to run a Design Sprint. Design Sprints have multiple benefits, including:

  • Aligning a team around a shared vision.
  • Answering critical business questions.
  • Discovering the essence of a creative challenge or problem.

Some excellent times to run a Design Sprint are:

  • When kicking off a new initiative.
  • When looking for new breakthrough features for a product.
  • If you want to test divergent solutions.
  • When you’re prioritizing potential business opportunities.
  • When you need to switch gears or iterate on a current product.
  • When you haven’t talked to your users enough.

Remote Design Sprints are not the same as in-person design sprints in many ways, so we must treat them differently. Read on to find out how you can successfully run your next remote Design Sprint.

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5 Tips to Run an Effective Remote Design Sprint

1. Move slower

We are often asked if we facilitate a remote Design Sprint in the typical week-long format of an in-person sprint. In general, we believe that the pace of the Design Sprint needs to be slower in a remote setting. While technology can indeed speed us up, it can also slow us down. That’s because remote workshops account for many factors that we don’t face when we’re connecting face-to-face, such as time zone differences or Zoom fatigue.

For example, you don’t want remote participants to spend more than four hours at a time on Zoom, as being chained to a desk and laptop for any longer can stifle focus and participation (learn more about tips on how to get rid of Zoom fatigue and energize your remote team here). Another consideration is the limited ability to read the virtual room intelligence to ensure that everyone is on the same page. The physical separation makes it difficult to notice if someone is distracted, struggling, or falling behind. Keep in mind the need for team connection, which is especially important in a virtual setting. If you do manage to detect that someone needs help, it takes extra time to stop and catch them up. Simply put, things take longer online. There are inevitably delays and extra processing time needed to get everyone on board no matter what tools you are using (more on that later). Account for extra buffer time to set up and field mishaps during the remote Design Sprint. You’ll need to prepare to support those that are less familiar with the tools you’ve chosen or having trouble with their internet connection. 

Another factor to consider in a remote Design Sprint is that participants are more likely to get distracted online. An effective Design Sprint ground rule to increase productivity is to ban the use of personal devices. However, it’s impossible to eliminate the distraction of screens during remote Design Sprints because laptops and tablets are the means for connection. In short, you have to wrangle the cats more. That’s because each participant is in their own physical environment. Natural external factors of working from home are also at play, such as pets or children. Facilitators will have the most success when they allocate extra time and are prepared to assist participants through these distractions (note: if you are looking for other general ways to improve remote team alignment, see here). 

2. Tweak the schedule

Running any successful remote workshop (especially a remote Design Sprint as it’s more complex than other remote meetings) requires adjustments to a typical in-person one, as fostering the same spirit of focus and connection can be a major challenge. However, this doesn’t mean that any remote workshop or remote Design Sprint is doomed to fail. With the right perspective and a little bit of tweaking, your remote Design Sprint can provide all of the value and human connection of an in-person one.

Because things move slower virtually, we request our Design Sprint participants commit to a series of mini-workshops rather than asking them to commit to the five full days (which is the typical length of time for an in-person Design Sprint). Between each mini-workshop, we assign homework and set the expectation that they will present their work at the next group session. Setting the expectation that the participant will present creates social pressure to encourage participation and ensure the work gets done. In the Design Sprint tradition of working alone together, participants do work alone offline in addition to the moments where everyone will be on the Zoom call at the same time. 

These mini workshop sessions build chronologically one after the other. This sequence could happen over the course of four days, or even eight if needed. Combined, they create the complete virtual Design Sprint calendar. Designing around the in-between times is powerful and an opportunity that in-person doesn’t support. 

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Another crucial aspect of scheduling a remote Design Sprint is considering different time zones, which isn’t a concern when everyone is in person in the same place. Time zones present a serious challenge and should not be ignored. It is important to be conscientious of all participants’ time differences. For example, it is unrealistic to invite someone to a workshop that would occur at 2:00AM their time. We use Worldtimebuddy and Calendly to easily select times that are convenient for all participants.

The extra headache of aligning time zones is well worth the benefits of connecting a globally diverse team, which is something we don’t get with in-person Design Sprints.

This shift to virtual and hybrid work has required us to see what is possible and has exposed new workshop designs. For instance, you would never fly someone from China to Austin, Texas to have a two-hour workshop on Monday and another one on Friday. It’s just too expensive, even if that was the perfect design for the content and the arc of decision-making. This is now possible because the logistics are different.

And because you will likely be dealing with different time zones in your remote Design Sprint, there is no standard schedule like when you meet at the same location in a physical sprint. You will have to adjust your Virtual Design Sprint schedule for each virtual sprint team so that it is reasonable for each participant’s given time window. We make a bespoke schedule for each virtual Design Sprint that follows the schedule principles mentioned above.

Now that we are immersed in them, we realize that remote workshops offer some incredible things that you CAN’T do in person. 

3. Set the stage and make sure to debrief

PSA: Virtual Design Sprints require more prep!

Remote Design Sprints need more planning because there are more outside factors to consider including the best tools to use and adjustments that need to be made for timing and methods to optimize engagement. At Voltage Control, we’ve developed multiple virtual workshop tools to help individuals, teams, and companies build the skills they need to design and run exceptional virtual workshops and remote Design Sprints. We also put together a Virtual Work Guide highlighting how to set up and facilitate productive virtual meetings to make them just as purposeful and successful as in-person meetings (if not more so). 

First and foremost, participants need to understand the tools, the process, what is expected of them, how things will unfold, and why they are doing all of this in the first place. This is much different than doing a Design Sprint in person. In-person, it doesn’t take a participant very long to properly acquaint themselves with the sticky notes and a whiteboard. That’s why we make sure to spend enough time getting everyone acquainted with the new digital tools and processes so they are set up for success. 

One way we properly set the stage is by investing a lot of preparation time into our Design Sprint MURAL board. This is the digital space where both individuals and the group will participate in most of the Design Sprint exercises. The more prep we can do in the MURAL board, the less headache for the virtual participants. We can’t expect them to be as savvy with our virtual facilitation tools as we are. So we create videos of us walking through the MURAL board, the exercises, and the key features they will be using. And just in case someone didn’t watch the videos, we schedule boot-up time at the beginning of the sprint so everyone can understand this new paradigm.

Another helpful preparation that aids in the process of training up participants is to set expectations before the workshop. Create an agenda that optimizes the remote attendee experience – set clear objectives for why you are running the remote Design Sprint and what your team needs to accomplish by the end of it. Outline the objective for each day of the remote Design Sprint and the activities participants will be engaging in. Remember to pad your agenda to account for potential technical difficulties, clarification, distraction, and other hiccups.

Send a checklist and supplies list ahead of time so participants know what to order and are ready to go. It’s also incredibly helpful to make sure all participants know what their deadlines and deliverables are from the get-go so everyone can successfully accomplish them. As a facilitator, you demo the expectations and process for everyone else, field questions, and then let them go off and do their individual work. You don’t want to surprise anyone or embarrass them. The goal is to have everyone on the same, productive page. 

Schedule cleanup time after each day is over. This should be in addition to the official debrief or retrospective (which should be held after the remote Design Sprint is over). Purposefully dedicating time for both the “cleanup” and debrief is important to provide opportunities that may be otherwise missed in a remote environment, and also ensure everyone is on the same page for next steps.

4. Pick the right tech

The transition to virtual means choosing the right tools and platforms that best support your goals and needs for the remote Design Sprint. Here are several tools we use and recommend:

Zoom

The virtual meeting platform gathers everyone into a main meeting room. Note: ask everyone to turn on their video! It’s crucial to foster the missing element of physical human connection when working remotely. Zoom also has built-in rooms that you can use to assign participants to breakout rooms. We’ve found this especially helpful during storyboarding. The feature to automatically route participants in and out of breakout rooms and back to the main meeting room makes the virtual facilitation experience much easier. You also have the capability to mute all participants at any time (cancels out everyone’s individual background noises) which is helpful when giving directions or speaking to everyone all at once in the main meeting room. 

MURAL 

Imagine a Design Sprint wall of post-it notes, then make it digital. That’s the essence of MURAL. It is a virtual whiteboard tool that supports complex group work and allows teams to virtually share and collaborate on digital stickies. Miro is another option for virtual collaboration. We prefer MURAL for our Design Sprints because it has the most features to support facilitators. For example, you can use a super lock feature to identify elements that can only be unlocked by users with Facilitator Superpowers. It’s a nice feature so that a curious participant doesn’t accidentally mess up your template and confuse the rest of the team.

When working with a dynamic group, MURAL’s ‘Summon’ feature really comes in handy during all of the different activities within a Design Sprint. This helps the facilitator draw focus and attention throughout the sprint. And if summoning isn’t your cup of tea, MURAL also has a ‘follow’ feature where you can request that participants follow your screen. Get acquainted with how to use MURAL with our MURAL Cheat Sheet. By adding the MURAL app to Zoom, attendees will be able to collaborate without leaving Zoom.

Figma

Just like how MURAL allows our team to collaborate in real-time on a Design Sprint digital board, Figma allows the prototyping team to collaborate in real-time on a digital prototype. Whether you are prototyping a mobile app concept, a website marketing page, a software feature idea, or other forms of digital collateral, Figma allows many designers to rapidly create, assemble, and then present a believable prototype facade that a test user can interact with and react to. One pro tip is that we recommend embedding GIFs into your Figma prototype if you need to create video explanations or interesting animations to compel your test user. 

And to pair well with the Figma prototyping, we built out a MURAL template to help the prototyping stitcher to more effectively coordinate with the team on prototyping day. 

Control Room App

Our custom-built app is based on our experience as facilitators, for facilitators. Use it to engage and inspire groups of any size like a master facilitator.

Pen & Paper

We still like attendees to do some of the Design Sprint activities locally before sharing them on the MURAL board, and we have learned that you cannot assume that they have the basic supplies with them. So, you can either drop ship pens, paper, and stickies to the attendees, or you can confirm that they have something equivalent before the sprint begins. And if you can’t send them supplies and they don’t have any, we recommend discussing digital methods for them to do solo work on their tablet or computer before surfacing it on the MURAL board. 

Finally, we also curated a guide for all the hardware you need to run virtual magical meetings here.

5. Engage a Professional Facilitator

Depending on your specific situation, it may be beneficial to hire an outside facilitator (especially when making big decisions). It’s also beneficial to have an outside facilitator when you don’t feel confident that someone internal can do the job effectively. The facilitator is the key ingredient to the Design Sprint process; it is critical that they be confident in their role and have a deep understanding of the design thinking process. If you are wary or unsure whether an internal facilitator will lead your remote Design Sprint participants to excellence, it may be best to bring in an expert from the outside. This will also allow internal team members to see expert facilitation in action and may give them the insight they need to successfully lead a Design Sprint in the future.


Working remotely certainly has its challenges, but it also has great potential. Now more than ever we have the opportunity to connect and collaborate on a global scale. This shift to virtual is shaping the future of facilitation in ways that will benefit us for years to come. Instead of waiting to be in person with your team to reap the benefits of a Design Sprint, adapt it to the virtual landscape and run a (just as effective) remote Design Sprint. 


We offer virtual facilitation services.

Voltage Control facilitates virtual design thinking workshops and Design Sprints, virtual innovation sessions, and virtual transitions. Please reach out at info@voltagecontrol.com for a consultation.

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