How we do design sprints and the impact of remote working (part 1)

Design sprints are windows to the future that let us see a finished product or service

Originally developed at Google Ventures, design sprints are a 5 day process that involves researching, designing, prototyping, and testing ideas to solve a problem.

Why choose to do a design sprint?

Design sprints condense a core set of activities into a 5 day schedule. They’re a good way of moving quickly past the red tape and prolonged discussions that can happen around a new product or service.

They’re also a useful tool to help projects that have become stuck in the weeds. Competing voices or ideas, an unclear project goal, or conflicting requirements from stakeholders can cause work to get derailed or lose momentum. The tangible outcomes of design sprints can help to regain focus and realign teams.

At dxw, we work for the public good. That means we could be working with central or local government, housing associations, charities, or other organisations helping to improve people’s lives. Value for money is really important, so we need to make sure the decisions we take are right.

Design sprints are windows into the future that let us see a product or service and how users interact with it. They take us from speaking to experts to testing something meaningful in very little time. Allowing us to validate the demand for the service at a comparatively small cost.

If the sprint indicates that the service isn’t needed, it’s far cheaper than building, launching, and supporting a new service.

Who do you need to involve?

We produce the best results when we work as a team, and the best teams include a diverse range of people. A diverse team will give you a more representative view of user needs. And looking at needs from different perspectives will lead to better outcomes.

It’s also important to get a good balance between agency and client team members. Design sprints are a great way to empower client team members and help them develop new skills. They are also a wonderful source of knowledge.

Generally speaking, design sprints work best with 4-7 people. Personally I prefer to work with more people. I find that the added overhead and effort needed to facilitate larger sprints is worth it for the increased breadth of ideas and productivity. After you’ve participated in a few, you’ll find the right number for you.

The Sprint book suggests some people to have on a sprint whose expertise will be valuable. Over time, I’ve added some other helpful roles.

The Facilitator

If you’re reading this then the chances are this is you. The facilitator will manage activities, time, conversations, and people. They will help keep the team focused, motivated, and moving forward throughout the week’s activities. All while making sure everyone’s voices are heard and no one viewpoint dominates.

Being a facilitator is hard and very much a job in its own right. However as a designer by trade, I’ve often taken on this role which has meant both facilitating and participating. If you find yourself in a similar situation then try to find someone you can share the burden with. Delivery leads are often a natural fit for this.

The Decider

This is someone who can make decisions that will stick. They don’t need to be the Managing Director or ‘head of’ something. In fact, including people like this can sometimes hinder the collaborative environment we try to foster. People can be reluctant to suggest ideas that the highest paid person in the room might not agree with.

The ideal decider is someone empowered to make meaningful decisions quickly and help keep the team moving. They’ll understand that a good decision now is better than the perfect decision tomorrow.

The Designer

Ultimately we want to produce a prototype at the end of the week, and we need someone to keep thinking about the users and how they’ll interact with the service. If you’re a designer and find yourself facilitating, then having another designer, especially one from the client team, can be really valuable towards the end of the week.

Designers are responsible for making sure that we’re prototyping the simplest thing that meets the sprint goal and user needs. They need to work closely with the user researcher to make sure the prototype includes and excludes certain things so we can learn as much as possible and validate our assumptions/hypotheses.

The User Researcher

User researchers have a very important role to play in design sprints, and it’s best to bring in a specialist. They could be finding experts to interview so the team can build knowledge and context, or recruiting for and leading testing of the prototype at the end of the week.

While many of us have worked with user researchers before and might be comfortable assisting in user research activities, it’s important to remember that we’re not experts. It can be tempting to look at budgets and headcount and think other people can cover this. But with expert user researchers, we get the added value of someone who can lead on analysis and shaping findings. User centred design is all about focusing on user needs, understanding them, and how we can meet them. To me it’s a no brainer to bring in the person best placed to do this.

User researchers are experienced at working with designers, and will make sure the team’s findings are reflected in the prototype. They’ll also ensure the prototype is at the correct level of fidelity to get the feedback we need to make decisions about our product/service. They help the designer and facilitator shape the prototype so we learn something from every screen.

These tasks can consume lots of the user reacher’s time. They’ll need to be comfortable working independently, attend the cameo sessions (I talk about them later in this series), and question the direction of the team. Make use of the fact that they may well be a step removed and able to see the bigger picture.

Shaping the working day

While it’s tempting to try to get people working 9 to 5, this level of commitment can be a barrier. I would recommend core hours of 10 – 4, bookending the sprint work with time for people to catch up with their day job goes a long way.

Don’t forget to be upfront about the time commitments. If people can’t participate in everything, they can attend the cameo sessions to keep up to date and help shape work at important parts of the sprint.

I like to start the day with a mini standup where we recap on the previous day, remind ourselves about our goal, and outline the day’s work. Don’t underestimate the power of realigning the team throughout the day. This helps to remind them of what we’re looking to achieve and subconsciously shapes our work.

And don’t forget to leave an hour for lunch! You may want to keep pushing on, and at the beginning of the sprint the team might have the energy to, but remember:

  • you need to spend effort wisely to get the most out of design sprints, and it’s important not to burn out early on
  • lunchtime is a great opportunity to socialise and get to know each other so we can work together better. It also has the side benefit of creating a space where you can discuss what you learned and reflect on what’s happened.

At the end of each day, it’s useful to make time for a 10 minute retrospective. This is an opportunity for feedback, not only on what was achieved that day, but also the shape of activities. Do you have a good balance of group and independent work? Did people struggle with certain activities, and if so, is there an alternative you can use next time?

Remote design sprints aren’t the same

Now is probably a good time to talk about current working conditions. As I write this, we’re still very much in a Covid world. A world where I’ve been working from home for 16 weeks and have run several fully remote design sprints. Working remotely means some things just won’t happen. Group lunches and impromptu chats while making coffee. The massive wall of post-its. Huddling round a table. The mental separation of home and work.

Be aware that there’s a higher cost to doing everything at the moment. Things will be harder and sitting on a video call all day will drain your energy. Physical spaces can be substituted for digital ones, collaborative tools such as Miro or Mural will give you a digital board that you can sketch on, or add post-its to. But micro-barriers will have a cost whether or not you realise it at the time.

My main piece of advice would be this: set expectations for working together online. It’s okay if a child comes into a room. It’s okay if you need to answer a phone call or get the door. It’s okay not to look your best and not want your camera on. It’s okay to say you need a break. Most importantly, it’s okay to take a mental health day if things feel too much.

Clearleft shared a really good list of things to think about. I like to share it before we kick-off so everyone knows the ground rules and it helps us all take care of each other.