4 ways to rock virtual Design Sprints


Yes, there’s a lot changing in our world, but not our ability to collaborate, creatively solve problems, and design impactfully. We aren’t able to converse in-person, but with the right technology we can still have meaningful meetings and workshops virtually. I’d like to share some of the ways we at Voltage Control have successfully adapted our tried-and-true Design Sprint model for remote work. 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. Let’s continue to work and create together! 

Move slower

Virtual Design Sprints are not the same as in-person sprints, so we must treat them differently. People have been asking us if we facilitate a virtual sprint in the typical four or five days format like an in-person sprint. In general, we believe that the pace of the sprint needs to be slower in a virtual setting. While technology can indeed speed us up, it can also slow us down. That’s because virtual workshops account for many factors that we don’t face when we’re connecting face-to-face. 

For example, there is a limited ability to read the virtual room intelligence to ensure that everyone is on the same page. The physical separation and low bandwidth signals make it difficult to notice that someone is distracted, struggling, or falling behind. 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 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 virtual 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 virtual 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. Facilitators will have the most success when they allocate extra time and are prepared to assist participants through these distractions. 

Tweak the schedule

Because things move slower virtually, keep in mind that people can’t be chained to their desks for long periods of time. This is something that only became apparent to me after immersing myself in virtual workshops for the past several weeks. I found that I needed to adjust the calendar to accommodate. That’s why we request that our Design Sprint participants commit to a series of mini-workshops rather than asking them to commit to five full days. 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. 

Another crucial aspect of scheduling is considering time zones. 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 2:00 am their time. We use Worldtimebuddy 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 forced shift to 100% virtual 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 virtual 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 virtual workshops offer some incredible things virtual workshops offer that you CAN’T do in person. 

Set the stage

virtual design sprint prep

PSA: Virtual Design Sprints require more prep!

Virtual 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. 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 in boot-up time at the beginning of the sprint so everyone can understand this new paradigm.

A mantra we use is to assume that the participants have never used the new virtual tools before.  

Another helpful preparation that aids in the process of training up participants is to set expectations before the workshop. Send the checklist and supplies list to clients ahead of time so they 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. 

virtual design sprint

Pick the right tech

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

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.

Again, MURAL has great features to help you guide all of the participants through the exercises and that’s why it’s our trusted go-to. 

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. 

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. 

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. 


Working from home has its challenges. Previously, I only saw the limitations of virtual and what it couldn’t do. But now I see the great potential. Now more than ever we have the opportunity to put our screens together and connect on a global scale. This shift to virtual is shaping the future of facilitation in ways that will benefit us for years to come.


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.