How to run a design sprint with virtual teams

Delivery is about understanding who your customers are, their goals, and how to eliminate any roadblocks to attaining those goals. A customer-centric approach to delivery relies on user experience, or UX, with popular methodologies such as Design Thinking, Lean UX, and User-Centered Design providing in-house teams a clear path to success.

One major challenge for many organizations, however, is that their teams are globally dispersed. To provide the maximum customer experience with a global team, one proven approach is a design sprint.

Here's how my team used design sprints—and how yours can too.

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Focus your design sprint

The concept of a design sprint was first developed at Google Ventures. The need came from a problem Google was facing: To remain relevant it must innovate at a rapid rate, but many projects can fail before one succeeds.

The goal of a design sprint is to identify specific problems customers are experiencing and rapidly develop a prototype that can feasibly address the issues. The whole activity should be completed in five days or less. (Supporting documents about how to execute a design sprint can be found here.)

A key component to the success of a design sprint is having your customers, business leaders, and customer experience team all in one room. Unfortunately, this model does not work for many companies that have groups and customers all over the country or even around the world.

There is, however, a way to deliver a successful design sprint with remote teams. It takes 10 days and requires a little up-front work. But the results will be nearly identical to Google's accelerated five-day approach.

Do your prep work

The key to success is preparation. There are three keys areas of focus for this work:

  • Do you have the right people?
  • Do they know why they are meeting?
  • Do you have the right tools to support rapid ideation?

Recruit the people you'll need

Having the right people on your team is essential. You will be looking for the following:

  • One to three people who represent the direct customer
  • One to three people who represent the business sponsor
  • One to three people who are experts in user experience

It is difficult to get people who can meet over an extended period of 10 days. For this reason, aim to have up to three customers and three business sponsors commit to the project. You will find that everyone will make Day 1, and then there will be a natural rotation of people joining and missing future meetings.

The role of the customer representatives is to address how they work during the day. The purpose of the business sponsors is for them to hear about the customer challenges and represent those who will eventually pay for a solution.

The final group is the user-experience team. You will want one person who is 100% committed to the project. He or she will be at every meeting and drive the design sprint forward; this person is the team's linchpin. The other people on the UX team will drive sketching and prototyping and deliver on the vision of the group.

Explain the business problem

The second stage of preparation is to ensure that the team knows why it's meeting. My personal preference is to have a simple business problem drive the conversation. For instance, if you are working with an engineer, the business problem could be: How do I access data on a system effectively?

You will want to use the business problem as a provocative tool to stimulate conversation.

Acquire the right tools

The final preparation step is to ensure that you have the tools for fast, meaningful conversation. Consider the following:

  • Choose a videoconferencing system that works well with fast-moving teams.
  • Provide a fast/cheap way for teams to share ideas (such as a WhatsApp channel or Slack).
  • Identify a virtual whiteboard.
  • Identify a tool for voting on and scoring ideas (such as Pigeon Hole Live). 

Remember, the tools are meant to enable open conversation, not to detract from it. Videoconferencing is essential and should be the top item on your list.

Day 1: Identify the customer

You've done your prep work, and now it's time to meet the customer. Schedule the first meeting with your customer to be 45 minutes long, early on Day 1 of your design sprint.

The knee-jerk plan is to schedule one hour. However, we have found that 45 minutes is more than enough time for the first interview, and everyone appreciates an extra 15 minutes back in their day.

The goal of the customer interview is to build a persona that can be used as the reference point for your work. You are looking for the following:

  • What does the customer do on a daily basis?
  • What are the customer's goals?
  • What are the blockers that prevent the goals from being achieved, either faster or more effectively?

Videoconferencing is critical in the interview. Ask if the interview can be recorded. An advantage with remote interviews is that recording them is much more comfortable than it typically is in face-to-face meetings. Conduct at least two interviews with different customers in the first morning.

As you complete the interviews, a strong understanding of your customer should emerge. This is an excellent time to meet as a core team and validate that what you have heard is accurately shared with the team.

The afternoon of the first day is split into two tasks:

  • The first activity is completed with the UX team and the business sponsor; it's the creation of a business case that addresses the problems the customers highlighted in the interviews. You can use voting tools to score ideas in the business case.
  • The second task is a short meeting with the customers where you will review the business case and validate that you are targeting a problem they believe to be real.

The goal of the first day is to ensure that you have captured who the customer is, what motivates the customer, and what the customer sees as a blocker in his or her day-to-day activities. Validating this work ensures you are on track.

Day 2: Generate ideas

If the first day of the design sprint is establishing who your customer is, then the second day is rapid idea generation. Typical exercises include:

Rapid ideation can be difficult to do with remote teams. Leveraging the power of tools such as Slack or Microsoft Teams to share ideas quickly back and forth can help.

Use the mobile versions of each tool to pull in snapshots of pencil drawings promptly. The goal for the day is to decide which sketches and components are needed in a prototype.

Days 3 to 10: Prototype

The first two days of the virtual design sprint are intense, with much of the time spent on videoconferences. By the third day, your focus should be on prototyping a solution that meets the needs of the customer.

My team typically takes up to seven days to develop the prototype. Today's prototyping tools make it easy for users to view the concept as it is being built. Touch base daily to validate your work and make changes as necessary.

The final day

The last day of the sprint is a readout to leadership teams of the work you have completed. An essential element in the final presentation is a transition statement. Essentially, it's a simple statement such as, "If we do this work, then X will be improved by Y [amount or percentage] for the customer." Don't make the transition statement complex.

Again, the final presentation is likely to be a virtual team. If you can, have a customer at the readout. Having customer support is essential.

You will want to have these components at the final readout:

  • Persona: Explain who the customer is, what the customer's goals are, and what is blocking the customer from being more successful.
  • Use case: Present a breakdown of the blockers.
  • Sketches: Show the work completed on Day 2 of the sprint that led to the prototype.
  • Prototype: Allow the people at the final meeting to click through the prototype.
  • Summary: Summarize your work and include the transition statement as the final bullet point.

Next, you want to demonstrate that enough work has been done to warrant investment. If all goes well, then approval will be granted and your work will be funded.

Enable user experience across your org

Distributed teams are a reality in today's enterprises. Although teams whose members are located in many different parts of the world can make it more difficult to accomplish things such as maximizing customer experience, the design sprint approach can help.

Take the tools described above and try them with your team. See how it works. Let us know in the comments below what worked, what didn't, and what you have discovered.

Topics: Dev & Test

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