When starting a new project, one of my absolute favorite steps is creative exploration. My favorite way to find the “spark” that ignites a product’s direction is to lead an old-fashioned design sprint or whiteboarding session. You know, a room of people that start out cautious and then nervously begin to contribute loosely formed thoughts.
As with any design sprint, the goal is to learn about a problem and sketch — literally draw — possible creative solutions. It’s hard to be creative, especially in front of people. It requires being exposed, taking risks, and completely failing. Even in a real-world scenario, you can be met with intimidated stares and nervous tension from everyone in the room. Imagine those fears and anxiety compounded by a remote, video-based setting, and you’ve got yourself a challenge.
Virtual design sprints require special attention, and you can make or break success by investing in some tactical setup. Rather than planning only the sprint activity, you’ll need to plan extra layers of instruction and guidance. Creating a psychologically safe space where ideas can flow is tough when you only have screens, but with a little extra care you can do it.
Here are a few techniques for enabling all of that comfort-shifting, idea-generating, and visual exploration in the world of Zoom and beyond.
Remove technology stress
In a design sprint, you’ll likely have non-designers in the room. You’ll also have people who aren’t familiar with virtual collaboration tools. Remind yourself that most non-designers don’t know what Crazy 8s are. They also may not have heard of Miro (or whatever whiteboarding tool you’ll be using).
You need to lower the barrier to tooling — both the ease of use as well as the overall learning curve — to allow people to focus on the sprint activities themselves. By taking away the mechanics of technology and learning a new software tool on the spot, you can focus on the exchange of information and idea generation during your sprint.
- Allow early access to tools. One of the easiest ways to remove stress is by allowing access to the board ahead of the sprint. Inviting your sprint attendees to the tool you will use and a sample art board will help remove a significant amount of stress and unknowns.
- Do a low-stakes dry run. Create a board that will have similar exercises that you will run during the sprint. The use of stickies, voting, and Crazy 8s, for example, should allow everyone to see how the sprint will run, perform the action to develop familiarity, and create comfort. Think of this as a dry run, but make it fun. Run a mini sprint with a low-stakes topic that removes the creative pressure to focus on mechanics and learning.
Practice active listening
Every design sprint requires some information exchange, typically via an interview with an expert. The questions are posed to a single expert in the group. The group listens in to be aware of the content and context, but only the interviewee and interviewer should be heard from here. Delivering these questions virtually requires laser-focused active listening to pick up on cues that are more easily noticeable in person.
- Prepare a script. Include a detailed list of questions. Priority rank these questions for the most important information you hope to learn, and prepare more questions than you need. There’s a chance that extemporaneous answers will bleed into future questions. You really don’t want to ask a question that has been answered or partially answered when there is new content that could be explored instead.
- Watch for cues from attendees. Body language adds context and clarity. Virtually, the speaker box on the screen only shows our faces, so you’ll need to pay attention to other cues, such as pace of speech, repetition of words, and the reactions of other participants to what’s being said. Take a full 360-degree view to make sure the content of the answer is being consumed, not just delivered.
Plan for disaster
When you get the sprint running, be prepared for obstacles. I was a 911 emergency communications supervisor for many years, so I tend to pre-plan disaster scenarios to the nines. But even a little bit of this type of planning goes a long way in running a successful sprint.
Being a bit of a doomsdayer will help you mentally prepare for those moments that can derail a sprint. Having your plan in place turns your response into a quick reflex instead of a scramble. That reflex will signal to the participants that you’re cool under pressure, you’ve done this before, and they’re still in a safe creative space. Here are some key scenarios to plan for:
- What if someone cannot upload their Crazy 8s?
- What if someone is unable to access voting or copy a sticky on the art board?
- How can you guide someone who feels lost without disrupting the entire sprint?
- How will you keep the team on time and on track during unplanned virtual distractions?
- How will you moderate a dominant active speaker while noticing an attendee has unmuted their microphone and is just waiting for that split-second pause to jump in with their thoughts?
Be present and look ahead
Learning how to deliver the prototype is a graceful art that takes practice. Be sure to take notes as themes emerge. These themes will help you transition the sprint to the next deliverable. This level of multitasking is essential: Be present and contribute to the whiteboard while looking toward the deliverable — but keep that part quiet for now.
- Focus on the potential, not the prototype. Don’t frame the deliverable during the design sprint or share the specifics of the prototype, the product strategy that is emerging, or any defined solutions. Learn and plan in your head, but focus on the themes and the potential rather than the tangible specifics (however tempting).
- Find the themes. The threadline between whiteboard mindset and delivering a prototype is precious, and the themes that come out of the sprint are armor. Think of the threadline as the first-class section on a plane — not everyone on the flight can be included. Because everyone will have had a hand in the design effort, there will be some level of expectation, ownership, and added sort of pressure. Leveraging the themes that emerged during the activity will help you talk, navigate product challenges, and allow everyone to marvel at the amazing prototype that they contributed to.
A design sprint is about more than execution. Product ideas and creation start with a feeling of safety. A good design sprint allows a group to come together, learn how to feel safe, and explore ideas together. Good ideas. Bad ideas. Any ideas. With a great plan and by preparing for disaster, you’ll be able to navigate any bumps along the way in your design sprint. Ideas and collaboration will shine bright. Your product will take flight with all of your thoughtful considerations.